Dear Mrs. Woolf,
I know that this letter will never manage to find a way into your hands but I hope in some way that it finds its way into the spirit of you that has been created through the beautiful words that you shared with the world during your brief fifty nine years.
For the last ten weeks, I have been meditating over a short story of yours, Kew Gardens, and I have to admit that I started having little conversations with you as I went over and over the lines of text. I don’t often find myself feeling like I am speaking with an author when I read their work. I normally see the author as being outside of the room, maybe next door, but never right there in my office with me. After two and a half months with Kew Gardens, I started to feel like I was getting to know a part of you that you set aside just for me.
I know, I know, you died forty years before I was born, and yes, it is a bit of magical thinking on my part to believe that something could have been written by a long dead woman who lived so far away in space and time just for me, but I still feel like a connection was left there in Kew Gardens that was meant for me to find and wrestle with, try and make sense of, and then share with the world.
The first time I read Kew Gardens, I decided that it was about people, not that snail, not how humanity relates with that snail, but how people interact with time. I wrote a short paper that touched on the subject but did not explore it fully, just hinted at the notion. I turned the paper in and only thought of it briefly over the next two years. Then I was asked to write a longer paper and I was told that I could expand on an existing, older, piece that I had written in a previous class. Only one paper ever entered my mind as a possibility to write about, my short paper on Kew Gardens that never managed to explore those hidden themes that I knew existed in the story.
Well the paper is finished. I turned it in and I dread the grade I will receive on it. I turned it in knowing that I would like to spend another ten weeks on it without the distractions of multiple classes, graduation, the stress of hunting for graduate programs, thinking about studying for my graduate exams. The paper has been given to my professor and in it I did my best to explain how you seemed to be exploring character, as you do in a lot of your works, but rather than exploring a single character, you were exploring the character of humanity and you did this by briefly exploring a cast of eight people all walking by a snail in a small flower bed in Kew Gardens. I tried to explain that humanity was not the only theme explored in the work, that you also revealed how a person’s engagement with society as a whole changes as they age and even pointed out that there is a bit of commentary on the difference of experience between men and women in your society. All in all, I attempted to show that this work is one of the better explorations of character that you ever undertook and I feel like I have a better understanding of the shifting perspective on life that we have as we age and move through the machine that is society.
I would give anything to have you here in the room with me now, Mrs. Woolf, alive and well, able to talk with me about my ideas regarding Kew Gardens. I want to know if I am wildly off the mark, that everyone else has it right, the story is about the snail and how it represents the connection between man and nature. I would give anything for you to be here so we could talk about your notions of character development, about how interiority is the key to really making a character come alive, dance on the page, and invite us to truly engage. I would love to have you here and ask you about the impact war had on the culture of your time and whether it is similar to the impact that is felt now when our great nations fight with others. I would be delighted to sit knee to knee at the small table in my dining room and read my prose to you, hear what you think, talk with you about the characters that I chase through the pages of my stories and pick your mind on how better to make them feel as though they are breathing on the page.
Lastly, Mrs. Woolf, I want to thank you for the words that you shared with the world. Thank you for the conversations I have already had with them and thank you for the conversations I will have with them in the future.
Your humble servant,
That is the whole…the revelation of some order…some real thing behind appearances…It is only by putting into words that I make it whole. (Woolf, Moments of Being 71-72)
Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged: life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.
(Woolf, Modern Fiction)
Since the publication of Virginia Woolf’s short story, “Kew Gardens”, critics have attempted to step in and define the allegorical aim of the piece. E.M. Forster, who was a contemporary of Woolf said “that there was no allegorical sense, no moral, no philosophy and no form in it” (Oakland 264). Later critics, such as Mathilde La Cassagnère in her article “Heavy Nothings in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’”, center their reading around the snail, or “the forgotten shell” (La Cassagnère 16), in which the snail becomes a stand-in for “the poet” or man’s relationship with nature. This reading of “Kew Gardens” as an exploration of the relationship between man and nature or the artist has become a popular one which is explored at length by many critics who add their own variations to the reading such as Edward Bishop’s “Pursuing ‘It’ Through ‘Kew Gardens’” and Frank Stevenson’s “Enclosing the Whole: Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’ as Autopoietic Narrative”. I do not mean to imply that Mathilde La Cassagnère is the architect of this line of thought regarding “Kew Gardens”, but her writing does well to capture the general spirit of many current thinkers on the subject. This paper will attempt to provide another possible interpretation of the allegorical objective. In “Kew Gardens”, the cast of characters are the center of the narrative. More importantly, these characters who form the focal point for the narrative, all show their particular relationship with age through their unique perspectives of time, past or future, in a current moment in front of the snail in his flower bed. It is time and how people interact with it, regardless of class that provides another possible unified view with which to interpret this story. The complex machine of life or society is not something that can be boiled down and represented in something so small or simple as the snail alone.
