Virginia Woolf uses “The Mark on the Wall”1 to present many philosophical and ethical issues existing within society through a first person stream of consciousness narrative. These issues include the concept of how first impressions change over time, the expectations of women during the early twentieth century and the role of the social caste system of the time. To generate these themes Woolf uses the mark on the wall in part, as a symbol of the status of women. To connect with males, and more directly females on the subject she uses first and second person perspectives in her stream of consciousness narrative with a genderless protagonist. This method allows her writing to speak to both genders while creating a more personal connection with her readers, one where not just the protagonist’s views, but Woolf’s own personal views on society are clear.
Woolf begins “The Mark on the Wall” by almost immediately narrating the protagonist’s thoughts. Within the first paragraph the reader understands the mark on the wall, the general settings, the time of year, that the narration is first person and that there is a stream of consciousness in the narrative. Beyond this the introduction sets the stage for a contemporary household that may be similar to many of the readers’ own homes. The gender of the narrator is not given, but they do smoke a cigarette, which might have left many readers of the period under the impression that it was a male protagonist2, although if they were under the impression the narrator was a female, she would have been considered unusual. The mark is discovered as a surprise by the protagonist and this surprise introduces two questions, what is it and why is it there? Oddly enough these are the same questions Woolf brings up later in the story and subsequently answers about the role of the caste system of society during the early twentieth century.
“Perhaps it was the middle of January in the present year that I first looked up and saw the mark on the wall. In order to fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw. So now I think of the fire; the steady film of yellow light upon the page of my book; the three chrysanthemums in the round glass bowl on the mantelpiece. Yes, it must have been the winter time, and we had just finished our tea, for I remember that I was smoking a cigarette when I looked up and saw the mark on the wall (Daley 192).”
Woolf rarely used the first person perspective to express a fictional scenario. As an instance some of her most acclaimed fictional works like To The Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway were written from the third person omniscient perspective. Woolf did, however use the first person perspective to write essays and journal articles. This leaves the impression that Woolf is trying to speak to a relatively larger audience then she usually writes to. Additionally, Woolf uses an average contemporary setting combined with a more personal narrative to lure a general reader in.
The mention of the mark on the wall is a surprise to this audience because it is a specific reference to the status of women. At the time it was considered a woman’s job to do the cleaning. The average reader of the period would have thought it was the woman’s responsibility to attend to the mark and some may even have concluded that it was her fault the mark was there at all. Although it is not clear by this first paragraph that these are in fact the views of Woolf, she builds this theme of the mark and a woman’s place in the world throughout the story to create that impression. This is done both through her use of language and through the overall content of her protagonist’s statements.
“And yet that mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance, such as a small rose leaf, left over from the summer, and I, not being a very vigilant housekeeper—look at the dust on the mantelpiece, for example, the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation, as one can believe (Daley 193).”
In this paragraph Woolf is extending her use of the mark being a symbol of the status of women at the time. During the early twentieth century housework was considered a woman’s vocation, by Woolf’s protagonist referring to herself as ‘not a very good housekeeper” she is subtlety indicating that she is a women. As a woman she is casting down the stereotype of housework being a women’s vocation by refusing to do it at all. In the first paragraph the reader understands that there are at least two people in this house by the use of ‘we’ in ‘we had just finished our tea’. That means that no one is cleaning the dust, even though it has ‘buried Troy three times over’. If this is a typical contemporary household with a male and a female, then the protagonist is rebelling against the stereotype of housework being a woman’s vocation. Conversely, the presumed male character is rebelling against the protagonist’s rebellion by not cleaning it as well. This rebellion and stereotyping of housework to be a woman’s vocation continues in this the twenty-first century between many modern day couples.
The impression of the household develops, from being a contemporary picturesque house to a more dingy, old and dirty place. As the image of the house changes so does the protagonist’s views on the norms of the society they are rebelling against. The mark is an unknown thing and it is an unknown thing because the housekeeper, the protagonist, refuses to keep the house therefore she has not been near enough to it at any point to discern its form, but now the reader must ask, why does the housekeeper refuse to clean the house? Also if the mark is a symbol for the status of women, by keeping it unknown Woolf is allowing the mark and thereby the status of women to be questioned. Through taking a stand like this, Woolf is promoting women’s rights and inciting further political debate3 on the topic. In this way she is not only fighting for the status of women, but she is testing the strength and resolve of the caste system she lives within, the caste system she accurately sees as being controlled by men.
Even though there is strong evidence, which would seem to indicate that the protagonist is a woman the gender is not specifically mentioned and therefore left ambiguous, which would also leave the gender of the intended audience also ambiguous. At least until the middle of the seventh paragraph where Woolf makes a point of view switch to second person during her protagonist’s stream of consciousness and in doing so the ‘you’ she refers are women.
“What now takes the place of those things4 I wonder, those real standard things? Men perhaps, should you be a woman; the masculine point of view which governs our lives, which sets the standard, which establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, which has become, I suppose, since the war5 half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go… leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists (Daley 195).”
