By Cadence Thakur
Virginia Woolf probes the evolving English social order of the early twentieth century in the short story “Kew Gardens,” a piece of Modernist fiction that joins the natural and urban worlds together to transform the setting of a garden into a microcosm of English society. Woolf paints a tableau of the natural world, specifically a garden and its transient human visitors, as seen through the point of view of a snail. The visitors to the garden engender social commentary about class and gender roles in early twentieth-century England by bringing with them the urban world that lies right outside the garden through their material, human pursuits and concerns. Woolf’s structural decision to narrow the perspective of the story onto selective characters before the narrative lens pans back to the garden reflects a modernist focus on society rather than the individual. Through synecdoche and simile, the garden setting becomes a milieu where the natural and modern worlds collide and commingle organically, integrating humans with nature through the common experiences of those who frequent the garden.
The setting of “Kew Gardens,” a man-made garden in the middle of a bustling city, emulates a small corner of the natural world. The oval flowerbed begins as a backdrop, a screen upon which the reflections of human passersby alight before they walk on. In the story, humans are often compared to animals. Their first description appears in a simile at the start of the story, where it is said that each person’s reflection materializes with a “curiously irregular movement, not unlike that of the white and blue butterflies who crossed the turf in zig-zag flights” (Woolf 855). This lack of consistency in the passerby’s relevance represents their role in the story as transient symbols. They serve as a reminder that the garden is man-made and located in a modern city. Unlike the humans and their often empty interactions, Woolf characterizes the flowerbed through shapes, movement, light, and colours; it explodes with vitality and life. The narrative emphasis on colour saturates the depictions of the garden, with specific attention to “red, blue, and yellow,” a colour combination repeated four times in the opening paragraph of “Kew Gardens” (Woolf 855). The diction of colour and geometric shapes and angles is often associated with dynamic movement, as shown through the description of petals stirred by the summer breeze: “when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour” (Woolf 854). The refraction of light illuminates the beauty of ordinary objects and simple happenings in nature, zooming in on specific details. The detailed portrayal of the garden through minuscule points of colour and shapes recalls an impressionistic tableau, a distortion in perspective offering a microscopic view of the garden and its inhabitants.
By positioning the garden setting as the central focus of the short story, Woolf moves away from a human-centred narrative towards one situated within the natural world of flora and fauna. The garden’s bursting greenery and vivacity overshadow the human presence within it. The story’s setting thus overwhelms the specific characterization of any one individual, aside from the snail, a native member of the garden, who remains the only consistent character throughout the story. His progress is methodical but slow and non-linear. Described as “moving very slightly,” the snail has a “definite goal,” but the people passing by constantly disrupt his journey, reflecting their disruption of the natural world (Woolf 856). Though the narrative shifts to accommodate the conversations between the humans, the story’s structure, akin to a spiral-shaped shell, circles back to the snail twice to chronicle his movements. This displacement of human characters in favour of an animal character is one of the myriad ways in which Woolf challenges conventional literary form and structure in favour of a Modernist standpoint. The content of “Kew Gardens” subsumes into its narrative form without a plot. This non-linear narrative represents a new style of Modernist fiction.
In this Modernist vein, Woolf deflects emphasis onto any one individual by briefly glancing into the lives of a large range of characters and then moving back to the garden setting. Woolf provides social commentary about gender and class in the newly emerging modern English society. The four couples represent the dualities of age and gender, evinced through dialogue, characterization, and class distinctions. Kendall Johnson, a literary critic, stipulates that Kew Gardens is a carefully chosen setting, a “reflection of national imperial history” as a site of protests for the fight for women’s rights in the early twentieth century (144). The two “elderly women of the lower middle class” are unnamed, while Woolf names at least one out of two people in the other couples. The elderly women’s dialogue is energetic and “complicated,” but its content is illogical and lacking depth, a vernacular reflective of their “lower-class” status: “he says, I says, she says, I says, I says, I says” (Woolf 857). Interested in the old man of high class, his peculiar gestures capture the women’s attention, “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” (Woolf 857). The narrator characterizes the two women through stereotypes of their social class, creating a degree of separation between them and the old man through the irony of their eccentricities. In contrast, the seemingly nonsensical musings of the older veteran man veil the real, sorrowful sentiment about the traumatic effects of war on individuals and the isolation it brings to people of all social classes and genders. Though he is confused and disorganized, his thoughts have depth and meaning, unlike the empty conversation of the elderly women. His suffering from the war ordeal comes through in his “uneven and shaky method of walking” (Woolf, 856). His preoccupation with “the spirits of the dead” who communicate with him evokes the losses of war and their effect on victims. The old man’s reality is muddled, and his sense of past and present are unclear and perturbed by the meaning he imposes on his surroundings.
