Study Guide

Kew Gardens Quotes

  • Isolation

    The man kept this distance in front of the woman purposely, though perhaps unconsciously, for he wished to go on with his thoughts. (2)

    The married man's wife and children accompany him in the garden, yet even as he is in their presence, he seems to seek isolation. Hey, we all need some alone time, right? He may appear to be with them from the outside, but is he really "with" them, or off somewhere on his own? How does his isolation affect his relationship with his wife? 

    </em>He smiled to himself and again began to talk, as if the smile had been an answer. He was talking about spirits—the spirits of the dead, who, according to him, were even now telling him all sort of odd things about their experiences in Heaven. (11)

    Well, the old man isn't <em>completely</em> isolated here, is he? The spirits of the dead must be excellent company…maybe…but that's just the problem—he's talking to <em>dead spirits </em>and not his living, breathing companion, William. The old man seems to be obsessed with human connection—he even talks about a contraption that will allow him to connect with the spirits—but he misses a chance at connection with the very person at his side.

    He could be heard murmuring about forests of Uruguay blanketed with the wax petals of tropical roses, nightingales, sea beaches, mermaids, and women drowned at sea, as he suffered himself to be moved on my William, upon whose face the look of stoical patience grew slowly deeper and deeper. (14)

    Is the old man talking to William here, or simply rehearsing his memories aloud? Is there even a difference? Either way, there's definitely not much conversation going on. The old man might as well be talking (or thinking) to himself; it's all kind of one big monologue. The further he recedes into memories of the past, the further he seems to grow from William. 

    </em>So the heavy woman came to a standstill opposite the oval-shaped flower bed, and ceased even to pretend to listen to what the other woman was saying. 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)

    We all have that one friend—you know, the kind who is fun to hang out with, but they talk <em>way</em> too much and at one point, you just have to start tuning them out. It seems like this is the case with the two working-class women. They appear to have a friendly relationship—they exchange glances and discuss the old man's eccentricity—but they are also enclosed in their own worlds. Here, again, we encounter two figures that are isolated even in their companionship. The stout woman straight up stops listening to what the other woman is saying to look at a flower. What do you think Woolf is trying to communicate here about relationships? How are the flowers relevant to their isolation? 

    </em>Long pauses came between each of these remarks; they were uttered in toneless and monotonous voices. (26)

    The long pauses in the young couple's dialogue suggests their awkwardness and uncertainty, but also their distance from each other. They want to connect but can't quite do it. Know the feeling? The irony here is that they both seem to really <em>want </em>to connect—they're trying so hard, unlike other characters in the story, but still alienation and isolation seems to be the rule. 

    </em>Even when she wondered what sort of tea they gave you at Kew, he felt that something loomed up behind her words, and stood vast and solid behind them. (26)

    Dude, she's just asking for tea. The young man is so distanced from Trissie and so uncertain about what she thinks and feels that he gives even her most basic questions enormous significance. Instead of just talking freely with her, he tries to read into whatever might be "looming" behind her words. Sounds like a lot of complex guesswork and interpretation. It's no wonder the characters have trouble connecting

  • Women and Femininity

    The man was about six inches in front of the woman, strolling carelessly, while she bore on with greater purpose, only turning her head now and then to see that the children were not too far behind. (2)

    We are introduced to some very gendered representations here, right off the bat: the man strolls carelessly ahead, the woman more "purposefully." What do you think this distinction suggests? Why is she characterized as more purposeful? While the husband is lost in thought, she turns very maternally to check on the children. What do these details tell us about gender roles in Kew Gardens? We won't go so far as to call the man a deadbeat dad, but it sounds like he could stand to get his head in the game and share responsibilities with his wife, if you ask us. 

    "Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily," he thought. (3)

    Come on man, fifteen <em>years</em> ago…Get over it! Is it significant that the man's memories focus on a woman—and not just any woman, but a woman who refused his proposal? How do the married man's contemplations about "the woman I might have married" affect the dynamic between him and his wife, Eleanor? 

