The Mark on the Wall | Study Guide

Virginia Woolf

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The Mark on the Wall | Themes


Representations of Reality, Memory, and Time

The narrator struggles to discern what is "real" in the meaning she makes of the mark on the wall. What seems like a simple observation becomes an invitation for her to ponder the meaning of how the mind perceives reality by trying to piece together the unknowable history of things. Virginia Woolf's investigation of this theme through the mind of the narrator also provides a commentary on whether or not it is possible for a writer to ever truly represent reality in fiction, given that one can never truly know another person's inner world. Woolf builds tension without action, as both the narrator and the reader question the mystery of the mark in a quest to understand it. Through this lens, the reader is in the same position as the narrator, until the other person in the room—"someone"—declares that the mark is a snail.

It is significant that even though the story begins in the past tense as a memory, the narrator recalls in stream of consciousness her thought process in the present tense. Thematically, Woolf comments on the idea that past, present, and future can blur together in the way the mind attempts to understand the reality of what already happened, what is currently happening, and what might happen. The narrator concludes that only solid things are real, such as trees and furniture. Everything else is warped by time in memory.

How the Mind Perceives Things

Woolf uses the narrator's interior monologue to demonstrate how the mind sees an object or receives a sensory impression and then creates a narrative around it to make meaning. Throughout the story, very little action happens. The narrator sees a mark on the wall that she cannot make sense of, and her mind attempts to make meaning out of how it appeared. Along the way, her consciousness flits from one association to the next, considering the people who lived in the home before, the nature of memory, and what constitutes reality. She also considers her perception of time and how the mind perceives its passage as jarring and sudden without context. Woolf's thematic goal seems less about setting and character development and more about how the nature of perception shapes a person's view and understanding of the world.

Nature of Self-Reflection

Woolf's use of stream of consciousness highlights the theme of self-reflection. Woolf develops the narrator's character through her line of thinking, or the path down which her thoughts lead her consciousness, and the self-reflection it instigates. Thus the reader gains insight into the narrator's internal world. This use of self-reflection demonstrates how a character's thoughts can indicate who they are—perhaps even more than their thoughts and action do. Revelation through self-reflection allows a different point of entry into the character's motivation. Even though the narrator's thoughts and memories are unique, Woolf invites readers to consider the ways their own stream of consciousness and free associations mirror the narrator's. Self-reflection is rarely linear; it often follows a circular or meandering logic that departs from a memory or an observation. In this case, the narrator receives some closure in the end as to what the mark is. Still, her self-reflection opens up further inquiries for her to investigate—and for the reader to consider in the total impact of the story.

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