The mark on the wall

One of Woolf’s most striking portrayals of this idea comes in the 1921 short essay ‘The Mark on the Wall’, in which she remembers noting a small mark upon the wall and wondering what it was and what could have made it. The entire story is a wonderful musing on the ramifications of imaginative freedom and , but what’s particularly noticeable in this case is how the story concludes. Her mind slips from “the cavalcade of red knights riding up the side of the black rock” in her fire, to “the close dry sensation of being wood” as she imagines what life is like to be a tree. This magical journey of image, sound and sensation is set up to, among other things, highlight the sheer complexity and diversity that even the most innocuous mark on the wall can start in one’s mind. “How readily our thoughts swarm upon a new object, lifting it a little way, as ants carry a blade of straw so feverishly”  The image is a wonderfully vivid one, and it shows how we contemplate new things, with an enthusiastic wave of thoughts and assumptions, theories and imaginative fancies. Yet, in a single moment it is broken. The second she  discovers “it was a snail”, the passage ends and the flow of images ceases in an instant. This is not the sort of conclusion she describes in the analogy of the ants but is instead a sharp, involuntary reduction: the blade of grass is snatched away and the ant is pulverised. This is clearly representative of the advantages that she feels subjective literature has over the supposedly objective. The reader is able to interact with the text, to expand each image into a whole world of possibilities and implications, to invest themselves into it and bring their own personal relevancy to characters. This is clearly a positive thing but it is one that is only possible if the author surrenders part of his power and authority to the reader and gives them agency within a text to help shape and develop their own impressions.


She pairs this portrayal of the advantages of subjectivity with a seemingly casual but incredibly damning comment about the supposed advantages of objectivity. “And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really […] the head of a gigantic old nail[…] what should I gain?— Knowledge? Matter for further speculation?” The entire basis for preferring the objective reporting of fact in order to create accurate character and scene is that there is both a knowledge that underlying exists and that it can be conveyed. The first is an issue that we will come to later, and the latter may appear to be one that we have already discussed. However, this is a less of a problem with the method of communication but more the root of such an ideological drive, the problem rather astutely summed up as “what is knowledge?” Can we claim that the facts and figures that fill “Whitaker’s Almanack”, for example, are knowledge? Of course, for Woolf the answer is a resounding no because the common theme that is recurring throughout these works is that life itself is subjective. Many times we will never discover what that mark on the wall is, or why someone acted in the way that they did. The magic lies in the infinite clouds of possibility such stimuli invoke.













June 5, 2018


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