Study Guide

Kew Gardens Analysis

  • Tone

    Observant/Curious, Awe-inspired

    Observant/Curious

    The narrator displays an immensely observant and curious tone. He or she is clearly interested in the parsing out the most intricate details of the scene, and remains attentive to every nuance and shade. Whenever a new character approaches the flowerbed, the narrative immediately turns to focus on them. For instance, a description of the snail breaks off as soon as the young couple appears:

    He [the snail] had just inserted his head in the opening and was taking stock of the high brown roof and was getting used to the cool brown light when two other people came past outside on the turf. This time they were both young, a young man and a young woman. (19)

    The narrative proceeds to describe the couple, their conversations, and interactions. The narrator's sensitivity to every feature and change of the scene lends the narrative a distinctly alert quality. If you ask us, it sounds like someone's been drinking a little too much coffee.

    Awe-inspired

    As we've noted, the narrative is also incredibly preoccupied with the natural beauty of the scene and the complexity of life in this one corner of the world. To this extent, the narrator relates a sense of wonder and awe in their descriptions. Consider the tone here:

    Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere. (29)

    What a scene. We're left feeling impressed and amazed by the spectacle because the narrator clearly is too. 

  • Genre

    Modernism

    Modernist texts generally include literature written between 1899 and 1945, and often involve some sort of experimentation with traditional narrative forms. "Kew Gardens" does not adhere to any traditional genre category like "mystery" or "coming-of-age." As we've noted before, there isn't really a clear plot line. Think about how you would describe the story to a friend. It'd probably go something like this: Well, it's about different people who wander through a public garden in London in the summer—oh and also about a snail and some flowers.

    Clearly, this isn't a traditional story. "Kew Gardens" is experimental in nature and is best classified with the category of modernist literature.

    That said, we might note that it contains certain elements of other genres. For instance, the descriptions of the snail journeying through the flowerbed recall a classic adventure story. After all, the snail is clearly preoccupied with the risks and dangers involved in climbing beneath the tremendous brown leaf—quite an adventure for a snail.

    The episodes with the married couple and with the senile man and William (possibly his son) also suggest the presence of family dramas, though these dramas are only hinted at and are not the main focus of the story.

    Finally, the story also contains elements of the realist genre: "Kew Gardens" is, fundamentally, a careful description of a scene from everyday life in twentieth-century London.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    The title here is pretty self-explanatory: "Kew Gardens" references the Royal Botanic Gardens in southwest London, also known as Kew Gardens. By choosing this title, Woolf places the emphasis of the story on the whole of the scene, rather than on a particular character or theme. This is a story about a bunch of disparate elements that Woolf masterfully draws into a unifying vision of humanity and nature. To check out Kew Gardens today, visit: www.kew.org.

  • What's Up With the Ending?

    The last paragraph of "Kew Gardens" is where Woolf gives us a vision of the whole. The narrative "zooms out" from the descriptions of individuals, flowers, and snails to draw all these different elements together into a single, encompassing scene. There is a sense in this last paragraph of assorted chaos: people pass with "irregular and aimless movement" (29); a thrush hops; butterflies dance; an "aeroplane" (British for airplane) drones overhead; "wordless voices" (29) waver through the hot summer air; the omnibuses of the city churn ceaselessly past; and flower petals "flash their colours into the air" (29). Remember, this is in addition to all the characters (plus the snail) we 've already been introduced to—so we're talking about quite the heap of activity.

    The narrative overwhelms us with everything that is going on in the gardens during a random summer afternoon. If it seems chaotic, remember that this vision also contains an underlying order: all the unrelated characters, activities, animals, flowers, and colors are integrated into one unified scene. The characters' movements mimic those of the butterflies and the various human figures even dissolve into "a dash of colour" (29), not unlike the flowers. Take a look at the last paragraph:

    Yellow and black, pink and snow white, shapes of all these colours, men, women, and children were spotted for a second upon the horizon, and then, seeing the breadth of yellow that lay upon the grass, they wavered and sought shade beneath the trees, dissolving like drops of water in the yellow and green atmosphere, staining it faintly with red and blue. (29)

    All the activity and individuality merges into something like an impressionist painting.

