Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fiction Review: "The Mark on the Wall," Virginia Woolf

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

The closing story in Virginia Woolf's Monday or Tuesday collection exemplifies key characteristics of modernist style. It also argues against the romanticist ideal of engagement with the world, embraces it as a basis for fantasy, and showcases the author's delight in absurdist humor.

If modernism had a motto, it would be, “Everything is a matter of perspective.” Modernist art and literature render their subjects either with a multiplicity of points-of-view, or with a single one so distinctive it calls attention to its own idiosyncrasies. In some instances, such as with Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the approaches are combined: the novel’s narrator tries to make sense of his life from every vantage point possible, and in the process renders his own insecurity and obsessiveness--he effectively examines his circumstances through a kaleidoscope, one facet at a time, only to have the glass prove a mirror on himself. In Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall,” which can be read to some extent as her version of Proust’s sprawling work, she creates a mirror only to turn it into a kaleidoscope: she fixates on a single point, the “mark” of the story’s title, and uses it as both launching point and anchor for her narrator’s reflections on life and fancy. The mark is the canvas upon which Woolf renders both her subjects and the perspective through which they’re seen. She takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride of meditations ranging across speculation about the previous owners of the narrator’s home, ruminating on the mystery and chaos of life, and thoughts on the masculine nature of war.

Woolf’s use of the mark (following Proust’s use of the tea-soaked madeleine) builds on William Wordsworth’s use of nature imagery--daffodils, for instance--as a spur for thoughts, memories, and perceptions. However, Woolf’s modernist goals are very different from Wordsworth’s Romantic ones: he’s looking outward, seeking to identify with the larger world, while she is looking inward, arguably in rejection of it. One passage in particular highlights her view that romanticist thought is quaint in the context of the modern world:

Yes, one could imagine a very pleasant world. A quiet, spacious world, with 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!

Wordsworth found beauty and awe when considering Nature’s order. Woolf sees only the stifling order imposed by men: rules, hierarchies, and authority figures. Thinking outward, she muses, “what an airless, shallow, bald, prominent world it becomes! A world not to be lived in.”

However, discordant notes like this aside, the story is all but a paean to the joys of imagination. Romanticism may reflect an outdated approach of engagement with the world, but the rustic imagery it idealizes makes a fine subject for fantasies. As Woolf writes at one point:

For years and years they [trees] grow, without paying any attention to us, in meadows, in forests, and by the side of rivers—all things one likes to think about. The cows swish their tails beneath them on hot afternoons; they paint rivers so green that when a moorhen dives one expects to see its feathers all green when it comes up again.

The bit about trees painting the rivers green hints towards a taste for absurdity, which is reflected quite strongly in many of the story’s other passages. The narrator draws analogies between the dust on her mantelpiece and the dust that “buried Troy three times over.” She’ll also liken life to a ride on the Tube, and then the ride to being “[s]hot out at the feet of God entirely naked!” Or she’ll come just shy, as she does near the end, of calling wood the be-all, end-all of life. Although she does mention worshipping her chest of drawers at times.

Woolf’s sense of humor is also present in her decision to structure the story as a bit of a mystery. Just what is the “mark”? Woolf returns to the question--and her speculations about the answer--again and again. Is it a hole or a rose leaf? Could it perhaps be the jutting head of a nail? The answer, which comes at the story’s end, plays like the punchline of a joke, and it is what gives the story its final charm: Woolf invites the reader to laugh along with the narrator’s implicit amusement at the pretentiousness of her flights-of fancy. The “mark” proves to be even more inconsequential than Proust’s madeleines.

There is something of an irony in this, though. For these writers, nothing is more consequential than these seemingly innocuous objects: they are the catalysts for nearly every word that appears on the page. They are the nothings from which everything comes. “The Mark on the Wall” is a testament to imagination: anything and everything is a starting point for it, and the most fecund minds can not only spin lead into gold, they can spin it from the very air itself.

Other reviews of works by Virginia Woolf