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Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Anticipating by nearly half a decade the full development of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialist philosophy, “The Wall” presents in imaginative form some of the major themes of that philosophy, giving concrete illustration of seemingly abstract ideas.

The “wall” of the story’s title is the wall of the prison courtyard against which the prisoners are lined up to be shot; by extension, however, it comes to symbolize the boundary between life and death, between “being” and “nothingness.” Pablo Ibbieta, although he will survive physically at least long enough to tell his ironic tale, is, in fact, as good as dead from the moment that he first perceives and appreciates the immediate prospect of his “nothingness.” The human capacities for love, friendship, and political activism have all died in him as he has passed, as it were, through the “wall” to the other side.

Awaiting execution during the small hours of the morning, Pablo has reviewed his life and found it strangely wanting: “I wondered how I’d been able to walk, to laugh with the girls: I wouldn’t have moved so much as my little finger if I had only imagined I would die like this. My life was in front of me, closed, shut, like a bag and yet everything inside of it was unfinished.” Like many of Sartre’s later characters, Pablo senses that most of his planned actions will die with him, unperformed, with little trace of him left to posterity. Notwithstanding, he persists in observing his stubborn code of honor, in his implied commitment to the liberal cause, and in his determination to die “cleanly” and “well,” in contrast to his fellow prisoners. For Sartre, there is no afterlife, no trace of individual human passage on earth save for the sum total of accomplishments to be recorded after death.

Themes

(Short Stories for Students)

Death
Death is one of the most important themes in ‘‘The Wall.’’ When he is sentenced to death, Pablo looks at life in a completely new way. The people that had once meant so much to him no longer matter. He also views his remaining few hours as the beginning of his death. He even comes to the conclusion that death is not natural, for people lead their lives under the presumption that they will continue to live; as he puts it, people maintain ‘‘the illusion of being eternal.’’

While in his cell, Pablo also takes the opportunity to think about how others react to the inevitability of death. He compares how Tom and Juan deal with their impending executions: Juan is fearful of death and afraid of suffering; Tom tries to imagine what being shot will be like, but he cannot conceive it because he envisions himself as an eyewitness to his own death.

When Pablo is brought in front of the Falangist officers again in the morning, he finds their attempts to intimidate him ridiculous. They fail to realize that their extraordinary power has been overshadowed by the ultimate power of death; they hold no threat to a man condemned to die.

Alienation
Presented in the theories of the philosophers G. W. F. Hegel and Karl Marx, alienation is described as a state of divided selfhood in which a person is distanced from his or her true being. Pablo experiences a sense of alienation once he finds out he is condemned to death. The first indication of this change in perception comes when he realizes that, instead of being cold in the drafty cell, he is actually sweating. He runs his fingers through his hair, surprised to find it stiff with sweat. He reflects that he must have been sweating for the past hours, yet he ‘‘had felt nothing.’’

Later he comes to view it almost as if it was someone else’s body; ‘‘it was no longer I,’’ he thinks. As the hours pass, Pablo also grows alienated from his consciousness, which includes the people and ideals that he once found of the utmost importance. He finds that nothing matters to him anymore, not the anarchist movement, not freedom, not his girlfriend. Pablo feels increasingly ‘‘inhuman,’’ a state...

(The entire section is 1,265 words.)