Monday, January 25, 2010

Fiction Review: "Kew Gardens," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

For the text of "Kew Gardens," click here.

In what may be the greatest of her short stories, Virginia Woolf creates a structured, encompassing view of existence, one which includes people's thoughts and emotions, nature and human society, and even the movement of a random snail in a flower bed.

“Kew Gardens” is a great short story, perhaps Virginia Woolf’s finest, and certainly the best of those in the Monday or Tuesday collection. She starts with what may seem like the homeliest and most disparate of particulars--a snail moving along the ground, a man taking his senile father for a walk--and she binds them together to create a larger whole. In his poem The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot described his reflections on life as a “heap of broken images” and the “fragments I have shored against my ruins.” In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the underlying order of the fragments she renders and builds them into an encompassing vision of life, one that unifies the worlds of humanity and nature.

At first glance, the story appears to be a series of juxtapositions between scenes of nature and moments of human interaction. The setting is the Royal Botanic Gardens in London in July, and the story begins and ends with descriptions of a flowerbed. There are five episodes in between. The first features a married couple with children walking along the paths; the husband and wife think back on the most emotionally significant moments of their past--moments that, ironically, have nothing to do with each other or their children. The third features the aforementioned man with his senile father, who are followed along the paths by a pair of working-class women. The men are oblivious to what the other is saying, and while neither of the women is impaired, they talk past each other as well. In the fifth episode, the characters are a young couple who are courting, but who have yet to make the breakthrough to a deeper relationship. The second and fourth episodes depict a snail as it crawls through the flowerbed.

Woolf seems to identify nature with movement. The snail is always moving, of course, and everything else she depicts in the flowerbed moves as well. The people, though, all seem caught in a state of psychological stasis. The young couple, particularly the man, is trapped by desire for the other and the uncertainty of what to do next. Woolf even creates a trope for their predicament: his hand is atop hers as, together, they push the end of her resting parasol into the ground. The emotional significance of this is unmistakable, and Woolf duly renders it in rhapsodic terms:

The action and the fact that his hand rested on the top of hers expressed their feelings in a strange way, as these short insignificant words also expressed something, words with short wings for their heavy body of meaning, inadequate to carry them far and thus alighting awkwardly upon the very common objects that surrounded them, and were to their inexperienced touch so massive, but who knows (so they thought as they pressed the parasol down into the earth) what precipices aren’t concealed in them, or what slopes of ice don’t shine in the sun on the other side?

The young couple are frozen in their anxieties, as is the old man in his senility, his son in the helplessness the senility’s presence creates, and the two women in their combined affinity and indifference to one another. However, the young man and woman are most complemented by the married couple, who are as trapped in their anxieties about the past as the unmarried pair is in thoughts of the future. The portrayal of the married couple is also where Woolf makes the dichotomy between nature and people most explicit. The husband is caught in his thoughts about times gone by, specifically how stymied he felt proposing to a woman he was involved with before meeting his wife. Contemplating the situation, he finds an analogue to his circumstances in the flight of a dragonfly that was there at the time. As long as the dragonfly is flying--in movement--the man is frustrated by the woman’s unwillingness to say yes to marrying him. However, if the dragonfly lands on her shoe, i.e., comes to a stop, that means she’ll assent, his thoughts and feelings will flow freely again, and their life together can progress. (The dragonfly, of course, never landed.) For Woolf, rendering nature means showing it in motion; depicting people involves showing them at some sort of standstill. The ironic trope for this is nature halting when people progress.

The greater irony of the story, though, is that nature, at least in the garden, is caught in a stasis of its own--a stasis created by humanity’s actions and humanity’s world. The nature in the story is the gardens, a man-made construct built within the larger man-made construct of the city of London. Woolf, in a brilliant (and subtle) stylistic choice, emphasizes the constructed aspect of the gardens by rendering her imagery of its fauna and flora as if she was describing painting it. It is all depicted in terms of shapes and colors, with verbs such as “marked” and “staining” appearing throughout the passages. Man and nature always contain each other, just as Woolf’s perceptions of nature are so conspicuously contained by her words. She finds a superb analogue for this state of existence near the story’s end: life is like a series of Chinese boxes, one within the other within the other and so forth, “on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.” At the center is the (Wordsworthian) view that people’s thoughts, feelings, and memories are contained by their perceptions of nature. However, nature as people know it is contained by the world humanity has created, just as the gardens are contained by London, where, as Woolf puts it, “the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear[...].” It’s left unsaid, but the box of the city is contained by the larger box of the surrounding world. What isn’t left unsaid is that even the city can once again be contained within people’s perceptions and feelings. The series of boxes can begin again and extend unto infinity.

The genius of the story is the structured view of existence it presents. Woolf captures the assorted chaos of life--internal ones like anxieties and disappointments, and outer ones like the comings and goings of the city and the natural world--and she finds the structure within it. She highlights where everything exists relative to everything else, and further, she recognizes that the only limits to one’s perception of things are the limits the person imposes. Thinking back to The Waste Land, one is struck by the contrast between Eliot’s vision and Woolf’s. Looking for the encompassing order in life, he dramatizes his inability to find it in what he presents, ultimately resigning himself to faith that, regardless of the chaos, God has an order in mind. In “Kew Gardens,” Woolf finds the order Eliot misses. Her peace, unlike his, doesn’t “passeth understanding”; hers contains it.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf