WarLiterature in the WarUniversity
“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.—Virginia Woolf, “The Mark on the Wall” (1917)
“The Mark on the Wall,” Virginia Woolf’s first published short story, is one of our most enduring meditations on the banalization of war. In the passage above—the story’s conclusion, featuring its only lines of dialogue—an unidentified speaker interrupts the narrator’s thoughts by cursing a war so far unmentioned in those thoughts, a war we are hearing about for the first time (1989, 89).1 We never learn why it annuls the news, whether because it is a war of attrition, a war on pause, or a war only made to seem uneventful by state censorship of the press. But by subordinating it to the everyday act of buying a newspaper, the story reverses the figure and ground of most war literature. It casts war as a distant, uneventful [End Page 234] backdrop to civilian life, even as it turns a civilian’s outburst about war’s banality into a climactic event.
Click for larger view
View full resolution
It’s not all of civilian life that occupies the foreground of Woolf’s story but civilian mental life in particular. Most of “The Mark on the Wall” is devoted to the narrator’s speculations, anxieties, fantasies, and memories as she sits by her fire after tea, smoking a cigarette. Her thoughts are prompted by a small round black mark she notices on the wall a few inches above the mantelpiece. As long as the mark remains unidentified, she muses on many topics: the melancholy temperament of the English, the speed and anonymity of urban life, the reassuring solidity of domestic objects, a pastoral vision of the afterlife. It’s not until the war is mentioned in the story’s final exchange that we can pick out the martial notes in what precedes it: retired colonels who collect arrowheads, the military valence of the word “generalisation,” the wish that on a winter’s night “nothing tender [might be] exposed to the iron bullets of the moon.” And it’s only [End Page 235] on rereading “The Mark on the Wall” that it dawns on us: this is the story of someone trying, with only partial success, not to think about a war.
Woolf’s story might best be classified, then, as “war literature”—as literature that stages a mental avoidance of war even as it preserves and eventually foregrounds war through a failed attempt to cancel it out. It’s concerned as much with aboutness as with war: with the ways war vexes our syntax of topicality, the way it can exert pressure on a mind trying to void itself of war. Yet we increasingly classify “The Mark on the Wall” as war literature. Nowadays you’ll find it on the syllabi of a growing number of courses on the literature of the Great War. And you’ll find it analyzed in scholarship on war literature, war and literature, war and modernism.2
In many ways this reclassification of “The Mark on the Wall” is a positive development. It reflects the story’s genesis—its composition after German airship raids on England had ended in early 1917, its having been typeset later that year after the raids resumed, this time from waves of heavy bombers. It reflects our knowledge of Woolf the diarist who obsessively recorded the air raids from her perspective as a civilian living just west of London, and of Woolf the pacifist who wrote at numerous points in her career about the relationships among gender, militarism, and intellectual freedom. And it testifies to our expanding sense...