The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf
In The Mark on the Wall by Virginia Woolf we have the theme of uncertainty, religion, change, trust and gender roles. Taken from her The Complete Shorter Fiction collection the story is narrated in the first person by an unnamed female narrator and Woolf appears to be using stream of consciousness. Just as an individual while in thought might jump from one thing to another this is very much the case in the story for the narrator as she tries to figure out what the mark on the wall in her sitting room may be. Though the narrator resolves the issue as to what the mark may be (a snail) there are other issues in the story in which the narrator remains uncertain. Some of these issues include the fact that the narrator’s world appears to be dominated by men yet the narrator is uncertain as to why this has to be the case. She cannot think of any logical explanation as to why men must rule the/her world. Similarly when it comes to the matter of religion the narrator does not have the faith that others may have due to the fact that the Church is also male dominated. It is possible that Woolf (and the narrator) are criticising the role of men. In fact there are only three certainties that the narrator can see. The first being that newspapers are a waste of time as ‘nothing ever happens.’ Secondly the narrator is sure of her feelings about the war (cursed war) and thirdly the narrator realises that the mark on the wall is definitely a snail.
It is also possible that by believing that ‘nothing ever happens’ the narrator is accepting that there will be no change in her life or in her position as a woman. She will play the dutiful wife and things will progress as they always have. There is no sense that the narrator sees the possibility of change. The fact that the war is also in progress for three years (the story was written in 1917) may compound the narrator’s feelings of paralysis. She has no role to play in the war as her role in life has already been defined by society. The war is a man-made problem and will be fought and won by men. The role of the female at the time would have been to be subservient to the male. Something that Woolf may be exploring as the narrator is thinking about self-protection when she feels as though she may embarrass herself in conversation while discussing the fact that she has seen a ‘flower growing on a dust heap.’
It is also noticeable that the narrator is at first inquisitive as to what the mark on the wall may be though as the story progresses there is a sense that she is irritated by the imperfection of the mark. If anything the mark on the wall is an imperfection that mirrors society at the time. As mentioned the female had a secondary role to the male and Woolf may be symbolically using the mark on the wall and its sense of imperfection to highlight the imperfect world that existed at the time. It may also be important that the narrator is conscious of the differences between male and female. All the power rests with men not only domestically (at home) but politically too. With women not being allowed to vote at the time the story was written. Again the female had one role to play and that was to be subservient to the male. Open dialogue with a marriage was not something that was promoted. A husband’s words were often taken as being what was meant to be.
The fact that the narrator appears to be comfortable when it comes to nature might also be important as by focusing so heavily on nature the narrator might be beginning to challenge her own world and how she lives it. There is a sense that the narrator trusts nature yet the same cannot be said for how she feels about her own personal environment. It is possible that the narrator in her life longs for the freedom that she associates with nature. Trees in particular for the narrator are special. They survive all that life throws at them and even when dead they have a purpose. The wood from trees lives on long after the tree is gone. This may be important as the narrator may be symbolically comparing herself to a tree and longing to have the purpose (even in death) that a tree may have. If this is the case than it suggests that the irritability that the narrator has shown from the beginning of the story when trying to figure out what the mark on the wall may be. Continues right till the end of the story. However what has changed is the fact that the mark on the wall no longer has the same precedence for the narrator. Instead she is looking not only externally at the male dominated world around her but internally too. Trying to figure out what role she as a woman can play in life. The reader also suspecting that the role the narrator wants to play is one that is as permanent as the wood that comes from trees.