Jean-Paul Sartre Short Fiction Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2891

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.

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“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 Belgian doctor, who is soon identified by Pablo with the enemy, is sent in to record with scientific precision—as did the Nazis—the behavior and reactions of men getting ready to die. He serves within the story as an object-lesson among the “living,” those not condemned to death who can still feel cold, heat, pain and, in short, “think about tomorrow.” The doomed men, by contrast, soon lose touch with their surroundings as well as with their bodies and bodily functions; Pablo, who considers himself, perhaps not without reason, as the most lucid of the trio, looks on with mounting indignation, bordering upon disgust, as his fellow prisoners unconsciously succumb to the fear of death while he, Pablo, strains his resources to the limit in order to remain “tough.” Quickly revisiting his life and loves as a potential suicide might see his past flash before him as he jumps from a bridge, Pablo Ibbieta concludes that only the illusion of immortality could lend meaning to life and that human aspirations add up to a “damned lie.” Even Pablo’s latest girlfriend, Concha, falls victim to the nihilism that invades his person as he faces death; he is now sure that he would find Concha’s flesh quite as repulsive as he now finds his own and that their eyes could never meet again.

At dawn, as his cellmates are led off to death by firing squad within plain earshot, Pablo himself is detained for further questioning concerning the whereabouts of the agitator Ramon Gris, whom he allegedly harbored under his own roof before being arrested. Having sensed the absurdity of the entire situation, Pablo Ibbieta indulges himself in a final joke, sending his pompous, beribboned captors off to the local cemetery, where he claims Gris might well be hiding. Nothing, as Pablo well knows, could be further from the truth, nor does he still harbor any loyalty toward Gris or even to “the cause,” all of which died in him at the same time as his feelings toward Concha. All he cares about now is the ridiculous parade of the self-absorbed officers through the deserted graveyard, imagining the look on their faces when they figure out that they have been “had.”

The officers have been gone no longer than a half-hour when Pablo is suddenly and unexpectedly turned loose among newly arrested prisoners still awaiting sentence. It is one of the latter, the apolitical baker Garcia, who explains to Pablo what has happened: Ramon Gris, unable to seek refuge with Pablo after Pablo’s arrest, had in fact been hiding out in the cemetery, in the grave diggers’ shack, and was killed by return fire after shooting at the Falangists sent—by Pablo—to look for him. As the truth begins to sink in, Pablo sinks to the ground in a fit of helpless laughter.

The image of the wall, literally the wall against which prisoners stand when shot by a firing squad, serves to represent the boundary separating life from death. The tone of Pablo’s narrative indicates that he has been quite as good as dead from the moment that he grasped the fact of his own mortality. He has, so to speak, passed through the wall to the nothingness beyond it, quite unable to pick up where he left off, and although he has somehow survived to tell the tale, his life might as well have ended. Arguably, readers of a later generation, aware of Sartre’s sustained interest in psychology, might well see in Pablo’s disorientation an early literary example of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but the author’s intentions here reach well beyond the topical and clinical toward the timeless and universal, evoking humankind’s inability to accept the finality of death, especially violent death resulting from war.

Like many of Sartre’s later characters, especially in the plays that would follow, and complete, the philosophical statement set forth in Being and Nothingness, Pablo has learned, or believes himself to have learned, that aspirations count for nothing and that life is nothing more than the total of acts completed at the time of death, leaving little for posterity.

Limited to—and by—the consciousness of Pablo as narrator, told in a colloquial, even “earthy” style with certain words no doubt appearing in print for the first time, “The Wall” breaks sharply with the omniscient, “bourgeois” literary tradition that Sartre had come to distrust and detest. Except for Pablo’s random recollections as his life passes before him, the characters are shown entirely “in situation,” revealed only by their actions; what is more, the setting and atmosphere of Pablo’s incarceration are evoked entirely through sensory perceptions often graphically rendered. The story’s “surprise” ending, though no doubt as contrived as any to be found in Guy de Maupassant’s or O. Henry’s works, is nevertheless so well prepared by the preceding action as to underscore the author’s conviction that life, in its contingency and unpredictability, is frequently stranger than fiction.

