In “The Gardener,” Kipling uses the image of a shell projectile as a symbol of the manufactured etiquette that dominates British society, even during the traumatic events of World War I. At one point in the story, Michael takes Helen to see shells being made at a munition factory. Helen sees the shell as something being manufactured and extends this image to the whole experience of loss and grief during World War I in Britain. She compares the manufacture of the shell to the manufacture of herself “into a bereaved relative.” Although people in her community are outwardly sympathetic towards Helen, and others who have lost relatives in the war, there is something impersonal and manufactured in their attitude towards loss more generally. Instead of acknowledging that Michael is dead, they instead offer platitudes and encourage her to go through the process of filling out forms and appealing to organizations to try and find Michael. This attitude seems to her, not a mode of comfort, but a means of putting off the inevitable news of Michael’s death and avoiding difficult conversations about grief. Once enough time has gone by, and no news of Michael has been returned, confirming Helen’s belief that he must be dead, she goes through the process of visiting his grave which also involves several stages, echoing the shell’s manufacturing process. Although this framework of ritual and organization appears to be helping Helen move linearly through the process of grief, it does not actually achieve anything beyond telling her what she already knows: that Michael is dead. The number she receives at the war grave does not help her find Michael’s grave, and it is only when she receives help from the gardener that she receives the compassion and personal sympathy that she has been denied by the cold and mechanical attitude towards grief in British society.
The Shell Quotes in The Gardener
A month later, and just after Michael had written Helen that there was nothing special doing and therefore no need to worry, a shell-splinter dropping out of a wet dawn killed him at once. The next shell uprooted and laid down over the body what had been the foundation of a barn wall, so neatly that none but an expert would have guessed that anything unpleasant had happened.
Helen did and wrote and signed everything that was suggested or put before her. Once, on one of Michael’s leaves, he had taken her over a munition factory, where she saw the progress of a shell from blank-iron to all but the finished article. It struck her at the time that the wretched thing was never left alone for a single second; and “I’m being manufactured into a bereaved next of kin,” she told herself, as she prepared her documents.