By Dr Oliver Tearle
Virginia Woolf’s distinctive talents did not arrive fully formed in her first published work. One of her very first published pieces of writing was actually produced when she was still very young: it was an obituary for the family dog, Shag. When Woolf published her first novel, The Voyage Out, in 1915, there were a few signs that she would become a great modernist writer, but not many. The Mrs Dalloway who appears in this first, altogether more conventional novel is markedly different from her reincarnation, in the novel Mrs Dalloway, ten years later. In the ten years that intervened, Woolf had forged a new path for herself, and published two further novels. But it was in short fiction that she first perfected the modernist style that would make her one of the great writers of the twentieth century.
‘The Mark on the Wall’ is one of the greatest of these very short stories Woolf produced towards the end of the First World War and in its immediate aftermath; they were collected together in the volume Monday or Tuesday in 1921. Woolf herself took on the task of publishing the volume: she and her husband had founded their own printing press, the Hogarth Press, and they duly printed 1000 copies, including four full-page woodcuts by Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. Leonard Woolf, Virginia’s husband, called Monday or Tuesday one of the worst printed books ever published because there were so many typographical mistakes, but that didn’t matter. With this volume, which included ‘The Mark on the Wall’, Woolf made her mark as an exciting new modernist writer.
Woolf wrote ‘The Mark on the Wall’ in 1917, while the First World War was still raging; it’s the earliest of her ‘mature’ and most recognisably modernist short stories. The story was conceived partly as an escape from the wearisome process of writing her second novel, Night and Day (1919), which, like her first novel, began to gesture towards a new modernist technique but hadn’t quite arrived there yet.
In summary, ‘The Mark on the Wall’ is narrated by someone who recalls noticing a mark on the wall of their house. But the story is not really ‘about’ the mark on the wall, but rather what it prompts the narrator to think about, muse upon and recollect. As well as speculating on what the mark on the wall might be – a small hole, or perhaps a leftover rose leaf – the narrator’s mind wanders to much bigger questions and meditations, such as the nature of life, where Shakespeare found his inspiration, and even what the afterlife might be like:
I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought, a track indirectly reflecting credit upon myself, for those are the pleasantest thoughts, and very frequent even in the minds of modest mouse-coloured people, who believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.
(And yes, that is where the band Modest Mouse got their name from.) This reflection then leads into a more sustained stream of consciousness (if we can call it that) which considers the reality of our everyday lives:
As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted, as the Greeks did and Shakespeare perhaps – but these generalizations are very worthless.
Woolf’s narrator goes on to question the very nature of reality as it is presented to us, especially (it is implied) by writers of conventional ‘realist’ fiction:
How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom. What now takes the place of those things I wonder, those real standard things? Men perhaps, should you be a woman; the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom – if freedom exists….
Such an understanding of ‘reality’ as is offered to us by traditional realist novels is male in origin, and part of the patriarchal ideology that governs society. Such an idea would be extended by the French theorist Hélène Cixous, who has suggested there is a feminine writing (écriture feminine) which stands as an alternative to this masculine kind of writing: where male writing is about constructing a reality out of solid, materialist details, feminine writing (and much modernist writing is ‘feminine’ in this way, even that written by male writers such as James Joyce) is about the ‘spiritual’ or psychological aspects of everyday living, the daydreams and gaps, the seemingly ‘unimportant’ moments we experience in our day-to-day lives.
‘The Mark on the Wall’ ends with the narrator realising that the titular mark on the wall was nothing more exciting, after close analysis and inspection, than a snail. But this is surely the point: its very ordinariness, its unremarkable nature, the fact that it is something so everyday and unattractive (unless snails are your thing), is a reminder that external details do not give our lives the meaning they have. Instead, that meaning is found in the musings and daydreams, the thoughts and meditations, that arise from everyday contemplations of such things – even something as small and insignificant as a mark on the wall.
Continue to explore Virginia Woolf’s early works of modernism with her essay on modern fiction, her essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, and her early novel Jacob’s Room. We’ve picked Woolf’s best novels here. Alternatively, you might also enjoy our analysis of Kate Chopin’s ‘The Story of an Hour’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.