What is the meaning of "Kew Gardens" by Virginia Woolf?

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accessteacher's profile pic

accessteacher | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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One way of viewing this perplexing short story is to take its final paragraph as the starting point and to see the tale as a reflection on modern society and the way that the world of the machine and industry dominates, creating an existence where individuals (such as the ones we see in this story) are isolated and alienated from each other. Note how the story ends:

But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turnin their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flshed their colours into the air.

The simile describing industrial society as a "vast nest of Chinese boxes" presents a rather sinister view of human society that makes us think of the old man's invention to listen to the voices of dead husbands. Both present Modernism in a way that severs some kind of connection that humans have both with their natural world and with each other. Kew Gardens is, after all, a man-made environment rather than a natural phenomenon, and perhaps one way of reading this story is to see it as a reflection on the way that Modernism has produced a sense of disconnection and dislocation in mankind.

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durbanville's profile pic

durbanville | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Virginia Woolf's short story called "Kew Gardens" is set in the iconic botanical gardens of the same name. Woolf may have chosen the gardens because they are so much a part of the past, present, and the future (she would have hoped). This makes them a perfect setting for a story that reveals for all humanity's differences, some things remain the same. In its simplest form, the story reveals the different types of love and love's various stages. The gardens are the perfect setting for people of all ages and all sectors of society. They do not judge, and their beauty is not dependent on the outcome of any relationship, social standing, age, or intention. 

The gardens are reassuring for the young parents who otherwise must think of their children. The gardens allow the husband and wife a brief break from parenthood to ponder on events from many years ago. For the husband it is a wistful, if fortuitous, memory of a past love, and for his wife, a reminder of love of a different kind between a child and her mentor. 

There is love and respect by the young man for the distracted, eccentric, and forgetful old man. The young man knows him well, and he is likely his son or grandson. He allows the old man to continue his nonsensical discussions and only interferes when it is necessary. 

The two elderly busybodies, apparently best friends, pause in the garden, such is its effect. Best friends often share a deep understanding of one another which needs no explanation.

As the young couple passes through, there is a sense of innocence and of love yet unexplored. The couple is excited by the prospect of the adult pursuit of "tea with other people." 

Perhaps Woolf wrote this short story to show that despite the different conversations and different life stages of the people who passed through, everything blurs in the natural beauty of the surroundings. In reality, Woolf's views were quite outspoken, but within this story individual differences are not relevant. In the gardens, everyone can enjoy a restful, peaceful existence away from life’s pressures.

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