Anticipating by nearly half a decade the full development of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, “The Wall” presents in imaginative form some of the major themes of that philosophy, giving concrete illustration of seemingly abstract ideas.
The “wall” of the story’s title is the wall of the prison courtyard against which the prisoners are lined up to be shot; by extension, however, it comes to symbolize the boundary between life and death, between “being” and “nothingness.” Pablo Ibbieta, although he will survive physically at least long enough to tell his ironic tale, is, in fact, as good as dead from the moment that he first perceives and appreciates the immediate prospect of his “nothingness.” The human capacities for love, friendship, and political activism have all died in him as he has passed, as it were, through the “wall” to the other side.
Awaiting execution during the small hours of the morning, Pablo has reviewed his life and found it strangely wanting: “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, closed, shut, like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished.” Like many of Sartre’s later characters, Pablo senses that most of his planned actions will die with him, unperformed, with little trace of him left to posterity. Notwithstanding, he persists in observing his stubborn code of honor, in his implied commitment to the liberal cause, and in his determination to die “cleanly” and “well,” in contrast to his fellow prisoners. For Sartre, there is no afterlife, no trace of individual human passage on earth save for the sum total of accomplishments to be recorded after death.