“The Mark on the Wall” by Virginia Woolf

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.

Virginia Woolf’s short piece “The Mark on the Wall” captures a few moments of thought-wandering. I’ve been impressed in the past with Virginia Woolf’s ability to perfectly capture a wandering mind. This piece is a perfect example of her style, not only because it’s a short and approachable piece but because I believe we can easily relate.

Sitting by a fire one evening, the narrator’s attention is drawn to a previously unnoticed mark on the wall, and the story follows her thought process as she tries to figure out why it is there.

The narrator was familiar to me. Although her thoughts were different than mine are in similar situations, of course, the way her thoughts diverged from the question at hand was excellently captured. At the beginning, for example, she went from questioning the mark on the wall to inventing the reasons why the previous owners moved away from the residence. This immediately resonated with me because I live in the house that used to belong to the parents of Anna and Michael.

I first met Anna and Michael on the day we bought the house, when we found their names and heights marked on my son’s bedroom wall (behind the door), but I’ve found Anna’s beads in the basement, and Michael’s school photo tucked in a back corner of his mother’s bathroom drawer. I found Anna’s ice skates in the attic. They are size 7, with purple laces, and they fit me perfectly. I went ice skating a few times, even though I’m really bad, simply because I have the skates now. Besides, I find myself thinking of Anna disappointment when she can’t find them and realizes they were left behind. She’d be happy to know they are being used. I think of the younger child – Michael – asking to swing just a little longer on the swing set before having to leave it behind (they moved into the city, so I’m sure they no longer had a yard and a swing set of their own). Poor kids!

So, just as the narrator’s thoughts wandered, I found mine did to. This was just the first page of “The Mark on the Wall.” As the story progresses, the narrator doesn’t want to get out of her chair, but she goes through all the possibilities of what that mysterious mark could be. Her thoughts led from one thing to the next. She’s wants to forget the mark on the wall and get back to sitting, thinking, and enjoying the fire.

To steady myself, let me catch hold of the first idea that passes.

But of course, she can’t stop wondering about that mark. Once I think of something I need or want to do, I too can never regain the sense of peaceful solicitude. Reading “The Mark on the Wall” may drive you crazy because you just want to say, “get up and look at the mark already!” But listening to her thought rambles is the interest of this story. We can all relate because we all think, and Virginia Woolf has wonderfully captured a pattern of thought in this short work.

And if I were to get up at this very moment and ascertain that the mark on the wall is really … what should I gain?— Knowledge? Matter for further speculation? I can think sitting still as well as standing up. And what is knowledge?

That is a question for us each to ponder, sitting in front of a fire on a cold evening, or least wrapped up in a blanket (with a book, too, please?). How do you think when you’re not thinking of anything in particular?

Isn’t this quiet wonderful? The only noise is our thoughts.

Read “The Mark on the Wall” Bartleby.com

This is the first in my new series on reading about the minutia of life. Do you have a short story to suggest? (The project does not have to be short stories, but I’m more likely to have time to read it if it is a short story.)

Thanks to Emily who suggested “The Mark on the Wall” to me.



About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. So glad you enjoyed “The Mark on the Wall,” Rebecca! I love the way Woolf uses ostensibly rambling thoughts to great effect within the structures of her pieces. Another place where she does it interestingly is the longer essay “On Being Ill.”

    I think I might re-read Eudora Welty’s “The Winds” for this project. Or something from The Golden Apples – there’s this great passage about matching plaids when sewing that strikes me as very much in the spirit. 🙂

    1. Emily » ooo I’ll have to find On Being Ill some day when I am not feeling well 🙂 And while I’m not a sew-er, I do think that story sounds interesting…Isn’t it great how some authors just hit the nail on the head in describing the minutiae?!

  2. So beautiful, Rebecca. I might just read this for the project, too, although still leaning towards Bartleby the Scrivener just because I have a copy on hand and I like reading on paper a lot more than the screen.

  3. Oh, I haven’t read this one but I ADORE VW. She really is one of my top answers when people ask if there’s anyone I’d like to meet, dead or alive. Glad this one holds up to her usual standard!

  4. Oh, I love this story! It is classic Woolf. I love how you noted your thoughts wandering like the narrator’s. And what a wonderful story of your own about Anna and Michael!

    1. Stefanie » lol, I tried to imitate her style, but VW is such a wonderful writer it’s not possible! I find myself thinking about Anna and Michael often. Funny how reading a story makes my mind wander, but that’s just what Woolf is doing as she’s writing her story too.

  5. But why didn’t she get up to look at the mark in ” The Mark on the Wall?”
    She can just get up and know what is that on the wall??

  6. or perhaps, she is escaping the reality, that is to stop thinking and having nothing to do and getting bored of the alienation surrounded her. yes may she know what it is,

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