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Resisting the Clock: Dissolving Time in Virginia Woolf's Orlando

Annie Sullivan

Virginia Woolf's work, Orlando, seeks to overturn our systems of classification. Woolf creates a space in which the either/or dialectic disintegrates— a space where, as literary critic Elena Gualtieri notes, "quite literally anything goes - even the outlandish idea of a sex change accompanied by a life that comes very close to being eternal" (5). In Orlando, Woolf indeed violates the 'logical' categories that we have internalized and for which we continue to search. She explodes 'fixed' oppositions such as male/female, author/subject, farce/criticism, and history/fiction. Refusing to select a single category, Woolf throws out this binary logic altogether. Woolf's most defiant act against classificatory systems is perhaps her treatment of time, which impacts all other dichotomous relationships in the novel. Woolf rejects a conventional view of time, in which time is neatly divided between the past, present, and future. She instead adopts the "Block Universe" model, the simultaneous existence of all time, erecting a "timescape" in which time does not pass but accumulates—the past exists alongside the present (Davies qtd in Dalke(3).). Time, in Orlando, is not disjointed, but fluid and eternal. As Woolf dissolves temporal barriers, she achieves a strong union between Orlando's seemingly dichotomous selves, between author and subject, and also between her own writing and that of her literary ancestors.

Woolf depicts the clock—the measure of "Conventional" time—as Orlando's antagonist. Orlando's internal experience evades 'real' time. The ringing clock is, in fact, what continually disrupts her rich, subconscious musings. Woolf often goes so far as to describe this 'interruption' as an assault, as when the clock rings "the news of [Sasha's] deceit" (10)., for example, or as it marks the dawn of the present moment: " . . .the clock ticked louder and louder until there was a terrific explosion right in her ear. Orlando leapt as if she had been violently struck on the head. Ten times she was struck" (284). Each "explosive" and violent chime of the clock constrains Orlando's 'lived' experience. There is indeed no correspondence between internal and 'actual' chronology in Orlando. Not only does she ends up a 36 year old woman who has lived for over 300 years, but Orlando also seems uninterested in the 'passing' of time (sitting under the Oak tree, the young Orlando would "try to think for half an hour, or was it two years and a half?" (97). 'Real' time is arbitrary—a fact that often disorients the reader, who is still marching to the ordered ticking of the clock. Woolf explains the limitations of measured time:

But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second (Woolf 94-95).

It is the "timepiece of the mind" that interests Woolf—time that is measured as it is experienced. She rejects the unilinear narrative that is marked by distinct, evenly spaced 'moments.'

In resisting the clock-abiding narrative, Woolf dismantles the kind of temporal schema that lures deconstructionist critics. Orlando seems to accomplish the project which theorists such as Derrida pursue: the disassembly of the linear narrative, the deflation of the myth that time is a progression of isolated, 'pure' moments. Deconstructionists turn to the 'origin' as the quintessential space for this 'mythologizing.' The origin, they argue, narrates its own history, operating as a distinct moment that excludes the past and future. Literary critic Mark Currie notes, "It [the origin] is, in a sense, an easier moment to mythologise as presence because nothing comes before it, and at the time it occurs, it has not yet been marked by subsequent moments" (2). The origin is separate, distinct, and 'pure.' In the linear narrative, time seems to progress through a series of these distinctive moments.

"Presence" in Orlando, however, is never independent of that which antedates or follows it. Woolf rejects this notion of the 'exclusive' moment—of a cleanly separated past and present. She instead parodies the dramatic and irrevocable 'moment.' Woolf's description of the transition between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, for instance— with the total darkness and the "turbulent welter of cloud" (10) covering the entire city—satirizes our conception of the exclusive 'moment.' The novel's central point of transition, Orlando's gender transformation, also parodies the concept of a 'defining moment.' The biographer's theatrical illustration of the transformation (with the sounding trumpets and the three Ladies Chastity, Purity, and Modesty) is juxtaposed by Orlando's placid reception of her body ("Orlando looked himself up and down in a long looking-glass, without showing any signs of discomposure, and went, presumably to his bath (133)). The biographer's dramatic narration attempts to lodge the moment of gender change between Orlando's 'distinct' male and female selves. Yet Orlando's composure upon awakening shows that change does not occur instantaneously, and that a single 'moment' cannot be extracted from time.

