I am in the process now of reading Virginia Woolf's (1882 to 1941) The Waves (1931) so when DS of Third Story Window responded to my request for short stories worth reading with "The Mark on The Wall" also by Woolf I decided it would be a good idea to read it. It is also one of the earlier works of Woolf so it might give me a little bit of a chance to see her development in the 14 years between these two works. These are the first two works of Woolf I have read and I will say more of my experience of reading her in my post on The Waves but as I see it now I think it is best on opening readings to sort of let the words flow over you (I resisted the urge to say in waves). The language even in her very early story is strikingly beautiful and some of the text reads as if was from the narrator's stream of consciousness.
In a way "The Mark on the Wall" is a kind of satire or mockery of intellectual pretensions and the posing of those who think they have real knowledge of the world. To me it really does not matter too much what we see it as about as it is so gorgeous. The story begins when the nameless first person narrator begins to try to fix in her mind the first time she noticed a mark on the wall in one of her rooms.
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.
When the narrator ponders the dust in her room she is brought to mind the dust of Troy. I said in my last post on Parade's End that that work was kind of a Cubist novel. I think this is what is being relayed to us in this passage (and even if I am completely wrong it is a wonderful passage)
As we face each other in omnibuses and underground railways we are looking into the mirror; that accounts for the vagueness, the gleam of glassiness, in our eyes. And the novelists in future will realize more and more the importance of these reflections, for of course there is not one reflection but an almost infinite number; those are the depths they will explore, those the phantoms they will pursue, leaving the description of reality more and more out of their stories, taking a knowledge of it for granted, as the Greeks did and Shakespeare perhaps but these generalizations are very worthless.
When I see you I see you reflecting back to me in an infinite regression of mirrors. I think that view point on the construction of knowledge (I am deliberately not saying discovery) is part of why there are references to events from the dawn of known history in this story. It is also part of the reason for so many cultural references in Parade's End and Ulysses. The lines below are to me worth reading 100s of pages of oblique prose to discover:
No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known. And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really what shall we say? the head of a gigantic old nail, driven in two hundred years ago, which has now, owing to the patient attrition of many generations of housemaids, revealed its head above the coat of paint, and is taking its first view of modern life in the sight of a white-walled fire-lit room, what should I gain? Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge? What are our learned men save the descendants of witches and hermits who crouched in caves and in woods brewing herbs, interrogating shrew-mice and writing down the language of the stars?
We find out at the end of the story what the mark really is and I will not spoil it for those who have not yet read it.
I do not claim to understand this story and I think those who do claim that have missed the deeper meanings of the story. Sometimes it is harder to not understand something than to try to impose a meaning. I for sure loved reading it and will read more of her short stories. I will try to post more on the extreme importance to Woolf to world literature in my post on The Waves.
If anyone has any suggestions as to short stories I might like please leave them in a comment. I prefer and need stories that can be read on line. thanks
A most perceptive analysis, Mel. Love the idea of the "infinite regression of mirrors." I am so glad you enjoyed this story! You make me want to plop down right now and read it again--the mark of a wonderful review.
P.S. Thank you for the mention; it was most kind of you.
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