The Mark on the Wall | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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The Mark on the Wall | Plot Summary & Analysis



At First Glance

An anonymous first-person narrator recalls a moment in the middle of January when she first looks up and sees a mark on the wall. She is lost in a reverie while staring at the burning coals in the fire, thinking of a "crimson flag flapping from the castle tower" and red knights riding up black rocks. The sight of the mark on the wall interrupts her fantasy. It is "a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece." The narrator muses, "How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object," trying to figure out what it is and what it means in the context of other surroundings. She wonders if the mark was made by the previous owners of the house, and considers how strange it is that she will likely never see them again or know what happened next in their lives.

The narrator considers getting up to investigate the mark but realizes that she would never be able to say for certain where it came from. This line of thinking leads her to consider "the inaccuracy of thought" and how little control people have over their surroundings and possessions. Objects are frequently lost. She considers how life goes by in a flash, comparing it to traveling on the underground (subway) at 50 miles per hour only to be "shot out at the feet of God entirely naked!" She contemplates the notion that life passes rapidly and is full of "waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard."

The Path of Thinking

The narrator's mind returns to the mark on the wall, wondering if it was caused by a round black substance, given that she is not a vigilant housekeeper. She is distracted by the tapping of a tree's branches on the window glass and wishes to be allowed to think quietly without interruption. She states, "I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts." This thought causes her to dwell on Shakespeare, whom she believes was able to receive ideas that "fell perpetually from some very high Heaven down through his mind."

Another reference the narrator makes that shows the path of her thinking is to a standard British reference book called Whitaker's Almanac. She first references it to further her point that it is the masculine point of view that "sets the standard" and governs people's lives. She returns to the reference when describing the book's "Table of Precedency," which is a list of important people and positions in British society. Again, she highlights that it is men who arrange this list and establish this codified information. Her return to this thought causes her to feel agitation because it occurs while she is contemplating nature, the nature of knowledge, and who decides what is known. This path of thinking reinforces her arrival at the frustrating conclusion that women have far less say in determining this kind of information and are expected to go along with what has already been established by men. The fact that thoughts of the "Table of Precedency" interrupt repeatedly throughout the story demonstrates her preoccupation and her increasing frustration with the limitations imposed by her gender.

The narrator wishes she could find "a pleasant track of thought," though not necessarily one that directly praises herself. She offers an example that makes her realize how much people want to believe in the image they have of themselves without having to confront how others truly see them. She realizes that novelists in the future will realize the importance of these reflections, but she notes that there is an infinite number of reflections. Therefore, descriptions of reality should be left out of stories. She also believes that it is the masculine point of view that governs people's lives and as things stand "sets the standard."

The Anticlimax

The narrator continues to speculate on the origin of the mark on the wall but concludes, "Nothing is proved, nothing is known." She contemplates getting up to examine it more closely but decides to stay put because she feels there is nothing to gain by knowing. This leads her to ponder what knowledge even is. In the next moment, she decides she must jump up and finally see for herself what the mark is, but she also considers that this is "Nature's game—her prompting to take action as a way of ending any thought that threatens to excite or to pain."

Her thoughts eventually lead the narrator to think about what an individual can be sure about that is solid and real, such as trees. Yet even to trace the life and experience of a tree is unknowable. The narrator realizes that she has lost her train of thought and forgotten what she was talking about initially. She notices that someone is standing over her saying they are going out to buy a newspaper, and the person remarks, "I don't see why we should have a snail on our wall." The mystery of the mark on the wall is solved—it is only a snail.


Stream of Consciousness

Virginia Woolf employs the modernist technique of stream of consciousness to show how a sensory observation leads to a person creating meaning and narrative out of the experience. As a literary device, authors use stream of consciousness to demonstrate the free-form flow of thoughts in the minds of characters. Woolf and other modernist writers believed that a stream-of-consciousness style of narration more accurately captured the internal reality of people and the way that humans think. Stream of consciousness is often nonlinear, linking present observations with the memories they conjure up of the past and ruminations on the future. The writing style demonstrates the free association most people have between memories and sensations. The narrator establishes a stream-of-consciousness style from the first line of her story when her memory of a mark on the wall conjures up other associations and stories. The associations lead her down a path of philosophical inquiry into the nature of memory, reality, and knowledge.

