The Mark on the Wall | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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Virginia Woolf | Biography


Early Life and Education

Virginia Woolf, christened Adeline Virginia Stephen, was born January 25, 1882. Her father, Sir Leslie Stephen (1832–1904), was a prominent historian, author, and mountaineer. Her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen (1846–95), was also a published author in her field of self-taught expertise: nursing. Woolf's childhood home was a bustling place that included her three biological siblings and four half-siblings. While their brothers went to school, Virginia and her sisters were educated at home. Woolf's writing career had an early start—at age nine she began writing Hyde Park Gate News, a newspaper chronicling family events. Publication of the cheeky articles stopped upon her mother's death in 1895, an event that sent Woolf into her first of many depressions. She had her first mental breakdown three months after her mother's death. Her father's death in 1904 triggered another major mental breakdown.

After Woolf recovered, she and her three biological siblings moved into their own house in the Bloomsbury section of London, where they continued their studies and honed their art and writing. The residence became a magnet for radical artists, writers, and thinkers, including British novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970) and British economist John Maynard Keynes (1883–1946). The Bloomsbury Group, as they dubbed themselves, questioned ideas commonly accepted by society in search of what is good and true. Woolf herself questioned popular literature of the era with her first novel, Melymbrosia, which aimed to explore aspects of life omitted from traditional Victorian novels. It was heavily rewritten and finally published in 1915 as The Voyage Out.

Marriage and Writing Success

Woolf married British writer Leonard Woolf (1880–1969) in 1912. Five years later, the pair established a home-based publishing house called Hogarth Press, named after their home, Hogarth House, which was located in Richmond, a suburb of London. A major goal of their endeavor was to publish experimental, modernist works that would typically not be picked up by commercial publishers. They published works by British author Katherine Mansfield (1888–1923), American English author T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), Austrian founder of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud (1856–1939), and their own writing. One of their earliest works was Woolf's short story "The Mark on the Wall," which appeared in their first collection of short stories entitled Two Stories (1917). The second story was Leonard Woolf's "Three Jews." The hand-bound volume had amateurish qualities such as ink blots and irregular spacing, but it was the art of the words that mattered, not the aesthetics of the print. "The Mark on the Wall" was one of the first works to establish Woolf's modernist voice. Modernism was a late-19th- to mid-20th-century movement in the arts that featured new forms of expression and artistic experimentation.

In between bouts of manic depression, Woolf continued writing literary reviews, novels, and essays. Among the most famous are Jacob's Room (1922), Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One's Own (1929), The Waves (1931), an essay entitled Three Guineas (1938), and her last novel, Between the Acts (1941).

By 1940 Woolf was spiraling deeper into depression. During this time World War II (1939–45) was raging, and fear grew all over Europe of German occupation. On September 7, 1940, the Germans began bombing London. The event would become a raid lasting until May 1941. As a result of the bombings, the Woolfs' home at Mecklenburg Square, where they had moved in 1939, was destroyed. Woolf and her husband, Leonard, who was Jewish, had a death pact and had saved enough gas for asphyxiating themselves in their car should the Nazis win. In the case she was caught alone, Woolf also carried morphine. All the while, Woolf drafted what would be her last novel, Between the Acts, published after her death in 1941.

Death and Legacy

Woolf's literary success did little to suppress the depression she had struggled with her entire life. Fearing another mental breakdown, Woolf died by suicide by drowning on March 28, 1941. In her suicide note, a farewell letter to Leonard, Woolf affirmed her love for him and emphasized that she decided to die because she recognized that she would not recover from another breakdown. Woolf's ashes were buried beneath a pair of elm trees on the couple's property at Monk's House in Rodmell, East Sussex. A stone was also placed, engraved with the last lines of The Waves: "Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death! The waves broke on the shore."

Woolf's novels are important works of modernist literature. Hogarth Press has continued to exist as an imprint of The Crown Publishing Group. Woolf's essays exude a powerful voice for political and social justice. Moreover, Woolf is considered the foremother of second-wave feminism, the resurgence of activism on behalf of women's issues that began in the 1960s and 1970s. Her dedication to the improvement of women's lives, particularly their education; her concern for the working class; and her fierce anti-war and anti-patriarchal activism inspired the late-century feminist activism that repeated and expanded the demands for women's rights. Central to contemporary feminism are Woolf's major nonfiction polemics (harsh criticisms), A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938).

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