“Erostratus”

Of the “other stories” collected with “The Wall,” only two appear to have withstood the test of time; drawn perhaps too close to Freudian stereotype to appear fully credible, “Erostrate” and “L’Enfance d’un chef” (“Childhood of a Boss”) still contain valuable insights into human behavior that may well appear prophetic to readers of later generations. “Erostratus,” also told in the first person, presents the threats and rantings of a would-be psychopathic killer, a social and sexual misfit who has come to detest his shared humanity. Resigning his job in order to plan a symbolic mass murder, Paul Hilbert then mails identical poison-pen letters to a hundred prominent writers, each of whom is guilty, in Hilbert’s eyes, of having professed love for his fellow mortals. Outlining his projected crime, Hilbert warns his addressees to watch for his name in the papers. In his own mind, Hilbert likens his gesture to that of Erostratus, of whom he has only recently heard, whose destructive act in burning down the temple at Ephesus has caused his name to be remembered while that of the temple’s architect is long since forgotten. Eerily prophesying certain mass murders and assassinations of the middle to late twentieth century, Sartre’s portrayal of Hilbert shows a warped conscience attempting to emerge from anonymity through an act of violence; Hilbert, however, will manage to botch his plans as he has botched his life. Instead of killing five pedestrians with his revolver, saving the last bullet for himself in the peace and quiet of his own room, Hilbert panics and fires the first three rounds into one victim, then fires two more to disperse the crowd when he finds that he is running away from his lodgings. Seeking refuge in the washroom of a nearby café, Hilbert in the end will lack even the resolve to shoot himself, meekly opening the door to his pursuers; presumably, he has written the story while in prison—or in a madhouse—although the exact venue is not specified.

“Childhood of a Boss”

“Childhood of a Boss,” at nearly one hundred pages, is the longest narrative collected in “The Wall.” It combines psychology with politics in a memorable, if stereotypical, portrait of a capitalist with carefully cultivated Fascist leanings. Told in the third person, “Childhood of a Boss” traces the negative evolution, from around age three through adolescence to young manhood, of Lucien Fleurier, who in time will inherit his father’s lucrative enterprise. Like “Erostrate,” Lucien’s biography often seems like a Freudian case history, or indeed a parody of one. In the opening scene, little Lucien is shown dressed as a hermaphroditic angel, embarrassed when mistaken for a girl; not long thereafter, the boy is disturbed by the dimly understood event of his parents’ lovemaking and imagines himself to be an orphan. Uncomfortable before “the eyes of God” in church, Lucien feels great pride when his father takes him on a tour of the Fleurier enterprise, dimly sensing that the place and its deferential workers will one day be his own to boss around.

At school, Lucien, as earlier in his angel suit, uneasily feels the eye of the “Other” upon him; no sooner has he described a classmate as a bug than he finds himself described as an asparagus or a bean pole, because of his gangly height. Constantly unsure of who or what he is, the definition changing daily depending upon how he is perceived—or sees himself to be perceived—by others, Lucien Fleurier is soon well on his way to a life lived in what Sartre would later define in Being and Nothingness as “bad faith,” outer-directed inauthenticity as opposed to inner-directed integrity. Like the characters in No Exit, the growing Lucien will continue to use his fellow mortals as a mirror in search of self-definition. Following the trends of the time (he is roughly the same age as Sartre, born soon after the turn of the twentieth century), Lucien will dabble in surrealism and psychoanalysis, both presented under a skeptically satirical light. With joy and relief, for example, Lucien will diagnose himself with the Oedipus complex, only to leave himself open to an unpleasant and unanticipated episode of homosexual seduction in which he unwillingly yet “logically” allows the “Other” to define him, however briefly. Soon thereafter, he will try to deny—to himself—the entire situation, plunging into heterosexual and sexually exploitative behavior with a zeal befitting his stature as a “born boss,” meanwhile gravitating toward a particular group of male acquaintances because they seem firm in their convictions, thus uncommonly mature for their age; Lucien, it seems, would like nothing better than to share their self-confidence, having given up on psychoanalysis after his encounter with homosexuality.

