Woolf’s Search for Reality in “The Mark on the Wall”

A Critical Analysis of Virginia Woolf's sketch The Mark on the Wall

Virginia Woolf wrote her sketch “The Mark on the Wall” as an exploration of her developing Modernist ideas and techniques. In this 1917 sketch, a woman sits in a living room, and notices a mark on her white wall. Through the woman’s stream-of-consciousness first-person narration, the reader is brought along on a train of thought through the woman’s mind as she sits in her living room. This material will help you master the topic. Woolf’s style and content in “The Mark on the Wall” ties her to the Modernist movement, and foreshadows her future work as an innovative author and literary critic of her time. “The Mark on the Wall” addresses the matter of knowing, reality, and fantasy, and highlights Woolf’s philosophy of reality in character development, which is carried on throughout her later work.

Reality & Fantasy

In “The Mark on the Wall,” Woolf’s character obsesses over the unknown. The character sees the mark, but can’t quite make out what it is from where she sits. She considers a handful of things it could be, and imagines histories for the mark. At several points, she thinks about standing up to look at it, but seems to enjoy the mystery of not knowing more than the knowledge itself. There are many other things that the world will never know, the narrator thinks, and so she remains sitting and ignorant. This mark, as a centering object in Woolf’s sketch, resembles another character in Woolf’s later work, Jacob Flanders. In Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, Woolf’s main character is also a hollow shell of a person. She intentionally leaves out the interiority of Jacob, leaving those around him to describe his outer shell for the reader. His true personality is unknown, the reader is not given access to his thoughts like other characters, and this builds tension in her story. She also intentionally excludes the true nature of the mark, for the same reason. Woolf tangles herself in the mystery of the unknown, which can be a source of conflict and tension in her stories.

Woolf relieves this tension in the last few lines of “The Mark on the Wall.” Throughout the sketch, the narrator avoids discovering the reality of the mark, but another character, assumed to be a man, enters the room, and says, “‘All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall,’” and the narrator replies, “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail (89).” This final revelation seems to be a disappointment, as it kills the woman’s fantasies with the truth. This is the end of the sketch, the end of her imaginings. Throughout the sketch, the narrator continues to say that thoughts are inaccurate, life is fleeting, and “nothing is proved [or] known (87).” The unreliability of Woolf’s narrators emphasizes the ambiguous realities that Woolf manipulates. Perhaps the mark on the wall is not even a snail, and the narrator is untrustworthy– it is still a mystery.

This concept of “knowing” is also depicted in her sketch, “A Society,” written in 1921, although this sketch deals in terms of traditional knowledge. In this short story, a group of women discover “bad literature” written by men. They are indignant because, adhering to women’s traditional role of childrearing, the women had “produced good people,” but men did not fulfill their role to “produce good books (125-126).” The group embarks on a quest to verify that the men of society are fulfilling their obligation to civilize the world, and they conduct extensive research into the affairs of men. Through the journey, they gain knowledge and facts, and they see the greater reality of their society. But, by the end, they are exhausted and overwhelmed. All of this knowledge of the world’s predicament becomes too heavy for them. “‘‘If we hadn’t learned to read, […] we might still be bearing children in ignorance and that I believe was the happiest life after all, (134)’” one of the women stated. The women in “A Society” have accessed deeper levels of knowledge than their traditional roles would have provided, but they were unhappy with these revelations. They decided that, instead of taking action, they would pass on the burden of knowledge to the next generation of young girls. They were much happier in ignorance, believing the best of their men, with fantasizing about the world, and despised their discoveries of reality.

“The Mark on the Wall” gives the reader the same impression; it would have been better to leave reality behind and dwell wholly in fantasy. The disappointment that comes from discovering the true cause of the mark is the same disappointment that the women in “A Society” feel, or that the audience of Jacob’s Room would have felt if Jacob’s inner character had been revealed, and had not lived up to expectation.

