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Kew Gardens Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In accordance with her theories of fiction, Woolf's methods of characterization in "Kew Gardens" were a departure from almost everything that had been written in the British Isles since the emergence of the novel. In "The Common Reader" she had proclaimed "at this moment the form of fiction most in vogue more often misses than secures the thing we seek," and in her efforts to remedy the situation, she reconceived the entire concept of fictive character so that the garden became a kind of "character" at least of equal importance to the humans who wandered through it. Then, the people themselves are presented with a minimum of detail so that one distinct feature stands out, placing them close to types but edging a bit beyond through the almost quirky particularity of a distinctive trait. The essential difference between the garden and its human visitors is that the garden is presented in vivid physical terms while the people are almost entirely characterized by the pattern of their thought.

In the first sentence of the story, Woolf writes about leaves that are "heart shaped or tongue shaped," then mentions the "throat" of the petals and "the flesh" of a leaf, establishing the human aspects of the garden's features. When people are mentioned for the first time in the second paragraph, their motion is likened to "butterflies who crossed the turf in zigzag flights." Once the strict separation between the natural realm and human life has been eroded, Woolf deals with the groups of people by focusing on the individual qualities of their minds. The husband and wife in the family that appears first are delineated by their reflective musing on key moments in their past which have shaped their current situation. The husband continues the human/garden linkage by recalling a time when he thought the flight of a dragonfly would predict the course of a love affair. The wife remembers how a gesture of affection opened her soul to the wonders of love which have led her to the shared moment with her husband. The older man in the second group is wavering on the border of rational thinking and vague rambling that conflates the historical past, the imagined past, and the chaos of the present. He seems to be living almost entirely in his mind, oblivious to the immediate sensations of the present. The women who pass next are engaged in a vigorous dialogue about the daily life of a tight community. One of them begins to drift away from the babble of names and objects to momentarily merge with the flowers in another connection with the natural world, but then responds to the pressures of habit and suggests "that they should find a seat and have their tea." The lure of the garden is sufficient to temporarily deflect her very predictable thoughts but familiar things compel a return to the customary. The last pair is the most distinctive and Woolf introduces them with the longest patch of dialogue in the story, then directs the mood of their conversation by calling their voices "toneless and monotonous," not to denigrate their concerns but to show how they are primarily preoccupied with the depth of thought behind their almost cryptic utterances. In the most intense passage in the story, she probes their psyches:

. . . 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 . . .

As the last couple passes from the scene and the garden itself again takes precedence, the woman asks, "Wherever does one have one's tea?" with what Woolf calls "the oddest thrill of excitement in her voice," indicating just how much she has been moved by the philosophical speculation that she has experienced but been unable to effectively articulate. The purposefully incomplete...

(The entire section is 1,562 words.)