    Woolf is also careful to not let us forget that this lovely garden scene occurs in the midst of city life. Take a look at the final sentence of the story:

    But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gears; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air. (29)

    The "ceaseless" turning stands in contrast particularly with the "aimless" meandering of people in the garden. Is this reminder of city life ominous, then? Or simply another element in the composition of the whole scene? What do you make of the final tone of the story? 

  • Setting

    The Royal Botanic Gardens in London

    The entire story is set within these public gardens in London on a summer afternoon in July, and Woolf places special emphasis on the descriptions of this plant paradise:

    How hot it was! So hot that even the thrush chose to hop, like a mechanical bird, in the shadow of the flowers, with long pauses between one movement and the next; instead of rambling vaguely the white butterflies danced one above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers. (29)

    The precise time of the story is not given, though the senile man makes a reference to war:

    Heaven was known to the ancients as Thessaly, William, and now, with this war, the spirit matter is rolling between the hills like thunder. (12)

    Judging from this bit, and considering the fact that this story was published in 1919, we may infer that the story takes place sometime during or around World War I.

    More significant than the time of the story, however, is the garden setting which Woolf takes great pains to detail:

    The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour. (1)

    The public gardens are a social venue in which we encounter a vast cross-section of English life—the young and the old, the well-to-do and the working-class, the sane and the senile, the married and the unmarried, the human and the animal (snails, butterflies, etc.). Despite their considerable differences in station and experience, they all take pleasure in a summer stroll through the gardens.

    Within the gardens, the action of the story takes place primarily in a single oval flowerbed (where the snail labors) and on the path next to the flowerbed (where the various characters of the story wander past). It is a remarkably narrow setting considering the complexity and variety of life that Woolf portrays. This is one of the noteworthy achievements of the story—it shows us just how vibrant and diverse life is in one teeny-tiny little corner of the world. The noise, colors, movements, people, and creatures, when taken together, create a kind of tapestry detailing the extraordinary complexity of any given moment.

    Take a look at the official website of the Royal Botanic Gardens to get a sense of how they look today.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (7) Snow Line

    The story is challenging for two primary reasons. First, the density and complexity of Woolf's language makes it pretty advanced reading. You have to pay close attention to her ornate descriptions and convoluted sentences, but the beauty of her prose and the precision of her descriptions are well worth the effort. Secondly, the story is not driven by a suspenseful plot, and this can make it a bit tedious to read at times. Paragraph-long descriptions of flowers get old, understandably. So instead of reading for plot, try to read for the beauty of the language, like this:

    Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. (29)

    Immerse yourself in the lush scene that Woolf describes, let it come alive, and you'll be glad you stuck with it. 

  • Writing Style

    Descriptive, Grandiose

    Descriptive

    The narrative gives us an incredibly detailed picture of the natural setting and of the characters' thoughts and demeanors. At points, the story begins to feel like a complex painting, with every shade of petal and lighting of leaves minutely described. We even learn about the appearance of snail's shell—it has "brown, circular veins" (1)—and the precise obstacles he faces in his path:

    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. (10)

    Talk about specificity. These details bring the scene vividly to life and make it easy for us to imagine, smell, and hear each aspects of the story's setting.

    Grandiose

    In addition to being highly descriptive, the style of the narrative is very elaborate in its prose structure. There is a tendency here toward long, complex sentences and ornate language. The opening sentence of the story is an excellent case-in-point:

    From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with sports of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. (1)

    Thanks, Virginia. Homegirl knew how to write a good sentence. 

