Critical analysis of Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall”

Essay written for a Course in Critical Reading in Oxford University (Department for Continuing Education, Online Format)

June 25, 2020

A symbolic meditation on the limited freedom of women (and individuals) in society

The role of women has historically been set by the men who governed our society, their rules and their views. Virginia Woolf is considered the first feminist and she has become a contemporary role model for those who continue to fight for the movement; additionally, recognized as one of the most prominent Modernist writers of twentieth Century, who experimented with language, themes and literary structures, focusing (especially) on the role of the individual in society and identity in her writings. In this story, published twice—first in 1917 and, thereafter, in 1921 as part of Monday or Tuesday; Woolf takes her experimentation a step forward. A narrative which does not aim to recount and solve a conflict, nor relate a sequence of happenings within a framed time; but, instead, it leads the reader to an array of existential questions with no simple answer. Through the divagations of this nameless (and quite mysterious) character, in an non-contextualized setting—a random day “perhaps” in the middle of January, Woolf leads us towards a meditation on ourselves, raising a set of questions to awake the reader. She discusses the oppressive role of society, which is, at once, in war (World War I) as mentioned by the end: “Curse this war; God damn this war!” But beyond that, she focuses on the limited and powerless role of women in society, and in the lack of freedom of identity; which are embraced and accepted by everyone. Who can we be? Can we truly be it

Did Virginia Woolf really want to ponder the mark on the wall? 

This story perfectly embodies the characteristics of Modernist Literature—as Woolf’s writing is considered; which (briefly) are experimentation, innovative use of language, symbolism, individualism and exploration of the inner self as main theme; breaking with the conventions of telling a story.

The narrative develops through the divagations and meditations—written in first person, present tense—of a character / narrator unknown to the reader, who starts to wonder after noticing that there is an unidentifiable mark on the wall. Hence, the plot does not follow a temporal sequence nor a structure, but the arbitrary sequence of thoughts of this main voice. A stream of consciousness narration. By doing so, Woolf explores different existential issues around the role of women in society—particularly in Britain—(theme) focalizing on the perspective of this female character and her (deeply personal) views. A view that demonstrates her frustration with the dictated standards, “I wish I could hit upon a pleasant track of thought”. 

As main motifs, it includes: lack of freedom, the imposed social rules and standards, the issues on identity, the impact of gender roles in society, life and death, and the Natural world. These deeply existential reflections, however, are conveyed through symbols and experimental language which can be compared to the suggestiveness of poetry, showing what the character is saying instead of telling an array of conclusions. Suggesting the character’s frustration on the male-dominated society “where the masculine point of view […] governs our lives”; but also, on the structures and rules that had been implemented accordingly, rejecting them: “Men, perhaps, should you be a woman.”

Woolf is considered one of the most prominent figures in feminist history, having been one of the first voices to outline this issue and to talk about it in her stories. Thus, it is remarkable how the character that she has recreated in this text, evidences these values through her thinking process. She contemplates the world from an unconventional perspective, a voice that actively fights to find herself within a world where she is not allowed to be everything she wants as she is. “I should catch myself out, and stretch my hand at once for a book in self-protection.” She is aware of the lack of freedom and the embraced oppression which exists in that society, “which sets the standards”; reflecting on it through symbolic elements that represent some of the (accepted) imitating issues implanted in society that effect individuals, along with the minds responsible for steadily maintaining them deeply-rooted as ideas and values.

On the one hand, it alludes to the reign of Charles the First, who was utterly unpopular and his decisions provoked a Civil War, and Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, which outlines a system led by men’s views and imposed orders. But also, Shakespeare who, as stated by the narrator, “will do as well as another”; implying that his success is privileged by his male role in society. On the other hand, it refers to other social conventions such as “Sundays in London”, “Sunday afternoon walks”, “Sunday luncheons”, “ways of speaking”, the “habits”, “the risk of nameless damnation” or “tablecloths made of tapestry” that can be considered a representation of the imposed rules of this men-led society “intoxicated” with “a sense of illegitimate freedom”. A society in which individuals must do/live accordingly—to what is stipulated “although nobody liked it”, to not become a disbeliever visited by “the damnation.” “What now takes place of those things I wonder, those real standard things?”

Woolf, as the text is written as a diegesis, portrays “a world not to live in”, a negative and disappointing view of a society dominated by the male gaze, in which women must live accordingly and silently. A society that has decreased the value of women’s own identity, “I’m dressing up the figure of myself in my own mind, lovingly, stealthily, not openly adoring it.” and their importance, “It is curious how instinctively one protects the image of oneself from idolatry.” It showcases how the rules are imposed by men, governing is strictly for men, and, thus, identity has become an imposition within their reality. Eventually, it, also, alludes to Literature, led by this one-sided view of men who “leave the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted”. She refers to the Greeks, for whom women’s duties were limited to bear the children and run the household, controlled by a man in almost every step of their lives; and to Shakespeare whose plays also presented female characters within the conventions of society, always reverting their role to a man (often their husband or lover) and becoming, once again, subservient to him. 

Both are defined “worthless generalizations”, suggesting their failure to convey any new message, to envision new perceptions of society and individuals or to re-imagine the ways in which women are portrayed. The tradition of fiction which does not aim to change the oppressive conventions that are still embraced, but instead continue enhancing them. “But how dull this is, this historical fiction!”; while claiming the need for a broader and richer (unconventional) perspective, for a new generation of “novelists in the future” who “will realize more and more the importance of these reflections” including variety and freeing people from standardized views on individuals “for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number.”

Who can we be with the pre-defined set of conventions? Who can we be if we only follow history? 

“What an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to live in.”

To sum up, The Mark on the Wall can be considered a critical reflection on feminism, but also, identity. Through the thoughts of a character in search of self-discovery and seeking herself, this story, somehow, advocates the reduced importance that women have always had as well as the compelled freedom in which they have been having to live it. Through symbols and almost-poetic language, Woolf brilliantly manages to tell a story within a story, a mark on the wall—which turns out to be a snail—that leads a character to start thinking on the issues that frustrates her regarding the limited possibilities of an individual in society in which “the minds of modern mouse-colored people […] believe genuinely that they dislike to hear their own praises.” Therefore, an invitation for every reader to self-reflect on our standardized and limited existence, and to analyze if that is the world where they would really like to be living in.