The wife of Simon and the mother of two children (Caroline and Hubert), Eleanor walks through the garden chatting with her husband who tells her of his failed marriage proposal to Lily years before in Kew Garden. Eleanor remembers herself as a little girl, painting by the lake with five other girls. As Eleanor painted, a “grey haired woman with a wart on her nose” suddenly kissed her on the back of the neck, a precious kiss that became Eleanor’s “mother of all [her] kisses all [her] life.” When her husband asks whether she minds if he talks about the past, she responds that she does not mind and asks, ‘”Doesn’t one always think of the past, in a garden with men and women lying under the trees? Aren’t they one’s past, all that remains of it, those men and women, those ghosts lying under the trees … one’s happiness, one’s reality?'”
The narrator seems able to notice almost anything but only slightly interprets the various interactions, conversation, and details. The focus of narration is the flowerbed and those who walk by it or, like the snail, move unnoticed by any character in the story. The story moves from depicting small, telling details of specific interactions to a more general reflection on the wide network of life in which the garden, its flowers, snails, and patrons all coexist.
Older Man Who Listens to Flowers
Accompanied by William who steers him through a garden course, this older man smiles and talks “almost incessantly” to himself. To William he speaks of “spirits of the dead” and their experience in Heaven. He tells William of an electrical contraption that would allow a widowed woman to talk to the spirits in Heaven; the older man then gets distracted by the ”purple black” dress of a woman who he seemingly mistakes as a widow. William distracts the older man by drawing attention to a flower, to which the confused older man listens momentarily before changing the subject to the ”forests of Uruguay, which he had visited hundreds of years ago in company with the most beautiful woman in Europe.”
The husband of Eleanor and father of Caroline and Hubert, Simon walks just six inches in front of his family in Kew Gardens, reminiscing about a failed proposal to a past love named Lily. He tells Eleanor about his reflection, asking Eleanor if she minds his thinking about the past. When she replies that she does not mind, Simon explains that his feelings about Lily and her rejection of his proposal can be symbolized by “a square silver shoe-buckle and a dragon-fly” in Kew Garden.
The snail with a shell of “brown circular veins” makes its way slowly across the floor of a flowerbed as the human characters saunter by, lost in their own thoughts and conversation. While the characters have no occasion to even notice the snail, the narrator comments on its progress throughout the story.
A young man and woman (Trissie) on the verge of youth’s prime, walk by the snail’s flowerbed. The young man talks of the price of admission on Friday while Trissie asks about belief in ”luck” and the experience of walking through Kew Gardens. Nervously, she stands with him, looking at the flowerbed as they express themselves in “words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning” and lean together on Trissie’s parasol, hands slightly touching as the parasol sinks into the earth. Abruptly, the young man suggests they have tea and Trissie excitedly responds “Where does one have one’s tea?”
Two Elderly Women of the Lower Middle Class
These unnamed characters are lower middle-class women who follow curiously the erratic movements of the older man whom William directs. One of them is “stout and ponderous” and the other “rosy-cheeked and nimble.” After their fascination with the older man fades, they “energetically” resume a “complicated dialogue” that the stories narrator records as a mere lists of names, of “I says” and “she says” as well as “Sugar, flour, kippers, greens” and “Sugar, sugar sugar.” As the “nimble” woman talks, the “stout woman’s” thoughts wander as she stares into the oval flower bed before suggesting that they find a seat and have tea.
The younger of two men walking together in Kew Gardens, William wears “an expression of perhaps unnatural calm.” He steers his companion through the garden with care, listening to the older man prattle on almost nonsensically about Heaven and Uruguay. William directs the older man’s attention to a flower to keep him from approaching a woman that seems to remind the old man of a widow dressed in black.
Young Man with Trissie
As the young man accompanies Trissie on their walk through Kew Gardens, he touches the two shilling piece in his pocket with which he will pay for tea. He nervously tries to grasp the reality of his new experience as a man in a garden with a woman.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.