Jean Paul Sartre's Story "The Wall"

A classic account of what it must feel like to be condemned

Jean Paul Sartre published the short story “The Wall” (French title: Le Mur) in 1939. It is set in Spain during the Spanish civil war which lasted from 1936 to 1939. The bulk of the story is taken up describing a night spent in a prison cell by three prisoners who have been told they will be shot in the morning.

Plot Summary

The narrator, Pablo Ibbieta, is a member of  the International Brigade, progressive-minded volunteers from other countries who went to Spain to help those who were fighting against Franco’s fascists in an effort to preserve  Spain as a republic.

 Along with two others, Tom and Juan, he has been captured by Franco’s soldiers. Tom is active in the struggle, like Pablo; but Juan is just a young man who happens to be the brother of an  active anarchist. 

In the first scene, they are interviewed in a very summary fashion. They are asked virtually nothing, although their interrogators seem to write down a great deal about them. Pablo is asked if he knows the whereabouts of Ramon Gris, a local anarchist leader. He says he does not. They're then taken to a cell. At 8:00 in the evening an officer comes by to tell them, in a perfectly matter of fact manner, that they've been sentenced to death and will be shot the following morning. 

Naturally, they spend the night oppressed by the knowledge of their impending death.  Juan is prostrated by self-pity. A Belgian doctor keeps them company to make their last moments “less difficult.” Pablo and Tom struggle to come to terms with the idea of dying on an intellectual level, while their bodies betray the fear they naturally fear.

Pablo finds himself drenched in sweat; Tom can’t control his bladder.

Pablo observes how being confronted with death radically alters the way everything--familiar objects, people, friends, strangers, memories, desires--appears to him and his attitude to it. He reflects on his life up to this point:

At that moment I felt that I had my whole life in front of me and I thought, "It's a damned lie." It was worth nothing because it was finished. I wondered how I'd been able to walk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn't have moved so much as my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this. My life was in front of me, shut, closed, like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished. For an instant I tried to judge it. I wanted to tell myself, this is a beautiful life. But I couldn't pass judgment on it; it was only a sketch; I had spent my time counterfeiting eternity, I had understood nothing. I missed nothing: there were so many things I could have missed, the taste of manzanilla or the baths I took in summer in a little creek near Cadiz; but death had disenchanted everything.

Morning arrives, and Tom and Juan are taken out to be shot. Pablo is interrogated again, and told that if he informs on Ramon Gris his life will be spared. He's locked in a laundry room to think this over for a further 15 minutes. During that time he wonders why he is sacrificing his life for that of Gris, and can give no answer except that he must be a “stubborn sort.” The irrationality of his behavior amuses him. 

Asked once again to say where Ramon Gris is hiding, Pablo decides to play the clown and makes up an answer, telling his interrogators that Gris is hiding in the local graveyard. Soldiers are dispatched immediately, and Pablo waits for their return and his execution. A while later, however, he is allowed to join the body of prisoners in the yard who are not awaiting execution, and the is told that he won't be shot–at least not for now. He doesn't understand this until one of the other prisoners tells him that Ramon Gris, having moved from his old hideout to the cemetery, was discovered and killed that morning. He reacts by laughing “so hard that I cried.”

Noteworthy Elements of the Story

  • Life presented as it is experienced. Like much existentialist literature, the story is written from the first person perspective, and the narrator has no knowledge beyond the present. He knows what he is experiencing; but he can’t get inside anyone else’s mind; not does he say anything like, “Later I realized that…” which looks back on the present from the future.
  • Emphasis on the intensity of sensory experience. Pablo experiences cold, warmth, hunger, darkness, bright lights, smells, pink flesh, and grey faces. People shiver, sweat, and urinate. Whereas philosophers like Plato view sensations as obstacles to knowledge, here they are presented as avenues of insight.
  • The desire to be without illusions. Pablo and Tom discuss the nature of their impending death as brutally and honestly as they can, even imagining the bullets sinking into flesh. Pablo acknowledges to himself how his expectation of death has made him indifferent to other people and to the cause for which he fought.
  • The contrast between consciousness and material things. Tom says he can imagine his body lying inert riddled with bullets; but he can’t imagine himself not existing since the self he identifies with is his consciousness, and consciousness is always consciousness of something. As he puts it, “we aren’t made to think that.”
  • Everyone dies alone. Death separates the living from the dead; but those who are about to die are also separated from the living since they alone can undergo what is about to happen to them. An intense awareness of this puts a barrier between them and everyone else.
  • Pablo’s situation is the human condition intensified. As Pablo observes, his jailors will also die fairly soon, just a little later than himself. To live under sentence of death is the human condition. But when the sentence is to be carried out soon, an intense awareness of life flares up.

The Significance of “The Wall”

            The wall of the title may allude to several walls or barriers.

  • The wall they will be shot against.
  • The wall separating life from death
  • The wall separating the living from the condemned.
  • The wall that separates individuals from one another.
  • The wall that prevents us achieving a clear understanding of what death is.
  • The wall that represents brute matter, which contrasts with consciousness, and to which the men will be reduced when shot. 

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Westacott, Emrys. "Jean Paul Sartre's Story "The Wall"." ThoughtCo, May. 5, 2017, thoughtco.com/jean-paul-sartres-story-the-wall-2670317. Westacott, Emrys. (2017, May 5). Jean Paul Sartre's Story "The Wall". Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/jean-paul-sartres-story-the-wall-2670317 Westacott, Emrys. "Jean Paul Sartre's Story "The Wall"." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/jean-paul-sartres-story-the-wall-2670317 (accessed December 17, 2017).