Throughout her fiction, Woolf attempted to render some aspect of the elusive reality she felt had been missing from much of the literature of the British Isles, even including those of her contemporaries (E. M Forster and the early James Joyce) whose work she admired. In a passage from her well-known essay "The Common Reader" (1925), she questioned the conventional methods of British fiction, asking, "Is life like this? Must the novel be like this?" Life, she suggested, might be seen as "a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end." In "Kew Gardens," she attempted to convey some sense of this reality by placing the natural world in a position of complementary prominence to the human realm, thereby stressing the importance of the myriad phenomena of the cosmos as a perpetual source of stimuli for human thought and feeling. Then, in almost glancing at the people who passed through the gardens, she tried to show how each couple's reality was distinct and separate from the others and just as valid a measure of existence. Her ultimate, if unstated (and not entirely clear, even to herself) purpose, was to develop a more truthful picture of the present in order to have some basis for imagining a future that would retain the qualities of English life she approved of, while incorporating her vision of a society that was not restricted by the elements of the Victorian world she disdained.
"Kew Gardens" is set during World War I, a traumatic event for Woolf especially, whose novels are rife with passages recording its grim cost in lives and psychic stability. The elderly man in the second vignette speaks of "the spirits of the dead" and comments on "Women! Widows! Women in black"— as a major feature of the landscape. Against the ominous and unsettling background of mass destruction, Woolf exuberantly describes the garden flowering in high summer, with images of fertility, vivid color, and blazing light to combat the darkness of war, and by implication, nature resisting the deathly touch of the men ruling the affairs of state. At the center of the story, a snail moves with inexorable slowness, but as opposed to the "men and women [who] straggled past," the snail's progress is seemingly purposeful, "It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it." Woolf is suggesting that the frenzied, frantic motions of men and nations are often pointless and lethal; the often hidden patterns of nature much slower but in line with a mysterious cosmic order difficult to discern.
The fragmentary, random appearance of the four sets of people who are "strolling carelessly" through the gardens removes them from the corridors of power where purposeful men act with dispatch and design. Each group, however, exhibits an intensity of existence which Woolf feels is also a crucial component of reality. Eleanor and Simon walking with their children are representative of a settled, bourgeois family, the kind of proper menage that was extolled by image makers as a paragon of Victorian virtue but which Woolf deftly points out relied as much on chance and probability for its formation as any social design. The elder man in the next pair, the one who speaks, seems to be ranting and rambling on the edge of sanity. Woolf's intention here is to show something of the destabilizing, disorienting effect of war and change in the modern world, but also to illustrate an oddly appealing aspect of eccentricity— the idiosyncrasies of English character which Imperial literature tended to ignore but which have always been at the heart of life in Great Britain.
Following closely enough to wonder if the man's gestures "were merely eccentric or genuinely mad," are two women engaged in a "very complicated dialogue" which seems to make no sense to the outside world but which is actually an indication of private idiom and dialect developed through generations of discourse in a closed community. Here, Woolf is suggesting the...
(The entire section is 1,500 words.)