Readers do not know Virginia Woolf for her short stories. I’ll wager that readers don’t know that she liked snails. At least, I’d like to prove that she admired them for personal reasons. Virginia Woolf is known for her two stream-of-consciousness novels: Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and the parodic gender-bender, Orlando (1928). Woolf’s name is synonymous with both feminism (A Room of One’s Own) and with mental illness; she committed suicide in 1941. I believe that, like a weaver of rugs, Woolf masked her illness in the form of two snails in two short stories in the 1921 collection she entitled Monday or Tuesday. Let us consider the snail.
The title “Kew Gardens” alludes to the Royal Botanic Gardens in London. The story opens on a beastly hot July day. Four groups of people amble by a narrator. The man in Couple One recalls his engagement fifteen years earlier to a woman not his wife, and she, the wife, has her own recollection of a childhood memory amongst lilies, painting at the easel, and receiving an unexpected kiss on the back of her neck. The couple are together physically, hands together on a parasol, but they are miles apart mentally while they’re talking to each other. The narrator hears snippets of their conversation. Nothing seems to matter to the wife. She is resigned to idle talk. A dragonfly flies by but never alights anywhere.
There are cinematic, gorgeous descriptions of flowers, their colors, and then a snail is seen, a determined creature in its trajectory as it moves with predictable slowness. A second couple has come into view. This time it is two men, one younger, obviously the son, and the older man, his father. It is clear from the overheard conversation that the older man suffers from dementia. He, too, is in his own world, accompanied by the good son, suffering but compassionate. His father is physically present, but his mind is elsewhere. Behind these two men are two elderly women whom the narrator describes as being “lower middle class.” The way they talk is unrefined. Here, Woolf betrays her own class and her sense of superiority. Remember that this is a woman who had dismissed James Joyce’s Ulysses as “underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense,” although that remark, quoted from her diary, has since been challenged and rinsed of its viciousness. After the lower-class women walk on, the narrator’s attention returns to the snail.
Blogger Robert Stanley Martin came to the conclusion that this short story is metaphorical about anxiety and stasis. World War I had just ended. T.S. Eliot reflected on the times in The Wasteland, and Woolf is doing the same. Martin’s evidence is sound: people are elsewhere mentally, preoccupied, not in the present moment. Nature is abundant, almost in vivid Technicolor the way Woolf wrote it, but it is all very, very artificial. Martin nails it: “life is like a series of Chinese boxes.” He is right because everything is obscured, hidden away as secrets within secrets. The flowers are part of a grand display, but not natural; rather, it is constructed, a public forum. The conversations are exchanges devoid of sincerity. It is not conversation. The narrator is describing life within a diorama. Shake it and the snow might fall. I think Martin does hit the mark again when he discusses stasis, but “anxiety” is not the mood that I think Virginia wanted (literally or figuratively); but I understand why he chose the word. Anxiety is apprehension about the future in the present moment. In “Kew Gardens” the perspective is almost always looking backward, into the past.
Why the snail? Is it because the lowly creature is admirable, because it is slow and steady on its course? The snail is Woolf’s metaphor for depression, and I’d like to think that it is her symbol of defiance against hopelessness.
The snail is the only character in this story that moves with purpose. The narrator sees that the snail has a goal. It seems to have mindfulness. There is one problem, though. The snail has obstacles in its path. I think Woolf is trying to illustrate the insidious nature of depression. From the snail’s perspective those obstacles appear insurmountable, just as a blade of grass looks like a redwood tree to an ant. A depressed person is overwhelmed and, I imagine, some days immobilized – trapped in stasis, yes — but this snail remains committed to plodding on to its destination. Another point of consideration for the snail as Woolf’s metaphor for depression: it carries its own house, “the weight of the world” on its shoulders and, as we all know, snails leave a slimy trail in their wake. Depressed people are mired in their own stickiness: those nagging thoughts of inadequacy and doubt. In reading “Kew Gardens,” there is no filter between the narrator and the reader. There are chatter and an endless bombardment of stimuli; there is memory then, memory now, and so on. An anxious person reacts and feels overwhelmed. A depressed person surrenders. The narrator focuses on the one sane creature, the one constructive entity in the universe: the insignificant snail.
