Gothic Entrapment in Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on The Wall”

The Gothic novel is a product of and an outraged reaction to the strict social ideals of the Victorian era, especially those that contribute to the entrapment of women. The goal of the Gothic is to draw attention to the entrapment of women through the use of a Gothic presence within a setting and remain connected to Victorian culture and values through a conventional presentation of the themes of mystery, suspense, and discovery. However, in doing this it still attempts to remain in the sphere of self-conscious, Victorian, social acceptability, thus posing as an interruption of the heroine’s creative stream of consciousness and therefore becoming a factor in her entrapment.

In Virginia Woolf’s short story “The Mark on the Wall,” her nameless narrator says “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 collisions with reality, for who will be able to lift a finger against Whitaker’s Table of Presidency” (Woolf 2148). A similar quotation appears in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” a nineteenth-century illustration of Gothic entrapment; the also unnamed narrator says, “[my husband] says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check that tendency. So I try” (Gilman 7). Both excerpts display the sense of Gothic entrapment, even in Woolf’s classically modernist work. Despite modernist backlash against Victorianism, the Gothic influence in Virginia Woolf’s “The Mark on the Wall” reveals that women of the early 19th century were still powerless in the lingering presence of Victorian values. The room in “The Mark on the Wall” is not “a room of one’s own,” where a woman has space for intellectual freedom, but rather a confining space rich with a sensationalist, Gothic presence. It is this perversion of feminine space that causes the idea of gothic entrapment to extend beyond the physical structures of setting and into the narrative structure itself by introducing gothic themes of suspense and discovery. This subjects the reader to a trapped state of reading in which he cannot fully explore the creativity of the entrapped narrator. The entrapment of women—represented by the gothic presence within the room—leads to a universal entrapment—represented by the gothic presence in the narrative style—thus revealing the stifling nature of gender roles for not only women but for the whole of society through the violence of World War I.

The Gothic presence on an “Angel in the House” symbol removes any element of “owness” to the heroine’s space and gives it a sense of Gothic entrapment, thus revealing the stifling remnants of Victorian society that remain in the modern era. A Room of One’s Own famously states that, “a woman must have money and a room of one’s own in order to write fiction.” A woman’s space is a means by which to obtain a voice in the world; it must be a space free of the oppressive male expectations of the 19th century. However, within the room in “The Mark on the Wall,” the mark represents the Gothic presence that reestablishes “The Angel in the House,” which perverts the potential for creative freedom within the space. The protagonist first assumes that it is a hole, which had probably held “the miniature of a lady with white powdered curls, powder-dusted cheeks, lips like red carnations. A fraud of course, for the people who had this house before us, would have chosen pictures in this way—an old picture for the old room.” (2145). The imagined woman, with her powdered, pure beauty and ultimate fraudulence, represents Victorian ideals. This vision was prompted by the “oldness” of the room, which indicates the lingering of Victorian gender values that are ultimately a product of the oppressive forces that have not escaped the modernist era. In Woolf’s essay Professions for Women, she describes the nature of Victorian presence in her own writing experiences:

In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the very first words. The shadow of her wings fell on my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room… She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For, as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to the Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with freely and openly by women; they must charm, they must conciliate, they must—to put it bluntly—tell lies if they are to succeed (Woolf 2273-2274).

The Angel of the House, the epitome of Gothic presence, is the ultimate perversion of a women’s ownness— she is what will taint the “room of one’s own,” marginalizing women to the point where they can no longer express themselves.

