Study Guide

Kew Gardens Themes

  • Isolation

    Though many of the characters in "Kew Gardens" wander together in groups or pairs, they are also often lost in their own individual worlds. Some, like the married couple and the old man, are isolated from others because they are so preoccupied with memories of the past. The working-class women seem to be friends, but they eventually stop listening to each other as the flowers start to mesmerize the stout woman, who is either really bored or easily distracted. Even the young couple, who seem very romantically interested in each other, are still very alone in each other's presence. Practically all the characters are absorbed in their own thoughts and alienated from those around them. Just look at the little snail—he's on his own in the garden, too. The point here is that, despite the communal quality of this setting, Woolf's story emphasizes all the different ways in which people remain alienated from each other. For each character, there is the external world of the garden but also the internal world of the mind, which each person inhabits more or less alone. 

    Questions About Isolation

    1. Is there a relationship between the theme of isolation and the story's setting in a garden?
    2. What do you think Woolf means to emphasize by making all the characters isolated at various points?                   
    3. What different types of isolation does the story represent?
    4. Does Woolf suggest any possibility of resolving the characters' loneliness? 

    Chew on This

    Isolation is a consistent feature of the characters in "Kew Gardens," emphasizing the ways in which people are caught in their own worlds even in a social setting like the gardens.

    Woolf's characters are often absorbed in their own thoughts and memories, but Woolf also suggests the possibilities for connection and intimacy. 

  • Women and Femininity

    "Kew Gardens" presents particular notions about the proper roles of women in society at this point in history. Though the gardens might seem to be a place where these societal roles could break down, women remain constrained in positions as mothers, lovers, and objects of desire. To this extent, the gardens are not really a wild, free realm distanced from the restrictions of society, but a place where gender roles and codes of conduct still hold fast. The story does give us access to their interior worlds, though, in which they are free to contemplate, dream, and remember without the constraints of social expectation. Woolf might be renowned for some of the more progressive feminist themes that appear in her later works, but they are not very present in this story. Sorry, ladies. 

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. What are the common characteristics of the story's female characters?
    2. How do the story's male characters think about and treat women?                 
    3. Does the story contain a critique of female gender roles?                    

    Chew on This

    Women occupy a unique position in the memories and thoughts of the story's male characters.

    The story represents women in traditional gender roles, as mothers, lovers, and objects of desire. 

  • Man and the Natural World

    This is one of the most obvious, but also the most important, themes of "Kew Gardens." Woolf is pretty obsessed with giving us the most precise details about the flowers, grasses, trees, butterflies, and of course the snail. The language she uses to represent nature makes it seem almost like a vivid, impressionistic painting through which the characters walk. The natural world seems to inspire awe in not only the narrator, but also in the characters themselves. The gardens offer them an escape from city life and an opportunity to commune with nature. After reading this story, we might consider Virginia the Original Hippie. What a tree-hugger!

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. What kind of language is used to describe the natural world in "Kew Gardens"?
    2. How does the natural world affect the moods, thoughts, and behavior of the characters?                 
    3. Why does Woolf spend two significant paragraphs describing a snail?                    
    4. What's the relationship between the humans in the garden and the other creatures (butterflies, snail, etc.)?  

    Chew on This

    Nature has an unusual affect upon the characters, temporarily inspiring strange moods and reflections in them. 

    The characters' movements are compared to the movements of butterflies, suggesting an affinity between the different creatures in the garden. 

  • Memory and the Past

    If "Kew Gardens" had a theme song, we imagine it'd be something like "The Way We Were," by Barbara Streisand. You know the lyrics—it's a classic:

    Memories light the corner of my mind

    During their walk through the garden, many characters in the story—especially the older characters—are haunted by memories of the past and of their youth. The garden setting seems to inspire this tendency to reminisce, and many characters become immersed in their own interior worlds as they contemplate the past. 

    Questions About Memory and the Past

    1. Why do you think so many characters in this story think about the past?
    2. What kind of relationship does the story draw between nature and memory?
    3. How would you characterize the characters' reflections on the past? (Are they nostalgic? Romantic? Regretful?)

    Chew on This

    Flowers and butterflies have a tendency to send Woolf's characters into dreamy rememberings.

    The garden in full bloom makes characters remember their youth, when they were in their full "bloom" as well. 

  • Society and Class

    While "Kew Gardens" is no "Pygmalion" (which some of you might know as "My Fair Lady"), the story does touch a bit on the rather strict class boundaries found in England in the early 20th century.

