The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf Analysis
A GENERAL AND ANALYTICAL EVALUATION
An Introductory Note:
The Mark on the Wall is the first published story by Virginia Woolf. It was published in 1917 as part of the first collection of short stories written by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf, called Two Stories. It was later published in New York in 1921 as part of another collection entitled Monday or Tuesday.
An unnamed first person narrator, observing a mark on the wall of a sitting room, uses the image as the starting point for a series of reflections, imaginary pictures, and observations about the nature of reality and what can and cannot be known. Topics include the previous occupants of the house, and the range of objects which are lost during the course of everyday life.
The narrative then becomes self-referential and reflects upon the very activity of following trains of thought. It includes how the Self is made up of the reflections of other people, and how future novelists might seen take this into account in their depictions of reality. This leads to a critique of generalisations and certainties about the existing order of things, and how the act of challenging them can produce a state of ‘illegitimate freedom’.
The mark is compared to a burial tumultuous on the Sussex Downs, which leads on to a character sketch of an amateur archeologist and remnants of history in a local museum. And yet none of these objects guarantee any sense of ‘knowledge’, and even the very notion of knowledge itself is questioned. Whitaker’s Table of Precedence is used as a symbol of what society thinks of as fixed certainties, and encouragement to action is as a way of avoiding painful or disturbing thoughts.
The concrete objects of the external world offer a sense of what is real, and the example of a wooden chest of drawers is traced back to its origin as a tree, which goes on living in the objects that can be made from it. The subjects over which these thoughts have ranged are then recalled, and the reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a second figure, who reveals that the mark on the wall is in fact a snail.
An Analytical Summary:
I. An anonymous woman provides a first-person account of a day in the middle of January when she noticed a mark on the wall. In trying to recall the exact date of this remembrance, she calls to mind other images from that moment: a fire burning, the light cast across the pages of a book, flowers in a bowl, and the fact that she was smoking when she apprehended the mark.
II. It was a small black contrasting against the white wall, situated about half a foot above the fireplace mantel. These particulars stimulate a series of explanations quickly considered and then cast away as to why the mark might be there. She rejects the idea of the mark being the result of a nail because the only reason to place a nail there would be to hang a picture frame.
The idea of the picture frame sends her off on a tangent about the personalities of the previous occupants of the house.
III. A moment’s temptation to get out of her chair for a closer inspection turns into a philosophical rumination on how many possessions are lost over the course of a lifetime, which leads, naturally, to a recounting of several of the things she once owned that are now gone.
IV. After comparing the act of living to a being a package zipping through a vacuum chute following a growing frenzy about how haphazard the whole thing really is, she suddenly grows melancholic with morose thoughts of death before pondering over the idea that the mark on the wall is not a hole, after all, but is perhaps just a circular bit of inky substance.
V. The interruption of her thoughts by the sound of a tree tapping at her window causes her thoughts to change tracks; suddenly, she is thinking of Shakespeare sitting in a room with a fire burning while great creative thoughts rain down from the heavens into his mind.
VI. Quickly tiring of heavy historical thoughts about the Bard, her train of thought jumps again to predict that one day writers will realize the value to be found in composing characters based upon the phantoms that are the ever-changing faces of a person cast in reflections.
These writers will leave behind dead-end attempts to impose false realities of the external world and seek to pursue the greater truths that remain unseen. The idea of those deadened realities brings to mind thoughts of table-setting etiquette for Sunday luncheons as the feminine analogue to the masculine rules of etiquette for addressing dignitaries.
VII. Now she views the mark as not entirely circular and possibly projecting outward from the wall. Perhaps it is a shadow. These considerations lead to wondering about the tumuli in South Downs and whether they are camps or tombs; only an antiquary would know, so she wonders what kind of personality leads to a career as an antiquary, which ultimately winds up with considerations of proof only being known when touched, and if a thing cannot be proven, then it cannot be known.
VIII. So once again, there is conflict over getting up for a closer inspection-but, after all, knowledge is attained by thinking, and one can think sitting down as well as standing up. The jumble of thoughts that have entered and exited through her mind commingle at the point at which she decides she must solve the mystery of the mark by getting up.
IX. She then decides that to get up would be playing victim to the very trap that Nature is trying to set. The act of thinking about the mark brings excitement and pain, and Nature is attempting to end that by inducing her to action. So, she focuses her thoughts on the sensual qualities of wood.
X. These pleasant distractions are interrupted by the announcement of a second person-almost certainly the narrator’s husband-in the room, who intends to go out and buy a newspaper even though there’s never anything in the paper these days anymore but bad news about the war.
The anger intensifies into a more personal sense of dissatisfaction and outrage as he exits with the words, “All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.” She realizes that, indeed, the mark on the wall is a snail.
“The Mark on the Wall” refers to a mark the narrator observes on the wall in a room in her home. After observing the spot, the narrator engages in stream-ofconsciousness (uninterrupted flow) thoughts on the nature of memory, reality, and knowledge.
Virginia Woolf’s work ‘The Mark on the Wall focuses on the process of the mind and how it constructs reality. The mind assimilates, assesses, and juxtaposes sensory data from various experiences. With this in mind, Woolf believes there is no one standard of reality. Woolf challenges the Victorian view about truth only available to people who have received an education. Woolf begins the work ambiguously, recording the thoughts of a narrator.
For example, the narrator suddenly sees a spot, or mark, on the wall. Once she sees the spot, her mind’s consciousness flows, taking in details, patterns, and associations. Once she assimilates the data, she assesses, questioning its structure and connection. The narrator continues the process by responding to what she assesses; her response involves removing what she believes are patterns in order to create new meaning.
A major theme within ‘The Mark on the Wall’ includes the condition of uncertainty. At the end of the story, she discovers the truth about the mark. However, this story shows that there is no one single truth. The narrator sees the world through a unique perspective and this ultimately determines what the narrator believ the mark on the wall to be.
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