Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Mark on the Wall” is the gradually unfolding revelation—through concentrically associative rings of thought—of one female character, the nameless narrator. However, it is not merely the revelation of one person’s mind, as it also reveals the collective mentality and ethos of England at a crucial time in its history—that is, during World War I. Indeed, the time during which this story takes place is essential to understanding its central conflict, and this, again, concerns the narrator’s state of mind.
In 1917, Britain, like most of the other European countries, is fighting a war; also like the other countries, it is ruled by men, “men of action—men, we assume, who don’t think.” However, the narrator does think about and question “the mark” these men are leaving on the wall of the thinking person’s mind. Thus, Virginia Woolf bases her story on Plato’s allegory of the cave, which describes—in Socrates’ words—humans chained to one wall in such a way that they are prevented from looking in any direction other than straight ahead at the cave wall in front of them; on this wall are shadows of stick figures cast from behind the wall to which the humans are bound. Shadows, then, are all that these prototypical humans know as reality. Even so, Socrates says, if one of these people is set free, taken out of the cave and shown the world of light and three dimensional forms, and if—after discovering that what he thought was...
(The entire section is 461 words.)
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Just as the artists whose work was shown in the Post-Impressionist Exhibition were interested in seeing the world in new ways, Woolf at least since that show in 1910 was thinking about the limits and restrictions of familiar forms of literary expression. At the time that she was writing the short pieces that appeared in Monday or Tuesday (1921), she was also writing and continually revising her ideas about "Modern Fiction" in the essay of that name that eventually was published in 1925 in The Common Reader. A theme that runs through that work, restated on several occasions, is that:
The writer seems constrained not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love, interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole . . .
Woolf felt it was essential to escape from this confinement. Her goal—"to come closer to life"—was to discard the elements (plot, probability, etc.,) she mentioned and to examine instead how "the mind receives a myriad of impressions" on what she called "an ordinary day." Since she was not writing a conventional story, she did not feel the need to follow or develop a theme in the commonly accepted sense. Instead, the theme of "The Mark on the Wall" is the manner in which the mind constructs or shapes "reality" in terms of its assimilation and assessment of a collage of sensory data....
(The entire section is 759 words.)