    The garden is a public environment in which numerous social classes can intersect. There isn't a huge emphasis placed on class in the story, but the social distinctions between certain characters are subtly suggested, and these distinctions affect how the characters interact with each other. What's more, the characters are often governed by notions of what is socially acceptable behavior in this public setting.

    Well, we're dashed

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How does class affect the working-class women's perceptions of the old man?
    2. Does class factor into William's difficulty in handling his senile companion?
    3. What kinds of social expectations govern the characters' behavior?
    4. What social rituals do the characters engage in? 

    Chew on This

    Although the story takes place in a natural setting rather than <em>in</em> the city, societal expectations and class distinctions still govern the characters' behavior.

    In his senility, the old man seems to completely neglect notions of social propriety. 

  • Awe and Amazement

    Kew Gardens is a place of immense semi-natural beauty. Even the narrator's descriptions of the scene seem to spring from a sense of awe:

    Look at those flowers! Did you see the butterflies?!

    The snail inspires amazement too: the story reveals the intricacies of his hidden life in the flowerbed. The poor little guy seems over-awed by the obstacles he must face in his path.

    As readers, we are left in awe at the complexity and diversity of life in the garden. Many of the characters are also dazzled and excited by their garden journey—it's like that scene in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where everyone first walks into the factory and sees the chocolate river and Gene Wilder sings in a creepy, soft voice. Except here, there's no candy and no chocolate river, just good old-fashioned nature. Who would have known a darn garden could ever be so thrilling? 

    Questions About Awe and Amazement

    1. Why does nature inspire amazement in these characters?
    2. What does this sense of awe tell us about the characters' relation to the natural world?
    3. How does the characters' and the narrator's sense of awe affect the mood of the story? 

    Chew on This

    Nature affects the characters with momentary experiences of wonder and joy.

    The narrator's tone expresses awe at the beauty and complexity of this summer scene in Kew Gardens. 

  • Youth

    Youth bounces around "Kew Gardens" like the butterflies that float through the garden. It enters the story in several different ways: some characters reminisce about their youth, while other characters—children (like Hubert and Caroline) and adolescents (like the young couple)—represent the experience of youth. The garden setting itself (the blooming flowers, the flourishing animal and plant life) seems to possess an underlying correlation to the contemplation and representation of youth. Maybe it's the flowers—there's something fleetingly beautiful about a flower in bloom, similar to the fleeting beauty of youth. Or the fleeting deliciousness of a bag of kettle corn—it's always gone too soon. 

    Questions About Youth

    1. Why do so many characters think about their youth?
    2. What is the relation between the theme of youth and the theme of nature in the story?
    3. What kind of language and what sorts of images and symbols are used in the story's discussion of youth?

    Chew on This

    The garden setting inspires several of the story's older characters to reminisce about memories of their youth.

    The story draws a correlation between nature in its "prime" and humans in their "prime" (or youth). 

  • Modernization

    Ch-ch-changes."Kew Gardens" has a very distinct historical setting. On the surface, the garden setting might seem timeless, but references to war, machinery, and industrialization remind us that the characters' are living in a period of tremendous modernization. They can try to escape it by taking a pretty garden stroll, but the truth is that it's never far away…

    Questions About Modernization

    1. How do references to modernization contrast with the story's idyllic setting?
    2. What's the significance of these references in the story?
    3. How does knowledge of modernization shape characters' experiences and thoughts in the story?  

    Chew on This

    Reminders of the modern world penetrate the characters' lives even while they stroll through Kew Gardens.

    The gardens themselves might be taken as instances of modernization: they are engineered settings within an urban environment. 

  • Versions of Reality

    Buckle your seats, because we're about to get a little trippy in here.

    There are lots of different versions of reality at play in "Kew Gardens." Each of the characters is absorbed in his or her own realities, preoccupied by thoughts and memories that isolate them from other characters and enclose them deep within their own interior worlds.

    The life of the snail also presents an alternate version of reality: he moves through the same garden as the human but his experience and perspective is vastly different.

    Finally, the narrator's impressionistic descriptions of the scene also present a distinct vision of a given reality—one that transcends each individual's experience and sees the scene as a whole. 

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. Is the old man's version of reality more or less real than the other characters'?
    2. What does the snail's version of reality add to the story?
    3. Why do you think Woolf takes pains to emphasize these multiple perspectives and experiences? 

    Chew on This

    Although the characters walk through the same physical space (the space of the garden), they all occupy different psychic realms.

    The characters' different versions of reality contribute to their sense of isolation and alienation from other characters.