By Dr Oliver Tearle
Written in 1917 around the same time she wrote ‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘Kew Gardens’ is one of Virginia Woolf’s best-known short stories. Yet what the story means is far less well-known – if there is one ‘meaning’ that is ultimately knowable. A short summary and closer analysis of ‘Kew Gardens’ should help to provide a little clarity on what is a rather elusive and delicately symbolic story.
In summary, ‘Kew Gardens’ focuses on the titular gardens in London, on a hot July day. As so often with modernist literature, the focus here is on a moment or a series of moments, rather than a grand, unified narrative or plot. A husband and wife walk past the flower bed with their children, all of them lost in their own thoughts: the husband, Simon, thinks about a woman he’d asked to marry him fifteen years earlier (but whom he never did marry). He asks his wife, Eleanor, if she thinks of the past, and she tells him she remembers being kissed by an old lady with a wart on her nose, twenty years ago while she and a group of other girls were painting at the side of a lake.
A young man and an older man walk past the flowerbed next. The old man is gesturing wildly and talks of the spirits who are communicating with him. His conversation implies that he knows of a spiritualist machine which can be used by widows to communicate with their dead husbands who have been killed in the war. Then he starts talking about the forests of Uruguay which he claims to have visited centuries ago, and our suspicions are confirmed that he’s mad.
Next come two elderly lower-middle-class women who observe the mad old man from afar, wondering whether he is merely eccentric or genuinely insane. After they pass, a young couple – a man and a woman – pass by, exchanging short comments about the price of the tea at Kew Gardens; he tells her they’re lucky it isn’t Friday, as they charge people more for the tea on Fridays. He rests his hand on hers, and the narrator remarks that the two of them communicate far more than is obvious through these short, commonplace utterances and their body language.
Throughout ‘Kew Gardens’, the narrator returns to the flowerbed, focusing on a snail as it moves through the flowers. It’s as if we’re being offered, not the panoramic bird’s-eye view we often get with ‘omniscient’ narration, but instead a ground-level perspective on the world, focusing on the minutiae and the apparently unromantic and unexciting (that snail; it’s worth bearing in mind that a snail also features in Woolf’s short story ‘The Mark on the Wall’).
Yet it may be that that it’s not the snail but the ‘green insect’ that Woolf wishes us to observe here. The snail, with its definite course and goal ahead of it, seems to represent the older, more linear style of narrative which Woolf is moving away from with her modernist short stories. She is more like the green insect which darts about the place in a less predictable and linear fashion:
It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it, differing in this respect from the singular high stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it, and waited for a second with its antennæ trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction. Brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat, blade-like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture–all these objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal. Before he had decided whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it there came past the bed the feet of other human beings.
The creature’s antennae are analogous to Woolf’s own emphasis on people-watching, on everyday observation, in these short pieces: in another of her short stories, ‘An Unwritten Novel’, a woman sits and watches her fellow passenger on the train. This is the modernist way of capturing real life: observing, listening out, overhearing snatches of others’ conversation, using our own ‘antennae’.
In the last analysis, although ‘Kew Gardens’ presents a number of challenges to the reader or critic, Woolf appears to allude, self-referentially, to the new style of modernist fiction of which her own story is an example: indirect, criss-crossing, picking up voices as they pass, rather than doggedly pursuing some fixed end-point.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.