Lit Guides

Kew Gardens | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf

Kew Gardens is a brilliantly knit impressionistic short story by the English writer, Virginia Woolf. The short story was first published in 1919 and focuses on the brief and fragmentary thoughts of different groups of people as they aimlessly take a stroll around the Kew Gardens located in London. But Woolf’s omniscient narration extends to explore the thoughts of any living organisms that enter the paths of the garden. Thus, the themes in the short story resonate, memory and their past, love and desire, struggles, and the modern world.

Kew Gardens | Summary

The short story begins with the description of an oval-shaped flower bed in the botanical garden of Kew Gardens. On a hot day in July, the summer breeze briskly carries the red, yellow, and blue colors of petals of different flowers to flash before the eyes of a man and a woman, a married couple. The narration follows through the unconscious thoughts of the man named Simon, as he recalls his visit to the garden, fifteen years before. The man remembers that moment, wherein, he begged a girl named Lily to marry him, but only to get rejected. The narration quickly shifts to the present as we see Simon asking his wife, Eleanor if she ever thinks of the past times. To this, Eleanor responds by saying, as she recollects from her past, that she remembers being suddenly kissed by an old woman on the back of her neck while she and six other little girls were sitting by the side of a lake painting red water-lilies, the first ones she had ever seen.

The focus of the narration diminishes away from this couple to direct its perspective upon a snail in the flower bed as it struggles to make its journey from one stalk to another. But before the snail could make another step towards progress, the narration immediately shifts once again towards the movement of two men, an elderly unnamed man and a young man named William. The old man talked impatiently and incessantly about several odd things like spirits, heaven, and war, while the young man listened to his conversation with stoic patience. As these two men walk, their steps are closely followed by two elderly lower middle-class women. Both of them cautiously scrutinize the monologue of the old man in front of them to determine whether he is simply an eccentric or if he is genuinely mad. But the narrator ends the focus on these two women by recalling their absurd and complicated dialogues as they finally decide to have tea.

The narration switches back, once again, to the journey of the snail in the flower bed as it is seen considering every possible method to reach its goal which is obstructed by a tent of the dead leaf. However, once more being interrupted by the approach of a young couple, a man and a woman. They exchange short remarks of conversation as the man expresses his relief that the day isn’t Friday because the people there make you pay sixpence for tea on that day. Even though their conversations are monotonous, short, and strange, as much as their body language, they express in-depth, the intense feelings they have for each other. For instance, their bodily movements as they press down together the parasol of the young woman, into the soil, and as the man rests his hand upon hers, are all evidence of the strange feelings they shared. At this point, the young man stops thinking and quickly calls to the young woman, Trissie, to come and have tea. But, as the young man’s thoughts get cut off, the consciousness of the young woman also wanders off to the paths of the garden which makes her want to explore them.

The narrator now travels from another couple after another and finally dissolves into the buzzing and murmuring voices of the city, away from the “wordless voices”, and colors of the Kew gardens.

Kew Gardens | Analysis

Woolf narrates her short story within the shades of colors red, blue, and yellow petals of the different flowers from the oval-shaped flower bed. These petals are then carried over in the air by the summer breeze surrounding the gardens. The vivid colors of these flowery petals are contrasted with the aimless, brooding, and irregular movements of people manifested in the hot month of July. But the brilliance of the writer lies in the imagistic and impressionistic effect that Woolf successfully creates as she builds her narration through the vivifying colors of the petals that touch, hovers, and moves around the paths of the garden with the breeze of the summer. Simply, we can say that Woolf knits the theme of memories and thoughts, conscious and unconscious, of the different groups of people in associating them with their surroundings.

The narrator provides glimpses into the thoughts of the first group of people, the married couple, as the storm breeze rhythmically lifts the petals above the ground and flashes them before their eyes. The movements of the couple are compared with the irregular and random movements of the butterflies, associating the groups of people in the short story with their surroundings. The man and the woman are seen as they “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”, especially, the man seemed to be strolling “carelessly”, and “unconsciously”, evoking his manner of indulging within the memories of the past.

