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Virginia Woolf, The mark on the wall (Review)

March 24, 2012
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) English: Portrait o...

Virginia Woolf, 1902, by George Charles Beresford (Public donain via Wikipedia)

Back in November I wrote a post titled Nettie Palmer on short stories which resulted in Stefanie (of So Many Books) recommending one of her favourite short stories, Virginia Woolf‘s “The mark on the wall”. I told her I’d read it and, finally, I have.

This is the sort of story I like. It doesn’t have a strong plot but is the meditation of a lively, creative mind. This meditation is inspired by a mark on the wall which leads the first person narrator to wonder what the mark is, and what it might signify. She doesn’t want to get up to investigate, preferring to let her mind wander, as it will, on the possibilities:

How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw to feverishly, and then leave it …

The story does progress, albeit in an organic, stream-of-consciousness way, rather than according to any clear logic. She wonders if the mark is a hole, then thinks it could be a stain, or even, perhaps, something more three-dimensional like a nail head that has broken through the paint. At the end, we do discover what the mark is, but that’s not the point of the story. The point is what she thinks about as she considers the mark …

And the things she thinks about are wide-ranging as we have come to expect in stream-of-consciousness, a technique of which Woolf was one of the early pioneers. The thing about stream-of-consciousness is not only that it tends to roam over a wide range of ideas and topics, but that these ideas and topics are very loosely connected. Sometimes the thread between them is barely visible, usually because the connection is idiosyncratic to the thought processes of the narrator.

This is the case with “The mark on the wall”. The first paragraph uses strong imagery – based around the colours of red and black – which encouraged me to expect something more dramatic than what did, in fact, follow. In the third paragraph she exclaims:

Oh! dear me, the mystery of life. The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity!  To show how very little control of our possessions we have — what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilisation …

Nothing, though, is accidental in Woolf’s story, no matter how much the stream-of-consciousness form may lull us into thinking it is. This is the story of a woman concerned about the meaning or import of reality. She ponders the shallowness of “things” (including, even, knowledge). In the second paragraph she suggests the mark may have been made by a nail holding up a miniature that would have been

a fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in this way — an old picture for an old room.

She writes of how we like to construct positive images of ourselves but how fragile this is, of how superficial reality is. Interestingly, while the story flits from idea to idea, there’s one motif (besides the mark) that recurs, Whitaker’s Table of Precedency. Whitaker’s exemplifies “the masculine point of view which governs our lives”. She uses it to represent the faith we have in rules, and the way we let rules and reality prevent our seeing the “sudden gleams of light”.

There’s a funny sequence in which she imagines a Colonel pontificating with other men on the history of objects like ancient arrowheads. The  Colonel, she imagines, might suffer a stroke and his last thought would be, not his wife and family, but the arrowhead which, she suggests in her stream-of-consciousness way,

is now in the case at the local museum, together with the foot of a Chinese murderess, a handful of Elizabethan nails, a great many Tudor pipes, a piece of Roman pottery, and the wine-glass that Nelson drank out of — proving I really don’t know what.

That made me, a librarian-archivist, laugh!

And so, what is it about? Well, the mark seems to represent the unwelcome intrusion of reality into her life – it gets in the way of her thinking (of her desire “to catch hold of the first idea that passes”) while also, paradoxically, offering inspiration to her thoughts. An intriguing story. And, like Stefanie did to me, I recommend it to you.

Virginia Woolf
“The mark on the wall”
Originally published: 1919
Available online at The Internet Archive 

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. March 25, 2012 4:35 am

    This sounds quite out-of-this-world. And one I think I could learn from. I haven’t read Virginia Woolf for years but I remember how I loved travelling along her stream-of-consciousness voyages. I read the usual novels but I don’t recall any short stories. I also remember feeling aware for the first time of the abyss between being a male writer and a woman writer. Twenty years and four children later I realise how accurate were her words.

    • March 25, 2012 9:27 am

      I think you’d like it Catherine and would probably respond particularly to her writerly concerns re reality and its impositions. I think it is the only short story (to date) of hers that I’ve read too.

  2. March 25, 2012 4:40 am

    Her short pieces are intensely good, the nonfiction too, not only the fiction. The amount of thought she puts into a book review is beautiful to see, she’s always thinking, thinking, even when the book itself, the object of her review, is fluff. Away she goes to write a quick bit of magazine-pagefiller about an aquarium and comes back with a thought: “Some are delicately fringed with a fin that vibrates like an electric fan and propels them on; others wear a mail boldly splashed with a design by a Japanese artist. That crude human egotism which supposes that Nature has wrought her best for those who walk the earth is rebuked in the aquarium. Nature seems to have cared more to tint and adorn the fishes who live unseen at the depths of the sea than to ornament our old, familiar friends, the goat, the hog, the sparrow, and the horse.”

    • March 25, 2012 9:30 am

      Clearly, DKS, I need to read more of her short pieces. I can see why you like and remember her so well … Your minds seem to think alike. I can only sit back and admire!

  3. March 25, 2012 2:03 pm

    I’ve barely read any Virginia Woolf… but I have read Obernewtyn. I’m sure the latter is just as deep and meaningful. Yep.

    • March 25, 2012 5:09 pm

      Well, here’s your chance … the link is in the post and it’s only 5 pages. No excuses will be listened to.

  4. March 25, 2012 9:45 pm

    I loved this story. In fact, I read the entire collection which I found on line and there were so many fascinating narratives that I found myself falling in love with Woolf all over again.

    You’ve done a superb job of characterising the nature of Woolf’s ‘mark’ on the wall and the manner in which it intrudes into her stream of consciousness. Isn’t that typical of Woolf’s thinking and probably what underlies her writing of ‘A Room of One’s Own’.

    A great review to match a great story.

    • March 25, 2012 9:56 pm

      Oh thanks, Justine … I felt I could have done it more justice but I really appreciate your comments. I would love to read the rest so will track them down and try to fit them into my schedule … but yes, I can see it underlining A room of one’s own as you say. I’ve only read that once. It’s pretty vivid in my mind but I should read it again. I have read To the lighthouse twice, and loved the reread, but there are others of hers I haven’t read at all (yet).

      • April 16, 2012 11:13 pm

        I know the feeling. Definitely not enough hours in the day to read and reread all those worthy tomes!! I also read To The Lighthouse several times and The Waves – although I do feel as though one needs to keep rereading them in order to constantly savour the brilliance.

        • April 16, 2012 11:28 pm

          Oh yes. I’ve read To the lighthouse a couple of times and could read it again. I feel the urge to read A room of one’s own again too. I haven’t read The waves though. I’d like to read Orlando again … it was such a long time ago and I’d like to see what I think of it now. Right now I have The death of a moth printed out to read. Just have to find the time to read a few wee pages!

  5. March 27, 2012 2:37 am

    Hurrah! I am so glad you enjoyed the story. Woolf’s precision in both language and detail never fail amaze me especially since it always seems so natural and easy. Of course it isn’t, if it were we wouldn’t be admiring her! I’m going to put in a plug for Death of a Moth too. :)

    • March 28, 2012 10:52 am

      Oh good, Stefanie, then that seals it – you and DKS. I’ve printed it out and read the first para and then got distracted but I will finish it as I loved what I read.

  6. April 1, 2012 6:32 am

    I love her stream-of-consciousness style. It really helps with the character development because the emphasis is on what the character is thinking rather than what she or he is doing. It helps you understand the character’s motivation better.

    • April 1, 2012 2:54 pm

      Oh well said … It’s a great technique for conveying motivation as you say. Thanks for commenting.

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