The book begins with a description of an oval-shaped flower bed in Kew Gardens in London on a hot summer’s afternoon. In the flower bed there is a snail which features throughout the story providing some continuity.
As the book progresses we overhear the conversations of four groups of people as they pass the flower bed. A couple are the first to pass - the husband is thinking of a time some 15 years previously when he had proposed to another woman in the gardens and he remembered “how the dragon-fly kept circling round us; how clearly I see the dragon-fly and her shoe with the square silver buckle at the toe. All the time I spoke I saw her shoe and when it moved impatiently I knew without looking up what she was going to say.” And we know too that the woman turned him down.
Two men pass by then – an older man who walked jerkily accompanied by a younger man. The older man speaks of spirits – the spirits of the dead and of the war. Perhaps he has been injured in the war which has just finished. The old man sees a woman and goes towards her “muttering and gesticulating feverishly.” His son diverts his attention to look at a flower. Finally the old man “suffered himself to be moved on by William, upon whose face the look of stoical patience grew slowly deeper and deeper.”
Next to pass the flower bed are two elderly women, “of lower middle class”, who have noticed the old man and “like most people of their station they were frankly fascinated by any sign of eccentricity betokening a disordered brain, especially in the well-to-do.” This, I think, is an example of Woolf’s snobbery. Although the women are speaking, neither seems to be listening to the other. One of the women stops listening “letting the words fall over her”.
Meanwhile, the snail is trying to decide how to reach his goal – whether to go round the dead leaf or to climb over it. Finally he decides to creep under the leaf when two more people pass by – a young man and woman. “They were both in the prime of youth, or even in that season which precedes the prime of youth, the season before the smooth pink folds of the flowers have burst their gummy case, when the wings of the butterfly, though fully grown, are motionless in the sun.”
The structure of the story works well as the snail and the flower bed are constant while the people move on. When sitting at airports I amuse myself by making up stories about the people around me. Woolf has done just that in this story and provided an insight into other people’s lives – a snapshot in time and then they are gone and the reader is left wanting to know more about these people and their lives. Another common thread in the story is the lack of communication between the couples – they are speaking but not really communicating.
I enjoyed this story and thought the language was beautiful – at times it was like poetry. Her descriptions were excellent and you could really picture the garden and feel the stifling heat. At the end of the story she writes, “But there was no silence; all the time the motor omnibuses were turning their wheels and changing their gear; like a vast nest of Chinese boxes all of wrought steel turning ceaselessly one within another the city murmured; on the top of which the voices cried aloud and the petals of myriads of flowers flashed their colours into the air.”
This short story was a very good introduction to her work and I am now looking forward to tackling some of her novels.