‘The mundane’ in the short stories of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf

‘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…’

Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall suggests a number of ways of considering the mundane in literature. The line both isolates ‘thought’ from ‘object’ and shows them to be fundamentally connected. It communicates interplay between physical and mental reality, yet, at the same time, Woolf makes it clear that their relationship is abstract and subject to the ‘swarm’ of the thousand different ‘thoughts’ that surround them. Emily Dalgarno writes of ‘a kind of power’ in Woolf’s writing ‘to see beyond the horizon of ordinary perception.’ The Mark on the Wall is concerned with this perception, as it explores the distinction between the world of individual thoughts and the mundane reality from which they stem. This symbiosis between objects and sign is central to Joyce’s Dubliners. Here, Joyce constructs conflict as his characters are unable to perceive one thing, in the same way, imbuing the mundane with significance as banal reality gives way to individual interpretation.

In order to examine the role of the mundane, it is necessary to define and clarify the term. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the ‘mundane’ denotes ‘belonging to the earthly world, as contrasted with heaven’ a meaning that had later come to describe the ‘ordinary’ or ‘commonplace.’ The mundane then is to do with physical experience. If taking Kant’s understanding of the sublime as ‘a feeling of the superiority of our own power of reason, as a supersensible faculty, over nature’ mundane experience appears to rest in direct opposition to this. Unlike the expansion of thought connected to the sublime, the mundane is concerned with tangible experience indicating involvement with the ‘earthly world’ over a metaphysical exercising of reason.

In the opening paragraph of The Boarding House, Joyce establishes a sense of the mundane that pervades the short story. His language is corporeal, describing physical attributes and action as opposed to contemplation. Joyce objectively introduces his protagonist, Mrs Mooney, informing his reader of her relations with the estranged husband from the removed perspective of third-person narrative; ‘One night he went for his wife with the cleaver and she had to sleep in a neighbour’s house.’ The line is imbued with references to the physical; the setting of a butcher’s shop, the bodily need for sleep, and the inferred image of hacking through flesh all root the passage in ‘the earthly world.’ However, what makes this sentence so curious is the tone of banality created by Joyce’s syntax. Here, the verbs ‘went for’ and ‘sleep’ are pre-modified by similar pronouns. This constructs a strange situation in which sleeping and attempted murder hold the same syntactic status; a balance concretised by the equal syllables on either side of Joyce’s conjunction. Thus, the sentence fulfils both definitions of the mundane as a descriptive sentence that combines the physical world with the common place.

However, Joyce makes it clear that reality, as understood by his characters, is not confined to physical experience. His language is descriptive yet it is equally astute; moving into the minds of his characters through the use of free indirect discourse. Thus, a reader can access the internal perceptions that disclosed from the other characters. Mrs Mooney’s conception of herself as a ‘woman who was quite able to keep things to herself’ (p71) runs parallel to the doubts that pervade the mind of her lodger, Mr Doran, giving a complexity to the narrative as it indicates the contrasting ways in which the physical events are experienced. This emphasis on perception is intriguing as it provokes a shift from the mundane to the subjective. In his Essay on the Sublime, John Baillie constructs an extensive investigation of the sublime. His language is eulogistic, praising the sublime as the mind’s ‘consciousness of its own vastness.’ Baillie is referencing the sense of ‘elevation’ attached to rational thought yet the ‘vastness’ of consciousness is intriguing on a number of levels. Whilst The Boarding House is rooted in palpable life, it is essentially to do with the shifting and wholly immaterial perceptions of its characters. Consciousness then dominates the work. However, rather than depend on lofty contemplations, it is drawn from the mundane. Thus, a strange situation is created in which ‘consciousness’ is as present in the mundane as it is in the sublime.

This symbiosis between what is seen and what is thought draws us back to Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall. Woolf’s language is expansive, following the stream-of-conscious of her narrator’s meditation on the nature of human identity. Woolf asks us to ‘Suppose the looking glass smashes’ and leaves only ‘the shell of a person which is seen by other people.’ (p79) ‘Shell’ is important here; it emphasises the significance of internal reality and connects the language to the ‘snail’ that the ‘mark’ is discovered to be. The very anatomy of a snail denotes internal significance as its hidden and vital being is contained within such a ‘shell.’ Here, we may recall Woolf’s famous assertion in Modern Fiction that ‘if the writer were a free man and not a slave…he could base his writing upon his own feeling and not upon convention.’ ‘Feeling’ and personal contemplation are at the heart of The Mark on the Wall as the story is driven by consciousness over narrative. Fletcher and Bradbury remark that Woolf is ‘…Paterian enough to believe that consciousness is itself aesthetic,’ likening her use of stream of consciousness to a ‘kind of poeticized subjective vision…’ This notion is intriguing as it more readily connects Woolf’s writing to Baillie’s understanding of the sublime than to her subject of the mundane ‘mark’; denoting a preoccupation with thought that is remote from physical experience.