The pursuit of character is ultimately important to Woolf as she illustrates in her essay, “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown” when she writes, “When I asked myself…what demon whispered in my ear and urged me to my doom, a little figure rose before me–the figure of a man, or a woman, who said, ‘My name is Brown. Catch me if you can’” (Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown). It is the relationship with her characters that drives much of what Woolf strives for in her writing, and in “Kew Gardens”, she is experimenting with new approaches to storytelling (La Cassagnère 15). It is in this experiment that we see characters being presented that do not fulfill as deep of an individual character complexity as is customary with Woolf’s other character driven works. A study of Woolf’s other character driven pieces, such as “Mrs. Dalloway”, will reveal that she is capable of moving a story through character rather than plot. It is reasonable to assume that “Kew Gardens” falls within this classification of character driven rather than plot driven due to the focus being primarily upon the characters, their actions, and their inner workings. Outside of brief acts of character development, there is little or no plot to speak of in “Kew Gardens”. The real experiment in the writing of “Kew Gardens” appears in how the narrative is character driven, but no one character is given enough space on the page to emerge as a fully complex entity but if the characters are viewed as a whole, as a group or society, they appear to represent one full character traveling across the arc of a lifetime. In “Kew Gardens”, the character challenging Woolf to catch her if she can is not an individual, rather it is the character of humanity, or the combination of the experiences of all the characters in the work to represent humanity, that is calling to her.
Perhaps it is here that a Marxist lens will bring some clarity to the notion of the individuals not being the focus but that a broader community at large is the character that becomes the more complete entity through individual additions to it. In most Marxist readings, close attention is paid to the “producing and distribution of material goods” (Abrams 203). Also, attention to how different classes hold different positions or roles within a society are explored, but as Bertell Ollman explains in his article “Marx’s Use of ‘Class,’” getting bogged down in the more granular notion of class “undermines the effort to grasp the larger social movement” which is often represented as a machine in which each individual represents a very small cog within the greater workings of society (Ollman). In “Kew Gardens”, each character is represented in some way as a cog in the greater societal machine. Instead of exploring how their class places them within that machine, Woolf shows the characters as passing through time within the confines of early twentieth century London. By looking at the different groups, which represent distinct points in a person’s age as they move through the machine (young, middle aged, late middle aged, and elderly), Woolf illustrates how class not only dictates a person’s experience of a society (or the life it provides a person), but the age of a person also dictates their ability to engage within the society. Due to Woolf’s minimal characterization of the individuals passing the snail’s flower bed, the transition to viewing them as pieces to a larger machine, or more simply a single body, becomes necessary to develop a more complete picture. The image of a person made up of universal experience, gender, and class is a wonderfully vibrant character to study and observe how moving through time in a particular culture changes the way in which the individual engages with a society that is far greater than any one piece that is included in its workings.
To show this commonality in time, the oval flower bed is used as the metaphorical expanse of a life time. The snail, who provides the point of view for the reader, represents the small fleeting moment of the present. The snail, as the present, is always moving, seeking to find the path to follow to traverse the oval flower bed; the course of a life from beginning to end. The snail is a fitting representation of the present moment because it is small enough that none of the characters pause long enough to pay it any attention, and because of its size, the expanse of the moments in which the characters pass are extraordinarily brief. Further, like the passage of time, the snail is unmoved by the events of the characters passing it, it simply progresses. The small moments in an individual’s life will ultimately have little to no effect on the overall course of time.
