This is one of my favourite short stories: a meditative stream of consciousness with intelligent irony. It’s also where the band Modest Mouse found their name. I wrote a piece of close criticism on it for a course I completed earlier this year. I’ve highlighted the literary techniques Woolf has used – it’s so impressive how much she has fitted into just two paragraphs. We can all learn from the greats.
I chose the following paragraphs to analyse:
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 for the first time. I looked up through the smoke of my cigarette and my eye lodged for a moment upon the burning coals, and that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping from the castle tower came into my mind, and I thought of the cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of the black rock. Rather to my relief the sight of the mark interrupted the fancy, for it is an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps. The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantelpiece.
How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly, and then leave it…. If that mark was made by a nail, it can’t have been for a picture, it must have been for a miniature—the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us would have chosen pictures in that way—an old picture for an old room. That is the sort of people they were—very interesting people, and I think of them so often, in such queer places, because one will never see them again, never know what happened next. They wanted to leave this house because they wanted to change their style of furniture, so he said, and he was in process of saying that in his opinion art should have ideas behind it when we were torn asunder, as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.
Here’s my analysis:
This short story can be seen as a study of internal monologue as a form and an exploration of the fluidity of thought. The story begins with the word ‘perhaps’, immediately drawing attention to the unreliability of a first person narrator recalling the past and to give it the naturalism of a person trying to recall the specifics of an event. Throughout it has a conversational tone, ‘so he said’, as if the narrator is confiding in the reader. The same conspiratorial effect is created by ‘A fraud of course’, wherein the similar vowel sounds verge on assonance, giving an added phonological impact to this colloquial declarative that abruptly ends a descriptive flight of fancy.
The narrator fancies she sees the fire as ‘the cavalcade of red knights’. The alliterative fricatives in the phrase ‘that old fancy of the crimson flag flapping’ lend an excitement and verve to this image. There seems to be some irony in her ‘relief’ as the ‘sight of the mark interrupted the fancy’ because the majority of the story seems to be her exercising her imagination. The fact that it is ‘an old fancy, an automatic fancy, made as a child perhaps’ implies that this is part of her character – the tendency for her mind to wander to the fantastical. Again in the phrase is the ‘perhaps’ of not quite knowing from whence her thoughts and memories come. This self-confessedly fallible narrator seems more genuine because of her uncertainties: an irony that adds to the depth of the narrative point.
The dark spot on the wall is the focus of the story that she returns to, periodically anchoring the stream of consciousness. Colours of ‘crimson’ and ‘red’ provide a contrast with the mark, ‘black upon the white wall’, perhaps juxtaposing the vibrancy of the imagination with the room. The description of her knight image is finished with the words ‘black rock’. The pararhyme creates a definitive, conclusive end to her distraction. She returns directly after to the mark. The colours ‘red’ and ‘white’ reappear in another fanciful thought: ‘the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, and lips like red carnations.’ It is interesting that the flowers of her simile are given colour, yet the ‘three chrysanthemums’ that stand on her mantelpiece are not. This could indicate that she is more taken by the brilliance of colour in her mind’s eye than in reality and so more absorbed with her internal life.
At times the story seems a self-aware exploration of internal monologue, ‘how readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object.’ The lexical field of nature hints at the idea that it is ingrained in human behaviour patterns to think this way. In this simile, the ants carry ‘a blade of straw’, rather than grass, thus suggesting that their exercise is futile and ultimately unfulfilling. The implication is that swarming thoughts are similarly fruitless.
Complex sentences reflect the flow of related thoughts; the final sentence of the second paragraph is significantly longer than others, evoking excitability in the focaliser’s rapidly flowing thoughts. The extreme verb ‘torn asunder’ indicates the significance of this conversation to her, potentially because of the idea presented: ‘art should have ideas behind it.’ It is possible that Woolf is making a wider point here about the art of literature that she intends the reader to pause on. The simile that follows shows the narrator seeing things as they almost happen, ‘as one is torn from the old lady about to pour out tea and the young man about to hit the tennis ball in the back garden of the suburban villa as one rushes past in the train.’ Her experiences are incomplete, unsatisfactory, connoting the truncated and fleeting nature of thought. It is also reminiscent of the way she pulls short and limits her moments of imagination at the start of the story.
A contrast is created by the staid thinking of the people that owned the house previously, who moved because they ‘wanted to change their style of furniture.’ Their insistence on a single style of house and décor is contrapuntal to the fluid, imaginative thinking of the narrator. The repetition in ‘an old picture for an old room’ highlights the simplicity of their view.
The narrator’s curiosity about the neighbours seems to be phrased more as one would refer to a story than to people, ‘one will… never know what happened next’, as if their lives are a tale without ending. This further connotes her tendency to imagination. In this case and elsewhere, the voice changed from using the first person ‘I’ to the inclusive pronoun ‘one’, which creates a distance from the sentiment. This has the effect of drawing attention to the thoughts and their processes: she is observing the thoughts as if they are held by another, but also creating the sense that her concerns could have universality.
This story typifies a modernist transition from traditional first person narration to stream of consciousness. The narrator begins by resisting distraction, drawing the story back to the mark on the wall. However, in her attempt to express the nature of wandering thoughts, she ultimately introduces imagery that is more elaborate and evocative than her childhood imaginings. The reader realises that mark on the wall is the catalyst for an exploration of the ever-active mind.
Read the full text of The Mark on the Wall here if this has sparked your interest.