Yet, Woolf does not sever consciousness from the material world but shows them to be fundamentally connected. In The Mark on the Wall, she sustains the narrator’s reflection with the ‘small round mark…above the mantelpiece’ (p77) Here, Woolf’s narrator imbues the mundane with its own significance. Her narrator’s belief that ‘it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature’ (p77) draws the reader’s attention to the ‘powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks’ of the portrait of a ‘lady’(p77) for whom the mark may have been made. Thus, a single mark acquires its own history and its own personal narrative. In elevating the narrative status of the ‘mark,’ Woolf challenges the classical understanding of the sublime as superior to the mundane. In his Course in General Linguistics, Saussure argues that in binary pairs, one side tends to hold authority over the other. To set out a strong generalisation, it can be suggested that the sublime has been frequently favoured over the mundane within the canon of pre-twentieth-century literature. Baillie’s Essay on the Sublime compounds this preference as it suggests that literature that aspires to ‘lofty’ ‘genius’ is the holder of ‘the truly excellent and great manner.’ The imagination of Woolf’s character is motivated by the mundane yet it forms a platform for human reason. This creates a strange symbiosis in which characteristics typical of the ‘sublime’ are dependent on the banality of physical existence.

This is equally explored in The Boarding House. Here, the mental activity of Joyce’s characters is not polemical to the mundanity of their situations but is drawn from the world in which they operate. Joyce compounds this dynamic in the final part of the story in which Mooney’s daughter Polly contemplates her relationship with Mr Doran. In this passage, the mundane takes on its own significance as her ‘secret amiable memories’ (p79) are drawn directly from the sight of her ‘pillows.’ This relationship between object and thought is intriguing in that it transforms individual perception into a form of semiotics. Polly’s reverie is sustained by the ‘cool iron bed-rail,’ its pressure and shape taking on phallic symbolism for both Polly and the reader alike. Thus, Joyce demonstrates interdependence between the mundane and the world of thought as the banal is imbued with individual significance; with its own ‘secret’ language.

The Boarding House describes symbiosis between mundanity and thought. However, Joyce makes it clear that the same perceptions cannot be derived from the same object. In The Dead, Joyce distinguishes the characters of Gabriel and his wife Gretta by their contrasting reactions to the same piece of music. The music itself is unsuccessful; its singer is ‘as hoarse as a crow’ (p229) and it finishes abruptly. Yet, for both Gabriel and Gretta, the melody is imbued with connotation and reflection. However, sense of conflict is created as the event provokes contrary emotions in the two characters. Whilst for Gabriel, the music evokes tender memories of his wife and provokes his desire for her, for Gretta it forms a direct link with her past lover, a ‘boy’ whom she believes to have ‘died for [her]’ (p238) and whose loss she bitterly laments.

Gabriel responds internally to this confession with bitterness; ‘While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another.’(p238) Strikingly, the ‘tenderness’ ‘joy’ and ‘desire’ that colour Gabriel’s perception are immaterial experiences that belong more to the language of the sublime than to banal existence. This correlates with his fantasy of ‘run[nning] away together with wild and radiant hearts’ (p233) expressed earlier in the narrative, with Joyce’s free indirect discourse indicating that the metaphor is constructed by the character’s mind rather than by the author alone. The reflection then deals with a fear of the mundane and with the desire to escape prosaic ‘duties’ (p233) Gabriel is filled with exalted passion and the possibility that he may be interferer is relation to another, suggests a banality of character that is too much to bear.

Joyce constructs an intriguing binary between a craving for the sublime and the mundane nature of existence. Gabriel’s desire for the immaterial is dependent on physical interaction; he longs to ‘…cry to her from his soul, to crush her body against his, to overmaster her.’ (p235) Joyce’s sentence is characterised by binary opposites; the physical and the metaphysical, power and submission, the masculine and the feminine. However, these characteristics are not distinct but depend on one another for clarification. Thus, the desire for a connection of the soul is expressed through sexual desire just as the wish to ‘overmaster’ Gretta is indicative of Gabriel’s inability to assume control. The paradox of Gabriel’s desire thus lies in the analogous relation between the mundane and the desire for transcendence as the very contemplation of ‘soul’ relies on the binary of physical existence.