As mentioned before, many readings of “Kew Gardens” assume that the snail represents a comparison between the common experience of life between nature and humankind. As the snail receives the least amount of time being described in the work and few clear signals are made to point the reader to view the snail as being described in similar terms to the people passing by, it is more reasonable to assume that Woolf has a different aim in “Kew Gardens”. In her biographical piece, Orlando, Woolf writes this about time:
“But Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect upon the mind of man. The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation” (Orlando 2.36).
It is possible that “Kew Gardens” serves as this investigation of time. Within “Kew Gardens”, the passage of time is presented as being a thing that is experienced by all, a communal experience, but the perception is different based on the position the individual finds themselves occupying over the course of a life. It is in “Kew Gardens” that Woolf begins presenting her notions of what time is and how people relate to it. The snail is not a creature meant to represent a communal relationship with nature but is instead a representation of the clock ticking away, traveling its course blind to the things happening above it, only concerned with continuing its path heedless of the actions of the people passing by from moment to moment.
Mathilde La Cassagnère, in “Heavy Nothings in Virginia Woolf’s ‘Kew Gardens’”, captures the notion that Woolf is trying to illustrate that life is not something that can be easily boiled down and represented in one small thing, such as a snail, when she quotes The Common Reader. “Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small [ … ], what we can neither touch nor see” (La Cassagnère 1). It is this notion of largeness that is explored in “Kew Gardens” as the reader is given the perspective of the snail as these eight characters pass the flower bed.The snail representing the present moment is possible because Woolf makes every effort to ensure that the reader views the snail as occupying a detached space from the characters passing by. By making the snail not human, it is clear that it should not be viewed as being similar to the humans passing by the flower bed. In fact, the only moment in which the human characters are shown to directly perceive the flower bed is when Woolf writes, “Then the breeze stirred rather more briskly overhead and the colour was flashed into the air above, into the eyes of the men and women who walk in Kew Gardens in July” (Kew Gardens 2). This almost atmospheric presentation of how the passers by perceive the garden serves to illustrate that the flower bed, the length of a life, is only visible in an abstract sort of way to the characters and not something that many stop to dwell on, let alone slow down and look closely enough to notice the snail (be mindful of the present moment) as they rush along from one end of life to the other.
By considering the couples as fragments of a larger societal structure, another notion of Marx’s appears: alienation. Rather than illustrating alienation from an individual’s labor, Woolf provides a glimpse into the alienation an individual experiences due to his or her position within society as a result of the advantage or disadvantage an individual experiences due to their age. To find an example of this alienation of the self due to age, examples can be found in the couples representing the extremes of the passage of time: the young couple, and the elderly man and his companion. In the case of the elderly man, when Woolf writes, “He was talking about spirits-the spirits of the dead, who according to him, were even now telling him all sorts of odd things about their experiences in Heaven” (Woolf 4), the old man presents himself as being a person alienated from the present. To relate and interact with the current moment, he must associate with those that have died and call on their council. Hauntingly, the elderly man does relate with the current moment when he explains to his younger companion, “Heaven was known to the ancients as Thessaly, William, and now, with this war, the spirit matter is rolling between the hills like thunder” (Woolf 4). This relation to the current moment, in a way, appears to be an admission that he no longer has a place in this world, that he belongs with the dead which the war is creating a great deal of. This alienation from the present is stark and couples well with a similar feeling experienced by the young couple who find themselves at the other end of the course of life. Also, this alienation from the rest of humanity and feeling a common relationship with the dead further points to the notion that “Kew Gardens“ is illustrating the process of alienation that takes place in the common experience of the passage of time. The further a person is from a place of agency, or at least a sense of agency, in the participation in the current moment and relevancy within that time, the more alienated the person will find themselves.