Transitions in Orlando are not moments of instantaneous change during which the past is extinguished. Change instead occurs through a process more like Hegel's concept of "sublation." To 'sublate' means to both terminate and preserve. The sublated is a moment of both 'coming to be' and 'ceasing to be'—a state in which opposites coexist. That which is sublated may lose its immediacy, but it is not obliterated (6). Similarly, Orlando's boyhood self exists within the Victorian Lady, both of whom exist within the motorcar-driving woman of the 'present'. Images of the past—of the poet, of Sasha, of Queen Elizabeth—do not fade with the passing of 300 years, but remain impressed as living memories upon Orlando's mind. This collapse of time is most evident near the end of the novel, as the narration reaches the 'present' time. As Orlando descends within the department store lift, for example, peering out the glass doors, the past invades the present. The biographer records:

Omnibus seemed to pile itself upon omnibus and then to jerk itself apart. So the ice blocks had pitched and tossed that day on the Thames . . . 'Time has passed over me,' she thought, trying to collect herself . . . Nothing is any longer one thing. I take up a handbag and I think of an old bumboat woman frozen in the ice. Someone lights a pink candle and I see a girl in Russian trousers. When I step out of doors—as I do now," here she steps onto the pavement of Oxford Street, 'what is that I taste? Little herbs. I hear goat bells. I see mountains. Turkey? India? Persia?' Her eyes filled with tears (10).

The past is not sealed and dislocated from the present. Metonymical associations overwhelm Orlando, as Oxford Street becomes the setting for all of her experiences, however geographically or temporally distant.

Woolf's treatment of the past resonates with Michel Serres' Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time with Bruno Latour. In the "Second Conversation: Method," Serres criticizes our easy designation of the past as something 'antiquated', 'out-dated', and 'bygone.' The notion of 'passing' time, according to Serres, invokes competition and legitimizes the belief that the present is "at the summit' of a linear process (9). Serres explains that 'dialectics [are] nothing more than the logic of appearances" (49) and that "History is the projection of this very real exclusion [of the past] into an imaginary, even imperialistic time" (50). Serres is not interested in recovering an accurate history, but in allowing "bygone history to be lived again now" (54). His goal is not to time travel backward and understand exact historical contexts, but to bring the 'obsolete' to current dialogues and scholarship. Serres desires the kind of 'timescape' that Woolf establishes in Orlando. As the Renaissance boy awakens in the Marshall & Snelgrove's department store, searching for Sasha, the (literally) 'antiquated' is brought to the present. Interestingly, this process is often reversed in Orlando, as the future is carried into its own 'history.' We glimpse the 'future' during the biographer's foreshadowing of Orlando's sex change, for example, and when Orlando's arms "sang and twanged as the telegraph wires would be singing and twanging in twenty years or so" (10). Woolf's writing erects the kind of 'timescape'—allowing the past, present, and future to coexist—which Serres advocates.

Complementing this collapse between Orlando's past and present selves is a breakdown of narrative levels—a merge between writer and subject. The biographer's time continually interrupts the narrated events, for example, serving as an underlying rational voice (36), or discussing the biographer's task, (63) the state of historical documents (115), or the different 'methods' of writing (254). Woolf's time literally invades the text during one of her meditations on Nature. She writes, "Nature, who has played so many queer tricks on us . . . so that even now (the first of November 1927) we know not why we go upstairs, or why we come down again . . ." (75). Woolf's direct insertion of the current date—the exact moment of composition— draws attention to the coexistence of writer and subject. Literary critic Debra Malina would understand Woolf's writing as 'metaleptic:' the invasion of the author into the text causes a 'blurring' of narrative levels. Along with the biographer, Woolf herself, enters the text. Creative power is distributed as the author and subject mutually construct one another.

