Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
At one point in this story, the narrator remarks how “dull” fiction is which gives the reader only an external description of a given character; if “only that shell of a person . . . is seen by other people,” then the world will be made to seem “airless, shallow, [and] bald.” No, she says, people are more than one-dimensional shells, and “the novelists in the future will realize more and more the importance of . . . reflections [as those seen in mirrors], for of course there is not one reflection but almost infinite numbers; those are the depths they will explore . . . leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories.” By “reality” here she means that which is external to a character’s inner self. “The Mark on the Wall” is itself a paradigm of such a narrative attempt to communicate numerous “reflections” of one character’s being, and this was an important accomplishment for Woolf.
The style of this story came as an artistic breakthrough for Woolf, as it proved to be a decisive break away from the relatively traditional fiction she had written prior to 1917. Indeed, in one of her journals she noted that this story showed her how she could embody her deposit of experience in a shape that fit it; this discovery, she believed, led to the creation of her novels Jacob’s Room (1922) and Mrs. Dalloway (1925). The narrative technique used in both of these novels, like that used in “The...
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At the time she wrote "The Mark on the Wall," Woolf was quite enthusiastic about the work of James Joyce (if somewhat uncertain about the early chapters she saw of Ulysses), praising him for his ability "to reveal the flickerings of that innermost flame which flashes its messages through the brain." In summarizing her own technique in "The Mark on the Wall," she described those messages as "myriad impressions" which she listed as "trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel." Her efforts to record the flow or stream of consciousness paralleling what Joyce was doing drew on two crucial, revolutionary components of Modernism. One was the work of the Post-Impressionist painters. The other, which she was much less directly familiar with, was the theoretical work being done in particle physics and quantum mechanics, an aspect of the Zeitgeist that Woolf was aware of.
Roger Fry immediately recognized her inspiration in the work of the artists who were featured in his famous exhibition, complimenting Woolf on the "plasticity" of "The Mark on the Wall," and Woolf responded by saying "I'm not sure that a perverted plastic sense doesn't somehow work itself out in words for me." The concept of plasticity is somewhat vague, but in "The Mark on the Wall," Woolf muses over the mutability of boundaries between species or categories:
As for saying which are trees, and which are men and women,...
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Ideas for Group Discussions
Even with the passage of time and all of the imaginative experiments in form, style, language, and subject that have occurred through the twentieth century, "The Mark on the Wall" still feels fresh and vibrant, supporting Woolf's exuberant recollection "I shall never forget the day I wrote The Mark on the Wall—all in a flash, as if flying, after being kept stone breaking for months." To Roger Fry, who admired its utilization of post-impressionist techniques, it displayed "The power of artistic detachment from life." One might argue, however, that it shows a different kind of artist involvement with life. One of Woolf's better biographers, Panthea Reid, suggested that the story "contrasts holistic meditation with purposeful activity," but that too could be challenged. Perhaps the meditative qualities are a demonstration of a different kind of purposeful activity. In her excellent biography of Woolf, Hermione Lee describes the story as "quizzical, domestic, conversational." A fruitful discussion might focus on what each of these terms means and how they reflect the author's intentions.
1. Would it be possible to describe the narrative voice in terms of the attributes that Woolf leaves out? Physical dimensions, age, and background?
2. Since Woolf's background is familiar, is it reasonable to assume that the narrative consciousness is female? Can a case be made for a male narrator?
3. Examine in detail specific passages in terms of...
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In her superb biography Virginia Woolf (1996), Hermione Lee summarized the Edwardian years by saying that they "polarised conservatives and dissenters." The voices of the Establishment—that is, the people who had been ruling England for centuries—"spoke for Christianity, patriotism, the defence of the realm, and women in their place; against degeneracy, poisonous foreign influences, effeminacy, pacifism, cowardice, modernism and the weakening of the race." Woolf herself, although raised in an almost classically decorous, even fussy Victorian home, "was always explicitly on the radical, subversive and modern side of this cultural divide" in her writing, as Lee puts it, and her short story "The Mark on the Wall" was one of her first works to exhibit all of these attributes.
One of the most significant cultural events of the Edwardian era took place in 1910 when the Post-Impressionist Exhibition mounted by Roger Fry introduced the work of painters like Manet, Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Matisse to the English public. Woolf, in recalling the paintings in an homage to Fry in 1935, declared, "They are no longer silent, decorous, dull. They are things we live with, laugh at, discuss." The furor that the exhibition aroused paralleled the reactionary attack on the woman's suffrage movement, and Woolf not only felt a kinship with the painters who were finding new ways to look at the world but also felt a strong sense of identification with artists...
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Woolf was not entirely sure about James Joyce's goals as a writer, but she was convinced that his approach to his craft was worth studying. "Whatever the intention of the whole there can be no question but that it is of the utmost sincerity, and that the result difficult or unpleasant as we may judge it, is undeniably important." What especially appealed to her was his willingness to move beyond narrow definitions of literary possibility. "He disregards with complete courage whatever seems to him adventitious," she wrote in "Modern Fiction," endorsing a point of view strikingly similar to her own credo. Aside from Joyce's own work, there were no clear precedents in literature for "The Mark on the Wall." Woolf was as much a modernist innovator as the great figures of that movement working in other areas—Picasso, Stravinsky, Pound, or Eliot.
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"I don't like writing for my half-brother George," Virginia Woolf wrote to her friend Bunny Garnett in July, 1917. It was actually her half-brother Gerald Duckworth who ran the firm but Woolf's point was that she did not want to be controlled or censored by anyone. Her first novel The Voyage Out (1915) was considered promising and original but while she was working on her second one, Night and Day (1919), she had already begun to feel constrained by the traditional forms of the novel and told Vanessa Stephen Bell, Woolf's sister who married Clive Bell in 1907, that "I should have liked to try the other way," hoping that Duckworth would not accept it for his list. As she noted in her diary, "the other way" would have made her "the only woman in England free to write what I like." Bell's suggestion "Why don't you write more short things?" touched a responsive chord but Woolf had been severely shaken by the mental breakdown she suffered in 1916, and had kept Night and Day in a conventional form "to prove to my own satisfaction that I could keep entirely off that dangerous ground." By "dangerous ground," she meant the "poems, stories, profound and inspired phrases" that she made up while bedridden. Her first short story, "The Mark on the Wall," she described as being written "all in a flash, as if flying," in contrast to the work on the novel which she called "stone breaking."
One of the reasons she felt that it was necessary to write...
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