Study Guide

Kew Gardens Society and Class

By Virginia Woolf

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>

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