Sunday, January 18, 2009

Voices and Colors in "Kew Gardens"

What follows may be a rather simplistic analysis of "Kew Gardens"--quite honestly, I am finding it difficult to articulate my thoughts on the piece (this may be due to the fact that I am watching Rome simultaneously and Brutus has just been stabbed a billion times but I KNOW HE COMMITTED SUICIDE, HBO WRITERS, STOP TAKING ARTISTIC LIBERTIES WHERE YOU DON'T NEED THEM) but I do know that I really liked this piece for Woolf's signature stream of consciousness style and her always startlingly clear insights into the human condition. With that said, here we go.

Fittingly, "Kew Gardens" begins and ends with flowers. 

In her opening paragraph, Woolf delineates the  flowers of Kew Gardens intricately and exhaustively: 

    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 or 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.

But she closes simply with: "and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air."

Woolf heavily emphasizes the colors of the flowers--in the first paragraph, we see red, blue, yellow, gold--but she also describes their shapes and their surrounding environment. Yet in the end, for all the other details Woolf has given us, the flowers are merely reduced to their colors. This reduction of form of the flowers parallels the reduction of form of the humans in "Kew Gardens."

Like her attention given to the flowers, Woolf  comprehensively sketches the human figures in this story. They are brief sketches, as we jump from conversation to conversation, but they are thorough nonetheless. With the humans, Woolf emphasizes their voices--we learn about them from their dialogue, but we learn more from their "wordless voices" (their thoughts, their actions)-- as she emphasizes the colors of the flowers. Woolf also describes the physical attributes and the environment of the characters, but she concludes with a focus on the voices ("Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices...on top of which the voices cried aloud").

With the conclusion of "Kew Gardens", the humans are reduced to voices and the flowers reduced to colors. Interestingly enough, Woolf uses the vocabulary of human anatomy to describe the flowers, with words such as "heart-shaped," "tongue-shaped," "throat," "flesh." Perhaps then, the flowers can stand as a metaphor for humans--the world as a garden, humans as ephemeral things of the earth--in the end, what are we but voices? What are our voices, our thoughts, but colors which serve to distinguish one individual from another? And in the end, what remains?

*Professor Fernald, my Rome digression is completely relevant because it is a true-life imitation of Woolf's stream of consciousness style: "Kew Gardens" to "difficulty" to "Rome" to "artistic liberties, abuse of" to "Kew Gardens" again, and so forth. I confess to not being able to shake off old blogger habits of going off on a tangent, ranting, rambling, etc. 


  1. I've started thinking about this, now. I'm sitting here wondering, and fretting, what does remain? Well, something must. Right?

    I mean, if the flowers that Woolf gives so much page-time in the beginning have, by the end, become just as unimportant and blurred as the words of the characters...And if, as you say, "what are our voices, our thoughts, but colors which serve to distinguish one individual from another?" Are we all the same, then?

    This was a great post, but now I have to go find my individuality again.

  2. I didn't quite understand the colors either. "Red, blue, and yellow" are repeated many times throughout the short story. They pass from the substantial (the flowers) to the more flexible dew and to light. Also, their transitions from flower to dew or light are seamless but also they seem to be the most persistant of all the things, the humans, and the creatures in the short story.

    I still do not quite understand this. Are the flowers "flashing" at the end for recognition of their endurance and natural tranquility?