Although the story’s narrative occurs solely in the mind of its narrator, her thoughts turn consistently towards those of other individuals and the possibility of knowing their minds. She reflects with interest on the impossibility of following another’s life, yet her mind circles back to figures as diverse as the former tenants of her house, the people she sees outside a train window, and Shakespeare. These mental forays reveal some hope of encounter between others’ minds, or perhaps merely a pleasant fascination with others’ internal lives. However, the sudden reveal at the story’s close that the narrator has not been alone in the room retrospectively colors these musings. In the end, Woolf leaves it ambiguous as to whether people can truly understand each other at all when the narrator’s partner anticlimactically reveals the identity of the mark on which she has spent so long dwelling.
The narrator enjoys considering the lives of others, and also cites distance between people as a source of deep concern and anxiety. In her first guess about the identity of the mark on her wall, she wonders if it belongs to the house’s former tenants and says she thinks of them often because “one will never see them again” and “never know what happened.” She goes on to consider how others think about her and concludes that humans like to construct romantic images of themselves. The narrator wonders what happens when that romantic image disappears and all that remains is “that shell of a person which is seen by other people.” She says this leads to an “airless, shallow” world that is “not to be lived in.” This would suggest that people can never truly know each other, leading to a world in which people see only the hollow shells of those around them. Despite her cynicism about the way others see her, the narrator also displays ambivalence about self-image. She talks about “dressing up the figure of herself” in her mind “stealthily.” She finds it curious that “one protects the image of oneself from idolatry.” This language of “dressing up” and “idolatry” indicates that the process of protecting a positive self-image from the criticisms of others is itself an illusion.
Despite the deeply introspective and solitary reflections of the narrator, at the close of the story it turns out she is not alone—someone, presumably a man, interrupts her reflections. This leads to two possible conclusions. In the first instance, this moment confirms the narrator’s worst cynicisms. Attempts at contact between different people’s competing mental lives will lead to disappointment as they do in the conclusion of this story. To evidence this, the man’s interruption “gets in the way” and causes “a vast upheaval” where “everything’s moving, falling, slipping, vanishing.” These emotions are chaotic and a shocking contrast to the calm tone of the narrator’s previous reflections, which make them appear all the more unwelcome. He then curses the war and then says, “all the same, I don’t see why we should have a snail on the wall.” Given that the narrator has spent the entire story guessing the identity of the mark, even saying she might not want to know, this reveal is very anticlimactic and proves that none of her thoughts have been apparent to her companion.
In a second, more positive interpretation, the presence of this other person proves the narrator is not as alone as she thought she was. Furthermore, if the narrator’s mind is this vibrant and lively, then perhaps the minds of others are too. Only society leads one to see other people as “shells” with “glassy eyes.” And though the man might have a different perspective on the mark on the wall, he and the narrator share a negative view on the war—suggesting a certain meeting of their minds.
What’s more, the “pleasant thoughts” that the man interrupts with such upheaval include the image of “rooms where men and women sit after tea, smoking cigarettes.” The narrator has already admitted to smoking in the first paragraphs, indicating that this happy image could refer to her and the man in question. Furthermore, when she imagines that she wants a life without interruption, she chooses to picture Shakespeare, “a man who sat himself solidly in an arm-chair, and looked into the fire” much like the narrator herself. However, she soon calls this “dull” and a “historical fiction” which doesn’t interest her at all—suggesting an ambivalence towards her stated desire for a solitary, uninterrupted life and perhaps, an appreciation for the intrusions of her companion.
The narrator displays a paradoxical desire for solitude and connection which concludes rather ambiguously. Although she likes to imagine the lives of others and criticizes the elements of society that isolate people, she also has a romantic image of herself that she feels that others cannot see. A cynical worldview might be confirmed when she is flippantly interrupted at the end of the story, but this remains open to interpretation. The narrator indicates that encounters with others lead to a “shallow” world and the shattering of one’s self-image, but that self-image is merely “romantic.” The very fact of her preoccupation of others proves how necessary they are to her, even if this appears to contradict her desire for solitude, pleasant thoughts, and a life “without interruption.”
Self and the Other ThemeTracker
Self and the Other Quotes in The Mark on the Wall
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.
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.
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.