Early twentieth century Europe was defined by suppression, dictatorial power, and ultra-nationalism; otherwise known as fascism. Benito Mussolini was the first leader under this ideology, paving the way for future dictators such as Adolf Hitler. Their systemic murder of millions of people forced other world powers to step in, and ultimately sparked World War II. In Spain the Falangist party reigned with the same far-right, fascist ideals as Mussolini and Hitler. Those who opposed – or even just suspected of opposition – were executed by the masses. In “The Wall”, Jean-Paul Sartre juxtaposes a so-called “free” man with three men on death row to accentuate the idea of existentialism; although it appears only the three sentenced to die are prisoners of the Fascist regime, Sartre implies that social death gives every man a life sentence.
In the beginning of the story Sartre presents the reader with three prisoners and a doctor studying their psychological responses in their last hours of life. Three dead men walking, and one man “who could think about tomorrow” (para. 98). The narrator, Pablo Ibbietta, still sees the doctor as someone who is alive; someone who has a future and he envies that. It is not until later that he realizes the doctor is no more alive than he and his inmates are. Despite the decades the doctor has yet to live, he holds no more significance than the men with only hours left. With only his death to think about Ibbietta comes to the conclusion that “several hours or several years of waiting is all the same when you have lost the illusion of being eternal” (para. 109). By using the word “waiting” Sartre highlights the fact that everyone has limited time on the Earth. The one truth behind life is that it ends. In this passage Ibbietta no longer envies the doctor for the time he has left. The “several hours” he has is equivalent to the “several years” the doctor has in relation to all of eternity. This perspective that a lifetime has no meaning if constricted by societal norms is existentialism (Existentialism 1). The reader is slowly introduced to this idea until Ibbietta blatantly states that he has “lost the illusion of being eternal” (para. 109). Only now, with his life on a countdown, he is able to conceptualize the reality of death. The “illusion” is referencing the misconception people have about life. It does come to an end and the world will carry on. So what is the point of living if you are not living purely for yourself?
Sartre chose his characters with the sole purpose of proving their insignificance. Why does he choose three prisoners instead of two, or even five? Maybe more than three is too much to handle, and any less is too little. Or maybe the three prisoners present a sense of irony to the holy trinity. The trinity consists of protection, guidance, and help from the divine. Trapped in a cell waiting to be shot there is no protection, there is no guidance, and there is no help. He puts these three men in a room with a doctor doing research. A doctor who is most likely wealthy, well taken care of, and trying to help society better understand the mind. Everything about his life seems significant; however, if in the long run everyone is dead, he is spending his life conducting research for nothing. With all of his extra time he will amount to nothing more than the three dead men in front of him.
Ibbietta starts to lose his sense of himself. Slowly he is detaching from himself “because of my body; my body,” (para. 109). Sartre intentionally repeats “my body” here to emphasize this detachment. Ibbietta has to remind himself that he is still living in his own body. “I saw with its eyes, I heard with its ears, but it was no longer me,” (para. 109), here it is clear that Ibbietta sees himself as temporary. His body has just been another illusion of life. It gave him a false sense of control until one day someone else took control. Sartre uses this feeling to represent the prominence of social death during the Fascist regime. People were not seen as living, breathing humans. The government did not see the executions as murders of innocent people, but instead the removal of unnecessary and deterrent objects from society. Ibbietta losing his humanity shows the reader what this mindset truly means. If a man cannot even see the significance of his own life, then he cannot see the significance of anyone else’s (Meché 1).
Sartre is able to give the reader a sense of the deterioration of Ibbietta’s mindset just by adjusting his language. Eventually Ibbietta stops describing his body as “my body,” but instead as “it.” He describes what it is doing but at the same time shows that he has no control. He says “it was quiet,” (para. 109), but what does quiet mean? This not a normal way of describing the body, but Sartre chose this word for a reason. His body no longer had a purpose. His stomach was not rumbling to tell him he should eat. His bladder did not hurt to let him know he had to urinate. His eyes did not fall to help him go to sleep. There was only silence. His mind no longer acknowledged his own body, so all it could do was exist. Ibbietta describes it as “a filthy presence against [him],” (para. 109). The word filthy describes both its physical state and Ibbietta’s feelings towards it. It is true that he is dirty, but saying that it feels like he is “tied to an enormous vermin,” (para. 109), shows a much deeper resentment. His body is a predator that he cannot run away from. It is deteriorating as he gets closer to death but there is no chance to fix it. The focus on the physical effects of Ibbietta’s mental death calls attention to the overarching theme of existentialism. Although he has not yet been executed, Ibbietta is dead. He no longer has control over his body solely because of his mental state. He has realized that his life has no meaning and even if he was given the chance to live another day he wouldn’t. In the end everything and everyone is gone and he will have no impact on the universe. As his mind shuts down so does its connection to his body.
Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “The Wall” to make a statement about its time period. As the Fascist regime took over Europe people lost the concept of being alive. Society began to see others as objects instead of humans. Those subjected to their country’s cruelty lost their own humanity along the way. Knowing that death is looming offers a completely new perspective on the world. Pablo Ibbietta played this role showing the reader what happens when it becomes clear that eventually everything comes to an end. The focus on leaving a lasting impact is pointless and frankly a waste of time. It is a perspective that many would see as radical; however, it is a perspective that many may never be able to conceptualize until they too must await their own death. Sartre’s goal was to unite people against the Fascist regime through existentialism. Everyone has a limited time on this Earth, and succumbing to the standards set by a corrupt government is not the way to spend it. Whether by murder or compliance, they rob people of their humanity. The only way to fight this is to live, and to live for yourself.
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