If "Kew Gardens" by Virginia Woolf falls into the category of a short story, what is the activating circumstance in it?
"Kew Gardens" is not an ordinary "story," if we can understand it as a story at all. To the extent it has a theme, or "activating circumstance," it is a desire to capture the fragmentary nature of reality. The story puts an ordinarily insignificant detail—the oval flower bed, the flowers, and the snail—in the foreground, and so suggests that the complex colors of the light reflected from the flower petals, so minutely described at the beginning of the story, or the decision the snail makes to crawl under the leaf—are as important as any of the conversations the narrator overhears passing the flower bed.
This is not to say that these conversations have no meaning. A few particular themes emerge: there is the casual insensitivity of the man who speaks to his wife about remembering an old girlfriend; the crazed utterances of a old man about "women in black," or a mysterious electrical device installed by the bed on a "neat mahogany stand"; the incomprehensible secret code of two elderly working class women; or the clipped words between the young lovers ("Wherever does one have one's tea?"). In each case, the fragments of conversation we overhear reveal the attitudes of these people towards each other and their obliviousness to the natural world around them—what they actually say is less important. These thoughts of desire, or memory, or death, are incomplete; Woolf seems to suggest that this incompleteness is in itself a kind of "finished state," in that the truest thing an artist can do is be attuned to this incompleteness.
Another way of looking at the story is to see it as a meditation on the limits of language and the story form itself to accurately depict reality. As Woolf remarks about the young couple at the end of the story,
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; but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol into the earth) what precipices aren't concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don't shine in the sun on the other side? Who knows? Who has ever seen this before?
The words whose wings are too short "for their heavy body" are like the snail; they have a snail-like perspective of the "common objects" they land on, which seem "so massive" and unknown ("Who has ever seen this before?"). The comparison underlines Woolf's desire to show the reality of the flower bed and the reality of the humans passing by as equally important and equally fragmentary. Like the shifting colors of the flowers described in the first paragraph, the language one would use to describe such things is equally ephemeral.
Virginia Woolf's "Kew Gardens" does not follow the traditional plot line of the short story with an introduction, activating circumstance, climax, and resolution; instead, it reflects Woolf's Modernist techniques of stream-of-consciousness and Impressionism/Expressionism. Amid a tableau of flora amid impressionistic colors, and unique people, each with his/her own concerns, the persistent snail emerges as the unifying force to a series of vignettes that are somewhat recurrent:
Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere.
Even the snail's progress is arrested in Wolf's narrative although he conveys the idea that Nature will endure as he determinedly decides to crawl beneath it. Thus, humans and nature are aligned in their perseverance through the allusiveness of life, its threat of destruction and meaninglessness with the threats of war and loss as they engage in reflection, memory, and fear. Just as the garden is vivid in terms of its physical array of colors, people are characterized by the various patterns of their thoughts.