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
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.
Political Instability in Spain
Since the 1800s Spain has experienced several years of economic and political instability. Economically, Spain has lagged behind other western European countries. Politically, the country has been unstable, experiencing violent strikes, assassinations, military plots, and separatist movements throughout the early 1900s. The disorder only grew worse after World War I, when a Spanish general known as Primo established himself as a military dictator.
Primo lost power in 1930; but the Spanish monarchy—led by King Alfonso XIII—had lost the country’s respect through his initial support of Primo’s dictatorship. In 1931, the king abdicated and Spain became a republic. The new government enacted measures that lessened the power of the Catholic Church and increased conditions for workers. Such sweeping reforms angered Spanish conservatives. Along with their Catholic allies, they united with the fascist Falange (meaning Phalanx) Party. The Falange wanted to preserve the power of the army, landowners, and the church.
In February 1936 a Popular Front government that included Socialists and Communists...
(The entire section is 2,103 words.)