Jean-Paul Sartre

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Jean-Paul Sartre Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Like many writers and thinkers drawn to the political Left, Jean-Paul Sartre tended to see most existing literature, especially that of the nineteenth century, as part of a capitalist plot to maintain and perpetuate the prevailing social order. In terms that he would soon define as he proceeded to elaborate his philosophy of existentialism, most literature was “inauthentic,” offering a false portrayal of life based on lies, or at least on false assumptions. No author, he claimed, could possibly presume to “understand” his characters or to attribute motivation to behavior portrayed. “The Wall,” written during—and about—the Spanish Civil War of 1936-1939, was conceived at least in part as an illustration of Sartre’s developing theories, showing behavior “in situation,” recounted in the first person by a far from “omniscient” narrator who is himself a major participant in the action portrayed.

“The Wall”

Pablo Ibbieta, arrested by General Franco’s Nazi-supported Falangist forces, tells only what he sees and feels, little mindful of cause and effect. Although no doubt an educated man, an informed political activist on the Republican side, Pablo has plausibly been reduced by his recent experiences to a kind of automaton, responding quickly and unreflectively to such external stimuli as light and darkness, heat and cold. His narrative begins with the start of his captivity, when he is pushed into a makeshift holding cell with two other prisoners. After cursory interrogation, the three are sentenced to death at sunrise, with a Belgian physician assigned to watch over them during their final hours. The stage is thus set—and it is useful here to remember that Sartre would soon hit his true stride as a playwright—for a conflict of wills and aspirations that is truly dramatic in structure and tone. Pablo, a stereotypical if quite plausible Hispanic male in whom the “macho” ideal is ingrained, determined to be a “tough guy” to the bitter end, will observe and judge both captors and fellow captives in accordance with that standard and will predictably find them wanting.

Imprisoned along with Pablo are Tom Steinbock (oddly identified as Irish within the text despite his Germanic surname) and Juan Mirbal, an effeminate youngster who repeatedly asserts his innocence, claiming that he has been mistaken for an anarchist brother. Tom, perhaps in fact an American or Canadian attracted to the Republican cause, tends to talk too much, at least to Pablo’s way of thinking, which also judges Juan Mirbal as a whiner. Pablo’s evident attitude is that, when death is inevitable, one must face it with whatever dignity remains.

(The entire section is 2,891 words.)