This symbiosis between physical and metaphysical perception is echoed in Virginia Woolf’s Kew Gardens. The story is concerned with memory yet it depends on the material; employing objects to communicate the emotions of its characters. Just as Gabriel’s spiritual and physical desires depend on one another, the unnamed ‘man’ (p84) in Woolf’s story contains his memory of an unsuccessful marriage proposal within objects. Whilst the restless movements of the ‘square silver buckle’ on the shoe of his companion communicates ‘what she was going to say’ the ‘love,’ and ‘desire’ of the man ‘were in the dragonfly.’(p85) Here, Woolf creates a strange situation in which the passions of her character are so contained within the physical world that ‘if the dragonfly settled on the leaf she would say “Yes.”’ (p85)

This absorption of emotion into mundane objects brings us back to Joyce’s The Dead. Strikingly, Joyce’s free indirect discourse is limited to Gabriel’s inner conflict, making the thoughts of his wife accessible only through their dialogue. Here, a key point is raised about the elusive nature of language in expressing the metaphysical. Gabriel seeks to share his ‘soul,’ yet is unable to express himself. Here, the mundane suggests a form of oppression as the boundaries of language confines Joyce’s character to the physical world. The impossibility of moving beyond the prosaic can equally be seen in Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall as her narrator’s attempts to explore the complexities of human existence are ultimately and inevitably confined to the mundane.

“The Mark on the Wall” as a Representation of the Thought Process

“Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing… There is a vast upheaval of matter.” (Woolf 89). In Virginia Woolf’s 1917 “The Mark on the Wall”, the narrator is reflecting on the day she saw a marking on her wall and became utterly perplexed by it. As she stares at the wall, the thoughts in her head seem meaningless, just random ideas strung together as they enter her mind. She claims not to be able to remember anything, which is the real purpose of her reveries in this stream-of-consciousness narrative. Upon further consideration, however, it becomes clear that she is really describing the thought process and its challenges, and how difficult it becomes to focus when one is overcome with thought.

As the story opens, the narrator attempts to identify the first time she noticed the mark. This is accomplished by her recollection of the way the fire lit up the pages of her book, and how she was holding a cigarette, making it clear that it was both winter and after her dinnertime. At this point, her memory is serving a purpose, helping her focus on the mark and discover what it is. Yet as she sees the fire, her mind wanders to an old daydream of a fire-colored flag waving over a castle, as knights march by in front (Woolf 83). This, she states, was “an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps” (Woolf 83), and she mentions that it is a relief to be interrupted by the sight of the mark, thus ending her first reverie. This is the first occasion that readers experience the wandering mind of our narrator, and the mention of the childlike quality proves the immaturity of the daydream and its lack of connection to what she is really thinking about.

Her thoughts jump quickly to the mark on the wall, and then immediately she falls back into daydreams, this time pondering how exactly thoughts work, as they “swarm” a new idea so aggressively and then disappear, as if nothing ever happened (Woolf 83). This idea is placed at a very interesting point by Woolf, seeing as as soon as the narrator concludes the idea that thoughts can come and go in an instant, she jumps back to the mark. Not only has she now stated that thoughts and ideas are impermanent, we quickly see this in action as she abandons the discussion of thought to consider the mark once again. Each time she is brought back to her topic of the mark, her mind carries her away swiftly so that she can make no progress in discovering what it actually is.

The narrator follows this with an idea that the mark has been made by a nail, which sends her into another reverie, this time about what could have been hanging there. She insists it was a “miniature”, and accompanies this assertion with a colorful yet unnecessary description of the woman in the miniature. Without ever telling her audience why, she begins discussing the previous owners’ redecorating habits, and their particular designs based on each room and the age of the place. This catches readers off guard, confirming that thoughts are fleeting and disconnected. As she reconnects with the mark, the narrator’s thoughts drift towards the idea of thinking itself. She is struck by how common thoughts are yet how they are gone in an instant. The idea that something is over as soon as it happens, and cannot be recovered, is emphasized as she exclaims “Oh! Dear me, the mystery of life! The inaccuracy of thought…To show how very little control of our possessions we have!” (Woolf 84). These “possessions” are moments, thoughts and ideas that are not tangible and cannot be grasped on to, which is why they are so fleeting and disconnected. The following lines where the narrator begins to count the things she has lost and immediately cuts into saying “what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble…” (Woolf 84) highlights her mental distance from everything she is thinking of.

While her ideas that thoughts are fleeting and quick to disappear are accurate, the narrator’s audience cannot be sure that she is as reliable as she seems. Even as she is considering the images she has lost, presumably all of the times she has lost her train of thought, she loses that idea too and goes into saying things like “three pale blue canisters of book binding tools” (Woolf 84), which sounds more like an alliterative melody than an important object she is longing for. It is easily understood that this is a “stream of consciousness” narrative by her lack of dialogue and unrelated consecutive ideas throughout. Woolf, through the narrator, succeeds in using this style in order to prove the point her narrator is thinking about. As she is telling readers that thoughts are impermanent, unreliable notions, she is also showing us how they affect a normal stream of thought for a “real” women, and distract her from her focus – the mark on the wall. Through this, Woolf accomplishes a great feat in forcing every reader to asses their thoughts and ideas, and how they affect our everyday focus.

