The story begins by setting the garden scene: a mild, breezy, summer day in July with ”perhaps a hundred stalks” of colorful flowers, petals unfurled to meet the sunlight. The light hits not only the flowers in an “oval-shaped flower-bed” but the brown earth from which they spring and across which a small snail is slowly making its way. As human characters saunter thoughtfully or chattily through the garden and through the story, the narrator returns again and again to descriptions of the garden and the snail’s slow progression.
Men and women meander down the garden paths, zigzagging like butterflies, as the narrator hones in on particular conversations. The first group the reader meets is a husband and wife walking just ahead of their children. The husband, Simon, privately reminisces about asking a former girlfriend to marry him. As he waited for her answer, he hoped that the dragonfly buzzing around them would land on a leaf and that Lily would then say yes. The dragonfly never settled and Lily never said yes. Now, as he turns to his wife Eleanor, he wistfully remembers dragonflies and silver shoe buckles.
Simon then asks his wife if she ever thinks of the past; she replies, ‘”Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under trees?”’ She tells her husband that when she was just six years old she received ”’the mother of all my kisses all my life.'” When painting in the garden, a grey-haired old woman suddenly and quietly kissed the back of her neck. The family vanishes as the mother calls to Caroline and Hubert and the narrator tells of the snail beginning to move, his antennae quivering as he navigates a leaf that has fallen in its path.
The second set of feet walking by the flower bed belong to an elder and younger man. The younger man, William, walks steadily with an “expression of perhaps unnatural calm” as his companion talks “incessantly” and walks erratically, smiling and murmuring as if holding a conversation with himself. His speech is cryptic and sporadic, but he believes himself to be talking to “the spirits of the dead” now in “Heaven.”
The old man tells William that Heaven was “‘known to the ancients'” and with the war the spirits are restless, “‘rolling between the hills like thunder.'” William listens as the older man proposes to record and collect the voices of dead husbands by putting an electrical device at the head of widows’ beds. He then suddenly catches sight of a woman who appears to be dressed in “purple black” and exclaims “‘Women! Widows! Women in black.'” William catches his older friend, perhaps his father or patient, by the sleeve and distracts him by pointing to a flower. The old man looks confused and then proceeds to bend his ear to the flower, to listen and to begin a mysterious conversation as if the flower were a telephone. The old man then begins to speak of having visited the ‘tropical roses, nightingales” and mermaids of Uruguay, hundreds of years ago with the “most beautiful young woman in Europe.” William moves him along through the garden with increasingly “stoical patience.”
Two elderly women “of the lower middle class” curiously follow the odd old man who listens to flowers. One of the women is “stout and ponderous” and the other “rosy-cheeked and nimble.” They are fascinated by his eccentricity especially because they think the man to be of an upper ”well-to-do” class but wonder if he might indeed be mad. After scrutinizing the old man, they give each other a “queer, sly look” and continue with their conversation.
Their conversation is filled with names ”Nell, Bert, Lot, Cess, Phil” and with “he says, I says, she says, I says, I says, I says—”; the “ponderous woman” stops listening, letting the words fall over her as she stares at the flowers and rocks back and forth, hypnotized by their light and their color. Abruptly she suggests to her companion that they find a seat and have their tea.
As these two women walk away, the snail begins to traverse the leaf in his path by crawling under it. As he moves under the leaf, a fourth pair of feet come by the oval flower bed.
A young man and woman, Trissie, in the “season” just before “the prime of their youth” stand in front of the flower bed, each with a hand on Trissie’s parasol, pushing it into the earth. Their conversation is commonplace—about the price of admission to the garden on Fridays—and filled with long pauses and spoken with monotonous voices. Despite this seeming simplicity, each seems to look with wonder at the ordinary objects around them. The parasol, the coin in the young man’s pocket with which he will pay for their tea, and the flowers around seem to mean something inexplicably important. The young couple stands with eager anticipation and speaks “words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning.” Suddenly, the young man declares to Trissie that it is time they had their tea and he steers her onward as she “turns her head this way and that” thinking about “orchids and cranes among wild flowers” and wondering what is down each garden path.
The story ends with a final reflection on the garden in which people, like butterflies and flowers, color the vast, orchestral scene. Bodies of people and plants dissolve into a misty atmosphere, punctuated by brilliant flashes of light out of which arise “Voices, yes, voices, wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise.” But the final note of the story places this garden scene in an ominous context of droning city life, of immense industry, and of world war outside the garden—”a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another.”
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.