His thoughts ran along the past memories that took place fifteen years earlier, wherein, he proposed to a girl named Lily and was rejected. The narrator convinces the man to think about the decision that Lily would make, apparently, based on a random assumption. The young man, catching a glimpse of a dragonfly circling around them, assumes that his love and desire rested upon it. And, randomly, “for some reason”, the man thought that if the dragonfly rested upon the leaf, then that would mean the girl would say yes to him, but instead, he recalls, the dragonfly kept hovering above them, refusing to settle.

Such memory of the man comes to be contrasted with the memory of the woman. Eleanor perceives the past as, “one’s happiness, one’s reality” and for her, it is “a kiss”. She reminisces about the day she had for the first time seen red water-lilies. Coincidentally on the same day, she receives a sudden kiss on the back of her neck from an old-grey haired woman while she was sitting with other little girls, a kiss for her that symbolized, “the mother of all my kisses all my life”.

Several memories and thoughts are knit together within the narration of stream of consciousness and interestingly, they are manifested or are added as interruptive fragments of moments through the perspective of the struggles of a snail. The narrator describes it as “labour”, personifying the goals of a snail and thus, extensively narrates it as such, “whether to circumvent the arched tent of a dead leaf or to breast it”. But the movement of human beings comes to interrupt the journey of the snail, incessantly, thus, animating their unhurried and slow movement of creeping. Within the movement of the snail, as it slowly takes its decision about reaching its goal, Woolf brilliantly introduces the memories and thoughts of each group of people to produce a seamless merging of narration.

Kew Gardens — Themes

Woolf approaches the themes of love and desire and the modern world, alongside each other to produce a continuous and smooth narration. The short story embodies the theme of love and desire, especially, upon the young unnamed man and a woman named, Trissie. The narrator heightens their intense feelings by manifesting long pauses and words that echo, “toneless and monotonous voices”, suggesting the awkwardness of first love between them. But although these words are insignificant, they are given the value of expressing something and are likened to “words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning”. And moreover, the narrator shrewdly attempts to successfully place their body movements to be as expressive and to manifest their love and desire, as much as their insignificant words. Such a description of immense feelings of love makes the young man think all of their moments as unreal, as the narration gives insight into the thought of the young man as thus:

“it was real, all real, he assured himself, fingering the coin in his pocket, real to everyone except to him and to her”.

Thus, manifesting a surreal love between the young couple.

From these “wordless voices” that pervaded the gardens of Kew, Woolf sharply and seamlessly shifts the narration to the murmuring and buzzing voices in the modern world. The sudden aimless and strolling movements that echoed memories and freshness are overcome with the “motor omnibuses” changing their wheels and gears and the murmurings of the city that is compared to “a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another”.

Kew Gardens — Title of the Story

Woolf’s title of the short story dominates the narration as the setting of the background of Kew Gardens is eponymous. The short story reflects on the vivid narration of memories that fills the botanical garden of Kew Gardens in London.

Kew Gardens — Literary Devices

Woolf employs the device of symbolism and imagism the most. The short story itself can be seen as an impressionistic painting of memories taking place in Kew Gardens. The author splendidly evokes the newly blossomed love between the young couple with such symbolism that enriches the description of their love and desire with images. The narration goes as such:

“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”.

The short story manifests the ample use of metaphors as well. For instance, the narration compares the aimless and brooding strolls in the summer to that of the irregular movements of the butterflies. Moreover, the unhurried and lazy atmosphere of summer in July is elevated even more, with a sense of the randomness of thoughts embodied within the minds of the group of people. Even more, this is emphasized using the technique of stream of consciousness that Woolf abundantly uses in the short story.

The brilliance of the writer emerges at the beginning of the short story as she describes the vivid colors of the petals of red, blue, and yellow. These colors are manifested to float and hover above the ground as it slowly and rhythmically bestows their shades on the brown earth. From this point of view, Woolf smoothly and seamlessly introduces the snail which becomes significant to the perspective of narration within the short story. The seamless merging of “an inch of the brown earth” to that of the “shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins” comes to be manifested beautifully in the narration. The confusion of the colors or lights of the red, blue, and yellow petals falling over either, “upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble” or “falling into a raindrop” becomes confirmed or becomes suggested in the description of the brown, circular veins of the shell as the narration already evoked the brown earth being tinted with the colors of the petals.




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