In addition to Woolf's direct arrival onto the textual landscape, the 'biography' often has the air of an 'autobiography.' Orlando, for example, is the fictional representation of Woolf's love, Vita Sackville-West. Nigel Nicholson, in Portrait of a Marriage, calls Orlando "the longest and most charming love-letter in literature" (8). Orlando embodies and enacts all that Woolf found intriguing in Vita: her noble and romantic ancestry , for instance, her daring cross-dressing escapades, and her sexual and social mobility. Woolf links fiction and fact through the inclusion of personal memories, descriptions, even photographs of Vita and her family (101). Woolf's diary, in which she imagines the inclusion of all her closest friends within Orlando, further indicates this strong connection between writer and text. Woolf writes:

One of these days, though, I shall sketch here, like a grand historical picture, the outlines of all my friends . . . It might be a way of writing the memoirs of one's own times through people's lifetimes. The question is how to do it. Vita should be Orlando, a young nobleman. There should be Lytton. & it should be truthful; but fantastic. Roger. Duncan. Clive, Adam. Their lives should be related (Woolf qtd. in Gualtieri 115 (5)).

Woolf's vision of her friends transformed into literary characters—both 'truthful' and 'fantastical'—reveals the profound connection between her "social and artistic ambitions" (115). In Orlando, Woolf's faithfulness to Vita's character serves as this link between fiction and 'truth'—between author and text. The union of these traditional 'opposites' enriches the 'timescape' that Woolf creates in Orlando.

In addition to her interest in [Vita's] family lineages, Woolf is also concerned with her own literary ancestry. Gualtieri argues that Woolf's objective in Orlando is to "reinvent" her own "genealogical tree as a fantastic interpretation of the history of English literature" (Gualtieri 105). Woolf's reading of literary evolution indeed runs parallel to Orlando's own changes. Woolf's treatment of her forerunners is fanciful, as she explains in her diary: "Satire is to be the main note—satire & wildness . . . my own lyric vein is to be satirised. Everything mocked. I want to kick up my heels and be off" (Woolf qtd. in Bowlby xiv (1)). Satire is indeed "the main note" of Orlando. Woolf parodies English literature through the ages, as in the Masque scene (during which Orlando becomes a woman), for example. She also satirizes the tendency to exalt past styles while denouncing contemporary ones (represented by Nick Greene (10)); she parodies Victorian verbosity and sentimentality (248), and the foolish exaltation of 'masters' such as "Addison, Dryden, and Pope" (189).

Woolf's use of parody is not, however, a simple relegation of past styles to antiquity—to a 'bygone era,' as described by Serres. Woolf's inclusion of her own predecessors is a complex act of preservation rather than an attempt to extinguish her literary ancestry. Just as the "boy. . . the Ambassador . . . the Gipsy . . . [and] the Fine Lady" (295) all compose Orlando's 'current' self; Shakespeare, Dryden, Pope, and Tennyson likewise exist within Virginia Woolf's pen. Parody, it seems, is the perfect mode of 'preservation.' In her diaries, Woolf comments on her use of satire: "I want fun, I want fantasy. I want (& this was serious) to give things their caricature value . . . the truth is I expect I began it as a joke and went on with it seriously" (Woolf qtd. in Dalke (3)). The caricature, for Woolf, is not a reductive act, but a critical representation. Parody signals both change and conservation—it denotes the quintessential tenet of evolutionary change: "descent with modification."