The narrator's stream of consciousness also has her contemplating the lives of the home's previous owners, as well as the fact that lives pass by quickly with objects and people coming and going. The only meaning to be made is created by the observer alone. She also alights on the symbol of a tree after hearing a branch tapping on the window. The gentle tap of the branch outside causes her to think of wood and the mysterious nature of trees. Each thought, in turn, brings her further down the stream of her consciousness, mimicking the way observations and thoughts associate freely and loosely without clear connections.

Reality and Memory

The story begins with the narrator recalling when she first observed a mark on the wall above the mantelpiece in her living room. The nature of recalling the memory requires her to locate it in time. She conjures the memory up by recalling several details about the setting at the point in time when she first made her observation. She remembers the fire burning in the fireplace and a vase of chrysanthemums, a hardy flower that blooms brilliantly in colder months. With these images in mind, the narrator can place the event of the memory as first happening in the wintertime. By having the narrator trace her memory through the narrative she has created, Woolf comments on the way that human memory concocts a story that originates in a sensory impression. For the narrator, this sensory impression is visual in nature. Even her recollection of the fire involves a story she tells herself about knights climbing a mountain bearing red flags that look like the glowing coals. In this sense, reality is not necessarily what it seems.

The narrator's recollection of her memory also demonstrates how the external world and its events inform the way she recalls ideas. World War I is a major event happening in the world at the time of Woolf's narrative. The narrator's visual association of knights climbing a mountain during battle shows that on some level of the narrator's consciousness the acts of war are on her mind. In this sense, her preoccupation with the mark on the wall is an attempt to escape the realities of war; yet the imagery of war still creeps into her mind. Still, within this memory the narrator continues to distract herself with the mark on the wall in a further attempt to distance herself from reality. When her husband or partner interrupts her thinking and mentions the war, she is abruptly brought back to the present—reality.

In the narrator's attempt to distract herself from thoughts of the war, Woolf also hints at issues related to gender roles. Readers must remember that during World War I, women had no active role in combat or making decisions regarding the acts of war. The narrator, a woman, may feel anxiety over the limits her gender places on her ability to solve the problems with war. She has no control over the events of the world around her, as her only domain appears to be her home.

The narrator concludes that reconstructing memory to understand the reality of the present is futile. Her observations of the mark on the wall—and her conjecture on what the mark means and how it came to be—seem amusing at first. However, these musings lead her thoughts down a path of philosophical inquiry and investigation. Her ruminations leave her feeling that reality is an illusion because memory is faulty and impossible to recall correctly.

Introspection and Observation

The narrator's attempts to conceive of a story and meaning behind the mark on the wall create an account that is largely made up of her introspection and observation, broken only when another character asks her a question. Woolf suggests that the internal life of a person provides just as much material for a story as action, given that very little action takes place in the story. Most traditional modes of writing emphasize action and narrative arcs with climax and resolution. Woolf emphasizes that the narrator's rich internal world is just as significant as, if not more so than, an active narrative arc because introspection and observation are the ways that most people experience and move through the world. Therefore, it is more realistic than action in its depiction.

The narrator's observations of the mark on the wall also demonstrate the impossibility of understanding the full reality of a thing or person's history through observation alone. When she observes that "learned men" are merely "the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs," she comments that observations do not necessarily lead to real knowledge. When another person solves the mystery of what the mark on the wall is, Woolf hints that what the reader hopes would be a climactic moment is just an end to the narrator's necessary distraction from thinking about her other thoughts on war, gender, and humanity. This other person, whom the narrator refers to as "someone," is never identified. Readers can infer that "someone" is likely the narrator's husband or companion—the two are together in the living room, relaxing in front of the fire, smoking cigarettes and drinking tea.

Aside from piecing together clues about the setting, readers can guess the gender of the other person through the character's interaction with the narrator. It's not enough for someone to just point out the snail; someone must bring the narrator's attention to it by saying, "I don't see why we should have a snail on our wall." The nature of the remark insinuates that the narrator may have failed in her role as a wife and housekeeper of their home in some way. Woolf uses this brief interaction to emphasize the confines of gender roles and expectations, which reinforces the narrator's belief that it is "the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standards."

The narrator's introspection reveals a great deal about how she sees the world through her observations and the connections she makes by creating narratives and stories about what she observes. By the end of the story, her observations hint that she has come to the conclusion that the natural world offers the "most real" sense of reality, particularly in her ruminations on the tree that she contemplates. She accepts that "Nature" plays a game by prompting her to take action by getting up to solve the question of the mark on the wall so that her thoughts about it can finally conclude.

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