Lessons from Down Below: The Snail in Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” By Kenzie O’Day
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Lessons from Down Below: The Snail in Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens,” By Kenzie O’Day

Virginia Woolf’s “Kew Gardens” is a short story in which human life is glimpsed through snapshots into several characters’ lives. Woolf contrasts these vignette-esque passages with scenes of a snail also living in the garden in order to reveal the dissociation between humans and their natural environment. She explores the overarching idea that as humans become more sophisticated, we also become ever more self-involved, unable truly relate to non-human entities around us. The juxtaposition of the snail and the human characters accentuates the disconnect, transience and triviality of human lives, suggesting that there is perhaps more significance to the natural world than just an aesthetically pleasing location for a stroll. 

A central theme in “Kew Gardens” is that human life is transient, and Woolf exhibits this theme throughout the story by using specific diction to differentiate between the permanence of the snail and the impermanence of the human characters. The human characters are often described as “dissolving” (70) and “half transparent” (67), with “irregular movement[s]” (66). Woolf’s use of these words repeatedly implies the impermanence of the human characters, as though they are only truly present in the garden for moments before they disappear, leaving little impact. Meanwhile, the snail’s shell is “stained red, blue, and yellow,” by the light of the sun (67). The use of the word “stained” connotes a lasting quality, and the snail’s position as an embodiment of the natural world implies the permanence of nature itself. In using this diction, Virginia Woolf illustrates that human life is transient and almost insignificant in comparison to the natural world represented by the snail. This comparison can be seen again in the last passage of the story, when from the snail’s perspective, “both substance and colour [of the humans] dissolve[s] in the green-blue atmosphere” (70). In contrast, the snail is shown at one point “taking stock of the high brown roof and getting used to the cool brown light” (69). The snail’s surroundings are specifically assigned the colour brown, a colour which is often associated with the Earth and environment, whereas the humans are ascribed an ambiguous “green-blue” surrounding, reminiscent of smoke, as if even the narrator is uncertain of their existence. This contrast once again places the snail firmly in reality and the humans just on the edge of it. Woolf’s snail, despite being a much smaller being is depicted as an established member of the natural world, highlighting the contrast between the eternal nature of the natural world and the transience of humanity.  

Through her characterization of the humans and the snail, Virginia Woolf suggests that the snail has a more meaningful existence than its human counterparts. When the audience is introduced to the snail, it is described as “appear[ing] to have a definite goal in front of it” (60), whereas the human characters are often shown wandering with “irregular and aimless movement” (70). The snail is characterized as determined and goal oriented, having a clear purpose to its actions, which gives greater insight into the snail’s character than its human passersby, whose lives they are only given short glimpses into. At one point, two women are depicted as “piecing together […] very complicated dialogue” (69) which is then revealed to be a string of nonsensical words and names. This conversation highlights the lack of meaning that Woolf attributes to human life. She implies that people have become so absorbed with trivial things that their conversations no longer make sense; they no longer carry any meaning. The human characters in “Kew Gardens” are often not concerned with things other than themselves, as evidenced by the constant reminiscing of their own pasts (66-67) and frequent search for tea (69; 70). Woolf then implies that all humans are the same in this way when she writes “thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower bed” (70). The phrase “one couple after another” suggests repetitiveness and lack of individuality, as though all the couples are wandering through the garden for the same purpose, which is implied to be insignificant. With this contrast between the trivial nature of human life and the determination of the snail, Woolf implies that the natural world and its beings hold more meaning than human societal constructs. 

Both the discussion of transience and triviality contribute to the overarching theme of disconnection that pervades Woolf’s work, which is again displayed by the juxtaposition of the snail and the humans in the garden. To do establish this juxtaposition, Woolf presents the setting from the snail’s point of view in much greater detail than that of the human characters. For example, when the reader is first introduced to the snail, it is described as crawling amongst “brown cliffs with deep green lakes in the hollows, flat-blade like trees that waved from root to tip, round boulders of grey stone, vast crumpled surfaces of a thin crackling texture” (67). This description paints a vivid picture, and images such as “brown cliffs,” “deep green lakes,” and “vast green spaces” depict the seemingly simple flowerbed as being wild and diverse. In contrast, the reader is barely afforded a description of the natural setting from the perspective of any human characters, with one female character describing her surroundings simply as “a garden with men and women lying under the trees” (67). This description is not only much less detailed than that of the snail, but it also centres around other human beings. Her need to describe the garden with people as a central feature exemplifies her inability to focus on her natural surroundings. By contrasting the snail’s vivid setting with that of the human characters, Woolf comments on how as humans become more entangled with their own lives, they lose their ability to appreciate the natural world they were born into. 

Virginia Woolf’s use of the snail as a non-human character in “Kew Gardens” directly juxtaposes her human characters to the natural world. Snails are often thought of as slow, silly, and quite insignificant; Woolf’s character, though, is thoughtful, intentional, and appreciative of its surroundings. Woolf’s discussion of themes of transience, triviality and the human relationship to nature brings to mind the state of modern humanity, and suggests that perhaps we should take notes from the slower, smaller beings of the world and learn to truly appreciate the world around us. Humans tend to think of themselves as the most advanced species on the planet, however Woolf makes it clear that humanity is far from that, considering they have lost their ability to connect to the simplest things around them, such as a snail in a garden. 


Work Cited

Woolf, Virginia. “Kew Gardens.” The Broadview Introduction to Literature: Short Fiction

edited by Lisa Chalykoff, Neta Gordon, and Paul Lumsden, Broadview, 2018, 66-71.