Literature

‘In the Orchard’: A Summary of Virginia Woolf’s Short Story

‘In the Orchard’ is not one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known short stories, but it’s one of the most interesting because in a sense it’s three versions of the same (very short) story. You can read ‘In the Orchard’ here; below, we attempt a summary of the story’s ‘plot’.

A girl named Miranda falls asleep in an orchard while reading a French novel. Her finger seems to be pointing to a sentence in the novel, which (when translated) means ‘Truly, this country is one of the corners of the world where young girls burst into laughter most readily’. This is a quotation from the 1897 novel Ramuntcho by Pierre Loti (1850-1923). While she sleeps, the narrator describes the sights and sounds of the orchard, paying particular attention to colour and to the apples hanging above Miranda’s head in the orchard. Her dress ripples in the breeze. We’re also told about the sounds coming from the nearby schoolroom (children learning their multiplication tables) and from outside (a drunk farmer, named Old Parsley, cries out), as well as the sound of the organ in the nearby church. The church bells then ring out to announce that six women in the parish are ‘being churched’: i.e., blessed after having given birth. The ‘golden feather of the church tower’ (i.e. the weathervane on top of the church) squeaks as it turns in the breeze. The wind changes. Miranda wakes up, stands up, and exclaims that she is going to be late for tea. That, in summary, is how the first section of the story ends.

In the second section, we get the same scene, but narrated slightly differently. Now, perhaps Miranda is asleep, but perhaps she isn’t. The narrator is no longer certain. This second section then relates roughly the same details as the first section, but the mode of narration has shifted from a broadly omniscient one (i.e. where the third-person narrator knows everything) to a more subjective or uncertain one (where the narrator doesn’t know everything). Now, rather than her finger resting on the French novel, her lips seem to be saying the line quoted (in French) in the first section. The external not-so-omniscient third-person narration then gives way to Miranda’s own thoughts: unlike in the first version of this scene, there is now a deeper connection between Miranda and her surroundings, rather than her being merely an incidental feature of the scene:

… and then she smiled and let her body sink all its weight on to the enormous earth which rises, she thought, to carry me on its back as if I were a leaf, or a queen (here the children said the multiplication table), or, Miranda went on, I might be lying on the top of a cliff with the gulls screaming above me. The higher they fly, she continued, as the teacher scolded the children and rapped Jimmy over the knuckles till they bled, the deeper they look into the sea—into the sea, she repeated, and her fingers relaxed and her lips closed gently as if she were floating on the sea, and then, when the shout of the drunken man sounded overhead, she drew breath with an extraordinary ecstasy, for she thought that she heard life itself crying out from a rough tongue in a scarlet mouth, from the wind, from the bells, from the curved green leaves of the cabbages.

She then dreams she is getting married and that horses are galloping towards her, in a scene somewhat different from the first one. As with the first section, this section ends with Miranda jumping up from her (day)dream and crying, ‘Oh, I shall be late for tea!’

In the third and final (shorter) section of ‘In the Orchard’, we get the same details, in a slightly more compressed form, and this time the narrator actively asks, ‘or was she asleep or was she not asleep?’ This time, we get a more objective and almost scientific narration of the scene: there are exactly twenty-four apple trees in the orchard, the sky ‘exactly fitted the leaves’, a ‘wagtail flew diagonally’. The world of nature is presented in precise, almost mathematical detail; but the people who were mentioned in the first version of the scene are absent, except for Miranda. Once again, Miranda cries ‘Oh, I shall be late for tea!’ and the story is brought to an end.

A difficult story to summarise, this, because nothing happens … three times (to borrow from and adapt the famous summary of Waiting for Godot). What is Woolf’s purpose in giving us the same short scene three times over in slightly different forms? We’ll ponder this question for Thursday, when we’ll offer some thoughts on ‘In the Orchard’.

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