The Mark on the Wall

by Virginia Woolf

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1145

This story of one individual’s mind under pressure begins casually: “Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. In order to fix the date it is necessary to remember what one saw.” However, what the narrator saw in the external world moments before seeing the mark—that is, the shade of light on the pages of the book she was reading, the three chrysanthemums in a bowl, and the smoke of her cigarette—serve as definite landmarks by which she may locate herself; such location of self becomes increasingly important as the narrative progresses.

The first hint the reader is given about the importance of the narrator’s sense of place occurs in the initial paragraph, when she recalls looking at (besides those other things already mentioned) the “burning coals” in her fireplace, and how this sight caused “that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping from the tower” and the “cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of the black rock.” This fancy is one that she believes was formed in her childhood, and one with which she is not comfortable (presumably because it reminds her of war). Although she does not explain why the fancy is discomforting, it is clear that it is when she says, “rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy.” For a moment, then, she is able to focus on, and to locate herself by, this “small round mark, black on the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantlepiece.”

What is this mark? she wonders—a nail hole made by the people who lived in the house before her? Here she recalls a discussion about art she was having with one of these people when they were suddenly “torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball . . . as one rushes past in the train.” For the moment, she decides that neither what the mark is nor its cause is important enough for her to get up and walk across the room to inspect it more closely; besides, she reflects, “once a thing’s done, no one ever knows how it happened.” Nevertheless, it soon becomes apparent that the narrator is troubled by the “ignorance of humanity,” by “what an accidental affair . . . living is after all our civilization,” by how many things she has lost over the years, and—again—by how quickly time passes, as life is similar to being “blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour” or similar to being “pitched down a shoot in the post office! . . . Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life,” she thinks, “the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard.”

Paradoxically, while letting her thoughts drift away from the mark on the wall to unpleasant reflections on the perpetual dissolution of life and order, and while such reflections prompt her to focus again on the mark and to wonder what it is, by not getting up to inspect it definitively she begins to realize a certain intellectual freedom from the mental constraints of tradition. Resisting the urge to define the mark reminds her that, during her childhood, there were rules for everything. “The rule for tablecloths,” she says, “was that they . . . be made of tapestry with little yellow compartments marked on them.” Anything different in the way of a tablecloth was not considered, by society in general, “real.” Nevertheless, although “shocking,” she recalls that it was also “wonderful” to discover that “real things” (such as tablecloths, Sunday luncheons, or Sunday walks) “were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation that visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom.” Her reflections on such freedom notwithstanding, she is suddenly reminded that, in her and England’s present moment, the “real standard things” are determined by “the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets standards, which establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency.” Such a table of precedency is for British society, like the narrator’s urge to define the mark on the wall at the same time she continually locates herself by it, destructive to original living. Thus, she hopes that Whitaker’s Table, synonymous with the masculine point of view, “will be laughed into the dustbin where phantoms go . . . , Gods and Devils, Hell and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists.”

The narrator’s preceding “if” clause sends her attention back to the mark on the wall, her own uncertainty about what is and is not fundamental to her existence prompting her to seek the mental anchor the mark has become. However, her mental focus widens again, she reflects on the long debate between various Englishmen about some ancient barrows, and whether they are tombs or forts; she concludes, “No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known.” After all, she says, England’s learned men are “the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves,” and the only reason they are honored is that the British people are superstitious and do not yet respect “beauty and health of mind” enough. Even so, she believes a better world could be possible, “if it were not for Whitaker’s Almanac—if it were not for the Table of Precedency!”

Suddenly, she realizes that it is her instinct toward self-preservation that causes her urge to get up and see what the mark actually is, for by sitting still and allowing the mark to serve as a catalyst for independent thoughts and incisive questions about herself and her society, she risks having a “collision with reality” and the masculine minds in power. With this realization she decides to end her “disagreeable thoughts” and focus on the mark as “something definite, something real” compared to the Archbishops and the Lord High Chancellor (who are, she says, as insubstantial as “shadows of shades”). This tactic works for a time, as she imagines herself as a tree and feels “full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts”; she then feels lost, however, forgets what she was thinking about, and is troubled by how everything seems to be “moving, falling, slipping, vanishing.” What causes this sudden change in her reality is a heretofore unmentioned second person in the room who, as an “upheaval of matter,” stands up and tells her, “I’m going out to buy a newspaper,” even though “it’s no good buying” one because “nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war! . . . All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.” As a matter of fact, the narrator now knows, the mark on the wall is a snail.

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