Previously, we’ve picked the best of Virginia Woolf’s novels and non-fiction works, but she was also a fine writer of very short stories. Although Woolf didn’t write a great amount of short fiction, a number of her short stories are classic examples of early twentieth-century modernism. All five stories are included in The Mark on the Wall and Other Short Fiction (Oxford World’s Classics), which is a treasure-trove of very short modernist fiction by one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers.
‘The Mark on the Wall’. In this short story, the narrator tells us about a mark she noticed on the wall; what follows is, essentially, is eight pages of stream of consciousness as we follow the narrator’s thoughts, memories, and daydreams. The mark on the wall is jumping-off-point, but the ‘life’ of the story resides in what goes on in the narrator’s mind: Woolf is telling us that the material world is not everything, since there is an almost spiritual delight in the life of the mind which conventional fiction seldom takes into account. The rock group Modest Mouse took their band name from a phrase in this story.
‘Kew Gardens’. Much of Woolf’s best fiction offers us a new perspective on the world, and in this story she seems to adopt a snail’s eye view, focusing on four groups of people as they pass a flowerbed in the London botanical gardens. The mention of a snail (which had also appeared in ‘The Mark on the Wall’) bookends the ‘events’ (more snatches of conversation) that make up this story, suggesting that Woolf wants to focus on the small and insignificant, to find the beauty and delight of the world in unlikely places.
‘An Unwritten Novel’. In this story, the female narrator is travelling on the train from London to the south coast. She is a people-watcher, and takes an interest in her fellow passengers, all of whom are trying to avoid making eye contact with the other people in the carriage. All, that is, except one: a woman sitting across from the narrator, who stares straight ahead, and who, the narrator surmises, harbours some secret. The narrator proceeds to invent a whole life for this unknown woman, riding high on the life of the imagination and letting her creative spirit off the leash. We’ve discussed this story here.
‘A Haunted House’. In less than two pages of prose, Woolf explores, summons, and subverts the conventions of the ghost story, offering a modernist take on the genre. The narrator describes the house where she and her partner live, telling us that whenever you wake in the house, you hear noises: a door shutting, and the sound of a ‘ghostly couple’ wandering from room to room in the house. The narrator claims to be able to hear this ghostly couple talking to each other. It’s clear they’re looking for something – but what they’re looking for is not revealed until the very end of the story…
‘Solid Objects’. In just half a dozen pages, Virginia Woolf charts the growing obsession with a small lump of glass-like substance which a man named John finds on the beach. John finds another, and then another, collecting them and gathering them on his mantelpiece. Having denounced politics at the beginning of the story, John eventually enters Parliament, but even now he becomes distracted by his magpie-like attraction to shiny objects he spies while out and about. These ‘pretty stones’ seem to matter to him more than his life or career – but what precisely is the attraction? This is the most baffling of the five stories on this list – but it is loaded with potential meanings about the relation between life and art, big and small, the real and the intangible.