The Wall

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Set amid the confusion of the Spanish Civil War, which was in progress at the time of its composition, “THE WALL” documents the capture, imprisonment, and eventual execution of three leftist revolutionaries through the eyes and voice of one of their number, who eventually identifies himself as Pablo Ibbieta. As Pablo recounts his experiences, the wall against which prisoners are lined up to be shot by the firing squad comes to symbolize the absolute boundary between life and death, presaging the later development of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy. As Pablo prepares to die, he becomes so detached from his own life and experiences that he no longer seems alive, or even human. That Pablo survives to tell the tale at all, because of ludicrous coincidence, is one of the more skillfully managed ironies in all of modern fiction.

Notable for the economy and occasional coarseness of its language, “THE WALL” also illustrates what would become Sartre’s criteria for the evaluation of fiction written by others: The story is told, in the first person, by an “unprivileged” narrator whose narrative is limited to what he sees, feels, and remembers; the narrator, moreover, is “engaged” in a political cause, and the tale is told entirely from inside the situation being described. In the first few years after its publication, this story was hailed as an example of “authentic,” almost primitive fiction. By now, however, it is easy to detect the artifice involved in the production of such evident simplicity, and to sense the hand of the omniscient Sartre behind the words and actions of the supposedly authentic Pablo.

Notwithstanding, the story continues to survive its author, having long since outlived his own brief interest in the writing of narrative prose.

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Couched in the first person, limited solely to Pablo’s individual perceptions and opinions, “The Wall” serves as an object-lesson in the literary and critical theories that Sartre was then developing. There is no God-like, omniscient narrator; the style is less literary than conversational, even “earthy,” with frequent recourse to rough language and profanity in description, metaphor, and dialogue. Except for Pablo’s random recollections, the characters and their actions are described entirely “in situation,” with little attention paid to possible background or motivation. To further underscore Sartre’s attempt at “authenticity,” at least insofar as is possible in art or literature, the story’s setting and “atmosphere” are evoked entirely through the immediate, often graphically rendered perceptions of the narrator’s five senses. The story’s “trick” ending, however sensational, is nevertheless amply prepared for throughout by the nature of the tale to be told, and by Pablo’s awareness of contingency and irony in life.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Political Instability in Spain
Since the 1800s Spain has experienced several years of economic and political instability....

(The entire section is 721 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Narrator and Point of View
Pablo is the narrator of ‘‘The Wall.’’ He tells his story from the first-person point of...

(The entire section is 388 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1930s: Spain’s government experiences a complete upheaval. After King Alfonso abdicates the throne in 1931, the country becomes a...

(The entire section is 311 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Look at paintings depicting elements of the Spanish Civil War, such as Pablo Picasso’s Guernica, Joan Miro’s Black and Red...

(The entire section is 182 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Wall’’ was adapted into a movie in France in 1967.

(The entire section is 10 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, first published in 1940, is the story of an American teacher fighting in the Spanish...

(The entire section is 113 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Argyros, Alexander J. ‘‘The Sense of Ending: Sartre’s ‘The Wall,’’’ in Modern Language Studies,...

(The entire section is 227 words.)