Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” (VWR 160-167) is a short work of fiction that raises harrowing questions about time, space, and how the vast expanses of both (in terms of life) are pock marked by trivialities, beginning with the threads that link back to Woolf’s works we have read thus far in our course (“A Sketch of the Past” and “The Mark on the Wall”). In “Kew Gardens” we see distinct parallels among the works: time (real, linear, memory, non-linear); Woolf’s incorporation of the snail; interpersonal relationships; being somewhere physically that places one somewhere else mentally. This is list by no means exhaustive, I’m sure; however, they are simply what I’ve initially noticed.
In addition, the garden and its inhabitants also arises as a standing motif. In this, I see Woolf playing with the names of flowers, particularly in “Kew Gardens.” For example, in the first sentence, Woolf writes, “From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks…,” with a play on the word “rose” as a verb (also the name of a flower) (VW, VWR 161). Similarly, as Simon ruminates upon his memory (dredged up from his physically being in the garden), he recalls his love, Lily, the play here, of course, being on Lily’s name, a proper noun for both woman and flower (VW, VWR 162).
As Simon and his wife Eleanor exchange memories triggered by being at Kew Gardens, there occurs a passage in which Eleanor’s retort encapsulates (and perhaps foreshadows the remainder of our glimpses of other people in the story) time, the living, the lived, and the will be living: “’Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees,…one’s happiness, one’s reality?’” (VW, VWR 162). I believe that this particular passage is key to our understanding the way in which Woolf is attempting to explain/articulate how we see time through her use of a fictional narrative. For Eleanor, looking upon younger men and women reminds her of her past (a past she seems to think Simon, or anyone, could relate to). To look upon these “ghosts” is to look upon oneself as one once existed. Here, Woolf presents time and memory as intertwined; when we see someone else doing something we once then, we are helplessly drawn back into our own pasts.
The next set of people in the story present us with a similar sense of time and memory, although shown specifically through the dialogue of the old man who waxes on about his past in such a way that we’re left to believe he is quite senile. Once the old man sees a woman’s dark dress, he seems to be mentally transported to the era of the Great War, and is perhaps reminded of widows—“Women in black”—the catalyst here, of course, being the dark color of the woman’s dress (VW, VWR 164). As the dress seemingly signifies war for the old man, returning him to his past, we are possibly being given a clue by Woolf of such an occurrence: “Here [the old man] seemed to have caught sight of a woman’s dress in the distance, which in the shade looked a purple black” (VW, VWR 164). After Eleanor’s “ghosts,” and hearing the old man speak of “spirits,” it is difficult not to equate the word “shade” with the realm of the supernatural or, in this instance, the otherworldly (operating on a plane existing outside of our current stretch of time—here, memories/past).
Aside from the other two couples featured in the story, Woolf also includes animal life. In the passage on 165, Woolf writes of the snail, “The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tips of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it” (VW, VWR 165). As I mentioned in our last class meeting, I feel particularly drawn to this passage, for I see it as another way to Woolf to describe/articulate time, and I want to use this blog entry to further develop this idea.
While the snail is not human, Woolf gives him the human quality of being able to have doubt and reasoning skills. I think this is important because perhaps she is trying to convey a larger message here, one that would equate the snail’s dilemma with the dead leaf to our dilemma in understanding time. Time, much like the dead leaf, seems extremely frail; yet, we seem to always be trying to test whether or not its frailty can withstand our weight. To think about time is an enormous and laborious task—it is draining and full of such an effort that we cannot think about its full scope for very long without beginning to feel doubt and uncertainty. Therefore, although we may ponder about its massive scope, we eventually decide (or rather succumb) to simply lying beneath its over-arching structure. Simply put, there is nothing more we can do (much like the snail in this passage). And yet, it seems that once we realize this, along comes something (“He had just inserted his head in the opening…when two people came past outside on the turf” (VW, VWR 165)) that causes us to momentarily forget our realization, so that later, we will once again ponder time, and perhaps we will, too, send out our feelers to test its durability.