Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical 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 Mark on the Wall,” is essentially impressionistic and circuitous, as the narrative focus in all three reveals its subject as ultimately indefinable and only describable through concentric rings of associations. Whether these various associations belong to the narrator in relation to a given character or to a character in relation to others and life, they all express Woolf’s view that life and people are mercurially mutable.