While Woolf does target women with this statement her use of language is careful and specific enough not to insist that her reader is a woman. Woolf uses the statement ‘Men perhaps, should you be a woman’ to direct her readers to the feminine perspective, but by using the word should instead of some other more restricting phrase her sentence is left open to the interpretation of males as well. This is, however a definite shift from the original impression the reader may have had of the protagonist, who could easily have been a male sitting at home smoking a cigarette after tea time. In this paragraph the protagonist is contemplating the world from the female perspective and in doing so she is questioning the status quo of society. Woolf is writing that men take the place of ‘real standard things’. She is stating, through her protagonist, that from the perspective of women, men are the real standard over time. Some things have been real sometimes and at other times not real such as a style of a tablecloth, but men have remained real in that they have remained dominant to women throughout the changes to fashions and ‘Whitakers Table of Precedency’, which are the rules that govern the social class and caste system. She also mentions that although these rules still exist, much of the population has begun to disregard them because of ‘the war’ and because of this there exists a ‘sense of illegitimate freedom’. This is a challenge to the status of women at the time by saying that men like Whitakers Table of Precedency should not be the rule or the dominant force and that women should be free. She calls the loss of Whitakers Table of Precedency an illegitimate freedom because nothing has really changed as long as men are in control. This also answers the two specific questions of, what is the caste system of the time? and why is it there? The answers being; it is a system controlled by the ‘masculine point of view’ and it exists because people have not forgotten it completely yet, ‘which soon, one may hope, will be [The Table of Prcedency] laughed into the dustbin’.
Having presented this point Woolf presents a very nearly sarcastic counter-point just a few paragraphs later when her own resolve to discover what the mark is by thinking is almost shaken. Given that the mark is being viewed here as the status of women, if the protagonist feels compelled to discover what the mark on the wall is figuratively, she is compelled to discover what the current status of women are. In her argument she insists the compulsion to do this is created by ‘Nature’ as a way of ‘self-preservation’ for the purpose of moving to the next thought because the endeavor is too big to really change and ‘Whitaker knows’ so no one else needs to, therefore define the mark for what it always has been or what Whitaker says and move on.
“I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is—a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?
“Here is nature once more at her old game of self-preservation. This train of thought, she perceives, is threatening mere waste of energy, even some collision with reality, for who will ever be able to lift a finger against Whitaker’s Table of Precedency? The Archbishop of Canterbury is followed by the Lord High Chancellor; the Lord High Chancellor is followed by the Archbishop of York. Everybody follows somebody such is the philosophy of Whitaker; and the great thing is to know who follows whom. Whitaker knows, and let that, so Nature counsels, comfort you, instead of enraging you; and if you can’t be comforted, if you must shatter this hour of peace, think of the mark on the wall (Daley 196).”
The perspective is again shifted into second person in this passage because Woolf is once again speaking, through her protagonist, directly to her readers. Based on the fact that all the members of the higher order of the caste system can only be men, is designed by a man and that this fact could be ‘enraging’ to her readers, one is left with the impression that Woolf had intended on women to be her primary audience. The status of women is left unknown, but ‘Whitaker knows’ and because of that Woolf insists, that one can let this thought be a comfort, perhaps because it does not need to be thought of if Whitaker has thought of it already. This might be a sarcastic gesture as in the next sentence Woolf explains that the other thing this thought could do is enrage the readers and that if this is the case, then ‘think of the mark on the wall’ and since the concept of the mark is left ambiguous at this point in the story what she is really asking is; think about the housework, the males dominating society and the status of women and in doing so she is asking her readers to question their first impressions and the things they have so far believed. Woolf is asking her readers to consider, whether letting one man decide the rank and class of all those in society is a well formed idea and why is it a woman’s responsibility to clean the mark on the wall.
Woolf uses this story to capture a large audience by remaining ambiguous as to what the gender of the protagonist is and as to whom she is speaking directly to, but through her content and multiple references to the rebellion against masculine norms, it is clear that her message is intended for those of the feminine perspective. She uses the first person to relate to her audience on a common level, but then breaks from that to speak to them directly in second person for the purpose of sharing her personal views, not just her protagonist’s view. By combining these features with a stream of consciousness narrative Woolf is able to cause the reader to question not only their first impressions of society, but their impressions of the status of women and the social caste or class system as well. Once Woolf has the reader questioning these phenomena she presents some of her own answers in the form of her protagonist’s thoughts. Those answers suggest that the status of women, at least during the early twentieth century, is in flux and that the caste system of society is breaking down. After presenting these concepts she finally suggests to her readers two options. They could accept the status quo and let Whitaker continue to control society through his Table of Precedency or that they can ‘think of the mark on the wall’ and question what the status and role of women should be. Ultimately, Woolf is using this story as a further catalyst for the women’s liberation movement with the hopes of altering the perspectives the general public holds regarding the status and expectations of women during the early twentieth century.
Abrams, M., H. A Glossary of Literary Terms 9th ed. Boston, MA. Wadsworth Cengage Learning. 2009. Print.
Daley, James. The World’s Greatest Short Stories. Mineola, NY. Dover Publications, INC. 2006. Print.
Hussey, Mark. Orlando A Biography by Virginia Woolf. Orlando, FL. Harcourt, Inc. 2006. Print.
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1 This story was the first published on the first printing press Virginia and Leonard Woolf owned and used for the Hogarth press. It was published with as story of Leonard’s called “Three Jews” in a collection Titled Two Stories (Hussey xiv).
2 Based on one of the earliest surveys conducted about smoking it can easily be assumed around the period males smoked at least twice as much as women (Smoking Statistics).
3The year before this story was published the United States of America passed an amendment allowing all women citizens to vote.