There is a conflicting coexistence of the entrapping theme of discovery common in Gothic narrative and the liberating stream-of-consciousness style, thus allowing Woolf to draw attention to the existence of harmful Victorian gender expectations despite the repulsiveness of Victorianism in the modern era. In a Gothic novel, “The Gothic heroine’s goal throughout most of the text is to ascertain the “secret” that the patriarchy has managed to keep from her, … through an elaborate system of walls and locked rooms.” (Hoeveler 21-22). The heroine in “The Mark on The Wall” becomes the “social detective”(Pykett, 203) and the mark on the wall is the remnants of Victorian society that are the cause of her confinement. The narrator says of the mark on the wall, “Now that I have fixed my eyes upon it, I feel I have grasped a plank in the sea; I feel a satisfying sense of reality… here is something definite, something real” (Woolf 2149). She ponders its origins and identity as a means to obscure the Victorian values that plague the room of her own; in “grabbing onto” the mark she begins to understand the entrapment it represents. According to Barbara Armstrong “In the course of the nineteenth century, the novel problematized the individual and sought to contain, constrain, and normalize him or her in ways that at once created, reinforced, and updated a new and distinctly modern social classification system” (98). Ironically, in becoming the active detective, the protagonist also subjects herself to the conventions of the gothic narrative structure and becomes passive in the sense that her stream of consciousness is limited and interrupted. She says, “there’s no harm in putting a full stop to one’s disagreeable thoughts by looking at the mark on the wall” (Woolf 2149). By not liberating herself from her discovery of the mark on the wall, she interrupts her stream of consciousness. The Gothic presence of the mark on the wall and the conventions of a Gothic narrative structure illustrate that Victorian feminine ideals, which the modern era refuses to abandon, can only be an interruption to the modernists’ intentions: to eliminate the rigidity and convention of the Victorian era.

Woolf’s words are lifted from their abstraction when putting into the context of similar Victorian texts such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper;” while Woolf is not direct about the suffering that accompanies the perversion of a feminine space, one can observe her implications when comparing “The Mark on the Wall” with Gilman’s more direct account of insanity and the domestic woman. According to Diane Long Hoeveler, “The female gothic heroine spends most of the text cultivating the posture of passive-aggression through the two extremes available to her: hiding in a room/silence/repression of her emotions and her body, or moving through space in a sort of manic dance/ hysterically acting out her assault on the patriarchy” (22). Woolf’s heroine characterizes the silent, repressive reaction to oppression, while Gilman’s heroine represents the hysterical extreme. In Woolf’s narrator’s repression, it is difficult to gauge her suffering. Gilman’s text can enlighten this connection since her presentation of hysteria offers a visual presentation of the heroine’s emotions. In other elements, however, stories are remarkably similar, both exploring the internal universe of women trapped in a domestic sphere. In Woolf’s story, the mark on the wall represents the presence of the angel of the house. The torn mess of yellow wallpaper plays a similar role in “The Yellow Wallpaper.” Gilman even employs similar terms, perhaps indicating her influence upon Woolf and her works, “there is a very funny mark on this wall, low down, near the mopboard…I really have discovered something at last… The font pattern does move—and no wonder! The woman behind it shakes it!” (Gilman 15). The wallpaper reminds the heroine of her entrapment and the constant strain that society puts on women and the sense of entrapment that comes from such pressure. Unlike Woolf, Gilman addresses the insanity, both literal and metaphorical, that comes from such entrapment. She provides near-horrifying images of a mad woman, “creeping” within her room, tearing off the wallpaper in order to achieve liberation, embodying a crumbling version of the Gothic themes of discovery and adventure.  She is a hysterical version of Jane Eyre, but rather than finding a madwoman in the attic, she finds her own entrapment through the madwoman in herself. It is the discovery of the gothic, and the inability to be authentically creative that drives into a state of insane suffering. By presenting suffering that is the result of Gothic entrapment, Gilman enlightens the suffering that exists within the domestic sphere that Woolf creates. It can be assumed, even if the reader does not have an external perspective of Woolf’s heroine, that she would experience the same degree of suffering, thus enlightening the reader to the suffering that comes with the lingering Victorian values in a modernist society.

