Literature

A Short Analysis of Virginia Woolf’s ‘In the Orchard’

On Tuesday, we attempted a ‘summary’ of ‘In the Orchard’, which is not one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known short stories. But as we observed on Tuesday, it’s one of her most interesting experiments in short fiction because in a sense it’s three versions of the same (very short) story. You can read ‘In the Orchard’ here; below, we offer some notes towards an analysis of the story.

We concluded our summary of ‘In the Orchard’ by adapting the famous line about Beckett’s Waiting for Godot: in Woolf’s story, nothing happens, three times. What is Woolf’s purpose in giving us the same short scene three times over in slightly different forms? In a number of her other celebrated short stories, such as ‘The Mark on the Wall’ and ‘A Haunted House’, the emphasis was clearly on character rather than plot: the stories are largely free of action and instead focus on the life of the mind, the thought processes of the narrators of those stories. Narration is key: the narrator’s visibility (or invisibility), their omniscience (or lack of knowledge), the way they present or withhold information to us.

In one sense, ‘In the Orchard’ offers a more compacted and pronounced example of this interest in narration and style over plot or action. The three narrations (we cannot perhaps call them three separate narrators) of Miranda in the orchard shift from knowledge and confidence in the first section (‘Miranda slept in the orchard’) to subjectivity in the second (‘Miranda slept in the orchard – or perhaps she was not asleep’) to outright doubt in the third (‘Miranda slept in the orchard, or was she asleep or was she not asleep?’). At least at the outset, this appears to be true, given each of the three narratives’ perspective on Miranda’s ‘sleeping’. But when we look more closely, things are a little more complex than this. The last of the three versions of the scene in the orchard is perhaps the most accurate, precise, and ‘scientific’ of the three, with an attention to detail (the diagonal flight of the wagtail; the number of apple trees; the number of cows blotted out in the meadow when the apples are tossed by the changing wind) which is lacking even in the first version of the scene.

What is Woolf saying with these three vignettes, or short scenes, then? One possible interpretation is that she is presenting different kinds of narrators, but it’s too simplistic to see them as versions of the ‘omniscient’ versus the ‘modernist’ or ‘subjective’ narrator. The third one is what challenges this view most of all, in returning us to a more objective version of events, but retaining – indeed, intensifying – the ambiguity surrounding Miranda (whether she’s asleep or not).  One way to analyse the meaning of this is to say that the first narrator is a more conventional third-person ‘omniscient’ (all-knowing) narrator, the second is a more ‘modernist’ narrator (like Woolf herself in much of her fiction, who is interested in how the individual character interprets and blends with their surroundings in highly individual or subjective ways), and the third is a narrator who appears to be utterly uninterested in people, ignoring the church bells and women being blessed and children learning their times tables in favour of the birds, the cows, and the apple trees.

Woolf’s own narrative style changed considerably between her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915) and her more mature work, beginning with Jacob’s Room (1922) and continuing with Mrs Dalloway (1925) and on through To the Lighthouse (1927), The Waves (1931), and others. The first narrator in ‘In the Orchard’ might be regarded as a rough approximation of Woolf’s own narrative voice in her first novel, with the second narrator being closer to her maturing, ‘modernist’ voice that we see in much of her other short fiction as well as her later novels. The third narrator stands in contrast to this: it is everything Woolf’s fiction is not, in immediately side-lining Miranda herself (was she asleep or not? – to which this narrator might have been tempted to add, ‘and who cares?’) in favour of the surroundings, from which Miranda has become totally separated. If she was merely in the first scene, and was an active participant in the second, she is now no longer relevant at all, except as a way for the narrator to book-end the vignette. Even when she reappears briefly at the end of the scene, it is only as a parenthetical afterthought, thrown in for the sake of it. One can imagine Woolf setting herself the task of writing three versions of this story or sketch from a brief outline (‘a girl, Miranda, is asleep in an orchard’) and then experimenting with the ways in which different kinds of author would render the scene, what details they would pay attention to.

The joy of offering an analysis of a Virginia Woolf story is that it is never closed off: never a riddle to be ‘solved’ with one handy solution. There are many possible ways of interpreting ‘In the Orchard’, too – these are just our thoughts.

4 Comments

  1. isabellacatolica

    Before reading your commentary, I admit I could make no sense of this story at all, so thank you!

    Couldn’t one say that it all points to the importance of reverie, as in the middle section? The objective descriptions in the first part, puzzling and strange though they are, do at least provide some of the raw materials for the “wakeful dream” sequence which follows. And the tedious geometrical accuracy and concreteness of the third part (as you point out) call forth the response – Who cares?
    So, the implication of the story seems to be: it is the inner life, our mental imaginings, as in the dream-like sequence, which are really meaningful for us.

  2. You’ve achieved the near-impossible with this analysis and the previous summary: made me interested to read some more Woolf! I did ‘To the Lighthouse’ long ago and thought ‘never again’ at the time. Perhaps I should re-evaluate…

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