‘Kew Gardens’ by Virginia Woolf

Throughout ‘Kew Gardens’, which has been described as a modernist short story, the narrator returns to the very English flowerbed, focusing on a snail as it moves through the flowers offering a ground-level perspective of the world on a hot, July day. The story relays the unfolding of a moment or a series of moments, rather than a grand, unified narrative or plot. Flowers and shrubs and the garden are essential features in this story, but they are not named, and despite the precise descriptions they are not easily identifiable: 

From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped or tongue-shaped leaves half way up and unfurling at the tip red, blue or yellow petals marked with spots of colour raised upon the surface; and from the red, blue or yellow gloom of the throat emerged a straight bar, rough with gold dust and slightly clubbed at the end. The petals were voluminous enough to be stirred by the summer breeze, and when they moved, the red, blue and yellow lights passed one over the other, staining an inch of the brown earth beneath with a spot of the most intricate colour.

The narrative shifts from the flower bed to the couples walking past in turn, four couples – a husband and wife, an old and a younger man, two women, a courting couple, none of whom have much communication between them. Are the unnamed flowers supposed to signify something or are they just there as ‘real’ flowers in the environment of the story? Woolf remains elusive about this.

First published privately in 1919, and collected in Monday or Tuesday, Hogarth Press, 1921. Later collected in A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, 1944. Now available in an illustrated edition from Kew Publishing, 2016, The Mark on the Wall and Other Stories, Oxford, and Selected Stories, Penguin Classics

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