tutorial, commentary, study resources, plot, and web links
The Mark on the Wall appeared in July 1917 as part of the very first publication of the Hogarth Press. It was printed in Two Stories, accompanied by the story Three Jews written by Leonard Woolf. The hand-produced ‘volume’ (of only thirty-four pages) was illustrated with woodcuts by Dora Carrington.
The Mark on the Wall – critical commentary
In many of the experimental and quasi-philosophic narratives of her early modernist phase, Woolf uses an un-named and disembodied first person narrator as a vehicle to spin out the text. It is perfectly natural to think of this narrator as being Woolf herself. After all, she embeds the materials of her own life into her prose – the London scenes, the house in Sussex, her smoking cigarettes, reading and writing – and she includes many of the themes she would go on to develop in her later work.
In The Mark on the Wall she raises the issues of male authority and the construction of social hierarchies she ridicules in her discussion of Whitaker’s Table of Precedence. Both of these she developed in the years that followed until they reached their devastating climax in her fully developed attack on patriarchy in Three Guineas.
She also raises the issue of how novelists give an account of ‘reality’ in literary fiction – something that will be a preoccupation for the next twenty years of her life as a writer
Even Homer nods
Sometimes even the most celebrated and talented writers make mistakes – and Virginia Woolf is no exception. In a well-known passage from this story she evokes the uncertainty and precariousness of life.
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! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!
This term shoot of course should be chute, though it is understandable why mention of ‘Tube’ and ‘Shot’, plus images of propulsion should put the term ‘shoot’ into her mind. It’s strange however that nobody in the hundred years (almost) since the story first appeared has though to correct the slip.
The Mark on the Wall – study resources
The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon UK
The Complete Shorter Fiction – Vintage Classics – Amazon US
The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon UK
The Complete Shorter Fiction – Harcourt edition – Amazon US
Monday or Tuesday and Other Stories – Gutenberg.org
Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon UK
Kew Gardens and Other Stories – Hogarth reprint – Amazon US
The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon UK
The Mark on the Wall – Oxford World Classics edition – Amazon US
The Complete Works of Virginia Woolf – Kindle edition
The Mark on the Wall – an alternative reading
The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK
Virginia Woolf – Authors in Context – Amazon UK
The Cambridge Introduction to Virginia Woolf – Amazon UK
The Mark on the Wall – story synopsis
An un-named first person narrator, observing a mark on the wall of a sitting room, uses the image as the starting point for a series of reflections, imaginary pictures, and observations about the nature of reality and what can and cannot be known. Topics include the previous occupants of the house, and the range of objects which are lost during the course of everyday life
The narrative then becomes self-referential and reflects upon the very activity of following trains of thought. It passes on to includes how the Self is made up of the reflections of other people, and how future novelists might take this into account in their depictions of reality.
This leads to a critique of generalisations and certainties about the existing order of things, and how the act of challenging them can produce a state of ‘illegitimate freedom’.
The mark is compared to a burial tumulous on the Sussex Downs, which leads on to a character sketch of an amateur archeologist and remnants of history in a local museum. And yet none of these objects guarrantee any sense of ‘knowledge’, and even the very notion of knowledge itself is questioned.
Whitaker’s Table of Precedence is used as a symbol of what society thinks of as fixed certainties, and encouragement to action is seen as a way of avoiding painful or disturbing thoughts.
The concrete objects of the external world offer a sense of what is real, and the example of a wooden chest of drawers is traced back to its origin as a tree, which goes on living in the objects that can be made from it.
The subjects over which these thoughts have ranged are then recalled, and the reverie is interrupted by the arrival of a second figure, who reveals that the mark on the wall is in fact a snail.
The Mark on the Wall – first appearance
Cover design by Leonard and Virginia Woolf
Quentin Bell. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972.
Hermione Lee. Virginia Woolf. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
Nicholas Marsh. Virginia Woolf, the Novels. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
John Mepham, Virginia Woolf. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1992.