Simon Dentith calls this the "parodic paradox:" "Parody . . . preserves as much as it destroys, or rather, it preserves in the moment that it destroys—and thus the parasite becomes the occasion for itself to act as host" (4). Dentith's metaphor for this paradox—the role reversal between parasite and host—describes the complex relationship between Woolf's own writing and that of her literary ancestors. Dentith shows how the imitation ironically finds nourishment in that which it seems to resist. As Woolf parodies the blushing, decorous Victorian lady, for example, she literally brings nineteenth-century writing to her own text. Woolf's use of imitation creates an ongoing, reciprocal conversation between past and present styles. As Dentith explains, "Parody and parodic forms more generally are inevitable maneuvers in the two-and-fro of language . . . hypotext never existed without . . . the parody . . . (189). Accordingly, the parody precedes the original—or perhaps, because it may be anticipated, it already exists within the 'hypotext.' Woolf shows that parody need not be used as a surrogate; but rather, as a way to "continue the conversation of the world" (189). Situating herself in the middle of this 'conversation,' Woolf's use of satire is perhaps the most complex and effective mode of creating a 'timescape'—of dissolving temporal barriers.

Woolf's 'serious' treatment of parody is most evident near the novel's conclusion, when Orlando marries Marmaduke Bonthorp Shelmerdine, Esquire. Vita Sackville-West criticized this "happy ending," viewing the marriage as Woolf's surrender to the nineteenth-century Bildungsroman plot (5). Critic Gualtieri, however, argues that "far from constituting a cheap joke against the Victorians, marriage then works in Orlando as a complex literary topos through which Woolf negotiates both her position in the history of English literature and the terms of her relationship to Sackville-West" (112). Unlike Orlando's first marriage to Rosina Pepita, her union with Shelmerdine is respectable. While it may seem like a capitulation to Victorian conventions, Gualtieri notes that this marriage "inaugurates for [Orlando] a season of happy and undisturbed productivity" (112). The married Orlando enters the 'modern' age, finally becoming a successful writer. Orlando's negotiation with the "spirit of the age" (10) perhaps reflects Woolf's own literary development and her positioning within the lineage she maps out (5). This kind of negotiation achieves what Serres' desires in our temporal relationships. Bruno Latour reviews Serres' argument: "You never say, 'Let us respect them at least for their differences, for their eccentricity, as an interesting witness to bygone days.' For you, its never a question of exoticism . . ." (9). Our treatment of the past, accordingly, should not be an attempt to 'separate,' to break away. Similarly, Woolf does not seek a clean separation between Victorian conventions and the 'modern' age. Orlando's marriage is perhaps Woolf's final act against temporal barriers; it is an act of negotiation, of 'living' the past again, as Serres' advises.

As Orlando draws to a close, the biographer insightfully reflects: "For what more terrifying revelation can there be than that it is the present moment? That we survive the shock at all is only possible because the past shelters us on one side and the future on another" (10). We protect ourselves with the notion of a distinct 'present'—a space lodged between our prehistory and our expectations. Rejecting this 'safe' construction of time, Woolf creates a world that oscillates between poles—between past and future, male and female; she creates a text that occupies multiple genres and styles—a story in which narrative levels collapse, as author and subject merge, as fiction becomes fact. Orlando is a story of continual negotiation, reflecting not only Orlando's personal conciliations, but also Woolf's endless conversations with her literary forerunners. Woolf upsets our restricting classificatory systems, creating—quite excitingly—a space for endless possibility.


1) Bowlby, Rachel. Introduction. Orlando. By Virginia Woolf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

2) Currie, Mark. Postmodern Narrative Theory. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.


4) Dentith, Simon. Parody. London: Routledge, 2000.

5) Gualtieri, Elena. Virginia Woolf's Essays: Sketching the Past. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

6) Houlgate, Stephen, ed. The Hegel Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

7) Malina, Debra. Breaking the Frame: Metalepsis and the Construction of the Subject. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002.

8) Nicholson, Nigel. Portrait of a Marriage. London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1973.

9) Serres, Michel and Bruno Latour. Conversations on Science, Culture, and Time. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1990.

10) Woolf, Virginia. Orlando. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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