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‘Kew Gardens’ by Virginia Woolf

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Write an essay on Woolf’s narrative art in ‘Kew Gardens.’ For years, Virginia Woolf is remembered for her contribution in short stories. She is one of the famous feminist and prolific writers who write in such a way that gives the impression of instantaneous linking between the inner and outer world, the past and the present and speech and silence. Kew Gardens is one of her major work. Since, a garden is a common place for common people to meet; Woolf has chosen this particular place to paint the reality, whereby she wants to convey the message that though people are with each other or in groups, still they face loneliness and alienation, which in fact are the major themes in Kew Gardens. She uses the fusion technique of stream of consciousness into the third person narrative and the past tense. There is no actual action and traditional plot in the story.

The story starts with a vivid description of the garden in a very descriptive language “OVAL-SHAPED flower-bed, red or blue or yellow petals, the summer breeze, the heart-shaped and the tongue-shaped leaves, the shell of a snail with its brown.” It creates the atmosphere of the story. Here only, the writer introduces the timeframe which is “the summer breeze, in July”. It creates the mood of the story. Further, the story is narrated through an omniscient third person point of view, who knows everything about all the characters either in their physical aspects or inner thoughts. The story develops in line with firstly the young married couple.

The man, Simon goes in flashback “fifteen years ago” to remember his first love Lily (associated to flowers) whom he mainly memorizes “her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe” and he relates his sentiments to the dragonfly “And my love, my desire, were in the dragonfly” which however did not settle “But the dragonfly went round and round.” It then develops in a dialogical interaction between the man and his wife. The wife, Eleanor, who goes in flashback “twenty years ago” to simply recall an old woman’s kiss as “the mother of all my kisses all my life” and calling the “all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees,… one’s happiness, one’s reality?” as a past event. In this first scene, Virginia Woolf uses techniques like flashback and dialogue to narrate the incidents and the effect of these images is to unite light and water, the human world with the natural, the past with the present.

The plot then develops with two men; a young, materialistic and silent and an old one who is spiritual. They form a bond of contrast in nature. The old man who was somewhat insane “bent his ear to it and seemed to answer a voice speaking from it.” Thus it gives a flower the symbolism of personification. Again the writer applies the flashback techniques when the old man says “he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful young woman in Europe.” The witty comparison is reverberated in the next section.

The two lower-class women have a complicated dialogue. They however were or appeared as crazy “the gestures were merely eccentric or genuinely mad”. The lively woman does most of the talking, to which the fat one listens at first with a dull attention. Then she loses all interest: “She stood there letting the words fall over her, swaying the top part of her body slowly backwards and forwards, looking at the flowers”.

The story goes on with a young couple who talks nothing and stands on the flower bed and “with their hands joined on her parasol as they push it into the soft soil, become one with the atmosphere of the garden, but there is an additional metaphorical unity that they achieve: ‘The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them and were to their inexperienced touch so massive…” Here Woolf is not making use language to create a reality but is commenting on the instability of both language and reality themselves.

Finally, the garden dissipates in the heat to a static structure, reminding. This passage, is completed with metaphysical images: a thrush is described as mechanical; butterflies flying one above the other become a ‘marble column’; roofs resemble umbrellas; colors and shapes become people; voices are like flames from candles. Silence is revealed to be sound, the steady roar of the city around Kew Gardens, is like a ‘vast nest of Chinese boxes’.

Virginia Woolf has a very great proficiency of English, and her ability with the use of the English language is clearly manifested in the vivid descriptions of Kew Gardens and the visitors. Kew Gardens is an episodic story based on lives of common people with a flat outer setting. The main conflict in it is that of the society and the nature. She uses an irony of the snail and human beings struggle in life.

In the oval flowerbed a snail’s shell is stained with red, blue, and yellow color for a handful of minutes because it passes beneath the flowers. The snail moves slightly in its shell, and then it labors over the loose, broken dirt. The snail seems to own a particular goal. A high-stepped inexperienced insect makes an attempt to cross its path. It moves quickly past the snail within the wrong way. The snail looks over the cliffs of dirt and deep-green hollows. Flat blades of grass are like trees. Pebbles are like grey boulders. The snail must create its means through all of this. The snail continues to be attempting to achieve its goal. It has thought of each attainable methodology of moving through the bed of flowers while not going round the dead leaf ahead of it or ascent over it. Finally it decides to crawl below it. The persistent snail emerges because the unifying force to a series of vignettes that is somewhat continual. Finally the short story ends on a reflective note.

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