The UK saw the birth of social movements around women’s rights during the Victorian Period, but many major victories occurred during or after Woolf’s lifetime. The first law on women’s suffrage, for instance, was passed in the UK in 1918, one year after “The Mark on the Wall” was originally published. Virginia Woolf wrote most of her fictional work about female protagonists and often addressed the inequalities between men and women—for example, UK universities like Oxford and Cambridge only began admitting women later in Woolf’s life and she regretted never having access to the formal education her husband and other friends in the Bloomsbury group had. Although the gender of the narrator of this story is never explicitly specified, the text strongly suggests she is a woman sitting in her living room with her partner. She reflects on different social expectations on men and women and addresses the male role particularly critically. However, she blames society rather than individual men and women for the problems with gender roles.
The narrator reflects on developments in human history, discrediting the alleged superiority of masculine authority that has shaped so much of that history. The narrator specifically dismisses “learned men” as “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.” By linking such men to a history of superstition, the narrator implicitly devalues the authority of those who control society. The narrator further compares belief in the wisdom of ruling men to a form of superstition itself. Thus, “the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle”—that is, the less people put unquestioning faith in fallible masculine authority—“one could imagine a very pleasant world […] without professors or specialists or housekeepers with the profiles of policemen.”
Yet even as the narrator devalues male authority, she questions the ability to truly overthrow it: “This train of thought, she perceives, is threatening mere waste of energy […] for who will ever be able to lift a finger against Whitaker’s Table of Precedency?” She further notes that old traditions like “Sunday luncheons” (a reference to Sunday mass and religion) have been displaced without “damnation.” In their place stands “the masculine point of view” which governs lives, sets standards, and “establishes Whitaker’s Table of Precedency.” Although she does not regret the loss of old traditions, she also does not celebrate the “masculine” standards that have replaced them. The narrator claims that the war has caused Whitaker’s Table of Precedency to become “half a phantom to many men and women” and hopes it “will be laughed into the dustbin where phantoms go.” She believes it would leave behind “an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom.” The narrator’s hopes are clearly linked to the rejection of masculine standards. Because she has seen progress in her own lifetime, she comes to a partially optimistic conclusion about the future that is seemingly at odds with her own assertion that such endeavors toward equality are a “mere waste of energy.”
Furthermore, the narrator thinks about the impact of gender roles on her own life and shows the ways that these expectations do not match her reality. She notices the dust left on the mantlepiece by her “not being a very vigilant housekeeper.” Given for her desire for a world without housekeepers, this indicates that she does not wish she were a better housekeeper but rather feels trapped by the expectation that she be one in the first place. When she pictures a more beautiful “after life,” she claims that “saying which are trees, and which are men and women, or whether there are such things” will be impossible. This means that a utopian vision in the mind of the narrator involves the eradication of the differences between the sexes. She also names the image of “men and women [sitting] after tea, smoking cigarettes” as a peaceful and happy one. And as this is what she is currently doing, the more pleasant world she pictures is clearly within reach for individuals. Unequal standards and the tendencies of “men of action” upset the narrator, but she leaves the possibility for pleasant thoughts of men and women living in harmony.
Although the narrator chafes at the gender roles that have been ascribed to her, she does not make sweeping biological generalizations—that is, she does not argue that men and women are inherently different. Rather, she reflects on the way that social expectations influence people of either gender and constrict their lives. Woolf portrays a strongly egalitarian view on the relationship between men and women, indicating that both are capable of reason and goodness. A better world would emerge with the relaxation of these strict social norms—and positive relationships between men and women were already possible between individuals.
Gender Roles ThemeTracker
Gender Roles Quotes in The Mark on the Wall
“…the mystery of life; The inaccuracy of thought! The ignorance of humanity! To show how very little control of our possessions we have—what an accidental affair this living is after all our civilization—let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime, beginning, for that seems always the most mysterious of losses—what cat would gnaw, what rat would nibble—three pale blue canisters of book-binding tools? Then there were the bird cages, the iron hoops, the steel skates, the Queen Anne coalscuttle, the bagatelle board, the hand organ—all gone, and jewels, too. Opals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips. What a scraping paring affair it is to be sure! The wonder is that I’ve any clothes on my back, that I sit surrounded by solid furniture at this moment…”
Why, if one wants to compare life to anything, one must liken it to being blown through the Tube at fifty miles an hour—landing at the other end without a single hairpin in one’s hair! Shot out at the feet of God entirely naked! Tumbling head over heels in the asphodel meadows like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office! With one's hair flying back like the tail of a race-horse. Yes, that seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard.. . .
…but these generalizations are very worthless. The military sound of the word is enough. It recalls leading articles, cabinet ministers—a whole class of things indeed which as a child one thought the thing itself, the standard thing, the real thing, from which one could not depart save at the risk of nameless damnation.
How shocking, and yet how wonderful it was to discover that these real things, Sunday luncheons, Sunday walks, country houses, and tablecloths were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms, and the damnation which visited the disbeliever in them was only a sense of illegitimate freedom. What now takes the place of those things 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 war half a phantom to many men and women, which soon, one may hope, will be laughed into the dustbin where the phantoms go, the mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell and so forth, leaving us all with an intoxicating sense of illegitimate freedom—if freedom exists…
No, no, nothing is proved, nothing is known. And if I were to get up at this very moment…what should I gain?—Knowledge? Matter for further speculation?...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? And the less we honour them as our superstitions dwindle and our respect for beauty and health of mind increases.. . .
Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with the flowers so red and blue in the open fields. A world without professors or specialists or house-keepers with the profiles of policemen, a world which one could slice with one’s thought as a fish slices the water with his fin, grazing the stems of the water-lilies, hanging suspended over nests of white sea eggs…How peaceful it is down here, rooted in the centre of the world and gazing up through the grey waters, with their sudden gleams of light, and their reflections—if it were not for Whitaker’s Almanack—if it were not for the Table of Precedency!
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.
Even so, life isn’t done with; there are a million patient, watchful lives still for a tree, all over the world, in bedrooms, in ships, on the pavement, lining rooms, where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes. It is full of peaceful thoughts, happy thoughts, this tree. I should like to take each one separately—but something is getting in the way. . . . Where was I? What has it all been about? A tree? A river? The Downs? Whitaker’s Almanack? The fields of asphodel? I can’t remember a thing. Everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing.. . . There is a vast upheaval of matter.
“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.