The story is set in the midst of the Spanish Civil War. Pablo Ibbieta is a revolutionary who is caught and sentenced to death. While he awaits his demise in prison, he contemplates his own death and struggles to come to terms with it. The author of Pablo’s story, Sartre, was an existentialist, whose key belief was that “existence precedes essence” (Crowell). Sartre stipulated that while things like chairs or hammers were designed with purposes, such as sitting or hammering, in mind, humans are born into this world without purpose. As such, Sartre believed that there is nothing which makes life inherently meaningful, meaning that humans are free to do as they please, including defining their own “essence”. The idea that “existence precedes essence” pervades Pablo’s experiences while imprisoned, showing that the meaning one constructs is divorced from the existing itself.
Pablo’s most constant companion throughout his imprisonment is not one of the other prisoners in his cell, but the sensation of cold that he feels throughout his imprisonment. At the very beginning of the story Pablo notes that the room he is being questioned in is pleasantly heated (Sartre 1). Once transferred into his prison cell, he notes how it was similarly poorly insulated to the one he was previously kept in, leaving him to wait for his execution in the cold (Sartre 2). From the outset, Sartre grounds Pablo’s understanding of his existence in his own perceptions. He can feel the cold room around him, and so he exists there. Not just in the obvious, physical sense, but in the sense that Pablo recognizes himself as existing within the cell. Further, Pablo’s perceptions also negatively define his existence, as he imagines his own death in terms of his back pressed against a wall and the sting of a volley of bullets (Sartre 3, 6). The focus on this sensation of cold throughout the story emphasizes the role of perception in the construction of meaning. Moreover, Sartre makes use of the first-person perspective throughout the story as well, to emphasize Pablo’s perception of the world and his own existence. Human perception is not constant, however, and Pablo is no exception. When he wakes up in his cell, he suddenly notices that despite the cold, he is sweating profusely. He refers to the doctor watching them, who, unlike the prisoners can feel the chill in their cell, as “the living” (Sartre 5), implicitly revealing that he thought of himself as dead already. The change in perception underpins the change in his understanding of his own existence. Despite this, Pablo continues to exist within his cell.
Whereas he had once felt as cold as the doctor, after coming to terms with his impending death, Pablo notes that the thought of continuing to live would be what chilled him instead (Sartre 9). Part of this realization has to do with time. Though the universe around him will survive for an eternity, the realization of death shows Pablo that he certainly will not. He describes losing the “illusion of being eternal”, which equalizes having several hours and having several years of time left to live (Sartre 9). This idea is further emphasized by Pablo’s inner monologue while he is being interrogated right before his execution, noting that the men who were interrogating him were going to die just as he would, even if it would happen a little later (Sartre 11). Whereas the night before the execution, Pablo clung to the idea of even having five more minutes to spend with his beloved Concha (Sartre 8), in the morning, he feels no desire to have several more years of life. Here, time once again reveals how divorced meaning is from existence. To live, like the doctors or the interrogators, one must hold onto to the illusion that they are eternal. In contrast, Pablo knows he only has a very limited amount of time left, and feels that any amount of time is meaningless. This juxtaposition is further enhanced by the doctor’s strict time keeping, carrying around a watch and giving the prisoners the exact time they have left before their execution (Sartre 9), despite believing the illusion of eternality.
The doctor’s attention to time, in spite of his apparent ignorance of his own time, is one of the many absurd situations in the story. The most notable example of absurdity is at the very end of the story. Just before his execution, Pablo is pulled aside and interrogated. His captors ask for the location of a fellow revolutionary named Ramon Gris, and in exchange for this information, they promise that he will not be executed. Pablo then puzzles over his own unwillingness to give away Gris’ whereabouts while pretending to entertain their offer. In the end, he gives his captors a fake answer, expecting to lead them on a wild goose chase, only to lead them straight to Gris and inadvertently save his own life (Sartre 12, 13). Despite no longer caring for Gris or the revolutionary cause, he refuses to give his captors the information. He also has no desire to save himself (Sartre 11). And yet, he gives them false information anyways, prolonging his life and helping the revolution, if it were not for the incredible coincidence that Gris was actually in the cemetery. Regardless of Pablo’s original beliefs or his current beliefs, and the choice he made based on them, neither of them mattered in the end. The absurd result of Pablo’s choice denies meaning in either set of Pablo’s beliefs, demonstrating once again the precedence of existing before finding meaning.
The idea that “existence precedes essence” is pervasive throughout “The Wall”. Pablo Ibbieta exists throughout the duration of the short story, yet the meaning of that existence shifts and warps throughout the duration of the story. While other objects might have a permanent purpose to them, Pablo goes from being a revolutionary to being a dead man in the span of a day. Despite the transformation, the absurd result of his interrogation shows that not only is he himself contradictory, but that the meaning of his existence has no bearing on him existing in the first place.
Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 9
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Wall.” Sakai, ENGL 105.050SP20, Posted by Paul Blom, 18 March
Originally Published in 1939.
Video content used:
wikimedia: image of captured soldiers
Romano archives: Spanish Civil War footage
Quartz: Sartre image
Public domain vectors: Thinker sculpture
Background music: Sad Day
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