The Wall Essays and Criticism
by Jean-Paul Sartre

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Reactions of the Three Condemned Men to Their Execution

(Short Stories for Students)

In the 1930s, Jean-Paul Sartre had already published his first major work, a philosophical treatise entitled Imagination as well as several critical articles on literary figures such as Jean Giradoux, Albert Camus, and William Faulkner. However, his publication of the novel Nausea and the short-story collection The Wall and Other Stories established his reputation as a literary figure.

‘‘The Wall’’ is set in a Falangist prison during the Spanish Civil War. The narrator of the story, Pablo Ibbieta, relates the last night of his life. Along with two other men, he has been sentenced to death by a military tribunal.

Prior to the publication of this story, Sartre had demonstrated none of his later tendency toward political activities and statements. Unlike many other French intellectuals, Sartre took no part in one of the great political battles of the decade: the Spanish Civil War. While the war was still going on, and as thousands of volunteers from France, Britain, and the United States poured into Spain to support the Republicans, a former student came to Sartre. He wanted Sartre’s help in joining the International Brigades.

Although the young man never went to the wartorn country, Sartre was deeply affected by the experience. As he later said, ‘‘I was very disturbed because, on the one hand, I felt he didn’t have sufficient military or even biological preparation to survive the bad times and, on the other hand, I couldn’t deny a man the right to fight.’’ As Sartre continued to muse over the situations that such a young man might face, he came up with the basic premise for ‘‘The Wall,’’ which he defines as a meditation on death.

At the time Sartre wrote the story, in late 1936 or early 1937, Spain’s fate had already been decided by the Falangists’ victory. Sartre’s political pessimism informed his writing of the story. He later acknowledged at a press conference that since ‘‘we were operating in the context of the Spanish defeat I found myself more sensitive to the absurdity of these deaths than to the positive elements that might emerge from a struggle against fascism.’’

In the execution of the innocent Juan, Mary Jean Green, writing in Fiction in the Historical Present, French Writers and the Thirties, sees Sartre’s ‘‘severe indictment of fascist policy.’’ Indeed, the story opens with a tribunal so brief that it comes as a surprise when a guard tells the prisoners, ‘‘‘that was the trial.’’’

The atmosphere reflects the unreality and the lack of order seen in the trial—where men are sentenced to death after the briefest of questioning. Even the major who announces the execution orders appears ‘‘exasperated’’ with the confusion as he was expecting to find three Basques in the cell. He then retires to leave the three men to await the morning, and their deaths, in the cold, drafty cell.

Each of the condemned men reacts differently. Juan, knowing he has committed no crime but not understanding that logic and fairness no longer matter, denies his fate. ‘‘That’s not possible,’’ he says when the guard reads his execution statement. ‘‘’Not me.’’’ Juan also is ‘‘terribly afraid of suffering’’; his focusing on the pain is another method of denial.

As a last defense against the situation, Juan collapses when the soldiers come to take him to the courtyard. ‘‘He was not unconscious;’’ Pablo notes, ‘‘his eyes were wide open and tears were rolling down his cheeks.’’ Juan’s refusal to take action is his way of denying responsibility for his own life and places him, in Sartrean terms, in a position of ‘‘bad faith‘‘—that is, choosing passivity as a way of escaping the self.

Unlike Juan, Tom accepts his responsibility— both for the actions that have led him to this situation—and for dealing with his upcoming death. He does avoid the thought of death through a number of tactics—conversing, exercising, comforting Juan—yet he also...

(The entire section is 22,257 words.)