What is the plot summary of "Kew Gardens" by Virginia Woolf?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There really is not much plot to speak of in "Kew Gardens." However, there is a lot of drama, little human dramas played out against a luscious landscape one hazy summer's afternoon. The epicenter of the story is a flowerbed, which Woolf describes in lush detail. This is the still point of a rapidly turning world, round which various groups of people revolve. The characters of the story are likened to butterflies, aimlessly fluttering around the flower bed, utterly absorbed in their own little worlds.

First, we are introduced to a married couple, Simon and Eleanor. Despite the passage of time, Simon cannot get Lily, a former lover who rejected his proposal of marriage, out of his mind. This immediately alerts us to the fact that all is not well with his marriage to Eleanor, a suspicion confirmed as Simon noticeably walks ahead of his wife and his children, rather than beside them. The beauty and simplicity of the natural world around them is reflected in Eleanor's childhood memories when she came to Kew Gardens to paint. The well-worn symbol of the garden as a paradise of lost innocence is suggested here,and forms a contrast to the complexity of the adult world, a world of lost loves and marital unhappiness that Simon and Eleanor now grimly inhabit.

Then we see two men, a young man and an older gentleman. The older man's movements are jerky and erratic, suggesting some sort of mental abnormality. Our initial impression is confirmed when he starts shouting random, seemingly unrelated words. Nevertheless, they are revealing in that they hint at his service in the recently concluded War. Just like Simon and Eleanor, he cannot let go. Simon is still haunted by Lily's rejection of his proposal in Kew Gardens fifteen years earlier; Eleanor yearns for the blissful moments she spent at Kew as a little girl; the older man's shattered mind harks back to the conflict that destroyed his sanity.

Still, life goes on, in the figure of two ordinary lower middle-class women. Their normal, everyday conversation introduces an element of much needed stability into this maelstrom of conflict. Their very banality is their strength. Unlike the people we have been introduced to so far, they are not irredeemably stuck in the past; the gardens do not symbolize anything of note for them; they are simply at a nice place in which to chat and have a nice sit down.

As a result, there is hope amidst the human conflict. Our sense of hope is heightened still further by a loving couple who appear toward the end of the story. In their obvious happiness, they represent the antithesis of Simon and Eleanor, providing a tantalizing glimpse of what they might have been. Their hands touch as the young lady pushes her parasol into the ground, firmly establishing a connection not just with each other, but also with the natural world around them. For the first and last time in the story, we are introduced to people with a genuine connection to the world around them, hinting at a stable happiness for their future together and acting as an example to us all.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial