Sunday, January 18, 2009

"Kew Gardens" and the (Un)Importance of Words

While I was reading "Kew Gardens," I must've listened to at least fifteen different songs.  I can't tell you what any of them were, except that "I Am the Walrus" is coo-coo-coochoo-ing its way into my ears right now. The words don't matter, they just provide a backdrop for my thoughts.

In "Kew Gardens," several different couples go by. They all have something in common--they aren't there for the words, but they're not there for the flowers either. I don't imagine that anyone really goes to Kew Gardens for the flowers, though they are quite spectacular. Unless you're a botanist, the Gardens themselves simply provide a pretty background for whatever conversation or introspection you might be engaging in that day. Woolf seems to be suggesting in "Kew Gardens" that the words passing between the couples are as unimportant to them as the flowers themselves.

The first couple, a husband and wife, are so preoccupied with "thinking of the past," (85) that even their children don't warrant any attention other than an occasional head-turn from the woman (84). The man thinks back to another time in the Gardens, where one of the most important decisions of his life was made. Lily's answer to his marriage proposal, the actual "yes" or "no," isn't what Simon notices or remembers. Instead of the words, he hangs all of his hope on the wanderings of an aimless dragonfly who "went round and round: it never settled anywhere." (85) His wife, Eleanor, lost in thoughts of her past, recounts a time when an action, a kiss from an old woman, affected her more deeply than words ever could--"the mother of all my kisses, all my life." (85) The words that pass between the couple, these "falling words," (87) between all the couples, seem to have all the importance of strangers exchanging small-talk about the weather. They're the soundtrack of a walk through Kew Gardens, but the important things are the ghosts of the past--all the might-have-beens and actions of the moments that really affect us. Woolf is suggesting that words, though a necessary aspect of life, prevent us from fully reflecting on our thoughts, and jar us awake (87) to remind us of the canyon that exists between "one's happiness, one's reality." (85)


  1. I really like your post. I was trying to write my post about the same thing, but I couldn't get the wording right and I gave up on it and tried a new topic.
    Yours was really well-written, I couldn't have said it better myself. = )

  2. You articulated what I could not--I sensed the unimportance of words in "Kew Gardens" but I couldn't quite flesh my suspicions out. Reading your post reminds me of the younger couple Woolf mentions:

    "...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...Even when she wondered what sort of tea they gave you at Kew, he felt that something loomed up behind her words, and stood vast and solid behind them; and the mist very slowly rose and uncovered..."

    I get the same feeling as you: it doesn't really matter what they say to each other at all--it's what they don't say, it's what they do, it's what they don't do--what matters are their "wordless voices," their thoughts.

    You make a great comparison to the dialogue in the story being akin to a soundtrack...I think we're meant to see in "Kew Gardens," rather than hear.