Snails don't get enough credit. Sure, they're slow and slimy, and they might wreak havoc on our gardens, but that doesn't mean they're not worthy of our love and affection. Seriously, when was the last time you ever heard someone say that snails were their favorite animals?
In case you didn't know, we here at Shmoop love us some snails. We think about them all the time, and love talking about them, too. They're just so snaily. One of our favorite things to imagine is how the world might look from the perspective of a snail—everything must happen so much more slowly; your perception of time must be completely different from a human. You might think we're kind of weird for having these thoughts, but know who else thought of the same thing? Virginia Woolf. That's right, the Virginia Woolf—authoress extraordinaire and fellow snail lover. In fact, it may or may not surprise you to learn that her short story, "Kew Gardens," features a bit from the perspective of our favorite animals: snails. When else have you ever heard of a snail making an appearance in classic literature? You know this has got to be good.
"Kew Gardens" draws our attention to a bunch of random activities going on in the Royal Botanic Gardens in London on a hot summer day. Some of these activities include the snail's noble struggle through a flowerbed, but also the movements of butterflies, the ranting of a crazy, old man, and the awkwardness of a young, romantic couple. Oh, and tea-taking—it is England, after all. The story alternates between descriptions of the natural environment and of the different figures that wander through it. Its plot structure is deceptively simple, but don't let that fool you—"Kew Gardens" is one of Woolf's most remarkable short stories, and not just because it has a snail in it.
Published privately in 1919 and more widely in 1921 (in the collection Monday or Tuesday), "Kew Gardens" draws together these different "fragments" of life—a snail in the dirt here, a couple's awkward conversation there—and unites them into a singular scene of life in an English garden in the early twentieth century. Woolf's most famous novels like To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway didn't arrive till several years later after "Kew Gardens," so this story comes from relatively early in Woolf's writing career. Still, it gives us a sneak peak at the style she wanted to cultivate and subject matter she wanted to focus on—like snails.
In her 1919 essay "Modern Fiction," Woolf explained her writing approach:
Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday.
This ordinary mind on an ordinary day (like Monday or Tuesday!) is exactly what Woolf set out to capture in her stories, and it is from the phrase "the life of Monday or Tuesday" that Woolf took the title for her first short story collection. There's certainly nothing slimy about that.
"Kew Gardens" is all about the beauty and complexity of an average scene on an average day—it's something just about everyone can relate to. Who hasn't taken a stroll through a garden on a lovely summer day, encountered other people, noticed a snail, smelled the flowers, and maybe even reminisced about the past? (Side note: If you haven't, you should try it out, trust us.)
Sure, all this might not sound very exciting to you—but that's exactly the point. Woolf is trying to show us how when all these unexceptional and mundane aspects of daily life are drawn together, they create something exceptional and sublime. The scene in the garden is really an incredible one: intricate flowers here, butterflies flitting there, a snail debating whether to go over or under a leaf, a married man thinking about the girl he could have married, a young man with a girl he likes but hasn't married, an old man talking to flowers, two women watching the old man talk to flowers… it goes on and on.
Woolf's story makes us think about all the little things that make up an ordinary scene on an ordinary day, and might help us see the hidden beauty in our day-to-day lives. Who would have thought a snail could teach us so much (We certainly did, but we know we're not normal when it comes to snails)?
Woolf—There It Is!
Check these websites out if you want to learn more about the author.
There haven't been any big movie productions of "Kew Gardens," but you might enjoy this video interpretation of the story on Youtube.
Kew Gardens today
Check out videos of what the gardens are like right now.
Virginia Woolf's voice
Listen to a recording of Woolf's soft voice.
Wonder what she looked like? Check out the author in the flesh. If you ask us, she was quite the beauty.
Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover
Take a look at the cover that Vanessa Bell originally created for the story.
What's That Snail Up to Now?
Check out what Kew Gardens looks like today.