Pursuing Reality in the Mystery of the Unconscious

Virginia Woolf’s The Mark on the Wall as an archetype of the stream of consciousness literature explores the mystery of the unconscious through a first-person thought process and self-reflection. The story which centers on the narrator introspective attempts at deciphering the true nature of the mark on the wall introduces the themes of uncertainty and self-reflection. The short story has also been interpreted as a critique of the unoriginality in literature and the adherence to religious dogmas. As a modernist, Woolf focuses on the uncertainties and the obscure in her literature in order to represent the complex levels of reality. Through the thought process and the unreliable narration of her characters, she delves into the mystery of the subconscious revealing the ambiguity in her notion of reality. In The Mark on the Wall, as the woman reminisces on her life as she pursues the identity of the mark, her stream of thought lingers into intricate concepts about the meaning of life and reality. Woolf aims for her audience to embrace the unknown and question their concepts of actuality in her fiction. Through the narrator seeking the nature of the mark, Woolf fosters the pursuit of the true nature of reality in the complexity and mystery of the unconscious mind as opposed to embracing the superficial concept of reality or life.

Woolf illustrates her belief that modern writing should emphasize the introspection of characters to capture an accurate depiction of reality. The narrator deliberates “the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections…Leaving the description of reality…out of their stories” (Woolf, 1921). Her focus on the self-reflection of the character poses a criticism to the conventional authoring that is engrossed on describing or discerning the external universe. In the narrative, the speaker contemplates if the thoughts or reflections of the individual were removed and only the superficial shell was left on sight. Then the world would be “airless, shallow, and bald…not to be lived in” (Woolf, 1921). Woolf discards the superficial realities that are imposed in literature and society thereof; rather she embraces reflections of humanity through the thought process. By formulating the context of the story in the profound depth of the character’s subconscious mind, Woolf manages to capture a more complex concept of reality.

Woolf illustrates the speaker’s stream of conscious thought as a pathway to the deeper planes of realities in the unconscious mind. The narrator asserts, “For of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number” (Woolf, 1921). Her choice to decipher the identity of the mark through her own self-reflection into the deep recesses of her mind attests to Woolf’s intent. The woman claims “Oh! Dear me, the mystery of life, the inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity!” (Woolf, 1921). Alluding to the limitations of facts imposed on our perceived reality hence the meaning of life cannot be truly known externally. She continues, “I might get up, but if I got up and looked at it, ten to one I shouldn’t be able to say for certain” (Woolf, 1921). The perceived nature of humanity prompts individuals into action to deduce an issue through the philosophical thoughts of others or facts hence humanity’s ignorance. The woman persuades herself into her own thought process, what she as the thinker has experienced, as we can only truly know what happens to us or in our minds. Woolf intends to avoid describing the reality as it actually is, but interested in the pleasure of imagination and autonomy of thought.

The speaker aims to seek the true identity of the mark through the ambiguous reality of the mind as opposed to a logical perception. She narrates she intends “to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts” (Woolf, 1921). She finds pleasure in the mystery of the unknown more than the surface perceived knowledge of the world. She goes through a stream of thought as she sits obsessing over the unknown, seeking the identity of the mark in the deep recesses of her mind. In the conclusion of the narrative, a second subject reveals the identity of the mark to be a snail with a logical assessment. To the narrator’s disappointment, she replies “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail” (Woolf, 1921). The disclosure halts the speaker’s train of introspection crushing the reader’s fantasy too. The narrative pulls in the reader to the mystery of the mind and the revelation comes as a disappointment to both the narrator and the audience.

Through the narrator’s thought process, Woolf fosters the search of true reality and knowledge in the recesses and mystery of our mind, into the unconscious; criticizing the adherence to the surface notion of reality and life. According to Woolf, the world and its reality are far more than the conventional perception imposed on it. The mind obtains distinct acuities from the inconsequential and ephemeral to the eccentric and complex. The literature aims to capture the uncertainty of the thought process merging the ordinary and the imaginary while ignoring the surface realities to reveal a more complex and accurate reality. Through the narrative, Woolf illustrates the planes of realities lodged in the recesses of the unconscious, and through deeper unraveling, an infinite number of reflections are achieved. It fosters the notion of autonomy of thought, resisting the discourses or ideas pre-made by collective thinking or philosophical thought of others. Conveying the message to contemporary writers and also readers, that true reality and meaning of life are found in the reflections and introspection of the human mind. Humanity and reality are ever-changing hence near impossible to ascertain anything in its entirety, hence the recesses of the unconscious mind are key.