Short Story Spotlight: The Wall by Jean-Paul Sartre

Thursday, July 21, 2011

When I was first exposed to existentialism in high school, I thought it was the coldest, most horrifying philosophy I'd ever heard. This sentiment came on the heels of The Stranger by Albert Camus, a book that left me feeling dark and isolated and emotionless. Whenever I heard someone mention existentialism after that, I closed my ears instantaneously.

In a literature class my second year of college, however, we talked a little about Kierkegaard - not enough for me to be able to really say anything about his philosophies or main ideas, but enough to make me wonder if existentialism was as horrifically awful as I'd previously thought. So for my Paris in July themed Short Story Spotlight, I decided to reread a story by Sartre, "The Wall."

"The Wall" follows a group of soldiers through the night before their execution. The narrator, Pablo, becomes detached from his life with the knowledge that he will be killed in the morning. He perceives himself as dead, and believes that he can't go back to living now because he has the concept of himself as mortal, that all of life would simply be the waiting he experienced in the cell waiting for his death. He comes to the conclusion that life has no value - whether he dies or another dies, it makes no difference, because they will all die - nothing can change that simple fact. Oh, right, this is why I was horrified by the concept. I was seventeen and immortal when I read this story for the first time.

Sartre also explores the concept of the absurd in this story - the fact that certain events occur in life that have no meaning and are ridiculous. One must rise above them. I think this is best understood by reading Camus's piece "The Myth of Sisyphus," another piece that was appalling to me in my idealistic high school years.

I wish I had a better understanding of existentialism. Only very occasionally do I wish that I had taken more English and literary theory classes. I wish that I had a better knowledge base for interpreting works that are philosophical or more difficult (but only occasionally because I think too much analysis blocks out the beauty and the story, which, for me, is the main point of literature - experiencing beauty in another human experience).

Anyway, this story gave me the interesting chance to review a philosophy I had blocked out in high school and to revisit the reason it horrified me then and may have some merits now (don't get me wrong, I would never subscribe to it fully, but I can see the interesting elements in the bleakness now). "The Wall" is a good little introduction to Parisian existentialism.


  1. The way I've heard it put in layman's terms, Existentialism concerns philosophy wherein existence precedes essence; there is no essential quality to a person before they exist. Ergo, a notion of existentialism would take issue with, say, Calvinist thought as Calvinist thought believe that we are preordained and one day will go to heaven or hell, without any bearing from our actions in this world.

    So, yes, excellent short story. Don't let the concern for beauty give you pause to disregard theory. The architectural wonders of the world are certainly beautiful, but they were not built upon art alone. Theory can only elucidate the beauty of the written word.

  2. This is so interesting. I don't think I could really pick this up right now and read it, because it sounds a little 'down' for what I need at the moment, but I totally respect that you can see the existentialism differently now than before...and it is awesome that you aren't afraid to read/learn more about it, even if you don't really subscribe fully. I love people who aren't afraid to think outside of their own box but are still strong in their own beliefs. I wish that more people would understand that to LEARN does not mean that we have to be SWAYED...anyway, I digress.

    I enjoyed reading this short review immensely. Thanks, gal. :)


  3. Interesting post. I don't remember studying too much about existentialism in high school. My interest in philosophy really blossomed in college. However, I was an English major, not a philosophy major so even though I have an interest in philosophy, I can't say I am all that knowledgeable in it. Works like this however really interest me because they explore a philosophy through literature. It's like the best of both worlds! And creates a lot of discussion possibilities!

  4. Nick - How are you, my calculus study friend/co-conspirator in Flying Pie plans to take over the world? Thank you for your concise explanation of existentialism - it makes much more sense than the other lengthy definitions I've tried to wade through. And you are right - I am trying to build up to reading a theory book, although I might put it off until I am done with school. Good to hear from you.

    @Asheley - I love what you say about learning and not being swayed. I LOVE reading about religion and learning new things. I am completely committed to my own religion, but I feel like I understand it better through learning about other religions - plus I just think different people's reactions to God or other deities are so interesting! I feel the same way about philosophy. I think if we were all willing to explore things outside our comfort zone, we would be much stronger in our convictions and able to have intelligent conversations. Thanks for always writing such thoughtful comments! You inspire me to do better :)

    @Jennifer - I feel like I need to read more philosophy and work my "thinkier" a bit more. Sometimes in the past I shy away from difficult issues but I always feel so much more whole when I challenge myself.


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