    </em>Imagine six little girls sitting before their easels twenty years ago…and suddenly a kiss, there on the back of my neck. And my hand shook all the afternoon so that I couldn't paint. I took out my watch and marked the hour when I would allow myself to think of the kiss for five minutes only—it was so precious—the kiss of an old grey-haired woman with a wart on her nose, the mother of all my kisses all my life. (8)

    What do you make of the fact that Eleanor's most memorable kiss is not from her husband, or even from another man, but from an old woman? Since the kiss is from an old woman, it seems more maternal than romantic—at least, we would certainly hope so. What does this memory tell us, then, about Eleanor and her relationship to men and women? 

    </em>After looking at it for a moment in some confusion the old man bent his ear to it and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it, for he began talking about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe. (14)

    Interesting that the old man and the married man are both obsessed with women from their pasts…Why do Woolf's older men tend to center their memories around women from their youth? What's the connection here between women and memory? Or between women and youth? The women that these men remember seem to represent not just objects of desire for them, but also something central to the men's own identities—or at least, their former, youthful identities. 

    </em>"Wherever <em>does </em>one have one's tea?" she asked with the oddest trill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the garden path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way, forgetting her tea, wishing to go down there and then down there, remembering orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson crested bird; but he bore her on. (28)

    Trissie wants to venture through the garden, to explore—but the young man directs her movement and draws her down a particular path that he desires. Even in the openness of the garden, she is caught in a very constrained gender role and her movements are dictated by a controlling male figure. Then again, she doesn't really resist the young man. What kind of statement is being made here about gender relations? Does this dynamic between the two characters qualify as a minor conflict of sorts? 

  • Man and the Natural World

    The figures of these men and women straggled past the flower-bed with a curiously irregular movement not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights from bed to bed. (2)

    How graceful—the humans' movements mimic those of the butterflies. What do you think Woolf achieves by drawing a comparison between these creatures and the story's characters? And what kind of relationship does this suggest between humans and the natural world? We might have more in common than we think. 

    </em>"Doesn't' one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren't they one's past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees…one's happiness, one's reality?" (6)

    According to Eleanor, nature tends to inspire people to reflect on the past, and characters in this story do tend towards reflection and memory when they're in the presence of trees and flowers. Why do you think the natural world has this kind of effect upon people? What kind of statement is Woolf making about the relationship between humans and nature? It could be said that in returning to nature, we can return to visit forgotten corners of our inner selves. 

    In the oval flower-bed the snail, whose shell had been stained red, blue, and yellow for the space of two minutes or so, now appeared by be moving very slightly in its shell, and next began to labour over the crumbs of loose earth which broke away and rolled down as it passed over them. (10)

    In the garden, the humans and the snail coexist, and every time someone passes by the flowerbed, the little snail takes note. In fact, all the characters of the story come to light only as they pass the snail's flowerbed. Why do you think Woolf structures the narrative this way? Why give the snail such centrality? What's the relationship between the snail and the human characters? Does the world actually revolve around a snail in a garden? We certainly wish it did. 

    </em>After looking at it [the flower] for a moment in some confusion the old man bent his ear to it and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it, for he began talking about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe. (14)

    The relationship between man and nature is pretty extreme here. The old dude is literally having a conversation with a flower—and this isn't Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Ok, maybe he is pretty crazy after all. This incident also illustrates more broadly the relationship the characters of the story seem to hold with the natural world. Aren't they all listening and speaking to nature in their own ways? 

    </em>The ponderous woman looked through the pattern of falling words at the flowers standing cool, firm, and upright in the earth, with a curious expression. She saw them as a sleeper waking from a heavy sleep sees a brass candlestick reflecting the light in an unfamiliar way, and closes his eyes and opens them, and seeing the brass candlestick again, finally starts broad awake and stares at the candlestick with all his powers. (18)

    The flowers have such a powerful relationship with humans that here they seem to cast a spell on the woman. How does this description compare with the previous one of the old man and the flower? Why does nature have such a strong hold over her and what does this reveal about man's relation to the natural world, at least in "Kew Gardens"?

    </em>They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun. (19)

    Man's relationship to nature is so central here that Woolf explains the extreme youth of the young couple in terms of the natural world—in terms of flower folds and butterfly wings. This isn't the first time we've seen humans compared to some aspect of nature. What is the significance of this running theme? Woolf seems to be suggesting that we're all small parts of the same big thing: Mother Nature. 

    Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular 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)

    The characters' dissolution into nature emphasizes their connection with it. They literally blend into the blue-green atmosphere, almost as though the greenery is swallowing them up. What do you make of this description—especially of the emphasis on color? What kind of final statement does it make about man and the natural world? 

  • Memory and the Past

    "Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily," he thought. "We sat somewhere over there by a lake and I beggared her to marry me all through the hot afternoon." (3)

    Being back in the same place where he once was with Lily dredges up all these memories for the married man. Why do you think his preoccupation with the past is the primary feature Woolf gives us of the married man? Why is the past so important to him in this scene and how does it intersect with the preoccupations of other characters? 

    </em>"Doesn't one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren't they one's past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees…one's happiness, one's reality?" (6)

    Eleanor suggests that there's a distinct relationship between the garden setting and the force of memory. Is she right? Why do you think a stroll in the garden causes so many of the characters to reminisce on the past? 

    "Imagine six little girls sitting before their easels twenty years ago, down by the side of a lake, painting the water-lillies, the first red water-lilies I'd ever seen. And suddenly a kiss, there on the back of my neck. And my hand shook all the afternoon so that I couldn't paint. I took out my watch and marked the hour when I would allow myself to think of the kiss for five minutes only—it was so precious—the kiss of an old grey-haired women with a wart on her nose, the mother of all my kisses all my life." (8)

    This memory is all we really know of Eleanor's interior life. It's an interesting memory to attach such significance to, don't you think? What does it tell us about her? And how does Eleanor's interest in the past differ from her husband's? 

    </em>He bent his ear to it [a flower] and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it, for he began talking about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe. (14)

    The old man seems to be telling the flower about his memories of the past. It could be said that we are meant to think that nature—i.e. the flower—elicits these reflections from him. What do you make of the old man's "conversation" with the flower? And (again) what kind of relationship is being drawn here between nature and the force of memory? 

  • Society and Class

    Here he [the old man] seemed to have caught sight of a woman's dress in the distance, which in the shade look a purple black. He took off his hat, placed his hand upon his heart, and hurried towards her muttering and gesticulating feverishly. But William caught him by the sleeve and touched a flower with the tip of his walking-stick in order to divert the old man's attention. (14)

    The old man's muttering and gesticulating is socially improper and rather embarrassing, and poor William has such a hard time keeping him in line. He tries to divert the old man's attention away from the woman in the dress, but the old man's constant over-stepping of acceptable social behavior is clearly wearing on William. What does the dynamic between these two characters (William and the old man) communicate about social propriety and decorum in Kew Gardens? 

    "Like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any signs of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do." (15)

    It's understandable that the crazy old man catches the women's attention, but it's curious to note that such an emphasis is laid on their working-class status—it's as if their class is a defining feature of them. Why are working-class women in particular fascinated by signs of eccentricity? What sort of social dynamic does Woolf draw here between the sane, lower-class women and the senile, upper-class gentleman? 

    After they had scrutinized the old man's back in silence for a moment and given each other a queer, sly look, they went on energetically piecing together their very complicated dialogue. (15)

    Okay, these women sound a little nosy. Then again, people watching can be a source of endless fascination and entertainment, so we can't really blame them. Is this description of their behavior laden in any way with class commentary? Why are the women so nosy? It could be that they simply don't have much else to talk about outside their work, and the old man's shenanigans <em>do</em> sound like quite an entertaining spectacle. It might be the most interesting thing they've witnessed all day. Remember—this was way before viral videos and smartphones. 

    But it was too exciting to stand and think any longer, and he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people. "Come along, Trissie; it's time we had our tea." (26-27)

    The young man is eager to act according to expected models of behavior. What a square. What does his preoccupation with being "like other people" tell us about him and about the greater social conventions that govern "Kew Gardens"? Why is he especially concerned with this and how might his concern for convention tie in with his youth and his relationship to Trissie? Man, there sure can be a lot attached to something as simple as <em>tea. </em>

  • Awe and Amazement

    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)

    The narrator seems awed here by the sheer beauty of the flowers. The extreme detail of Woolf's prose serves to communicate a sense of pure amazement at the wonders of the natural world. What does this expression of awe contribute to the story? How does it affect our overall reading? 