“The Mark on the Wall” is the other snail story. As above, blogger Robert Stanley Martin also provides an interpretation. In this story, he posits a connection between it and Proust. He reads “the mark” as a mystery story, as a story about an existential crisis of imagination. The Romantic view that Knowledge and the Divine become manifest in Nature has disappeared. Nature after World War I is hidden and subjective. Martin concludes that Woolf is the humorist for showing how silly the human mind gets when it becomes subjective, when it can’t figure out something as simple as a mark on the wall. The mark is many things at once. The short story is a kaleidoscope of asides, comments, conjectures, and digressions. Proust is entered into evidence as a literary influence.
The gist of the story is this: a woman is sitting in a room alone. She notices a mark on the wall across the room. I don’t particularly find the story particularly Proustian, though the language is beautiful, but the philosophical question here is not “Que sais-je?” (French for “What do I know?”). There is no Proust here and that mark on the wall is not some tea-soaked madeleine. I don’t think Woolf is being funny at all. I think she is being deadly serious. Again, it is about depression.
I think that the question Woolf wants readers to ask is this: “Why the hell doesn’t this woman get out of the chair, walk across the room, and find out what this mark on the wall is?” She can’t because she is trapped under the weight of her own thinking. Her mind keeps spinning its gears until the husband comes into the room not knowing that his wife has been contemplating this black spot for hours. There is no mystery for him. He walks in, looks, and calls it for what it is: a snail on the wall. He says this in the same casual tone as someone who has noticed a fly overhead. He is both objective and external. Mystery solved, just like James’s “The Turn of the Screw”: at the very…last…word!
Paralysis. Indecision. Feeling overwhelmed. The mind, reeling out of control, drowns in a sea of relentless sensations, most of them visual in Woolf’s narrative. Stimuli overload. Psychological spiraling like a plane shot down: the pilot can’t look away from the fast-approaching ground. It is system shutdown and failure to act, failure to eject and then deploy the parachute.
The two stories I have just discussed appeared in 1921. Psychoanalysis was relatively new in Woolf’s day. The melancholic person “took cures,” which meant restorative time at a spa. Think of Thomas Mann’s Hans Castorp in Magic Mountain, although he was tubercular. I’ll assume those two “lower middle class” women earlier could not afford the therapeutic waters wherever they were. Electro-convulsive therapy and lobotomies were a decade away. In simple terms, depression was perceived as a moral failure, a character flaw. To simplify Freud’s theory, depression was Anger turned inward. Even Buddhism, which is a near-scientific system grounded in cause and effect, interprets depression as a form of self-centeredness, a manifest attachment to a non-existent “I.” Today, depression is understood to have a genetic component, but there is no doubt that there is an alteration in brain chemistry. Antidepressants work on restoring chemical messengers called neurotransmitters.
The clinical assessment is that Woolf was bipolar. In a euphoric state, she was said to have exhibited high states of enthusiasm and to have made odd statements, inappropriate remarks in public. Her diaries indicate that she sensed depression coming. Her last entry to her husband, Leonard, suggests just that; it was coming and she knew that it would be the worst one ever, worse than her breakdown after her father’s death. There were additional stimuli: World War II, the loss of a home to the Blitz, and a declining literary reputation. It is no exaggeration that feminist scholars rescued Woolf from obscurity in the Seventies. I’ve often wondered after reading her intensely lyrical writing whether her intensely impressionistic verbal portraits were the result of her fugue states. If they are then it is an extraordinary display of discipline because they are not disjointed. Her images hook and connect one to another across the pages. She is one of the most lyrical prose writers in the language. Item: The Waves (1931). Yet she wrote no poetry that I know of. I’d like to think that she saw herself as that heroic snail she so admired, fixed on a course, determined to arrive, to overcome the monstrous obstacles in its path. She tried until the darkness bore no more light.