In the case of the young couple, a different sort of alienation from the labor of living, taking part in the processes prescribed by society, is presented. The labor of living within the normative ideas of culture are presented as something that must be learned rather than being intuitive. This can be seen when Woolf writes from the young man’s perspective. “…he pulled the parasol out of the earth with a jerk and was impatient to find the place where one had tea with other people, like other people” (Woolf 8). This impatience is telling. There is an anxiety associated with not yet knowing how to behave within normal parameters but knowing enough to know that you are ignorant of the rules or methods by which life is conducted. The young man who is showing a rare moment of agency in the work is actively seeking the way in which he can become a functional part of the machine. He is aware of his alienation from the rest of the members of productive society and is seeking instruction in taking part.
It is important that Woolf does not present this younger end of the course of life in an oversimplified fashion. The boy is not the only one experiencing the anxiety of alienation, the young woman with him is also having a similar, yet different, experience. Woolf reveals this difference when she writes, “wherever does one have one’s tea?” she asked with the oddest thrill of excitement in her voice, looking vaguely round and letting herself be drawn on down the grass path, trailing her parasol, turning her head this way and that way, forgetting her tea, wishing to go down there and then down there, remembering orchids and cranes among wild flowers, a Chinese pagoda and a crimson crested bird; but he bore her on” (Woolf 8). In the case of this young woman, Woolf is revealing the tendency for certain members to be drawn along regardless of their will or desires. The young girl in “Kew Gardens“ is excited to be finally welcomed into the normative world of adult life and experience, the societal machine, but she is finding herself (whether she is conscious of the fact or not) drawn along by the boy, forced to experience the things that he is willing to take her to. He holds the only device for taking part in the adult society, money, and thus he is in control of the experience, or course, that they will follow. Theoretically this can be seen as a representation of the standard marital arrangement in the time and represent the course by which a woman would be bore through the course of life; lead along being held by the hand of a husband that would be in control of the only asset that allowed a person any agency or ability to exert individual desires in the capitalist world they found themselves entering into. This image mirrors the one in the beginning when the husband is presented as walking directly in front of the wife, leading the way.
Time, regardless of the people passing through it, will find its way, much like the machine of society which proceeds along its prescribed course regardless of the individual actions, notions, or ideals of those that play individual roles. This is illustrated when Woolf writes, “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…” (Woolf 6). In this moment, six people have walked by the snail and two more are about to arrive. None of the things that the pairs say or do have any measurable effect on the decision or course of the snail. It is as though the oval garden and the snail within it operate in a vacuum disassociated with the decisions and actions of the people outside. The snail is much like a metronome. It will proceed counting out the beats regardless of the decisions made by the musician and ultimately, regardless of the tune played, the song will start and end and the metronome will continue ticking.
Emily Hinnov, while discussing Virginia Woolf’s story, The Waves, in her article, “To Give the Moment Whole: The Nature of Time and Cosmic (Comm)unity in Virginia Woolf ’s ‘The Waves,’” speaks well about the overarching connections created between characters in Woolf’s works and the world around them when she states that “Woolf focuses…on the cosmic pattern that transcends distinctions between the past, present, and future and advocates a larger, more communal awareness of our connection with others and the…world that envelops us all” (Hinnov 214). While Hinnov does not go so far as to divorce Woolf from the practice of writing about nature and its commonality with humankind, she does point to the idea that Woolf is writing to what ties humans to each other and in the case of “Kew Gardens“, the tie that bonds them is time and their relationship to it. This notion of presenting cosmic connections is well achieved in “Kew Gardens” where the snail can be shown to illustrate the current, fleeting moment, the oval flower bed represents the course of a single life, and Kew Gardens itself represents the whole of history in which all of the characters find themselves moving through. This stepping back and viewing the work as a study in the relationship of time and a character’s position in that space allows the freedom to separate the snail from the limitation of being an abstract connection to nature and instead allows the creature to be a stand in for the living, small, always moving, present moment.
When the notion of the snail representing a communal figure between humankind and nature is set aside, the snail’s relationship with time becomes more clear. The snail represents the only character that is purely in the present. The moment at hand is what concerns the snail and the obstacles that are immediately before it. Some of this immediacy is created through the scale of the environment the snail is moving through. The oval flower bed represents only a very small part of Kew Garden just as the current moment that the snail finds itself within represents a small part of a life in whole, and the current moment is a thing that is fleeting and passes by before it can be fully understood.
