The Mark on the Wall

Nature and Civilization Theme Analysis

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Nature and Civilization Theme Icon

In the final moments of Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall,” the unnamed narrator discovers that the black speck on the wall of her home—a mark that has prompted her musings about everything from war to the meaning of life—is just a snail. This mundane realization at the end of such deep introspection reflects the tension between nature (represented by the snail) and civilization. Nature, in Woolf’s rendering, is indifferent to the whims of humankind—which is why the consideration of the mark on the wall—that is, an intrusion of nature into the home—repeatedly interrupts the narrator’s philosophizing, grounding her before she spirals into existential dread about “accidental affair this living is after all our civilization.” Writing during the rapidly changing technological and political landscape of the early twentieth century, Woolf ultimately presents the natural world as a potential antidote to the anxiety and ills caused by rapid, impersonal societal development.

Though human beings would like to think of civilization as evidence of their dominion over the world, Woolf instead associates society with anxiety, isolation, and disorientation. Woolf specifically links the modern condition to technology such as the Tube (the London metro) and the post office in order to reflect the “ignorance of humanity”: “if one wants to compare life to anything,” she notes, “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! […] Tumbling head over heels […] like brown paper parcels pitched down a shoot in the post office!”

Woolf clearly feels a disconnect between highly-ordered civilization and the cold randomness of existence, asserting that her technological metaphor “seems to express the rapidity of life, the perpetual waste and repair; all so casual, all so haphazard….” Woolf further rejects that material possessions could protect one from this chaotic loss, presenting even civilization’s most prized objects as ultimately nothing more that fodder for rats to “nibble”: “let me just count over a few of the things lost in one lifetime […] the bird cages, the iron hoops, the steel skates […] all gone, and jewels, too. Opals and emeralds, they lie about the roots of turnips.” In aiming to “show how very little control of our possessions we have,” Woolf denies humanity’s hubristic belief that civilization has achieved mastery over the world.

Natural imagery, however, frequently interrupts these negative reflections on civilization. After being drawn into a spiral of thoughts on the rapidity of life and its “perpetual waste and repair,” the narrator moves into thoughts of the “after life” which center on the “slow pulling down” of green stalks of grass and an inevitable return to an indistinct world characterized by “spaces of light and darkness.” When a tree taps against the window, the narrator thinks about her desire to think “quietly, calmly, spaciously” and never be interrupted; she considers thoughts about society to be interruptions, it seems, while perceptions of the natural world provide welcome relief. As the narrator fixes her gaze on the mark on the wall, she expresses a longing for certainty, solidity, and “proof of some existence other than ours.” She then thinks about wood, trees, and all of the flora and fauna that live slow lives around human beings. She repeatedly expresses pleasure and happiness about thinking about the different slow, natural sensations produced by trees, until “something gets in the way” and she is pulled back through a “vast upheaval” into the room—that is, into the domestic human world. 

Ultimately, the natural world lends itself to perception and reflection in ways that modern civilization does not. The narrator does not embrace an unambiguous preference for nature over civilization, however—in effect, reflections on the slower-paced and more “certain” realities of natural world can provide mental relief from the ricocheting onslaught of uncertainties in industrialized spaces.

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Nature and Civilization Quotes in The Mark on the Wall

Below you will find the important quotes in The Mark on the Wall related to the theme of Nature and Civilization.
The Mark on the Wall Quotes

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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mark/Snail
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:
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“…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…”

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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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.. . .

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 48
Explanation and Analysis:
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The tree outside the window taps very gently on the pane… I want to think quietly, calmly, spaciously, never to be interrupted, never to have to rise from my chair, to slip easily from one thing to another, without any sense of hostility, or obstacle; I want to sink deeper and deeper, away from the surface, with its hard separate facts.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:
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All the time I’m dressing up the figure of myself in my own mind, lovingly, stealthily, not openly adoring it, for if I did that, I should catch myself out, and stretch my hand at once for a book in self-protection. Indeed, it is curious how instinctively one protects the image of oneself from idolatry or any other handling that could make it ridiculous…Suppose the looking glass smashes, the image disappears, and the romantic figure with the green of forest depths all about it is there no longer, but only that shell of a person which is seen by other people—what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in. 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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
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…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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:
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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…

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 50-51
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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.. . .

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
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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!

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Page Number: 52
Explanation and Analysis:
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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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mark/Snail
Page Number: 52/53
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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

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mark/Snail
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:
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Wood is a pleasant thing to think about. It comes from a tree; and trees grow, and we don’t know how they grow. For years and years they grow, without paying any attention to us, in meadows, in forests, and by the side of rivers—all things one likes to think about.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 53
Explanation and Analysis:
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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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Someone
Related Symbols: The Tree
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
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“I’m going out to buy a newspaper.”

“Yes?”

“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.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker), Someone (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Mark/Snail
Page Number: 54
Explanation and Analysis:
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