  • Square Silver Shoe Buckle

    This symbol appears early in the story in the memories of the first character we encounter. The unnamed married man recalls the square silver shoe buckle of his former sweetheart, Lily. It might not be the sort of thing a man normally remembers about a girl, but there is a reasonable explanation for this after all: while he was begging her to marry him that afternoon fifteen years ago, he kept seeing her shoe. He reflects:

    The whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. (3)

    From her shoe, he also intuits her response to his proposal even before she actually turns him down: "when it [the shoe] moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say" (3). Now as he remembers this event, the image of her square silver shoe buckle comes back to him. The particularity of this object (a shoe buckle, of all things!) suggests the vividness of his memory. And of course, because "the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe" (3), the buckle also represents the girl herself, "the woman I might have married" (5), the way things could have gone for him.

  • Dragonfly

    The dragonfly appears in the married man's reflections alongside the silver shoe buckle. He remembers that when he was proposing to Lily, a "dragonfly kept circling round us: how clearly I see the dragonfly and her shoe with the square silver buckle" (3). While he associates the shoe buckle with Lily, he associates the dragonfly with his own passion:

    My love, my desire, were in the dragonfly; for some reason I thought that if it settled there, on that leaf, the broad one with the red flower in the middle of it, if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say 'Yes' at once. But the dragonfly went round and round: it never settled anywhere. (3)

    That's quite a bit of meaning attached to a little dragonfly. Consider, though, that for the man, the dragonfly symbolizes the passion of his youth, a passion that, like the dragonfly, never settled but moved on to someone else. The man seems to be nostalgic for this memory, but he's also content with how things turned out:

    It never settled anywhere—of course not, happily not, or I shouldn't be walking here with Eleanor and the children. (3)

    After this, you'll never look at dragonflies the same way again—and be careful if they land on you; it could mean someone's got their eye on you. 

  • Parasol

    The parasol belongs to Trissie, the young girl who appears near the conclusion of the story, and it plays an important role in explaining the relationship between her and the young man.

    <em>The couple stood still on the edge of the flower bed, and together pressed the end of her parasol deep down into the soft earth. The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them, and were to their inexperienced touch so massive; but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol into the earth) what precipices aren't concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don't shine in the sun on the other side?</em> (26)

    The young couple is anxious about their budding romance and uncertain about how to proceed. The parasol itself does not carry tremendous symbolic meaning, but their actions with it do: in the image of them frozen in the garden, with his hand on top of hers, pressing the parasol down into the earth, Woolf communicates their desire, awkwardness, and uncertainty. <em>Ah, the beauty of young love.</em>

  • Flowers

    In "Kew Gardens," the flowers are sources of wonder and sites of immense natural beauty. Consider the opening sentence of the story:

    From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red or blue or yellow petals marked with sports of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. (1)

    This kind of description is a hallmark of Woolf's steadfast attention to detail, which helps us place the story in a modernist context. The narrator, like many of the characters, seems to be mesmerized by the beauty and complexity of nature. The young man drags Trissie toward their tea, but she longs to continue wandering amidst "orchids and cranes among wildflowers" (28). A sort of relationship is struck between the characters and the flowers. This is taken to its extreme with the senile old man who "bent his ear to it [a flower] and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it" (14). Ok, this guy is a little crazy, but his strange behavior exemplifies the way the characters' memories and thoughts are affected by the flowers.

  • Gardens

    It is important to keep in mind that the gardens we visit in this story are situated in the middle of a bustling urban center. They offer city-dwellers a respite and an escape from the hustle of London life, a return to nature, however temporary. The beauty of the gardens carries them away and has interesting effects on their thoughts. For some, like the married couple, the gardens stir memories of the past; for others, like the young couple, they awaken contemplations of the future; and for the stout lady gazing at the flowers, they create something like a meditative environment in which the rest of the world seems to fade away.

    She stood there letting the words fall over her, swaying the top part of her body slowly backwards and forwards, looking at the flowers. (18)

    The gardens are a world set slightly apart; they momentarily alter characters' emotional and psychic being. In fact, the vibrant colors, scents, and natural beauty make the gardens seem almost magical at points.

