Study Guide

Kew Gardens Awe and Amazement

By Virginia Woolf

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? 

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