Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Jean Paul Sartre’s “The Wall” takes place during the Spanish Civil War, and tells the story of three prisoners on the night before they are to be executed. He does not tell us if the Spanish Civil War is just or unjust. He does not tell us whether Juan, Tom, and Pablo are admirable characters or villains, simply that they are human beings with human thoughts and feelings.
Several pages into the story, a physician is sent into the cell to spend the prisoners’ last night with them; the prisoners are told that the physician is there to comfort them, but in reality it is clear that he is there to observe the psychological reactions of people under the sentence of death.
During the night Pablo, the protagonist, realizes that the notice of his immanent violent death has indeed changed him, as well as the other two prisoners, in ways that cannot be shared by the doctor. “The Wall” in the title refers just as much to the wall between those with hope and those with none as it does to the wall against which they will be placed to face the firing squad. For example, the doctor complains that it is freezing cold in the cell, and he is hungry; Pablo ceases to feel either of these things, because staying warm or full would merely serve to sustain life, and subconsciously he knows there is no point in doing that any more.
Ironically, in the morning Tom and Juan are taken out and shot, but Pablo is questioned again about the whereabouts of a rebel leader. He makes up an off-the-cuff story about the rebel hiding himself in a cemetery, and is reprieved—temporarily at least—when the story turns out to be true. However, Pablo is as good as dead anyway, because he has psychologically been absorbed into the wall separating life from death, and there is no going back.
It may seem that all Sartre has done in this story is assume the position of the analytical doctor, and bring the reader along with him; we are now the ones analyzing the psychological behavior of three men who know they will die in the morning. But, Sartre argues, this is really all we can do. We can observe; we can help whenever possible. But we cannot moralize or judge, because we have no standards to judge by. In the end, Sartre would argue, there is no point. The lack of causality in human life, together with the lack of a beneficent force in the universe, forces every human being to forge his own meaning—something the protagonist has not done.
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