The Wall (Le Mur) by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939

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by Jean-Paul Sartre, 1939

A philosopher by training and vocation, Jean-Paul Sartre was about 30 years old when he began to experiment with the possibility that his philosophy could reach a wider public if his ideas could be represented in literary terms. His first experiment, a novel, was completed in 1936 and published in 1938 under the title Nausea (La Nausée). In 1937 he tested public reaction to his philosophical fiction with a short story about the Spanish Civil War called "The Wall" ("Le Mur"). It was published in one of the leading literary journals of the day. The favorable reaction led to the publication of a book of five short stories in 1939, with "Le Mur" leading off the volume and supplying its title.

The stories of The Wall are, like those of the novel Nausea, rather abstract in their underlying ideas, but they are plainly intended to offer concrete examples of how the abstract ideas might come to the surface and find expression in the behavior of people. As a story about the Spanish Civil War, for example, "The Wall" takes as its subject the reactions of a group of three Republicans taken prisoner by the Fascists during the civil war. After a brief interrogation the three are told that they will be executed the next morning. Their reactions are, of course, primarily psychological and emotional, but Sartre surprises his readers by his determinedly physical approach to the psychological manifestations of his characters.

Sartre chooses one of the prisoners, Pablo Ibbieta, as the first-person narrator, and the opening sentence announces that everything will be described, in the first instance, as a physical response, which can then be interpreted by the narrator: "They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes." In the same opening paragraph Pablo observes two prisoners ahead of him in line to be interrogated and remarks: "The smaller one kept hitching up his pants; nerves." The tone is thus established from the outset that the narrator and his companions are in a situation that produces anxiety and fear and that the narrator gauges what is happening by observing the bodily reactions of himself and of others.

Consigned to an unheated room in the cellar of the hospital that was being used for dealing with prisoners, the three Republicans begin to shiver from the cold until an official comes in to announce that they will all be executed by a firing squad the next morning. Pablo soon notices that he has stopped shivering and that his companions have turned a peculiar shade of pale grey. He wonders if he looks the same, recognizes the greyness as the color of fear, and goes through mental reflections about being "hard" enough not to fear and to prepare for the "clean" and dignified death he desires to achieve. When he sees his companions urinating involuntarily without being aware of it, Pablo recognizes with disgust that his own efforts and those of his companions to prepare themselves for death and come to terms with the idea of dying are doomed to failure. The observable evidence tells him that they, and he too, are unable even to control their own bodily functions. How, then, can they expect to control their thoughts and their emotions?

About halfway through the narrative readers often find themselves stopping to reflect that the very existence of the narrative implies that Pablo, at least, is not going to be executed. If it were otherwise, the narrative they are reading could not exist. The remainder of the story is given over less and less to the various manifestations of terror and desperation on the part of Pablo's fellow prisoners and more and more to the separate question of how Pablo will escape execution. The account of what happens to Pablo becomes the last necessary twist in the pattern of the story's events to underline irrefutably the philosophical point Sartre has designed his story to make: namely, that human beings cannot succeed in grasping what death signifies nor even in controlling what one's own death will signify. One may wish a "clean" death, as Pablo does, but one has no way of making it happen by one's own will. When human beings are faced with the immediate inevitability of death by firing squad, when they are up against the wall, as the story puts it, they cannot control events or their own conduct.

Pablo is offered the last-minute chance to live if he will tell his captors where his revolutionary colleague, Ramon Gris, is hiding. Having already accepted his own death as a certainty, anyway, because he will not betray his colleague, Pablo decides to trick his captors by naming a false hiding place, just to send the Fascists on a wild goose chase and make fools of them before he dies. When it turns out, by pure chance, that the false hiding place is the right one because Ramon Gris has moved—and Pablo learns that his colleague has been killed—he laughs uncontrollably at the absurd and unpredictable outcome of his "joke." Neither life nor death have meaning, Pablo seems to suggest by his reaction. The world is irredeemably absurd and senseless.

The great power of this tale lies less in the philosophical conclusion about the meaninglessness of existence—an idea that was a staple of Sartre's thought at that time—than in the vividly detailed and graphically physical account the story gives of the fear of death and of the cold cruelty with which that kind of terror can be—and usually is—exploited by sadistic captors. Sartre's story is a new kind of literary realism: not just an accurate description of the real world but an intense verbal evocation of the physical sensations of the way the world feels to human beings in extreme situations, when life and death are at stake—when they are "up against the wall." That is what makes "The Wall" a painfully unforgettable reading experience.

—Murray Sachs