Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf
In Kew Gardens by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of passion, desire, love, regret, paralysis, letting go, uncertainty, connection and humanity. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator. However there are sections that have the feel of stream of consciousness and after reading the story the reader realises just how important the setting of the story is. The story is set in its entirety in the Royal Botanic Gardens situated in London. Though this may seem insignificant it is important as by using a public setting, Woolf also manages to introduce characters into the story from all types (or walks) of life. Firstly we are introduced to Simon who as he is walking through the gardens recalls Lily’s rejection of his marriage proposal some fifteen years earlier. Despite the passing of time (and his subsequent marriage to Eleanor) Simon is still unable to let go of Lilly and if anything the passion that he felt for her so many years ago remains. Which may lead some critics to suggest that Simon, being unable to let go of the memory of Lily’s rejection of him, remains in many ways paralysed or unsatisfied with his life with Eleanor. Something that is more noticeable by the fact that rather than walking beside Eleanor, Simon walks ahead of her which may symbolically suggest that he feels disconnected from not only Eleanor but his children too. Again possibly driven by the regret he feels over his failed marriage proposal to Lily. Eleanor’s memory of being in Kew Gardens as a child painting may also be significant as there is a sense that she longs for the simplicity that comes with life when an individual is a child. If anything she may be aware that in reality Simon may not necessarily be in love with her.
The second group (the two men) that Woolf introduces into the story also appear to be unable to let go. Particularly the older man. Many critics suggest that by introducing the line ‘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 is making a direct reference to World War One and by using the word ‘thunder’ she is attempting to highlight how different warfare was in WWI compared to previous wars, with thunder being most likely a reference to the constant shelling that occurred during WWI. Similarly by introducing the line (by the old man) – Women! Widows! Women in black – Woolf may be again highlighting the loss of life that occurred during WWI with many wives and mothers becoming widows and burying their husbands or sons while dressed in black (mourning). The old man’s use of the words isolate and insulate may also be symbolically important as they have two very different meanings. To isolate something is to keep it distant from something while insulate would mean to wrap or protect something. In many ways the old man’s use of isolate and insulate mirrors what happens during a war. In whereby those in authority (Government or army) attempt to keep their citizens distant from harm (isolate) while at the same time trying to protect them from the atrocities that come with war (insulate).
By also introducing the two women into the story, most likely lower middle class, Woolf may be highlighting that regardless of the circumstances an individual might find themselves in life continues on. Something that is noticeable as the two women are walking through the gardens and appear to be making reference to a shopping list ‘Sugar, flour, kippers, greens.’ If anything Woolf may have introduced both women into the story to emphasis to the reader that regardless of what happens an individual in life – humanity will continue. That life in essence will continue as it always does despite the pain that an individual (old man and Simon) may feel or the circumstances that a person might find themselves in (Eleanor possibly unloved by Simon). People will still perform their routine tasks, like shopping and thinking about other people in their lives, both past and present. It is also possible that by introducing the two women into the story that Woolf is also highlighting the strength of women to overcome difficulties or to at least accept life on life’s terms. Something neither Simon nor the old man appear to be able to do.
The ending of the story is also interesting as in many ways by introducing the young couple at the end Woolf may be attempting to highlight how different life may have been for Simon should Lily have said yes to his marriage proposal. It may also be significant that it is in an act of togetherness that the young couple press the end of the parasol ‘deep into the soft earth.’ This line may be important as there is a sense of not only togetherness between the young couple but their action of both pushing the parasol into the earth suggests a connection between the couple. Something that is more noticeable when we also realise that the couple are touching each other’s hand as they push the parasol into the ground. If anything they are as one. Unlike Simon who (may possibly) remain uncertain about his love for Eleanor. The young couple are very much in love or connected with one another (symbolically noticeable by the fact that their hands touch). By also using the word ‘real’ on five occasions to describe the two-shillings in the young man’s pocket Woolf may be further suggesting that the love that both the young man and Trissie have for each other is very real (or solid) and has a future. If anything there is an excitement that exists in the young couple’s lives which is totally different to any feeling that any of the other characters may feel when it comes to living their lives.