All the women in the story inhabit certain gender roles, whether servants, wives, or spinsters, which point to the standards of English society at the end of the Victorian era. Woolf draws attention to marriage as an institution that stifles women’s sense of self through the character of Trissie, who emerges, along with her young man, through the metaphor of youth as a blooming butterfly. This is another instance of a rhetorical coming together of humans and animals. In contrast to the elderly women, this young couple is in “the season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flower have burst” (Woolf 857). Yet Trissie still operates as an accompaniment to her husband, rather than as an independent person, when she quashes her desire to explore the garden to follow her husband to tea. Acting as a social critic, Woolf introduces these couples and their interactions to highlight the imbalance in gender roles in which “women depend on complementing men” (Johnson 138). Upon seeing the two elderly women, the old man immediately becomes agitated, exclaiming: “Women! Widows! Women in black” (Woolf 856). The old man’s assumption serves as an example of men superimposing their definitions of identity onto women, keeping them separate. His seemingly random preoccupation with them points to widows as victims of war and, on a larger scale, the effect of war on women who were confined largely to the domestic sphere. As the garden is a natural space engineered by men, the outside world and the problems brought on by the Industrial Age cannot be removed from it.
The garden, situated in a world abuzz with industrial production, serves as a reminder that even within this natural space, there is no escaping modernization. The old man makes a direct mention of machinery, a small contraption that he believes can reach the voices of the dead: “the little machine stands […] and the widow applies her ear and summons the spirit” (Woolf 856). In combination merges his trauma and the fear of progress into one, as he brings with him into the garden the contrasting fears and hopes brought about by the rise of industrialization and its effect on society. The final paragraph reinforces this idea through a simile that surpasses the voices of children and the dead redirecting the reader’s focus onto the machinery which drones on endlessly in the new industrial age: “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” (Woolf pp, 858–859). This reorientation of perception—a common technique in the story—draws attention to the background noise of turning gears, which is ever present, even within the confines of the garden. The imagery of perpetual movement and change, through diction such as “all the time” and “ceaseless,” references the technological advancements and social changes of postwar Britain. Here, Woolf is cautioning against “the cost of progress” (Johnson 139) and the limitations of machinery at a time of industrialization during World War I when factories were mass-producing artillery. Woolf contrasts this materialism with the garden, a pocket of natural beauty within the increasingly industrial environment (Johnson 139.). At the story’s end, an amalgamation of human, natural, and mechanical voices overlap: “the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air” (Woolf 859). This reflects the national sense of paying the cost of progress at the end of the Victorian era. Though vast changes are afoot, both the urban and natural worlds will weather the times together in the environment of the garden.
The episodic technique of alternately describing the setting of the natural world and the humans passing through it progressively reveals how they are still as one. The garden, as a setting, unites characters of different ages, genders, and even species in a shared milieu in which they co-exist. Similarly, as the garden itself is a microcosm of society, a part representing a whole, the snail also represents a synecdoche for the non-human. Lily and Simon’s mental isolation as a couple contrasts with their physical proximity, and the concerns of the non-human characters and the natural setting are reflected in the couples’ resulting anxieties about seeking meaning and purpose. Simon ruminates about the past, where a dragonfly is a metaphor for his love for Lily, and synecdoche abounds here as well: “the whole of her seemed to be in her shoe. And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly” (Woolf 855). The garden is an important part of Simon’s past, but as he walks through it in the present, he is lost in thought and separated from his wife, who interrupts him with her train of thought about her previous experiences. The metaphor of a dragonfly as Simon’s past love is apt, as it moves irregularly and does not settle: “But the dragonfly went round and round, it never settled anywhere” (Woolf 855). Similarly, the humans in the story linger momentarily and then pass by, leaving the reader with no resolution to their narratives.
