Modernist and Experimental Influences in “The Mark on the Wall” and “Kew Gardens” by Virginia Woolf

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

‘Modernism was a philosophical movement that, along with cultural trends and changes, arose from wide-scale and far-reaching transformations’. It was a predominantly English genre of fiction writing, popular from roughly the 1910s into the 1960s. Modernist literature was born due to increasing industrialization and globalization. New technology and the horrifying events of both World Wars made people question the future of humanity: What was becoming of the world? Instead of progress, the Modernist writer saw a decline of civilization. Instead of new technology, the Modernist writer saw cold machinery and capitalist economy, which alienated the individual and led to aloofness and loneliness. Writers reacted to this question by turning toward these sentiments. Gone was the Romantic period that focused on nature and being. Modernist fiction spoke of the inner self and consciousness. Writers experimented with the forms rather than confirming to the traditionalist realism.

Virginia Woolf, considered a pioneer of such modern aesthetics criticized contemporary concepts of what constitutes art and of what is the proper content of literature and demanded changes in style, subject matter, and values, According to Woolf, “the proper stuff of fiction is a little other than custom would have us believe it”. Woolf wrote many novels, short stories, essays, biographies, and reviews. Here, two of her famous short stories, “The Mark on the Wall” and “Kew Gardens” are looked upon. These stories contain modernist and experimental influences.

“The Mark on the Wall” is one of the stories from Monday or Tuesday, and Kew Garden was republished in the same collection. The mark on the wall is mostly introspective and has been called “a manifesto of modernism’. And Kew Gardens is set in the Royal Botanic Gardens situated in London. Woolf decides to use a third-person narrator whilst delving into the psyche of her characters. Using the memories, perceptions, stream of consciousness and dialogue of said characters, she effectively paints a vivid picture of the scenes the reader is exposed to. The first story starts off with the main character – most likely Woolf herself – remembering when she first saw the mark on the wall. This is when a series of seemingly unrelated musings beginsShe considers several possible identities of the mark, starting with a hole produced by a nail – this leads to thoughts about, ending with how fast life disappears and what might be waiting for us afterward. This is then followed by another possibility of what the mark might be: a small rose leaf or From Shakespeare. Next, she sees the mark on the wall as something which is projecting from it. This reminds her of the South Downs and the mystery of their true origin. Nature and fantasies about trees make her forget about reality and civilization, yet near the end lead her right back to them. Also, Reference to war is given by a male speaker which interrupts her reflections. He mentions the war, then asks why there is a snail on the wall, abruptly cutting off her contemplations and leaving the reader with an unsatisfactory feeling when she ends the story with: “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail”.

In Kew Gardens, Woolf details the brief interactions between four different groups of people as well as the slow journey of a snail in the garden. The first of her themes – perspective – is immediately made apparent through the juxtaposition of contrasting scenes. A married couple appreciating the silence between them contrasts two young lovers who fill their every moment with shallow conversation. A son taking a walk with his senile father views him as a man in need of care and patience, whereas two middle-class women see the same old man from afar and use him as a brief topic of curiosity. All of these people together, able to leisurely browse the garden, contrast the snail who labors through the many small obstacles that cross his path. Virginia Woolf also uses her short story as a commentary on the uncertainty of life and the progression of time, where she probably stresses that we must not let the contemplation of these endless possibilities delay us for long because time continues to progress regardless. The old man caught in his imagined memories of decades ago is not able to grasp the beauty of the present and appears forever lost in his mental degradation. The married man, unable to let go of his past love, subconsciously remains a distance away from his family and loses out on the present joys of spending the afternoon with his wife and kids. As a whole, the progression of time is characterized by the eventual movement of all characters.

Virginia Woolf following her modernist aesthetics experimented with the ways in which episodes are arranged, the way in which time is reflected in modernism, external events are minimized and introspection is made principal. It eliminates the traditional focus on characters and their dialogue with far fewer characters and replaces dialogue with long, uninterrupted trains of thought known as streams of consciousness. woolf uses the stream of consciousness in both of her short stories. This is “a method of narration which depicts events through this flow in the mind of a character”. It differs from free indirect discourse in that the entire story is written from the first person’s perspective and it takes place in the present. It is an interior monologue of thought, not a rendition of someone else’s mind. In “The Mark on the Wall” the reader is first presented with a mark, then through a long stream of thoughts and visions, with different interpretations of the mark leading to different ideas, it ends with the character not remembering what she was thinking about. In Kew Gardens, readers are acquainted with inner thoughts of many characters.

The effect Kew Gardens has on one’s thoughts is demonstrated by Woolf; she focuses on the interior self, using language to depict a stream of consciousness, as though the reader is reading the character’s thoughts directly despite being written in the third-person. With an emphasis on a description in the flowerbed, the people that pass it by are described, and Woolf weaves in and out of their minds. The first character introduced is Simon, a married man who thinks of a time in the past when he visited Kew Gardens: Another perspective comes from his wife Eleanor. She recalls painting by the lake, and she remarks that the water-lilies were “the first red water-lilies” that she had ever seen. However, few critics believe Woolf chose a “sense of duality” instead of a stream of consciousness, in this case, the duality of fact and vision and mind and body in stream of consciousness.

She brings two themes together, namely the fact that there is a mark on the wall and the visions this mark evokes in her, with different interpretations of the mark leading to different ideas. She compares trees to life, human thoughts to fish swimming through the water, and tablecloths to reality. Throughout the story there are different definitions of the mark, from nails to rose leaves, until at the very end of the story the true identity of the mark is made known: it is a snail. This puts an abrupt stop to all the ideas she had had when she did not know the reality yet, which confirms that reality oppresses fantasy. Fact wins over vision, the body wins over the mind Even the mark on the wall fits this pattern: from a hole made by a nail she contemplates the possibility of it being a rose leaf, a bump on the wall, an old nail, a crack in the wood, until she realizes it is, in fact, a snail. Perhaps reality is not controlled by a man after all, but nature and its circle of life. Humans are part of nature, they do not stand above it, and Woolf does not want the reader to forget this.

Impressionism can also be seen in Woolf’s work. Impressionism is the rejection of the conventional tendency to document the precise details of a moment in time and instead sought to capture its general essence, or pervading emotion. A significant aspect of ‘Kew Gardens’ is the way in which Woolf depicts the setting to us. There is a strong focus on color and texture within the story, From the oval-shaped flower-bed there rose perhaps a hundred stalks spreading into heart-shaped visual images, the use of, in particular, are neither simple nor straightforward but whole spectrum of interference of psychological nature which imposes itself on the empty space between our perception of colour and the expression of the same in words, together forming the stream-of-consciousness. Also, this is not just Impressionism, Woolf cleverly uses texture to depict Kew Gardens as a portrait with color appearing in several ‘spots’, which can be linked to Post-Impressionism. In addition, in both these stories, Woolf looks not only at nature itself but how it fits into the modern world, This is another feature that emphasizes the Modernist quality of her work.

Virginia Woolf tried breaking away from realism. It is often thought that realism is a particular tendency of Victorian fiction, In Woolf’s view, detailed descriptions of external reality are employed by realistic novelists to provide their characters with an “air of probability”. The other reality which Woolf intends to bring to the foreground in narration was a different treatment of narrative time and a stratified use of language, but also a less falsifying conception of characters. What is perceived from the outside is only the “shell” of the subject and this necessarily falsifies the complex and multi-leveled nature of interior life. In this sense, Woolf again insists on the importance for writers to focus on consciousness and leave “the description of reality more and more out of their stories”. To attempt to break from the realist or romantic writers, Woolf experimented with her style of writing. Woolf used poetic descriptions in various instances all of which is especially evident in Kew Gardens, which appears to be more like a poem than a work of prose fiction. Also, Kew Gardens” can be read, from a very objective, detached, abstract point of view, as a physics experiment: a hidden microphone (the snail) is placed randomly within a public garden, and which records fragments of the conversations of various characters as they approach and pass, their voices emerging out of noise to make sense, and then fading again into noise. ” Her short stories prove to function for Woolf as an ideal ground of experimentation in perception, in which reality is not only portrayed in its complex and inexplicable aspects but even radically questioned.

Also, looking at Kew Gardens with the psychoanalytic approach, the snail is the only character in this story that moves with purpose. It seems to have mindfulness. There is one problem, though. The snail has obstacles in its path over which critics have argued that Woolf is trying to illustrate the insidious nature of depression. Psychoanalysis was relatively new in Woolf’s day from the snail’s perspective those obstacles appear insurmountable, just as a blade of grass looks like a redwood tree to an ant. A depressed person is overwhelmed and, I imagine, some days immobilized – trapped in stasis, yes — but this snail remains committed to plodding on to its destination. Another point of consideration for the snail as Woolf’s metaphor for depression: it carries its own house, “the weight of the world” on its shoulders and, as we all know, snails leave a slimy trail in their wake. Depressed people are mired in their own stickiness: those nagging thoughts of inadequacy and doubt. In reading “Kew Gardens, ” there is no filter between the narrator and the reader. There are chatter and an endless bombardment of stimuli, there is a memory then, memory now, and so on. An anxious person reacts and feels overwhelmed. A depressed person surrenders. The narrator focuses on the one sane creature, the one constructive entity in the universe: the insignificant snail. Also, Virginia reacted against the style and attitude of much Victorian fiction, much as many of her fellow modernists did, and her 1924 essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ is almost a manifesto for her view of this new way of writing. It is to be noted that the term ‘modernism’ was not yet available to Woolf. She stressed upon the new approach on the grounds of the Edwardians, among whom she counts Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells; and the Georgians, among whom she counts E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Lytton Strachey, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot, and herself. In the essay, she describes a seemingly insignificant encounter on the train, a short exchange between an elderly woman and a middle-aged man. Woolf then imagines a poetic contest between the Edwardians and the Georgians; the task is to describe the old lady, who is given the every woman named Mrs. Brown.

Two themes in Woolf’s essay that are of particular reference are, the first is that what the two generations represent differently is something that Woolf variably refers to as ‘human character’ or ‘human nature. ’ This is what Mrs. Brown stands for, ‘Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature’. The task for the contest is then not to describe this or that particular person, but something more general and of deeper significance. The second important theme is that the difference between the two camps is not the difference in the represented fictional contents, but a difference in style.

To conclude, Virginia Woolf’s short story ‘Kew Gardens’ and “The Mark on the Wall”are fascinating piece with many different aspects to it that strays from the traditional norms of storytelling. Woolf experiments with narrative, shifting the reader continuously from scene to scene creating a level of complexity in her work that breaks the expectation of realism. Such experimentation is a common characteristic of the Modernist writers of Woolf’s era, Modernism itself is defined as a literary movement spanning from 1890 to the start of the Second World War, in which writers aimed for innovation and individuality, trying to move away from previous literary traditions in order to find newer, more modern ways of writing.

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