The mysterious mark on the wall, which turns out to be a snail, shows that familiar spaces can become mysterious again, and symbolizes the uncertainty of rational knowledge. Throughout the story, the mark grounds the narrator by bringing her back from her unpleasant thoughts. The mark thereby stands for a desire to stay anchored in reality and seek protection from the dangers of drifting too far into abstract thoughts—which aligns with the narrator’s skepticism about knowledge and “learned men”, whom she associates with superstition, and her preference for “the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours.” The mark belongs to that impersonal world.
Additionally, the symbolic nature of the snail resonates with the tone of the narrator’s reflections. Snails move at a slow pace, counter to the current of modernity—this image stands in stark contrast to the narrator’s descriptions of modern civilization, such as being “blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour” and “tumbling head over heels…like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!” Additionally, the snail symbolizes both the narrator’s failures as a housekeeper, which ties into her resentment towards that feminine role. It also demonstrates humanity’s inability to completely bar nature from their homes, which suggests that the borders drawn between nature and civilization are less impermeable than one might think. This in turn suggests the hubris of human endeavors to achieve dominion over nature, indicating that the final outcome of the great acts of civilization—city-building, new technologies, and even war—will be the inevitable return to the nature from which humans come.
Furthermore, though the narrator and her husband have vastly different reactions to the intruder, it catches both of their attention. This underlines the paradoxical ways that the objects and spaces can impact people—in essence, it reveals how different people can see the same thing in entirely different ways.
The Mark/Snail Quotes in The Mark on the Wall
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.
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… 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.
Indeed, now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel that I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality which at once turns the two Archbishops and the Lord High Chancellor to the shadows of shades. Here is something definite, something real. Thus, waking from a midnight dream of horror, one hastily turns on the light and lies quiescent, worshipping the chest of drawers, worshipping solidity, worshipping reality, worshipping the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours
“I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”
“Though it’s no good buying newspapers. . . . Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war! . . . All the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on our wall.”
Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.