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The short story “Kew Gardens” was written by Virginia Woolf, an English novelist. It was initially made available to the general public in 1921 in the collection Monday or Tuesday, after which it was included in the posthumous collection A Haunted House (1944). It was first published privately in 1919. Its visual arrangement has been likened to that of a post-impressionist painting since it was originally intended to pair with images by Vanessa Bell.
About the Author
Virginia Woolf’s full name is Adeline Virginia Stephen, she was an English author who was born in London, England, on January 25, 1882 and died on March 28, 1941. Her nonlinear narrative styles had a significant impact on the genre. While she is most known for her novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), Woolf also published groundbreaking articles on creative theory, literary history, women’s literature, and power politics. She experimented with a variety of biographical writing styles, wrote short stories with a painterly style, and sent her friends and family a lifetime of wonderful letters.
The short story opens with a description of an oval-shaped flower bed in Kew Gardens’ botanical garden. A man and a woman, a married couple, are watching the red, yellow, and blue colors of various flower petals flicker before their eyes on a hot July day. The story provides brief glimpses of four groups of individuals as they walk past a flowerbed. The narrative opens with a description of the oval-shaped flower bed. In comparison to the seemingly chaotic movements of butterflies, Woolf combines the color of the flower petals that are falling to the ground with the movements of the visitors. The story is told as the man called Simon remembers his visit to the garden fifteen years earlier through his unconscious thoughts. The man recalls that incident when he pleaded with a girl named Lily to marry him but was turned down. The story abruptly jumps to the present, when Simon is shown asking his wife Eleanor if she ever thinks back to earlier times. Eleanor answers to this by recalling an incident from her youth in which she was abruptly kissed on the back of the neck by an elderly woman as she and six other young girls were sitting by the side of a lake painting red water lilies, the first of their type that she had ever seen.
The narrative shifts its focus away from this couple and towards a snail in the flower bed as it attempts to go from one stem to another. But before the snail could take another step forward, the story abruptly switches back to the movement of two men—an elderly man who shall remain nameless and a young man called William. The young man calmly listened while the elderly man talked impatiently and endlessly about a variety of strange topics, including spirits, heaven, and war. Two elderly lower middle-class women carefully follow these two men as they walk. They carefully examine the elderly man’s monologue in front of them to decide if he just seems eccentric or whether he is truly insane. However, the narrator draws the reader’s attention away from these two women by recalling their complicated and bizarre conversations just before they decide to drink tea.
Once more, the narrative returns to the snail’s journey in the flower bed as it considers every possibility to go to reach its goal, which is blocked by a tent of a dead leaf. However, the conversation was once more cut short by the entrance of a young man and woman. They exchange brief remarks as the man expresses his joy that it isn’t Friday since the people there charge sixpence for tea on that day. Although their conversations are dull, brief, and odd, just like their body language, they deeply express the strong love they have for one another. Their body actions, for example, when they press the young woman’s parasol into the soil and the man places his hand on hers, are all evidence of the odd feelings they shared. At this moment, the young man stops thinking and quickly invites the young woman, Trissie, to join him for tea. However, when the young man’s thoughts are interrupted, the young woman’s mind likewise drifts to the garden’s paths, tempting her to explore them.
The narrator now moves from one couple to the next, eventually dissolving into the buzzing and murmuring noises of the city, away from the “wordless voices” and colors of the Kew gardens.
“Kew Gardens” is not a traditional narrative. While the setting, characters, and mood of a tale are present, there is nothing that resembles a plot conventionally. There is no obvious structure, no framework to support the story’s events, and no causal chain from the pastoral beginning to the cacophonic ending. Instead, it seems as though readers are sitting on a bench nearby and turning their heads back and forth, merely observing and not participating, as a series of events are revealed to them one after another in and around a garden bed in the famous Kew Gardens (located southwest of London near Richmond).
According to the text, it appears that the events occur on a Sunday afternoon when there was no entrance fee to the gardens. It was a day when a family could stroll through the garden beds while the parents talked about their distinctive pasts and the kids chased butterflies; it was a day when an eccentric elder could be taken outside for some fresh air and sunshine so he could converse with the flowers “about the forests of Uruguay which he had visited hundreds of years ago”; it was a day when two elderly busybodies would get together for teatime gossip; and it was a day when lovers could meet and converse.
These views into people’s lives are accompanied by insightful looks towards and into the garden bed, where a snail and a “high-stepping angular green insect” move around in the particolored shade. Readers see the tapestry in the same way that one of the gossips sees the garden bed: “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.”
“Kew Gardens” is one of Woolf’s early attempts with narrative styles that she later elaborated on in her novels. Rather than a framework of causal connections, with one thing happening because of or as a result of another, events appear to occur—as Woolf characterized the specific shape in her diary—as though each opens out from another. There is a vague relationship between the events, much like if one were to run into friends haphazardly and unexpectedly on the street. “Kew Gardens” is typically seen as having a third-person, omniscient narrator who is telling the story. The fact is that the reader gets what seems to be free access to the thoughts and feelings of the characters.
Originally released as a pamphlet, “Kew Gardens” shows four couples: a married couple, two men, two women, and a young couple out on a date. Woolf compares gender binary, romantic and platonic connections, homo- and heterosexual desire, sanity and lunacy, and diverse interpretations of relationships. Woolf wants to depict her characters as voices calling out, as flowers placed for a while in a garden, by elevating the little moments of existence. To provide a realistic and thought-provoking analysis of human interactions, the novel explores relationships, gender binaries, and the intricacies of life.