Robert Stanley Martin offers a review of Virginia Woolf’s story “The Mark on the Wall” on his blog, Pol Culture. In it, he says Woolf builds on Wordsworth’s use of nature imagery, but that’s where the similarity ends.
Instead of looking outward, as Wordsworth does, Woolf looks inward, Martin argues. And he frames that difference in simple terms, as the difference in the world outlook of the Romantic versus the Modernist.
Verbivore, a blogger on Incurable Logophilia, says the story isn’t a story at all, but “a series of thoughts squeezed between the two tiny actions of a woman looking through her cigarette smoke at a blot on the wall” and a man announcing that he is going out to buy a newspaper. (You can also read Verbivore’s other Woolf posts: Woolf’s 1915 Diary and Initial thoughts on The Voyage Out.)
I, on the other hand, just finished reading Marguerite Duras’s The Ravishing of Lol Stein for a class I am teaching. As a result, I see a French connection with Woolf’s story.
The French connections
Let me explain. Duras’s 1964 novel has been called an anti-novel. That is similar to “The Mark on the Wall” being characterized as not “a story at all.” Lol Stein is a series of observations by an omniscient narrator squeezed between the two large actions of a young woman who is jilted by her fiancé and a man who observes her asleep in the rye field outside his hotel window.
But there is a major difference. Duras writes Lol Stein in a purposefully vague and low-energy, melancholic style. She never takes us inside Lol’s head. Woolf, on the other hand, rushes to reveal the thoughts of her main character as she contemplates the black mark on the wall in front of her.
All of which brings me to another French connection, one that has been flitting around the edges of my mind for years. I am talking about Alain Robbe-Grillet’s third and most famous novel Jealousy (1957).
In it, Robbe-Grillet presents five characters in a bungalow overlooking banana plantations. All is seen through the gaze of a faceless, voiceless narrator who counts and measures and minutely describes his surroundings. And in the midst of the story is a squashed centipede that has left a dark stain on a wall.
I just pulled out the yellowed paperback version I read for an undergrad class many years ago. After only a few moments of skimming, I hit on these lines:
- “and the bare partition where a dark stain … stands out on the pale, dull, even paint” (62).
- “On the light-colored paint of the partition opposite … a common Scutigera of average size . . . has appeared . . . the orientation of its body indicates a path which cuts across the panel diagonally: coming from the baseboard on the hallway side and heading toward the corner of the ceiling” (64).
- “About a yard higher, the paint is marked with a dark shape, a tiny arc twisted into a question mark, blurred on one side” (65).
- “On the bare wall, the traces of the squashed centipede are still perfectly visible. Nothing has been done to clean off the stain” (78).
- “On the opposite wall, the centipede is there, in its tell-tale spot, right in the middle of the panel” (95).
And from “The Mark on the Wall”:
- “The mark was a small round mark, black upon the white wall, about six or seven inches above the mantlepiece” (83).
- “And yet the mark on the wall is not a hole at all. It may even be caused by some round black substance” (84)
- “In certain lights that mark on the wall seems actually to project from the wall . . . I cannot be sure, but it seems to cast a perceptible shadow, suggesting that if I ran my finger down that strip of the wall it would, at a certain point, mount and descend a small tumulus” (86).
- “I must jump up and see for myself what that mark on the wall really is — a nail, a rose-leaf, a crack in the wood?” (88)
- “`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” (89).
Marks on the wall by Woolf and Robbe-Grillet
Both Woolf and Robbe-Grillet use a spot on the wall as a visual marker to which they both return. However, Woolf shares the interior monologue of her narrator, while Robbe-Grillet does not.
Similarly, Woolf’s narrator uses the mark on the wall as an opportunity to conduct mental meanderings. Robbe-Grillet’s narrator uses the mark he observes to keep his mind anchored in objective reality. He does not wander into the subjective.
Robbe-Grillet, who pioneered the New Novel of the 20th century, said he was influenced by Woolf. That is clear when one studies what he believed about writing novels. Like Woolf, he decried the idea of using the novel to narrate a story or support a cause.