Is "The Wall" an optimistic (existentialism) or pessimistic (nihilism) story?

Quick answer:

"The Wall" is a work of existentialism and can be thought of as more optimistic than nihilistic. Pablo laughs rather hysterically at the end of the story, not because he is amused by the news of Juan Gris's death, but because of the absurdity of his situation.

Expert Answers

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One of the tenets of existentialism is the idea that "existence precedes essence." Sartre's "The Wall" reflects this idea in that Pablo Ibbieta survives a near brush with death without intending to; it reinforces the idea of life's absurdity and lack of meaning other than what each person assigns it. Continuing to live is separate from living for ideas or principles, an existentialist might say. When Pablo thinks that he is going to be executed, he decides to go out on his own terms by sending his captors out on a fool's errand. Ironically, instead of a fool's errand it turns out to be a mission that ends up saving Pablo's life but sacrificing Ramon's. In choosing for himself, Pablo has at the same time chosen for Ramon, another idea found in existentialist works.

Each of the men in the story is responsible for his choices, and the choices bring meaning to his life. Juan approaches his death in terror; Tom approaches his with resignation but also with fear so deep in his body that he doesn't even feel himself urinate. Even before Tom is executed he seems to have lost touch with his existence. Pablo's acceptance of his imminent death is meant not only to contrast both Juan's and Tom's but also to emphasize that he has assigned meaning to his death because he believes it will spare Ramon Gris.

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