Study Guide

Kew Gardens Man and the Natural World

By Virginia Woolf

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? 

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