Woolf wrote and published “The Mark on the Wall” while World War I was sweeping across Europe. The war had a drastic impact on life in London—Germany began strategically bombing the city in 1915, and Woolf writes extensively in her diaries and other stories about the unprecedented architectural and social destruction caused by the fighting. The narrator of this story attempts to have a normal day “smoking a cigarette” after tea, but allusions to the war repeatedly interrupt her thoughts. The persistence of these interruptions on an otherwise peaceful day indicates the difficulties of leading a normal civilian life during wartime. The narrator displays a distinctly negative stance on the war but ultimately cannot escape its effects.
There is a clear dissonance between the domesticity of the narrator’s day and the unrest in her thoughts—despite her peaceful activities, she cannot keep her mind off the war. The story starts with the narrator sitting in her living room in winter, for instance; prompted by the sight of burning coals, the narrator jumps to the militaristic image of a “crimson flag” and a “cavalcade of red knights.” This fancy is interrupted to her relief by “the sight of the mark.” These thoughts link clearly to the war, revealing how deeply it has entered even into the homes of London residents. She goes on to think about how future novelists will describe the modern world and accuses herself of making “generalizations” that she calls “very worthless.” She dismissively links the word “generalizations” with the military notion of general, noting, “The military sound of the word is enough. It recalls leading articles, cabinet ministers …” In her final mental monologue on the life of a tree, the narrator again uses several military metaphors and similes. She thinks about fish in streams “like flags blown out” and considers the tree with “nothing tender exposed to the iron bullets of the moon.” Even the narrator’s “pleasant” thoughts show a preoccupation with the war.
Thinking about the war, in turn, makes the narrator feel out of control—and she deliberately tries to distance herself from such “disagreeable thoughts” by looking at the mark on her wall. She further notes that when she “must shatter this hour of peace” she should “think of the mark on the wall.” This links the practice of thinking about the mark directly to distraction from unpleasant thoughts in general, which are militaristically intruding on her “hour of peace.” Although she also criticizes this form of distraction, she is forced to play along to find a sense of calm after “waking from a midnight dream of horror.” She describes focusing on the mark as taking action to avoid painful or exciting thoughts, even as she expresses contempt for choosing distraction over reflection.
Notably, one of the narrator’s primary preoccupations centers on Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, which is a list of the hierarchy of officials in England such as the archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Lord High Chancellor. These individuals control large social decisions, including the decision to go to war, which normal civilians take no part in. In theory these facts of hierarchy could “comfort […] instead of enraging” the narrator—in the sense that they assert someone, somewhere is handling things; however, she fixes her eyes on the mark on the wall to dismiss the Archbishops and Lord High Chancellor to “the shadows of shades.” It seems she has little faith in those in charge, and this moment drives home her resentment for the war at large.
The final proof that the narrator uses the mark on the wall to distract her from the war occurs at the end of the story. Her partner says, “Curse this war; God damn this war!” and then complains about the snail on the wall, but all the narrator thinks in the final line is “Ah, the mark on the wall! It was a snail.” She would still rather think about the mark than the war, because those thoughts are useless and “no good.”
In the end, “The Mark on the Wall” portrays some of the civilian costs of war. Rather than focusing on the larger economic and political costs and benefits, however, Woolf examines the impact of wartime on an everyday civilian couple. Because wartime decisions were made by officials higher up on Whitaker’s Table of Precedency, there was nothing civilians could do to cope with the war besides try to take their minds off of it. Focusing on the solid natural world worked to a certain extent, but the story suggests that there was ultimately no way to entirely escape the effects of the war.
War 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.
…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…
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.
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.