The Mark on the Wall | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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The Mark on the Wall | Symbols


The Mark on the Wall

The mark on the wall is introduced as a mystery that needs solving to both the narrator and the reader. The observation prompts the narrator's long line of thinking and self-reflection, and it acts as a kind of projection for her to place her own ideas and memories upon. The history of the mark is ultimately unknown. And although there appears to be a resolution as to what it is, some uncertainty must remain. Woolf uses the mark on the wall to symbolize how the human mind never fully understands the true reality of an object or a person's history. It also symbolizes the tendency of the human mind to try to create a narrative around observations and how that account is often reliant on memories that may themselves be faulty or warped by time.


As it turns out, the mark on the wall is only a snail. However, the narrator's realization of this fact seems little in comparison to the meaning of the image in the entire scheme of Woolf's narrative. Essentially, the snail is something from the outside world—an object in nature—that has crept into the narrator's household. Given that the narrator dwells on the role of nature in her life, the snail can represent the humble yet significant reminder of life existing outside of the mind. After her mind has wandered out of consciousness thinking about what the mark is, the realization that it is just a snail grounds her in reality because a snail is a small but very real thing.

The reader likely thinks it is odd that the thing that has crept into the narrator's home is a snail. It seems an unlikely invader from the outside world. However, readers can dismiss the oddity of the situation as they come to see that the snail represents many ideas in Woolf's story. The slow movement of the snail coincides with the pace of the narrator's thinking as she tries to discern the mark on the wall. She never stands up to get a closer look at the mark. Instead, she views it from afar while seated in her chair and ponders the nature of the mark. She asks what the mark may be and how it got there, and this leads her mind down a path of self-reflection. And after all this pondering over what the mark is, someone else in the room, a man, stands up, casually notices the mark, and calls it what it is: a snail. In this instance, the snail comes to represent how she understands that men and women may perceive the world in different ways. Woolf's feminist stance on gender is reflected in her illustration of man's practicality versus woman's inquiry. A man will see something, investigate it, and call it what it is, while a woman will "overthink" before investigating, and her mind will go down a path of inquiry. The differences are not necessarily a bad thing, and modern studies in neuroscience and psychology suggest that these are the ways male and female brains are naturally wired for thinking: women's brains are wired to think more analytically than men's. However, in Woolf's day and age, the difference was likely perceived as a flaw on the part of the woman.


The narrator's mind alights on trees as a symbol after hearing a tree branch tapping on her windowpane. That sensory observation leads her down a path of thinking about trees and how their relationship to time is much different than a human's relationship to it. Trees connect to nature, which the narrator accuses of playing a "game" that forces one to want to find the answers to questions that settle the experience of reality so the mind can stop dwelling on them. In this light, trees symbolize what is real and tangible, and they serve as a kind of foil to the never-ending thinking of humans. Nature appears to wonder little about humans, while humans obsess endlessly over finding meaning within it. The narrator only seems to find peace from her stream-of-consciousness thinking when contemplating the life of a tree, demonstrating for her that there is something about modern life that causes the mind to fixate on the uncertain and unknowable.

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