Typically, perhaps stereotypically, it turns out that Lucien’s new “friends” are strongly anti-Semitic, highly sympathetic to Adolf Hitler and his cause. Lucien, who has yet to form any conviction about Jews one way or the other, still feels drawn to Lemordant and his crowd by the apparent force and inflexibility of their political “faith,” a faith that reaches well beyond politics to prescribe an entire lifestyle. As he approaches age thirty, having drifted hither and yon in search of “himself,” Lucien Fleurier at last feels “at home.” Like the bigots profiled in Réflections sur la question juive (1946; Anti-Semite and Jew, 1948), written during 1943, Lucien cannot accept the contingency of his own being, the constant need to make intelligent choices, opting instead for the security of “belonging” to a faceless throng in which choices are neither necessary nor desired. Typically, however, Lucien will not commit himself to the “Young Royalists” until after he has performed an apparent act of murder in their service; roaming Paris with Lemordant and his confederates, Lucien delivers a fatal blow to a Jewish pedestrian after the others have begun the beating. During the weeks to follow, Lucien will take as his mistress a certain Maud, herself inclined toward leftist causes yet, like Lucien himself, sufficiently malleable to seek her identity in the gaze of others. At first, Maud is as reluctant to return Lucien’s affections as was Lucien with the homosexual artist Bergère; in time, however, Maud will yield to the authority and gravity of Lucien’s newly acquired confidence. Lucien, however, decides that the conquest of Maud has been too easy, that she is in fact a whore (which may well be true), and above all, that he has failed to possess the “otherness” about Maud that made her attractive to him in the first place. Turning his sights instead toward someone “like” Pierrette, the younger sister of his friend Guigard who had introduced him to Maud, Lucien begins to imagine the “proper wife” for someone of his station in life.

At Pierrette’s birthday party not long thereafter, Lucien further “defines” himself by stuffing his hands in his pockets and refusing to shake hands with another guest, and friend of Guigard, who happens to be Jewish. Still shaky in his convictions, Lucien leaves the gathering in a hurry, fully expecting Guigard to upbraid him for his churlish behavior. Instead, it is Guigard who apologizes, having been admonished by his parents to be more understanding and “tolerant” of Lucien’s “convictions.” In the story’s final scene, Lucien, sure of himself at last, goes alone to a café, where, oblivious to his surroundings, he can savor both his food and his newfound sense of security. After all, he reasons, he was born to be a boss, with a virginal wife and eventually many children. Such a woman will, in fact, be his possession, and Lucien idly wonders just how long he will have to wait before his father dies, leaving him the business. Glancing into a mirror on his way out of the café, he decides to grow a mustache after deciding that his face is still a bit too callow and youthful to go with his “responsibilities and rights.”

Although nearly a caricature of the Right as seen from the Left, “Childhood of a Boss” nevertheless goes a long way toward explaining the possible causes and origins of certain political and social attitudes that contributed to World War II and that would continue to haunt both national and international politics for decades to come. In Anti-Semite and Jew, first published approximately five years later, Sartre would recast in thoughtful essay form many of the poses, dodges, and self-doubts here projected onto Lucien, showing the typical bigot to be afraid of his own being, in desperate search of a scapegoat to blame for the fact that both he and the world are ill-made. “If the Jew did not exist,” concludes Sartre, “the anti-Semite would have to invent him.” Like Lucien, the bigot seeks above all to be a “rock,” a force of nature, in short, anything but a human being who, like Sartre’s prototypical existentialist, must constantly seek his own being— existence, not essence—through continual acts of choice.

More than fifty years after its publication, Sartre’s short fiction—although it constitutes only a small portion of his total output and he soon abandoned the form altogether—continues to strike a responsive chord in many potential readers thanks to Sartre’s keen insights into human nature and behavior. With the passage of time, the stories—at least the three here discussed—have additionally acquired a strong documentary value, helping the reader to discover, and in large measure to understand, the historical period of their composition. “The Wall,” in particular, re-creates the singular horrors of the Spanish Civil War quite as effectively as Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940), with considerably greater economy of style and space.

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