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Virginia Woolf's "A Mark on the Wall"

Jul 31, 2008   #1

I'm writing this paper for my online Women's Lit class. I actually handed it in over a week ago thinking it was the final draft, but the professor just returned the papers and told us the final draft is due in three days (and she didn't give any comments, which is annoying). I can't find anything to change because I was satisfied with it when I handed it in, but I'm sure there's a lot that can be revised.

Thanks for reading!


"The Mark on the Wall" as an Analysis of Human Thought

While most works of fiction follow a prescribed plot, exploring each idea on a chronological path, Virginia Woolf's "The Mark on the Wall" articulates, instead of action, an internal monologue. Human thought is not linear; in moments of introspection we jump from topic to topic, follow connections ignited by memory, logic or external input. Some critics call this essay a work of fancy, while others consider it a demonstration of control. The question of whether it is a work of subjectivism or skepticism is also a prominent debate. I prefer to view "The Mark on the Wall" as an analysis of the patterns of human thought - including both subjectivist thought and skepticist thought - distinguishing the chaos of introspection from organized writing.

The thought process Woolf explores with "The Mark on the Wall" can be likened to the act of asking a person question after question in immediate succession, not allowing time for the person to contemplate how to phrase his or her response. The narrative begins with a statement so uncertain it may as well have been phrased as a question: "Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall." If this sentence is the question, the following is the answer: "In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw."(2424) This sentence then becomes a question, and the process goes on throughout the story. She remembers that she saw fire, was reading a book, that it was winter, after tea, that she had been smoking a cigarette, and she remembers thinking of a castle flag and red knights. The mark on the wall plays the role of an interruption to this train of thought: "Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps."(2424) This relief is an effect of changing to a new tangent during an internal monologue, and changes in tangent are abundant in this work.

To Natania Rosenfeld, "The Mark on the Wall" is "essential to an understanding of modernist subjectivism." Subjectivism holds that all knowledge depends on the sensory perception of the self. The narrator's free-association, in Rosenfeld's eyes, feeds into this "subjectivism," because it is a reaction against imposed structure:

"To attach one's eye to a small spot and let the mind wander is to free oneself of what Bal calls "doxa," official interpretations that hide truth or stunt imagination; Woolf's story contains numerous examples of such doxa, beginning, paradoxically, with "that old fancy"-paradoxically because fancy, in the sense of whimsicality, is precisely what the story would seem to endorse."

"Fancy" is connected to capriciousness and imagination. This word is too weak and light to explain what the story endorses; it certainly expresses capriciousness, but it is more than a simple daydream. The truths realized in the narrator's reverie are not frivolous "fluff" thoughts used to take up time in idle moments. If this story is truly a work of subjectivism, the narrator's thoughts on knowledge are of utmost importance:

"And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars? And the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle and our respect for beauty and health of mind increases... Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world."(2428)

"Learned men," to the narrator, are merely people who have recorded their experiences. She concludes that if we waste less of our own mental energy thinking about what they saw as "knowledge," the more we can understand our own minds. If not for the narrator's later leaning toward skepticism, which I will soon discuss, this emphasis on her own personal knowledge over knowledge which is accepted by others would define "The Mark on the Wall" as a work of subjectivism. This highlighting of human thought encourages the reader to examine the way the narrator's mind works, following her patterns and noticing changes in direction of attention, as well as the role of reflection in the patterns of the internal monologue.

Another example of a "doxa" that the narrator follows (until she ends that train of thought by looking at the mark) begins with a discussion of tablecloths: She explains the rule for how tablecloths had to be made during a time in the past, which leads into thoughts on reality, followed by the masculine standard of the times, and then a mention of the war and a hope that it will be "laughed into the dustbin where phantoms go," leading to "an intoxicating sense of illegitamite freedom - if freedom exists..."(2427) The narrator trails off here and "attaches" her eye to the mark and lets her mind "wander," free of the doxa that had overpowered her thoughts before she had interrupted them by looking at the mark.

But is the train of thought I described in the previous paragraph truly a "doxa"? It begins with one, the established idea of how tablecloths should be made, but the mind is relieved from the doxa long before it focuses on the mark on the wall. It is not clear whether or not the narrator is looking at the mark on the wall when she escapes from her doxa, although Rosenfeld presents the mark as the only way to stop the mind from pursuing a doxa.