    It's also important to remember that the gardens are not naturally occurring, but a constructed, engineered space, meticulously cultivated for the pleasure of the visitors. What's more, the noise and chaos of the city are never far away:

    There was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured. (29)

    The gardens might feel like a little paradise (maybe even a return to Eden), but their constructed nature and the noise of city life serve to remind us that the modern, industrial world is never far away. Keeping in mind that the story seems to be set during WW I, this reminder definitely has an ominous tone.

  • Snail

    Finally, we get to our favorite part of the story: the snail. This little guy gets two hefty paragraphs in the story—that's more than some of the characters. So what's significant about him? All he really does is creep through a flower-bed and debate whether he should go under a leaf or over a leaf:

    The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tip of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it, for there was a point where the leaf curved high enough from the ground to admit him. (19)

    Good decision, Mr. Snail. Passages like these reveal the hidden life of the creatures in the garden. Just as the married man is occupied with his own troubles, so the snail is occupied with his—though no one would notice if Woolf didn't draw our attention to his little plight. Like the other characters, he is isolated in the garden, carrying on by himself even while all this life plays out around him. The snail's journey through the flowerbed is just one activity among the many that make the garden scene so dense with life and complexity. 

  • Narrator Point of View

    Third Person (Omniscient)

    The narrative focuses on the flowerbed and the characters that pass by it, weaving in and out of the minds of numerous individuals to allow us brief insights into their thoughts and passing knowledge of their conversation and interactions. When we read the story, it's almost like we're some type of mind-reading ghost: all seeing, but invisible.

    The narrator also spends considerable time providing us with objective descriptions of the characters' appearances, and also of the larger setting. We are given precise portrayals of the flowerbed, the weather, the gradual movements and deliberations of the snail, and the general movement of human bodies through the gardens:

    Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere. (29)

    This quote is a kind of "summing up" of the whole scene. It occurs in the final paragraph, when Woolf zooms out from particular characters in order to give us a more encompassing vision of the garden. Even then, it still manages to retain an amazing amount of detail—figures meandering past flowers, enveloped in vapors of color and dissolving into the scene as they recede further into the lush atmosphere.

    • Plot Analysis

      The funny thing about this story is that there's not really much of a plot, so it doesn't easily fall into a classic plot analysis. As you can probably tell, there is no primary conflict, no climax, and no resolution—those terms kind of fall apart with Woolf. Still, conflict is suggested in passing throughout the story. For instance, the snail's struggle to get around the leaf, or William's patient care taking of the old man. There are definitely no resolutions here, though—Woolf leaves the larger story lines underlying these minor conflicts to our imagination.

      The fact that the story doesn't stick to a traditional plot arc tells us that it's a pretty experimental piece of writing. Who would have thought that a story in which a snail and some people move through a garden could be so engaging? Ultimately, it might be better to think of "Kew Gardens" not so much as a story in the traditional sense, but as a vignette or snapshot of a particular moment in time.

    • Three-Act Plot Analysis

      Act I

      We're introduced to a flowerbed; a married couple wanders past the flowerbed, reflecting on the past; a snail struggles slowly through the dirt.

      Act II

      Before the snail can reach a decision about how to best proceed through the dirt, two men (one young, one senile) wander past. Two women (one fat, one thin) follow the men at some distance, taking keen notice of the senile man's eccentric behaviors. The snail proceeds beneath the great brown tent of the leaf. While the snail is still beneath the leaf, a young couple comes along and soon wanders off for their tea.

      Act III

      The perspective of the narrative zooms out from these individual figures to consider the whole of the scene. Yep, that's it. No alien invasion, snail-zombie apocalypse, or any crazy plot twist for that matter; just a peaceful summer day in a beautiful garden.

    • Allusions

      Historical References

      • The old man's reference to "this war" suggests that the story is situated during World War I