The Mark on the Wall
“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.