The Mark on the Wall | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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The Mark on the Wall | Context

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Modernism

Modernism arose in the late 19th century and crystallized in the early 20th century, especially after World War I (1914–18). For modernist writers, changes in society at the end of and after the Victorian era (1820–1914) showed in their styles and topics. Instead of chronicling the past, they turned their attention to the inner lives of men and women. Rather than telling a straightforward story, they wrote in soliloquy (a type of extended monologue in which characters express their thoughts aloud when alone or think to themselves when not) or stream of consciousness (uninterrupted flow of thought).

Modernism deliberately rejected the values and conventions of traditional storytelling. The narrative was often fragmented and conveyed through a narrow point of view, evoking the inner experiences of the narrator's mind with all of its associations and inconsistencies. Associations between the narrator's inner state and outer environment resulted in metaphors to describe inner thoughts and experiences. Modernist writers often approached the writing process self-consciously, inserting their authorial voices into the narratives.

Virginia Woolf agreed with many of her contemporaries that a new post–World War I world demanded a new style of writing, more adaptable and tuned to human psychology. Writers such as Woolf, Irish novelist James Joyce (1882–1941), and French author Marcel Proust (1871–1922) experimented with a storytelling style that presented characters' thoughts and conscious minds in a continuous flow. This style, called stream of consciousness, introduced a new way of reading for a new era.

"The Mark on the Wall" displays Woolf's mastery of stream-of-consciousness writing. Woolf begins the narrative in the midst of the narrator's flow of thought, as she considers when she first noticed the mark on the wall. However, it is not clear as to why the narrator's mind goes back to this memory. Woolf's narrative is about how the human mind jumps from one idea to the next to make meaning of an experience. And as the narrator's thoughts flow, pondering the existence of the mark on the wall, the reader's mind turns in the same way. In this sense, Woolf invites the reader to participate in the inquiry. This deliberate engagement of the reader, who must work to generate meaning from the text, is characteristic of modernism.

Woolf uses modernism to highlight the concept that a character's inner thoughts can reveal just as much, if not more, about an experience than words and actions. For Woolf and other modernists, the human psyche is important to represent in fiction, even if only to demonstrate the impossibility of such representation.

World War I

World War I lasted from 1914 to 1918. Britain emerged no longer a world superpower, with the United States and the Soviet Union surpassing Britain in authority. The war was longer and bloodier than anyone expected. War machines had become more sophisticated, and jet aircraft had flown overhead. Britain's veterans had faced horrific conditions in muddy, rat-infested trenches. The British weren't sure what would happen next, but they knew nothing would ever be the same again.

World War I was unlike any conflict that came before it, as the effort required a huge number of capable men and women. While women's domestic roles were still valued, there were other opportunities for women—including women of the middle class—to enter what had been traditionally considered male occupations, at least for a time. Women took over jobs that had belonged to men when those men left to serve in the military. Overall, about one million more women were part of the workforce in 1918 than in 1914. Most worked in factories or labored in fields, but a few became dentists or architects. In addition, some women served in the military as nurses and pilots.

World War I serves as the backdrop in "The Mark on the Wall." The narrator establishes this connection through the comparison of the burning coals to soldiers in red climbing a mountain. At the end of the story, another character goes out to buy a newspaper, referencing and cursing the war waging outside their home. Woolf, like many other writers during World War I, did not shy away from depicting the ways in which the horrors of the war impacted people's daily lives and their internal worlds.

Women's Suffrage and Gender Roles

Women in Britain had been entering the workforce since the shift from an agrarian to a manufacturing economy that occurred during the Industrial Revolution from the late 18th through mid-19th centuries, but World War I increased their numbers drastically. In the second half of the 19th century, groups of women advocated for suffrage, or the right to vote. Suffragists and suffragettes fought for women's voting rights, although their tactics differed. Suffragists, who were mostly middle-class women, took a genteel approach during the first wave of feminism, preferring to use petitions and lobby members of Parliament. Suffragettes, on the other hand, were disruptive. These mostly working-class women of the second wave of feminism were willing to break laws and go on hunger strikes. At first women were given the right to vote in some local elections, and in 1867 Parliament voted on an amendment that would give women voting rights in all elections. While the amendment was defeated, the fight was not abandoned.

World War I put the British women's suffrage movement on hold, as it took a back seat to more pressing worldwide concerns. The desire for things to return to their prewar state was a powerful force that pushed many women back into domestic roles following the war. But the seed had been planted, and in 1918, women over the age of 30 who were also property owners were granted the right to vote. A movement to grant younger women the vote followed, especially since they had done a great deal of the work in the war. Women over 21 were given the vote in 1928.

Presumably, the narrator of "The Mark on the Wall" is female, given her comments on gender and women's roles. Seeing the mark on the wall, she feels guilt over her bad housekeeping, which highlights that, for as much as society is shifting, women still have clearly defined roles in the home. The narrator also references "the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standards." As a female author, Woolf offered astute insights into her beliefs about gender roles and how far women still had to go to be considered equals in the eyes of men.

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