Sunday, January 18, 2009

What's with the Snails?

One particular aspect of Kew Gardens that I was curious about was the distinction made between two very different worlds: namely, the world of the snail versus the world of the people wandering about the flower bed.
Woolf used a snail as the catalyst for her story in The Mark on the Wall, and once again, a snail plays a role in her prose. In Kew Gardens, Woolf leads the reader through the conversations and behaviors of various couples passing the flower bed as well as the progress of a snail within that same flower bed. While the people pass by with the same, “irregular and aimless movement,” (89) the snail appears to, “have a definite goal in front of it... objects lay across the snail’s progress between one stalk and another to his goal.” (86) In fact, it seems like the only character in the story who has any direction is the snail itself, plodding along in a flower bed surrounded by couples who are caught up by past memories and pointless conversations.
I was left to ponder the purpose behind telling the story from these two different perspectives, and I cannot say that I’ve reached a definite conclusion. By the end of the story, Woolf has brought together the two worlds of nature and people into a churning, swirling mixture of voices and colors and sounds. In the end, the two worlds are not separate entities, but a single—rather chaotic—mass. I am not really sure what to make of the story’s finish, and I was particularly stunned by the fact that my first reaction to the ending was, “But what happened to the snail?!” when obviously, I should be more concerned about the fact that the people in the story are lead astray by their own banalities and their struggle to sort out the implications of past decisions and present absurdities. I suppose the only contribution I have to offer are a few meager questions: What does it say about people if a snail in a flower bed seems to have more purpose and determination in a story than the humans? Was Woolf even considering that point, or have I missed an essential part of her message? Why does she seem to have such an affinity for snails?
Conclusively, all I can say is that whether it was Woolf’s intention or not, Kew Gardens made me wonder about the human condition to revel in the past, to say things that don’t really say anything at all, and to put great stake in things that are not worth much more than sixpence anyway.


  1. I felt the same way about the importance of the snail's goal to the meaningless wanderings of the humans except at the beginning of the short story when Woolf writes, "[the woman] bore on with greater purpose." This was one of the only instances that a human has a great purpose but the purpose seems to fall when she revels in her past about the wart lady.

  2. The quest of the snail is a very curious plot point of "Kew Gardens." At first, I thought it was a tiny representation of the struggle of humankind: we are forever devising methods of slowly overcoming hardship. Then I began to wonder if it was possible that Woolf may be employing our little friend to act as a contrast to the humans walking in the garden. While both the humans and the snail are working against the universe, time, and mortality, the snail is unhindered by the complexities of human memory and emotion. The snail does not feel the dull ache of regret or the sting of futility. What, then, does Woolf's comparison say about the power and importance of human instinct and memory?