Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This is a story almost purely of sensation—what it feels like to be in such a situation, how the mind works in the face of almost certain death. Although one might extract a theme from it or an observation about human experience, the particular event itself is enough. The remarkable escape from death is too unusual to warrant any generalization, except that sometimes strange things happen. They do not occur for any moral reason, for example, because the men who were saved were better, wiser, or more skillful than he who died. They do not provide evidence of an interfering God or predestined fate. In fact, the “accidental” survival of the men is perhaps more a technical convenience to lend realism than a thematic device; after all, how could one know what the narrator was thinking if he had not survived to tell the tale?

One might suggest a somewhat existential observation: how even the most dreadful experience becomes infinitely valuable, or at least notable, when the mind recognizes that death is imminent? The color, the shape of things, the significance of the environment attain some kind of absolute distinction; the “thingness” of objects that were before only vague and peripheral to existence suddenly comes into focus, concentrating time and awareness in a few vivid moments.

Such a story has some kind of significance or meaning partly because it gives the impression of undeniable authenticity, not a gothic exercise such as Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum,” in which one enjoys the goosebumps of sustained suspense without believing a word of it. William Sansom was, as a matter of fact, a firefighter in London during the German Blitzkrieg of World War II. While such firsthand experience is not always necessary to an imaginative writer, it certainly lends verisimilitude to a story that depends not so much on plot as on the subjective experience of an event.

“The Wall” departs from a somewhat romantic, popular assumption that in the moments before death one’s life passes in review. The protagonist does indeed live in a mentally expanded space between the time when the wall leans above him and when it crashes around him, but that space is filled with very practical, realistic observations and reflections—not an ounce of nostalgia or regret over lost loves. In that, too, the story gives the impression of relentless realism.