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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...
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The Mark on the Wall Summary
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The Mark on the Wall is an early short story by Virginia Woolf. First published in 1917, it was included in a collection of stories entitled Two Stories authored by Virginia Woolf and her husband, Leonard Woolf.
The story begins with an unnamed narrator describing when she first noticed the mark in question. She briefly centers us in her environment before launching into a stream-of-consciousness meditation centered on a mysterious dark mark she spies on the wall. While she begins to think of the mark as a nail, and thus centers her thoughts on what might have hung on that wall, her thinking quickly expands into varied and esoteric areas. As the story states “How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it. …”
As soon as the narrator dismisses the possibility that it is a nail hole, she quickly comes to ruminate over the “inaccuracy of thought” and thus, the chaos of life in general, describing it thus: “Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair!”
As she reevaluates, thinking perhaps the mark is a dried piece of a leaf, she begins to luxuriate in her wandering thoughts: “I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle.” As her thoughts continue to cascade, we can almost read some of Woolf’s own artistic philosophy being written in this character’s thoughts. As she speaks of “reflections,” she speaks not only of our own reflections in a mirror, our own self-aggrandizing view, but also of how we are reflected in everyone we meet. “And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted…” Thus, the narrator, and perhaps Woolf, are noting the importance in literature of portraying a person as they are perceived through those around them; how their identity is shaped and molded by their environment, and how reality is flexible according to each person’s point of view.
The narrator moves on then to mention the absurd way social life was regimented, from correct table cloths, to precise social schedules and the like. Here she mentions Whitaker’s Table of Precedency for the first time, which will recur throughout the story. It is an annual list of the social hierarchy, topped with the King and Queen and descending throughout the country’s titles, and dictates when and how guests are announced and attended to at social events. The narrator hopes the Table, and other rigid social norms will be tossed out, leaving her with “an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom.”
The narrator continues to bask in this freedom, lamenting even the reverence of knowledge. She begins to dismiss the thought of discovering the truth about the mark, and goes so far as to wonder if we might be better off without the pursuit of knowledge, instead living “without professor or specialists,” “a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin.”
Still, she is seized by a desire to inspect the mark, and attributes this call to action as Nature’s way of interrupting unhelpful thoughts: “I understand Nature’s game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain.” Though she dismisses action, still she shifts tone a bit to celebrate the material, and the instinct to focus on something solid: “Indeed, now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel that I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality… the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours.”
After contemplating the life of a tree, its growth and surroundings, and then the million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms” (in the form of furniture) the narrator is promptly interrupted, her mystery solved. The first and only bit of dialogue is introduced, as an unnamed someone announces they are going to buy a paper and mentions that the mark on the wall is a snail. The story abruptly ends, as if to validate the story’s earlier assertion that the pursuit of knowledge has boxed out that “quiet, spacious world” where thoughts can run free.