The narrator fixates on the passage of time and discusses the objects and habits that disappear as time passes. Fragments of the past remain both in the form of memories and objects, like shards of pottery, but time still ultimately emerges victorious in its destructive force. Though people try to hold onto the past, the story suggests, life remains a “scraping paring affair” that is indifferent to individual desires. However, some of the changes that come with the passage of time are positive and even exhilarating. People should focus less on controlling and understanding the past, the story suggests, and instead focus on reality and “the impersonal world which is a proof of some existence other than ours.”
Although the narrator posits that considering concrete possessions allows a return to the past, that return is ultimately limited by the sheer volume of things—physical or otherwise—lost over time. At the start of the story, the narrator claims that to “fix a date it is necessary to remember what one saw.” She considers “the fire,” “the steady film of yellow light on the page of [her] book,” and the chrysanthemums “in the round glass bowl on the mantlepiece,” grounding her setting in concrete images her of surroundings. This indicates that the story that follows occurred in the past, and that the narrator’s stream of consciousness is also a form of memory.
Even though she has grounded her story in the memory of these specific objects, her subsequent memories of objects and possessions leads her to think about their loss and the “haphazard” nature of life. She names “three blue canisters of book-binding tools” as well as “bird cages, iron hoops, the steel skates” and other items lost over the years. Although one might anchor one’s memories in certain objects, then, the objects themselves will inevitably disappear with the passage of time.
Inspired by the dust on her mantlepiece, she considers “the dust which, so they say, buried Troy three times over, only fragments of pots utterly refusing annihilation.” The process of loss that she experienced on a personal level extends to the scale of grand civilizations like Troy; no matter how developed a society, in the end only fragments remain—fragments that only tell part of the story. She later reflects on the antiquaries—individuals who study or collect antiquities. She claims they were often retired Colonels who spent their spare time visiting sites like the “barrows on the South Downs” to try to determine whether they were tombs or camps. They might find evidence like “a handful of Elizabethan nails, a great many Tudor clay pipes, a piece of Roman pottery” to support their conclusions, but the narrator dismisses this as “proving I don’t know what.” She concludes that “nothing is proved, nothing is known.” This supports her belief that fragmentary objects cannot in themselves contain or communicate a full history.
Much as Woolf laments the knowledge that time will inevitably erase her own life, she finds a distinct sense of freedom in the knowledge that everything is fleeting. The trivial, unpleasant parts of life will also disappear. For example, the narrator reflects on the Sundays she used to spend in London, which were full of “afternoon walks, Sunday luncheons” as well as “the habit of sitting all together in one room until a certain hour, although nobody liked it.” There were rules for everything, even tablecloths: “tablecloths of a different kind were not real tablecloths.” The narrator’s distaste for these past Sunday afternoons provides an example of time passing in a positive way. Those habitual Sundays with her family eventually ceased, and the narrator describes “how shocking, and yet how wonderful it was” that “these real things […] were not entirely real, were indeed half phantoms.” Reality is not always pleasant, especially when defined by restrictive traditions, yet even the habits that constrict one’s life will disappear over time, like “mahogany sideboards and the Landseer prints, Gods and Devils, Hell and so forth” and leave “a sense of illegitimate freedom” in their stead. While these changes also entail some form of loss, the narrator portrays them as also positive and liberating.
The narrator ultimately takes a cynical view on the prospects of historical reconstruction—that is, trying to determine what happened in the past using the fragments left in the future. However, she does not conclude that change is always bad. Instead, she mourns that all that one acquires and produces in one’s life will disappear and be destroyed, while acknowledging that this unceasing march forwards can also be linked to freedom and a sense of progress.
Time and Memory ThemeTracker
Time and Memory 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.. . .
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.
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.