“Real” Characters

In “The Mark on the Wall,” Woolf asks the reader to evaluate his or her own definition of reality. The narrator dwells on “rules” for a large section, which, as the narrator describes, were real at one time, providing a sense of stability and predictability for society. Sunday routines, trends, tablecloths, and tapestries all had rules. These rules, however, were “half phantoms,” and rejecting these rules brought the “disbeliever” a “sense of illegitimate freedom (86).” As this story occurs during World War I, it is easy to note the disintegration of rules and tradition surrounding the sketch in history. “What now takes the place of things I wonder, those real standard things (86)?” The narrator asks, but doesn’t provide a straight answer for replacing the old traditions. However, through Woolf’s other dissections of modern literature, Modernism is the idea that Woolf sees on the horizon. “The Mark on the Wall” narrator muses that, “the novelists of the future will realise more and more the importance of reflecting [on ourselves, as if in a mirror]… Leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories (86-87).” Woolf concurrently demonstrates this concept by formulating the entire sketch within the deep inner mind of her main character.

Much like her later nonfiction essays “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” published in 1924, and “Modern Fiction,” published in 1921, Woolf seeks to define what Modernist literature should be in “The Mark on the Wall.” She believes contemporary writing should focus on the interiority of characters, in order to reach a more accurate portrayal of reality. In the sketch, her character fantasizes about entering a room full of people and dazzling them with a self-aggrandizing, yet humble, portrayal of herself. The narrator thinks that if the deeper reflections of this person were shattered and this “shell of a person which is seen by other people” was the only part left in a person’s story, the world would be “airless, shallow, bald […] A world not to be lived in (86).” In her nonfiction essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf explicates the idea of focusing on the inside of a character, and debates about the realness of characters with traditional writers. She critiques author Arnold Bennett’s conventional writing in the essay, and points out that he is too focused on observing the exterior world. She says, “he is trying to hypnotize us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there (205).” Bennett’s writing, according to Woolf, focuses on the shell of a character, but Woolf is interested in life and reflecting human nature and rejecting the surface realities that traditional writers embrace.

Woolf again asks about the realness of characters in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Bennett claimed her characters are unreal, but she argues that this is subjective. “There is nothing that people differ about more than the reality of characters (200),” she says. She gives her characters interiority, and that spirit, she argues, is true characterization. Woolf defines her reality of character in her essay, “Modern Fiction.” In conventional, or materialist, writing, plot and comedy or tragedy is provided, with fully dressed characters and “the novel is done to a turn (287).” She critiques these antiquated writers like Arnold Bennett, calling them “materialists,” because, “they write of unimportant things; that they spend […] immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring (286).” But, she says,

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being [customary or conventional]. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad of impressions– trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. (287)

The observance of thoughts on an ordinary day is what she examines in “The Mark on the Wall.” Her impressionistic style gives a fluidity of thought, combining the banal and the fantastical, and intentionally excluding certain aspects of reality, to portray a more realistic reality. Perhaps her work is a more accurate representation of reality than the materialists’.

“The Mark on the Wall” is an excellent illustration of Woolf’s developing Modernism, and is an early experiment as she fleshes out her ideas. She takes pleasure in uncertainty and has an attraction to the unknown and indefinable in much of her other work. There is an irony in that, as Woolf attempts to represent deeper levels of reality through the thoughts of her characters, she also maintains this detachment from reality in fantasy, the imagination, unreliable narrators, and by leaving a wide margin of ambiguity in her concept of reality. “The Mark on the Wall” is, in these ways, a precursor to Woolf’s literary ideas, and engages the reader to question reality in fiction using these new, innovative methods.

Works Cited

Woolf, Virginia. “A Society.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 124-136. Print.

–––. Jacob’s Room. Ed. Sue Roe. London: Penguin, 1992. Print.

–––. “The Mark on the Wall.” The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Susan Dick. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. 83-89. Print.

–––. “Modern Fiction.” Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. The Virginia Woolf Reader. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. 283-291. Print.

–––. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” The Virginia Woolf Reader. Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984. 192-212. Print.

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