Cross-posted at A Curious Singularity
This story opens in an omniscient view — from the eye of God, the merciless glare of the universe — upon the microcosm world of the Kew Gardens. Woolf particularizes this world, of flower and fauna, very precisely. It is unique, seething with life, wonder and surprise:
The light fell either upon the smooth, grey back of a pebble, or, the shell of a snail with its brown, circular veins, or falling into a rain-drop, it expanded with such intensity of red, blue, and yellow the thin walls of water that one expected them to burst and disappear. Instead, the drop was left in a second silver grey once more, and the light now settled upon the flesh of a leaf, revealing the branching thread of fibre beneach the surface, and again it moved an and spread its illumination in the vast green spaces beneath the dome of the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves.
With this precise observation comes the anthropomorphisis of nature. (I hope I am using that term correctly.) Nature is given human characteristics, such as the heart-shaped and tongue-shaped leaves. When humans enter the story, they ascribe nature’s characteristics to humans, such as the first man’s desire being in the dragonfly, or are ascribed natural characteristics themselves (as when the elder man walks in the manner of an impatient carriage horse tired of waiting outside a house). This is consistent throughout the story, suggesting, I think, the interrelation of nature and humans; mankind is part and parcel of the natural world, and vice versa.
But, as the reactions of the various people demonstrate, mankind is oblivious to the miracles of nature around them. They are preoccupied with specific human concerns: the passage of time, love, class, wages. These are not the concerns of the natural world. Witness the struggle of the snail (one of the finest passages, in my opinion):
The snail had now considered every possible method of reaching his goal without going round the dead leaf or climbing over it. Let alone the effort needed for climbing a leaf, he was doubtful whether the thin texture which vibrated with such an alarming crackle when touched even by the tip of his horns would bear his weight; and this determined him finally to creep beneath it, for there was a point where the leaf curved high enough from the ground to admit him.
The irony here is that the snail’s journey mirrors man’s struggles. Furthermore, from our knowledge of science, we know the load-bearing leaf is a non-issue; thus, much of the snail’s struggle is rendered pointless. Is the omniscient God/narrator able to see, where we do not, the fruitlessness of our own struggles?
Despite the interrelation of man to nature, mankind is encroaching upon the natural world, with their words, their objects, and customs and, finally, their machines. We get a mere hint of the war the world is engulfed in at that moment, one which history has proven to be incredibly destructive.
But what am I to take from my reading, or the other views that others offer on this site? I react to this story much as I did to Henry James’s Turn of the Screw: the sums of its parts are greater than the whole. I don’t think Woolf went far enough in establishing her themes and characters. The two elderly women, for example, don’t seem multi-dimensional or have much point in the story as maybe the others do.
I found the Julia Briggs genesis, posted on A Curious Singularity by Kate S., to be very compelling and interesting. It reminds me of the anecdote I posted on Sept. 5 about the origin of Woolf’s story A Haunted House.
(Note: Woolf uses “myriad of” at the very end of the story. I had ripped Dianne Day for using this phraseology in Fire and Fog, believing myriad was an adjective. However, Merriam-Webster says that the noun is an older form and therefore, can serve as the noun modified by the prepositional phrase. I stand corrected!)