    </em>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. (10)

    There's amazement here on two levels: the snail's amazement at the vast obstacles that he must overcome but also the narrator's amazement at the hidden life of the snail—what an incredible little world he inhabits. Woolf's attention to the troubles of the snail's life draws out the story's wonder at the intricacies of nature that can so easily go overlooked. 

    He talked almost incessantly; he smiled to himself and again began to talk, as if the smile had been an answer. He was talking about spirits—the spirits of the dead, who, according to him, were even now telling him all sorts of odd things about their experiences in Heaven. (11)

    The old man seems to be in awe of the spirits he communicates with…who wouldn't be? His amazement at this phenomenon is part of what animates his character, making him such a spectacle for the other characters to watch. His sense of wonder also draws him away from the present moment in the garden. Hmm…we're starting to notice a pattern here—why is everyone so easily distracted? 

    </em>The ponderous woman looked through the pattern of falling words at the flowers standing cool, firm, and upright in the earth, with a curious expression. She saw them as a sleeper waking from a heavy sleep sees a brass candlestick reflecting the light in an unfamiliar way, and closes his eyes and opens them, and seeing the brass candlestick again, finally starts broad awake and stares at the candlestick with all his powers. (18)

    The flowers have a powerful effect on the woman, drawing her into a state of intense meditation. She seems to be in awe of nature here. How precisely would you characterize the effect of the flowers on her, and what does this little vignette contribute to the story's more general theme of wonder towards the natural world? 

    </em>Even when she wondered what sort of tea they gave you at Kew, he felt that something loomed up behind her words, and stood vast and solid behind them; and the mist very slowly rose and uncovered—O, Heavens, what were those shapes?—little white tables, and waitresses who looked first at her and then at him; and there was a bill that he would pay with a real two shilling piece, and it was real, all real, he assured himself, fingering the coin in his pocket. (26)

    The young man is overcome by a sense of unreality. Everything seems a bit amazing to him—the girl, her words, the tables, the coin in his pocket. Oh, the magic of youth! Or is it the magic of the garden? Why exactly is he so amazed at these features of everyday life? And what do you make of his repetition of the word, "real"? It's almost as if the feeling of awe is associated here with an experience of unreality. Life must not have been very <em>awe</em>some for these guys back then. 

    </em>"Wherever <em>does</em> one have one's tea?" she asked with the oddest trill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the garden path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way, forgetting her tea, wishing to go down there and then down there, remembering orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson crested bird. (28)

    Trissie is in awe of the beauty of the garden and of all there is to explore—her voice even squeaks with excitement. Again, humans are amazed at the spectacle of the natural world. Does this amazement create a distancing affect between the viewer and the things viewed? Think about how the experience of awe might affect man's relation to nature.

    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 on above another, making with their white shifting flakes the outline of a shattered marble column above the tallest flowers; the glass roofs of the palm house shone as if a whole market full of shiny green umbrellas had opened in the sun; and in the drone of the aeroplane the voice of the summer sun murmured its fierce soul. (29)

    If that scene doesn't inspire awe, it's hard to say what does. Woolf wants us to feel the amazement she seems to feel toward life in Kew Gardens. Minor details in the scene are awe-inspiring, but so is this vision of the whole. Compare this passage with the story's opening description. Do expressions of awe differ between the two? Do they remain similar? 

  • Youth

    "Fifteen years ago I came here with Lily," he thought. (3)

    Ok, this quote is getting old. We apologize. It's making a reappearance, though, because it shows that the married man is preoccupied with memories of youth and especially of young love. Why is youth a fixation for so many of the characters? Try to draw out its relationship to the garden itself—a setting in which nature is in its prime. 

    </em>"Imagine six little girls sitting before their easels twenty years ago, down by the side of a lake, painting the water-lilies, the first red water-lilies I'd ever seen. And suddenly a kiss, there on the back of my neck." (8)

    Again, what is it about the garden that makes these characters reminisce about their youth? Interestingly, though, Eleanor focuses on an even earlier period of her youth than her husband does. Why do you think she turns back specifically to her childhood? What kind of contrast does this draw between Eleanor and her husband, between female and male characters? 

    "Come, Caroline, come, Hubert." (8)

    This is Eleanor's call to her children. Just as she was once a child in this garden, they are children in the garden right now. Crazy how history repeats itself. Their presence in the story, however minimal, reminds us that while some characters are immersed in memories of their youth, others are living their youth right now. Perhaps an older Caroline and Hubert will one day reminisce about strolling through Kew Gardens in their youth. 