The tablecloths to reality to masculinity to war to freedom train of thought exemplifies what Rosenfeld calls "the Woolfian mode of observation":"The Woolfian mode of observation is a form of inattentive attention that allows the unorthodox and the seemingly incidental to occupy center stage in the mind long enough to un-do certainties about the way the world works or what one "should" believe, but not long enough to harden into new doxa."(Rosenfeld, 353) Taking the narrator's thoughts on reality as an example, (the discovery that "real" things "were not entirely real," wondering what replaces "those real, standard things"(2427) we can see that these thoughts are, indeed, "unorthodox," and if brought up in everyday conversation they would likely be brushed aside as "seemingly incidental," and they clearly question "certainties" and standard rules of thought, but do not form an official doxa.

The one part of the Woolfian mode of observation that does not seem to fit completely in this instance is the awkwardly phrased "inattentive attention." I would argue that the narrator is paying utmost attention to her thoughts and nothing else, aside from the mark on the wall. Dorothy Mackenzie Hoare describes the process in a similar manner, but does not call it "inattentive":

Fix the object (which is here used as a bright flashing thing is used in some hypnotic experiments, and for the same effect-to enable the mind, while having an outward focus of attention, to retreat into the subconscious stream) and let the mind sway round all the associations it brings with the freedom and suppleness of a gymnast. It implies a very delicate balancing of attention-on the one hand sensitiveness to the subconscious free movement of thought or emotion, and on the other, a continual intellectual control.

Attention is simply the direction of thought; one cannot "balance" one's attention inattentively. The idea of letting the mind "sway" may at first seem "inattentive," but the attention in this story is constantly being parceled out, allocated to certain thoughts in a carefully tended manner. Consider the following passage:

Everybody follows somebody, such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom. Whitaker knows, and let that, so Nature counsels, comfort you, instead of enraging you; and if you can't be comforted, if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall. I understand Nature's game-her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain. Hence, I suppose, comes our slight contempt for men of action-men, we assume, who don't think. Still, there's no harm in putting a full stop to one's disagreeable thoughts by looking at a mark on the wall.(2428)

Hinting that she is paying more attention to the order of her thoughts than it may seem at first glance, the narrator mentions knowing "who follows whom." While the jumping from idea to idea may not be planned, it does not occur without the thinker's attention. The "sensitiveness" to the order of thoughts connects to the "contempt" for those "we assume, who don't think," while the narrator proves her "intellectual control" by halting unpleasant thought trains by focusing her attention on the mark. This is one example of Woolf's analysis of human thought: using the narrator as a model, Woolf performs an investigation into human beings' control over their own thoughts - the ability to stop them or take action because of them.

The line between subjectivism and skepticism is hazy, the first claiming that knowledge rests on the individual mind and the second declaring that absolute knowledge is altogether impossible. "The sceptical, relative spirit is a countervailing force, subverting and undoing all frameworks set up by the filing system of the human mind. It releases the facts from their subservience to general principles to which they have been yoked by the absolute spirit. In undercutting all normative ordering, it highlights open-endedness." The most obvious example of skepticism in "The Mark on the Wall" follows the tirade about the Colonel gathering evidence that ends "proving I don't know what." This thought triggers the question of whether knowledge is possible at all: "No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known. And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really - what shall we say? - the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago... what should I gain? Knowledge? Matter for further speculation?"(2428) The final three inquiries are of utmost importance in distinguishing this work as one of subjectivism or one of skepticism: if the narrator's goal during this sequence of thoughts is to arrive at knowledge, then subjectivism rules the text; if knowledge is not possible and her aim is speculation, then the narrator is following the rules of skepticism. Because a conclusion on this subject is not reached, the line between skepticism and subjectivism remains blurry throughout the story.

"The Mark on the Wall" concludes with the narrator's discovery that the mark on the wall was a snail. This realization ends the story, but it can be assumed that the narrator's internal monologue does not end here - rather, the story proves that internal monologues persist through our waking lives, only interrupted by action. The narrator explains to us that interruptions are part of human thought patterns: "Here is Nature, once more at her old game of self-preservation. This train of thought, she perceives, is threatening mere waste of energy, even some collision with reality..."(2428) The final "collision with reality" comes with the story's last sentence. This aspect of human thought, along with doxa, order of thoughts, and reflection, are Woolf's observations on how the mind works in solitude.

Works Cited

1) Woolf, Virginia. "The Mark on the Wall". Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton, 2006. 2424-2429.
2) Rosenfeld, Natania. "Less Light: The End(s) of Aestheticism in Pater, Ondaatje, and Sebald." Modernism/Modernity. 13.2. 2006. 349-366.
3) Hoare, Dorothy Mackenzie. Some Studies in the Modern Novel. London: Chatto and Windus, 1938. 36.
4) Iser, Wolfgang. Walter Pater: The Aesthetic Moment. transl. David Henry Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 17.

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