Study Guide

Kew Gardens Setting

By Virginia Woolf

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.