    </em>After looking at it for a moment in some confusion the old man bent his ear to it and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it, for he began talking about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe. (14)

    You're probably getting sick of this quote too. The old man reminisces about his youth "hundreds of years ago." You get the idea… Like the married man, he's obsessed with his prime years—which he also associates with a beautiful young woman. 

    </em>They were both in the prime of youth, or even that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun. (19)

    Unlike the story's older people who are busy reminiscing about their youth, the young couple is in the prime of their youth <em>right now</em>. Their preoccupations are more about navigating their future. In this regard, they are foils (of sorts) to the older characters that obsess mostly about the past. Why do you think Woolf includes these young characters side-by-side with the older ones? What does this diversity of representation add to the story? 

  • Modernization

    "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)

    The old man's reference to war reminds us that the horrors of modern warfare are not far away from this idyllic scene. The garden may feel like a safe haven, but the troubles of the modern world loom nearby. Why do you think Woolf make sure to include this detail? Even then, why does she include it only as a minor detail? 

    "You have a small electric battery and a piece of rubber to insulate the wire—isolate?—insulate?—well, we'll skip the details, no good going into details that wouldn't be understood—and in short the little machine stands in any convenient position by the head of the bed, we will say, on a neat mahogany stand." (13)

    The old man describes a contraption with which he thinks he will be able to communicate with the dead. Good luck, old man. The mention of this device reminds readers that the story is set in an age of exciting industrial and technological innovation, even if some of them (like this one) seem a little silly. 

    </em>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 are situated in a world of machinery and industrial production. Even amidst the flowers, we still can't completely escape from modern society. Do you think this detail casts an ominous note? Why would Woolf end with this particular allusion to the city? 

  • Versions of Reality

    "Doesn't one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren't they one's past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees…one's happiness, one's reality?" (6) 

    Eleanor seems to suggest that ghosts of the past are sometimes all one knows of their current reality—our past shapes our life in the present. This certainly seems to be the case for some of the story's characters. What kind conflicting notions of "reality" does the story draw out? Are their multiple different "realities" at play here? 

    </em>He was talking about spirits—the spirits of the dead, who, according to him, were even now telling him all sort of odd things about their experiences in Heaven. (11)

    The old man talking to spirits clearly occupies a very different reality from the other characters. Yet, he also shares the external reality of the garden with them. Which reality is "real"? If we can't verify the presence of the spirits, does that make the old man's "reality" less authentic? What determines the validity of any given version of reality? 

    So the heavy woman came to a standstill opposite the oval-shaped flower bed, and ceased even to pretend to listen to what the other woman was saying. 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 woman looks almost as crazy as the old man sounds. She's just chilling in her own world here, her own particular reality in which the other woman's words cease to matter. Is there a difference, then, between a character's "version of reality" and their "interior world"? Are these things fundamentally the same? 

    </em>The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. (19)

    The snail's saga throughout the story is a striking example of a creature that inhabits a completely different reality from everyone else. He's not senile like the old man; he's not even in a meditative trance like the woman. In fact, he occupies the exact same physical environment as the other characters and yet, his world looks completely different from theirs. What does this tell us about different "versions of reality"? 

    </em>O, Heavens, what were those shapes?—little white tables, and waitresses who looked first at her and then at him; and there was a bill that he would pay with a real two shilling piece, and it was real, all real, he assured himself, fingering the coin in his pocket, real to everyone except to him and to her. (26)

    Why do you think the young man has to reassure himself, repeatedly, that it's all real? Why does he think things seem real to everyone except himself and Trissie? He obviously isn't keen on what's going on with the old man and his spirit-flower friends. Pay attention to how the word, "real," is being used here. How does it inform the concept of reality? 

    </em>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)

    The narrator's descriptions of scene often have an impressionistic quality. People become drops and splotches of color; they dissolve and waver, almost as though they inhabit a painting rather than the concrete world. Is this just a pretty way of describing things, or do you think the narrative's depiction of the world itself becomes a certain version of its own reality, especially in these descriptions? If the narrator herself only sees one version of reality, what does this mean for the objectivity or subjectivity with which scenes are presented to us?