Woolf parallels the snail’s experience and the humans’ isolation. The people around the snail repeatedly disrupt his journey. The snail is concerned with progress, but his story ends without a perceived conclusion, mirroring the fleeting glimpses of the interiority of the human passersbys. Trissie and her young man, whose relationship to her is unspecified, attempt to connect, but their words and feelings do not reach one another: “these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far” (Woolf 858). Human words and emotions are once again anthropomorphized by animals, with the snail moving in parallel to it all. The snail, bridging the gap between the natural and human worlds, acts as an isolated figure in the busy world of the garden. The inadequate voices of the characters reveal that they are not only removed from one another but also from nature and even from the narrative itself. By the final paragraph, the humans are no longer the center of the narration. They recede into the background as part of a larger, global unit with nature and the modern world. and even from the narrative itself. By the final paragraph, the humans are no longer the center of the narration. They recede into the background as part of a larger, global unit with nature and the modern world.
This fusion of the natural and modern worlds represents a modernist take on organicism, represented here by the common experience of those within the gardens. This unites the universe and its parts as one singular and organic whole. Dr. John Oakland’s optimistic view of the episodic description of the natural and human worlds demonstrates “the growing commonality of these experiences and develops significant patterns in the movement towards fusion” (Oakland 267). Woolf depicts the snail’s strange progression: “It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it […] and waited for a second with its antennæ trembling as if in deliberation, and then stepped off as rapidly and strangely in the opposite direction” (Woolf, 856). By framing these descriptions with the non-linear movement of the snail, Woolf creates what Oakland terms a “unified reality” that ultimately comes together in the final paragraph, where all the different voices combine in a universal, synesthetic harmony. The narrative perspective of zooming in and out has evolved, reducing the tableau to simpler forms using synecdoche, in which humans are reduced to voices and flowers reduced to colours: “the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air” (Woolf 859).
This modernist shift from a focus on the individual to a focus on society is the effect of the “gradual fusion of the human and the non-human into an organic whole” (Oakland 267), the organicism created by common experience. Furthermore, Oakland asserts that Woolf’s use of form demonstrates a “thematic unity in the work, culminating in a final resolution” (265). Although the fusion of the human and the natural worlds burst into bloom in the last paragraph, Woolf plants the initial seeds of this synecdochical conceit at the beginning of the story. From the first paragraph, the narrator anthropomorphizes the garden setting, imbuing it with human attributes and body parts through the garden’s “heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves” and depicting the light which settles upon “the flesh of a leaf” (Woolf 854). The red, yellow, and blue colours of the Impressionistic tableau reappear as humans dissolve into the visual structure of the garden. This pointed nod to Impressionism draws out the thematic unification of “Kew Gardens” as well, which invites readers “beyond the surface impressions to a larger, growing reality” (Oakland 266). Humans end up subsumed within nature by the end of the story, allowing Woolf to reveal her true subject matter. The Modernist author considers the garden setting as the story’s focal point, a manifestation of humans, machinery, and the natural world.
In conclusion, at the beginning of the narrative, a zoomed-in perspective hones in on the pointillistic details of an impressionistic garden tableau, which acts as the setting of “Kew Gardens.” The importance of positioning and visual structure in the garden increases as the narrative lens pans back and forth from these minuscule details to the whole of the garden tableau in an episodic portrayal of the human and natural worlds. “Kew Gardens” interweaves controlling literary principles such as synecdoche and simile with social commentary, creating a setting and characters reflective of the realities of early twentieth-century England. Woolf seeks a fictional form through which she can portray the limits and possibilities of the new Industrial Age and its effects on human and natural spaces. The underlying thematic concept of oneness brings together both form and content to create a new, Modernist narrative that uncovers a greater reality in this time of significant social and technological change.
Johnson, Kendall. “Critical Essay on Kew Gardens.” Short Stories for Students, vol. 12, 2001, pp. 133–144. https://archive.org/details/shortstoriesfors0012unse.
Oakland, John. “Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens.” English Studies, vol. 68, no. 3, 1987, pp. 264–273. https://doi.org/10.1080/00138388708598514.
“Organicism.” Dictionary of Populism, 28 Dec. 2020, https://www.populismstudies.org/Vocabulary/organicism/.
Woolf, Virginia. “Kew Gardens.” The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction, 8th ed., edited by Richard Bausch and R.V. Cassill, Norton, 2015. pp. 854–859.
About the Author: Cadence Thakur is a U3 student at McGill double majoring in English literature and psychology. She works as a publicity assistant at McGill-Queen’s University Press and hopes to go on to a career in book publishing. Some of her favorite authors include Otessa Moshfegh, Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Taylor Jenkins Reid, Lewis Carroll, and Sylvia Plath.