'The Wall': Sartre's Metaphysical Trap

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Editor: Ira Mark Milne
Date: 2000
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,045 words

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It has now and then been noted that in the work of Jean-Paul Sartre "The Wall" holds a singularly privileged position. First published in 1939, this short story compresses into one vividly rendered situation nearly all the major themes with which Sartre the existentialist philosopher and "engaged" writer has later been concerned. It is thus a veritable epiphany of Sartrean man's predicament in an absurd universe; and as Walter Kaufmann points out in his Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, it is the best introduction to the "heart of Sartre's thought" not only because of its classic treatment of the "central existentialist motif of confrontation with death," but because it contains other important themes to be found in such later works as Les mains sales (Dirty Hands) and Les morts sans sepulture (The Victors). In these plays, Kaufmann continues, "man's highest value is integrity, and Sartre goes out of his way to point up its utter independence of social utility."

The theme of "The Wall" is indeed integrity--solitary integrity. For the Sartrean hero is the solitary hero--ignorant, up against the wall of annihilation, and "compelled," in his anguish, to choose (and to choose "freely") those values that define for him exactly what it means to be a human being. But from the casual comment quoted above it is not altogether clear how Kaufmann has interpreted "The Wall." Another allusion five pages later, however, leaves no doubt that this critic regards the protagonist, Pablo Ibbieta, as an authentic "hero"--a man of honor and courage who survives his ordeal only because he is saved by an absurd coincidence. "Even in guilt and failure," says Kaufmann, "man can retain his integrity (witness `The Wall') and defy the world," But although this seems to be the reading that most critics have given the story, there are two other possible interpretations--one of them more consonant, as I hope to show, with Sartre's moral seriousness and attitude of anguished responsibility.

It should be borne in mind that the man who wrote "The Wall" was not merely the still immature philosopher of the later 1930s but a creative artist in the high tide of his young maturity. This is important, since Sartre the creative writer has always been greater (at least for many readers) and more faithful to experience than Sartre the philosopher, and not even the philosopher can be accused of moral shallowness and frivolity, least of all where heroism is at stake. In any case "The Wall" is a haunting and powerful story, deeply imagined in its realism and its astonishing situation--a situation that is both completely credible and yet so frighteningly ambiguous that it calls into question the very meaning of human selfhood and the nature of the universe.

During the Spanish Civil War Pablo Ibbieta, the fictional narrator, is condemned to death and spends the night with two companions--facing the emptiness and pointlessness of existence in the light of summary execution against the "wall" at dawn. The condemned are Juan Mirbal,...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420031629