Point of View and Narration
The narrator is an omniscient third person. The narrator sets the scene and is able to delve into each character’s private thoughts. The true narrative insight appears not so much in what is said or illustrated but in the demonstrated inadequacy of the characters’ conversations.
The narrator illustrates the garden scene in a fashion that deflects emphasis from an individual person or group of persons. People appear in a series that is implicitly continuous and repetitive. The snail offers the only consistent character and even “his” progress is not only mundane, but it is not narrated to completion; the story ends with the snail in the act of tentative progression. The descriptions of the garden are omniscient about the visual impression of the garden—the play of light, the shape, angle, and placement of garden objects, and the diffusion of color. As a result of these narrative emphases, the story deflects attention from a human-centered narrative to a more detached suggestion of how humans fit in a larger formal structure.
The story takes place in Kew Gardens, the Royal Botanical Gardens near London. Presumably, it unfolds near the time Woolf wrote the story in 1917. The gardens provide a public space that people of different classes share, even if they do not directly associate. Similarly, the practice of having tea denotes a continuity in these Londoners.
Symbol and Images
Kew Gardens is the story’s title and central image. The narrative development of Kew Gardens overrides any specific characterization and challenges what readers normally expect in a story. While one normally thinks of a garden as providing a backdrop to the plot of human drama, be it comedy or tragedy, here the garden overwhelms any singular human persona.
The image of the garden, then, operates as a symbol on at least two different levels. First, the garden implies the idea of nature in which humans are at harmony with organic growth processes. The biblical garden of Eden is perhaps the most forceful manifestation of this harmony. To people living in the modern era of machinery and urbanity, is the idea of nature just another invention? By rendering images of the garden with emphasis on geometry, light, and perspective, the story uses the garden as an ironic symbol of humanity’s distance from nature and the ensuing manufacture of natural spaces.
This ironic “garden” echoes the ironic companionship in the story. Each set of those promenading Kew Gardens seems to offer a deceptive picture of understanding and solidarity. The narrative perspective lights on each pair to demonstrate the ways in which they are actually walking the grounds quite alone.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.