It is when the reader is given the advantage of a bird’s eye view of the situation that the strings of nows (the brief moments each pair of characters are near the snail) that are presented in “Kew Gardens” begin to appear ordered. All of the characters exist in the current moment, but due to their relationship with time (their particular vantage points) they all look forward, back, or a combination of the two and never fully to the moment at hand. Think of the married couple. They represent a point of view that evenly straddles the current moment as they look back and forward in time in equal measure. They have a good deal of prior experience but a great deal of time to look forward to as well. They are perhaps the closest pair to the current moment, or their most advantaged stage in life, yet they are not fully engaged with the moment they occupy, instead they look to what has happened and where they are to be next. This using the married couple to represent the closest pair to the current moment works due to their position in life. They are at the peak of their engagement with society. They are old enough to know how to engage, but not old enough that they are beginning to lose attachment with the productive society, to lose engagement with what is happening currently and only being able to relate to society by looking backward at times past like the elderly man who is stuck in distant memories and has more in common with the dead than the living.
The husband, when he thinks of “Lilly, the woman (he) might have married,” (Kew Gardens 2) is thinking about how the future would be different if he had managed to win the heart of a past love. In the case of the wife, in a brief possible revelation of her being attracted to women or at least her sexuality being born out of an interaction with a woman, we see her looking back to the moment of receiving her first kiss from the old woman and how that shaped events going forward (Kew Gardens 2). Again, the feel of this exchange gives a sense of the pair looking back at formative moments and then silently looking forward at the path before them and how it has been shaped by the things that were rather than the things that could have been.
Perhaps to provide a sense of the transition from the life of the married couple to that of the elderly man, Woolf presents the two older women. They are not as old as the elderly man, but they are older than the married couple. Through their position in the course of life, Woolf shows that there is a moment in which the individual becomes anxious or at least aware of their position as they begin approaching the end. The older women are shown judging the elderly man, in fact, they are fascinated by him and watch uncertain if his erratic behavior is due to his being eccentric or mad. Because the women are paired with members of their own peer group, unlike the elderly man who is attended to by a younger man whose job, it seems, is to keep him from engaging or interfering with the younger people moving through the park, the older women are presented as still being a part of the society at large. Perhaps this is shown when they are “energetically piecing together their very complicated dialogue” (Kew Gardens 5) which almost appears to be meaningless gibberish. Woolf seems to be showing that these women, while still technically engaged with society, are beginning to move away from being able to engage fully with the culture about them and begin slipping into their own coded speech which is understandable, but only to them. Perhaps, also, this is a revelation of a societal perception in the early twentieth century that women change in behavior and become unfocused (like the young girl who flits from thing to thing as she is bore through the park by the young man) when lacking the guiding hand of a husband (like the middle aged woman being led by her husband through the park).
Finally, the older women do not look back on their life like the elderly man or even the middle aged couple, they only look forward by studying the elderly man and deciding that they should be sitting down to tea. This further punctuates the position of the older women. They are almost like the young couple who occupy the moment between childhood and adulthood and the anxiety of not knowing enough to take part. The older women, instead, represent the moment before they become permanently alienated from society and only know that they need to keep doing what they are supposed to be doing regarding their roles in the machine, sit down and have some tea. A cadence almost appears in this arrangement: excitement of youth, comfort of middle age, anxiety of old age, and finally disassociation. Tension, release, tension, release.
By viewing “Kew Gardens“ through this lens of shared experience of time and how the passage through life further illustrates the smallness of the individual and the largeness of the society as a whole, the more it becomes apparent that “Kew Gardens”, which has been considered by some to be a vision unfocused or by others as being a story revealing the truth contained within the little things, the snail, and how it relates to the individual, is possibly about more, it is about the bigger picture and how the little things in the story are not the most interesting part of the work but instead it is the bigger picture, the machine that they work within, that becomes the complex body that Woolf is exploring. While the little snail in the oval flower bed keeps the beat moving from one end of a life to another, the people passing by paint a powerful image of a life as it moves from youth to old age and the relationship that movement in time has with a person’s position within the culture they occupy.
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