Loneliness and Alienation
Each human character in the story seems lost in his or her own reminiscences. Despite walking with someone in Kew Gardens, the narrator emphasizes ways in which their thoughts are their own. Some of the characters are merely alone with their thoughts, like the first couple who remember by themselves and then talk with each other about their memories. Other characters, like William and the “ponderous woman,” seem lonely. They walk with a companion who does not seem to notice them. In the end, the man and the ”ponderous woman” are perhaps not merely lonely but alienated from those around them. The old man’s strange behavior seems to keep him locked into a world all his own, unable to connect with anyone around him.
By making a garden the focal point of this rumination on ideas of aloneness, loneliness, and alienation, Woolf evokes the biblical image of the garden of Eden from which the Adam and Eve were cast out. Woolf’s story seems to suggest that the very language that humans beings use to connect to other human beings is not only filled with misunderstanding but can itself be a wall that prevents communication.
The Modern World
The final paragraph of the story situates “Kew Gardens” in an ominously vast and overbearing world of the machinery and systems of industrial production that undergirded World War I. The old man seeking to hear the voices of dead husbands might be a picture of a more general experience in which war and industry link to destroy peoples’ families. The contraption he stutters on about is an ambivalent symbol, serving to denote a way in which he can reconnect to those who have been lost and ironically connoting his own isolation from William who walks beside him.
Each couple that passes through the garden seems to represent ideas regarding what men and women are supposed to do in society. The husband and wife operate in an understated harmony even as they reflect with a hint of melancholy on youthful days when the world seemed full of unlimited potential. The old man and William imply the inability of men to connect with one another, even about things as devastating as death in war. The ”lower middle class women” illustrate the seeming futility and emptiness of working as servants; their conversation is but an inadequate distraction from the fact they seem to have little to love in life. The final couple is a young man and woman who are just learning the roles that they are expected to play. As the young man takes charge of Trissie, steering her toward tea for which he will pay with the coin in his pocket, one is left hoping she or they will find a way of straying down those curious garden paths.
Generally, Woolf seems to point out the way women depend on complementing men. Marriage, however, does not seem to grant happiness or connection. Rather, it seems to imply a certain loneliness of motherhood, the eventual alienation of widowhood, or the reputation of being a lower-class spinster. Woolf also seems to emphasize the way young men are pushed into taking charge, stifling attempts at openness and honesty with women or other men. As the machinery of life drones on outside the garden, the men seem called to take their place in a system that will use them up.
The Natural World
Although the idea of a garden might imply the vibrancy, life, and innocence of nature, Kew Gardens is described in terms that emphasize the more formal effect of color and angular play of light. The narrative tone emphasizes geometric shapes, discrete objects, and characters’ trajectories as they advance through the garden. This emphasis seems to implicate the garden in the “vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly” outside the garden in the city. It is important that Kew Gardens is not a spontaneous expression of natural forces but a space whose construction was engineered and constructed and whose flowers, trees, and grass were meticulously planted and cultivated. While inviting the reader to consider the garden as a touchstone of natural force, the garden seems to offer a formalistic screen across which peoples’ lives fleetingly cast their shadows as the snail methodically proceeds in his arduous trek across the fertilized floor of the flower bed.
Jennifer Smith – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 12, Virginia Woolf, Published by Gale Group, 2001.