Jean-Paul Sartre "The Wall"

Jean-Paul Sartre was an existentialist philosopher. The questions of his philosophy often come out in his readings

Jean-Paul Sartre was an existentialist philosopher. The questions of his philosophy often come out in his readings. Existentialism questions why we exist. Existentialists deny the existence of God. Existentialist writers such as Kafka and Sartre often use prisons and solitary confinement to tell their stories. Often, neither the reader nor the protagonist is aware of what crime has been committed. Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Wall" reflects his philosophy and personal experiences. He worked for the French resistance and was imprisoned by the Germans during WWII. The story takes place during the Spanish Civil War in an old hospital being used by the Spanish Fascist's to house prisoners. "The Wall" is told from a first person, stream of consciousness point-of-view, and uses existentialist philosophy, to illuminate the follies of totalitarian governments like Fascism, and Nazism.

Like most existentialist writers, Sartre chooses to tell the story of "The Wall" form the first person stream-of-consciousness point-of-view. We get dialogue from other characters, but the dialogue is filtered through the mind and thoughts of Pablo. The terror in the story slowly unfolds from Pablo's mind. In the beginning, Sartre only gives us a hint of terror. The reality of the situation has not yet set into Pablo's mind:

They pushed us into a big white room and I began to blink because the light hurt my eyes. Then I saw a table and four men behind the table, civilians, looking over the papers. They had bunched another group of prisoners in the back and we had to cross the whole room to join them. There were several I knew and some others who must have been foreigners. The two in front of me were blond with round skulls; they looked alike. I supposed they were French. The smaller one kept hitching up his pants; nerves. (7)

The emphasis on the "round skull" foreshadows a scene that later brings terror into greater effect. Tom tells Pablo while they are waiting to be executed, that they aim for the eyes and head to disfigure your face. The emphasis on the perfect round skulls in the first paragraph draws attention to faces and heads. "The smaller one hitching up his nerves," tell us from the beginning that Pablo should be nervous himself. Pablo knows he is in trouble at the beginning. He just does not realize the amount yet.

Later, in the story, Pablo's terror grows in his mind. "I never thought about death because I never had reason to, but now the reason was here and there was nothing to do but think about it" (13). The terror increases as they wait for dawn and the firing squad and Pablo begins to question what happens after death. "I thought of bullets, I imagined their burning hail through my body. All that was beside the real question; but I was calm: we had all night to understand" (14). Pablo is denying his own fear. Existentialists do not believe in a Supreme Being, so what is there to be afraid of? But his continual denial of the feeling of terror demonstrates he does have some fears, "I felt myself crushed under an enormous weight. It was not the thought of death, or fear; it was nameless. My cheeks burned and my head ached" (15). Eventually, Pablo recognizes his terror, when he realizes, in spit of it being quite cold, he is sweating profusely. The doctor who is sent to observe them is chilled and it is the doctors stare that causes Pablo to think of how terrified he actually is,

I saw my shirt was damp and sticking to my skin. I had been dripping for an hour and hadn't felt it. But that swine of a Belgian hadn't missed a thing; he had seen the drops rolling down my cheeks and thought: this is the manifestation of terror; and he had felt normal and proud of being alive because he was cold. (17)

His terror manifests when he notices his trousers and buttocks are soaked and he wonders if he pissed his pants like Tom. The terror Pablo and Tom try to question their own existence, and to try to understand what happens after death, but the terror they feel interferes with their thoughts. Pablo is the first to question his fate, "All that was beside the real question; but I was calm: we had all night to understand" (14). Later, Tom's fear manifests itself into paranoia and he starts talking to himself:

You want to think something, you always have the impression that it's all right, that you are going to understand then it slips, it escapes you and fades away. I tell myself there will be nothing afterwards. But I don't understand what it means. Sometimes I almost can . . . and then it fades away and I start thinking about the pains again, bullets, explosions. (20)

Tom claims he sees his corpse, and what bothers him is he sees it with "his own eyes" (21). He tries to prepare himself for death, for non-existence, but nothing helps. He tells Pablo, "we weren't meant to think that." He has analyzed the situation from every point of view, but still does not have a clear picture of what it is like to not exist anymore, what is next. "I've stayed up the whole night waiting for something" (21). He wants to feel something, some kind of an answer to the age-old question, why does man exist, and does he exist. An answer beyond the un-doubtable statement of Renee Descartes, "I think therefore I exist." He comes to the conclusion, he will learn the question at the moment of his death, and that it can not be answered until that moment. "But this isn't the same: this will creep up behind us, Pablo, and we won't be able to prepare for it"(21).

Sartre tell us in Pablo's thoughts, that Pablo has no sympathy for Tom. He says he feels this way because "I was terribly hard just then and I wanted to stay hard" (21). Pablo does not want to contemplate the question of understanding. He knows it will cause terror in his mind, but of course, he can not escape. He tells us after the night is almost over that "Naturally I couldn't think clearly about my death but I saw it everywhere, on things, in the way things fell back and kept their distance, discreetly, as people who speak quietly at the bedside of a dying man" (27). Pablo rationalizes there is nothing after death, and that life is no longer worth living after spending a night contemplating death. He begins to have an outer body experience.

In the state I was in, if someone had come and told me I could go home quietly, that they would leave my life whole, it would have left me cold: several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal. I clung to nothing, in a way I was calm. But it was a horrible calm""because of my body; my body I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me, it sweated and trembled by itself and I didn't recognize it any more. (28)

Pablo's outer body experience is another way for him to try to understand what is happening and what will happen.

Convinced they will kill him regardless of whether he betrays the rebel leader Gris. Pablo tells the fat officer; Gris is hiding in the cemetery, "In a vault or a gravediggers' shack" (34). He does not believe Gris is hiding in the cemetery, but wishes to give the guards a hard time. Sartre uses the graveyard, as a symbol of non-existence. Since there is nothing after, our thoughts are gone, and a dead man has no thoughts, it makes sense Pablo sends them to the graveyard. Throughout the story, the inquisitors care nothing about truth or a person's innocence. Juan is guilty of know crime and is put to death. Garcia who Pablo meets in the courtyard after he gives his false testimony, "had nothing to do with politics" (36). When asked why he was arrested, Garica responds "They arrest everybody who doesn't think the way they do"(36).

The Nazi's and the Fascist's used mental torture and the threat of terror to get people to question their own existence, their own sanity. They do not think, they just take orders and obey. Therefore, it is perfectly ironic that Pablo sends them to a place devoid of reason or thought. The further irony is that Gris is hiding in the graveyard in the gravediggers' shack and is killed in a gunfight. Pablo says after learning of Gris's death, "everything began to spin and I found myself siting on the ground: I laughed so hard I cried" (37). Pablo laughs until he cries because he realizes he never will understand why one man dies and another lives. In spite of all his thinking and mental anguish over the question, every answer he discovers leads back to Descartes; the only part of his existence he can not question is the one truth, "I think, therefore I am.

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