Natalya Reinhold, ed. Woolf Across Cultures. New York: Pace University Press, 2004.
Michael Rosenthal, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Study. New York: Columbia University Press, 1979.
Susan Sellers, The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Cambridge University Press, 2010.
Virginia Woolf, The Common Reader. New York: Harvest Books, 2002.
Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
Other works by Virginia Woolf
Jacob’s Room (1922) was Woolf’s first and most dramatic break with traditional narrative fiction. It was also the first of her novels she published herself, as co-founder of the Hogarth Press. This gave her for the first time the freedom to write exactly as she wished. The story is a thinly disguised portrait of her brother Thoby – as he is perceived by others, and in his dealings with two young women. The novel does not have a conventional plot, and the point of view shifts constantly and without any signals or transitions from one character to another. Woolf was creating a form of story telling in which several things are discussed at the same time, creating an impression of simultaneity, and a flow of continuity in life which was one of her most important contributions to literary modernism.
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Kew Gardens is a collection of experimental short stories in which Woolf tested out ideas and techniques which she then later incorporated into her novels. After Chekhov, they represent the most important development in the modern short story as a literary form. Incident and narrative are replaced by evocations of mood, poetic imagery, philosophic reflection, and subtleties of composition and structure. The shortest piece, ‘Monday or Tuesday’, is a one-page wonder of compression. This collection is a cornerstone of literary modernism. No other writer – with the possible exception of Nadine Gordimer, has taken the short story as a literary genre as far as this.
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Virginia Woolf is a readable and well illustrated biography by John Lehmann, who at one point worked as her assistant and business partner at the Hogarth Press. It is described by the blurb as ‘A critical biography of Virginia Woolf containing illustrations that are a record of the Bloomsbury Group and the literary and artistic world that surrounded a writer who is immensely popular today’. This is an attractive and very accessible introduction to the subject which has been very popular with readers ever since it was first published..
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Virginia Woolf – web links
Virginia Woolf at Mantex
Biographical notes, study guides to the major works, book reviews, studies of the short stories, bibliographies, web links, study resources.
Book reviews, Bloomsbury related issues, links, study resources, news of conferences, exhibitions, and events, regularly updated.
Virginia Woolf at Wikipedia
Full biography, social background, interpretation of her work, fiction and non-fiction publications, photograph albumns, list of biographies, and external web links
Virginia Woolf at Gutenberg
Selected eTexts of her novels and stories in a variety of digital formats.
An electronic edition and commentary on To the Lighthouse with notes on its composition, revisions, and printing – plus relevant extracts from the diaries, essays, and letters.
Hyper-Concordance to Virginia Woolf
Search texts of all the major novels and essays, word by word – locate quotations, references, and individual terms
Orlando – Sally Potter’s film archive
The text and film script, production notes, casting, locations, set designs, publicity photos, video clips, costume designs, and interviews.
Women’s History Walk in Bloomsbury
Tour of literary and political homes in Bloomsbury – including Gordon Square, Gower Street, Bedford Square, Tavistock Square, plus links to women’s history web sites.
Virginia Woolf Society of Great Britain
Bulletins of events, annual lectures, society publications, and extensive links to Woolf and Bloomsbury related web sites
BBC Audio Essay – A Eulogy to Words
Charming sound recording of radio talk given by Virginia Woolf in 1937 – a podcast accompanied by a slideshow of photographs.
A Family Photograph Albumn
Leslie Stephen compiled a photograph album and wrote an epistolary memoir, known as the “Mausoleum Book,” to mourn the death of his wife, Julia, in 1895 – an archive at Smith College – Massachusetts
Virginia Woolf first editions
Hogarth Press book jacket covers of the first editions of Woolf’s novels, essays, and stories – largely designed by her sister, Vanessa Bell.
Virginia Woolf – on video
Biographical studies and documentary videos with comments on Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group and the social background of their times.
Virginia Woolf Miscellany
An archive of academic journal essays 2003—2014, featuring news items, book reviews, and full length studies.
© Roy Johnson 2013