In “The Mark on the Wall,” the reader, as well as the characters, is trapped within the Gothic elements of the narrative. Through their relationship with the text, they too are subject to the limitations of the Gothic and the consequential interruptions of Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness, thus illustrating the universal sense of entrapment caused by the entrapment of women. Even though the reader has an external perspective, he or she is still subject to the heroine’s discoveries. However, while he or she can understand her social detective process, the interruptions that allow him to do so limit his understanding of the scope of her creativity, regardless of Woolf’s intense depiction of her consciousness. The most blatant example of this is when she is pondering the beauties of life is an uninhibited creative fashion, when her husband enters and her visions slip away. She says, “I can’t remember a thing. Everything is moving, falling, slipping, vanishing… There is a vast upheaval of matter.” This leads to the discovery both of the mark’s identity and of the war that sets the tone for the story. Due to a preoccupation with the discovery of the mark on the wall, the reader is left ignorant of the war, which is the backdrop to the story. It is not until the husband declares, “Nothing ever happens. Curse this war; God damn this war!” that the reader is made aware of the war (Woolf 2149).  The reader is trapped in the sense that he cannot fully comprehend another’s consciousness within the sphere of Victorian gender roles or the extent of the happenings in the world. He or she, because of the Gothic distractions, is dependent upon the male vice to understand the full context of the story. This implies a universal entrapment that arises out of Victorianism and affects everyone regardless of gender.

The presence of World War I, a construction of masculinity, is the epitome of the universal entrapment that comes from the failure to abandon Victorianism and relieve women of their entrapment. The Mark on The Wall shows, even amongst the rise of modernity, there is an embrace of the Victorian concept that “The role of women was to receive male outbursts silently” (Paul 25). This is made especially apparent by the rise of World War I. A woman was expected to wear her patriotism on her chest and become a “valiant” supporter of her country on the home front. Woolf, as expressed in her essay “Three Guineas,” however believed that “[the aim of women] must be to challenge the ethos of ‘masculinity’ that makes war seem acceptable” (Zwerdling 297).

“Our country,” she will say, “throughout the greater part of history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in my possessions… Therefore if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or ‘our’ country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. For,” the outsider will say, “in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”  (Woolf 2709-2710)

These ideas of women’s uprising however, as illustrated in The Mark on the Wall, are hindered by the Victorian ideals lingering in the domestic sphere. It is because of their entrapment and their resulting ignorance that the rage of masculine fury that is war exists at all in what could be a utopia. However, “The pacifist utopia of human unity would not come into being without new men and women” (Zwerdling 301). All the reader hears of the war is when the husband enters the room and says, “‘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.” The discovery of the mark on the wall is so consuming to the woman within her Gothic perverted room that she cannot acknowledge her status as an “outsider” in the Great War If women are subjected to the Gothic space, where she only examines the marks on the walls, then how could the cursed war ever be replaced with unity? For it is through the entrapment of women that the entrapment of conflict rises.

Virginia Woolf, enlightened by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, reveals the devastating nature of remnants of Victorian influence, in modern gender expectations. “The Mark on the Wall,” although distinctly modern, draws from the theme of Gothic entrapment in order to illustrate the continuing relevance of Victorian gender roles in modern culture and also to illustrate the universally entrapping nature of such gender roles. To trap women within a prism of Victorian standards is to condemn the rest of the population to an extension of the same sort of oppression.

 

Notes

    1. “Whitaker’s Amlinack, an annual compendium of information, prints a ‘Table of Precedency’ which shows the order in which the various ranks in public life and society proceed on formal occasions” (Woolf 2147)

     2. A short story published in 1882. Thirty-three years prior to the publication of The Mark on the Wall.

     3. Poem by Coventry Patmore published in 1854. The poem romanticizes the pure, passive, and obedient woman, which was the ideal of the Victorian era.

Works Cited

Armstrong, Nancy. “Gender and the Victorian Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Deirdre David. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 97-124. Print

Gilman, Charlotte. “The Yellow Wallpaper.” The Charlotte Perkins Gilman Reader. Ed. Ann J. Lane. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980. 3-20. Print.

Hoeveler, Diane Long. “Introduction.” Gothic Feminism: The Professionalization of Gender from Charlotte Smith to the Brontës. University Park: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1998. 1-25.

Paul, Janis M, The Victorian Heritage of Virginia Woolf. Norman: Pilgrim Books, 1987. Print.

Pykett, Lyn. “Sensation and the fantastic in the Victorian Novel.” The Cambridge Companion to the Victorian Novel. Ed. Deirdre David. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. 192-211. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “The Mark on the Wall.”The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012. 2145-2149. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. “Three Guineas.” The Norton Anthology of British Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012. 2706-2710.

Zwerdling, Alex. Virginia Woolf and the Real World. Berkley: University of California   Press, 1986. Print.

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