The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf, 1921

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by Virginia Woolf, 1921

"The Mark on the Wall," which Virginia Woolf wrote in one sitting in 1917 while recuperating from a long illness, was her breakthrough into a new experimental form of fiction. Concentrating on the narrator's thoughts and mental states, Woolf tested the limits of the short story form by placing her emphasis on the inner life rather than on external action. Variations of stream-of-consciousness or interior monologue techniques like those in "The Mark on the Wall" were also being explored at the time by James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence, but Woolf combined modernist techniques with a new feminist consciousness.

The narrator's play on immobility and the supple movements of her thought anticipate Samuel Beckett's immobile, speculative characters. Woolf's emphasis on philosophical reflections, as critics like James Hafley and Avrom Fleishman have observed, makes the story resemble an imaginative essay, but the subtle characterization of the speaker places it in the realm of fiction.

The story is an epistemological satire about the narrator's attempts to identify a mark on the wall across the room without getting up from her chair. Speculating about the mark, she recognizes the forces that prevent her from seeing the world as it is. She is limited on the one hand by rigid social and intellectual conventions and on the other by purely subjective fantasies. The fantasies seem liberating, but they bring their own distortion, blurring her vision at times so that she cannot distinguish men and women from trees. She keeps reminding herself that she must refer to an external reference point, like the mark on the wall, but without moving to discover what it is. The unreliability of her efforts to know the world is mitigated by the solidity of natural phenomena, though the narrator is for the moment too involved in her speculations to check their relation to the truth.

The woman's thoughts circle round and round the mark on the wall, repeatedly going off on tangents but gradually getting closer. At first she sees the mark as a depression or hole in the wall, then as a blemish, like a leaf on the surface, and finally, correctly, as a round protuberance, like the head of a nail. This is as close as she can come by means of speculation. In order to reach the truth it is necessary to move close enough to examine the thing itself.

Because the story imitates spontaneous thought, its underlying logic is at first less obvious than the above summary suggests. Its effect depends on the humor with which Woolf presents the narrator's wayward reflections, while at the same time shrewdly staying on course toward the final disclosures.

Early in the story the narrator ponders the flow of time, considering whether life is entirely accidental or whether on the contrary it follows an intelligible pattern. Is there any rhyme or reason in things, she asks, any way to explain how she could lose such bulky objects as a coal scuttle and a hand organ, which just seemed to disappear off the face of the earth? The practical people who run the world do not recognize such mysteries. Theirs is a domain of "generalizations," barren formulas that regiment and limit the mind. She remembers the Victorian world of her childhood, when society was governed by rigid rules for everything from parliamentary procedure to the way to sew tablecloths. This dominant "masculine point of view which governs our lives" leaves hardly any room for imagination. But she believes that there is another sphere "after life," a more spiritual state in which some sign of a larger purpose can perhaps be found. She imagines withdrawing into a purely subjective dream state in which she can be free, as if floating weightless under water, but of course she knows that the old social and political rules still dominate the surface world. Can she connect these two worlds? For a moment she thinks of Shakespeare, who managed to be both a practical man of the theater and a poetic genius, but since she knows so little about him, his example cannot help her. Shakespeare is merely a "historical fiction," and she needs something tangible to guide her.

The mark on the wall, still unidentified, represents the external facts of life against which it is folly to rebel, facts from which one cannot stray very far without risking great confusion. The mark recalls her to awareness of the actual room in which she is sitting. Concentrating on the room, she brushes aside rigid social and intellectual categories and ponders the objectivity of nature. Her position illustrates what S. P. Rosenbaum has described as Woolf's philosophical realism. The mark on the wall, the narrator says, represents "the impersonal world which is proof of some existence other than ours." Whatever it is, the mark offers a mediating term between the abstract generalizations of the masculine order and the escapism of a purely subjective vision. As Rosenbaum has observed, Woolf believes that "sanity and sense involve the interrelation of thought and external reality, of consciousness and the objects of consciousness."

The story is amplified by disclosures at the very end. The final angry remark about World War I broadens the frame of reference, and Alex Zwerdling has properly described "The Mark on the Wall" as a war story. The war is symptomatic of an imbalance between the outer and inner realms, a clash between the social order and the private self that, as the narrator says, blurs our vision, ultimately also creating the need to fight. The snail, on which the story focuses at the end, suggests the moderating influence of nature. With its mollusk's shell around a soft inner body, the snail symbolizes a harmonious union of outer and inner spheres.

In its mediating vision "The Mark on the Wall," which was collected in Monday or Tuesday (1921), anticipates Woolf's major novels, including Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). Although the story implicitly suggests an epistemological theme, its appeal to most readers, as Woolf's biographer Lyndall Gordon has pointed out, is based on a humorous evocation of simple objects and ordinary domestic life.

—Herbert Marder

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The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf, 1921

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