1. Funny Walls
When I was at school, we had a teacher called Mr Wall. When he wasn’t listening, we’d tell this joke:
(Kid mimes holding a phone.)
‘Is Mr Wall there, please?’
‘Is Mrs Wall there, please?’
‘Are there any walls there?’
‘You’d better get out because the ceiling’s about to fall down.’
This is the only joke in existence about a wall. Because walls aren’t funny.
In literature, there’s also one single funny wall and it’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals, a set of poor players, put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tom Snout plays the wall that keeps the lovers apart.
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall.
The comic possibilities of someone pretending to be a wall were lost neither on William Shakespeare nor the many thousands of English teachers obliged to stage a version of the play.
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole, or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
As a schoolboy, I saw a production about which I remember nothing other than the Wall, as played by Snout, farting in the face of Pyramus, as played by Bottom (also funny). It was a light-bulb moment: maybe Shakespeare could be something other than a dead man teachers use to bore kids.
2. Scary Walls
Gothic writing, according to Angela Carter, “retains a singular moral function–that of provoking unease.” As the genre moved from the haunted ruins of Italian castles to more domestic settings, writers like Edgar Allan Poe employed bricks and mortar to do just this. A number of his stories rely on walls. Consider “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance. Montresor, a nasty sort, takes revenge on Fortunato for an unreported slight. The unfortunate Fortunato falls for the trick of being invited to a private wine-tasting ceremony (wouldn’t we all?), only to be first chained up and then walled away in the catacombs underneath Montresor’s palazzo. In “The Black Cat,” the protagonist’s wife, accidentally axed in the head, is walled up behind a house’s interior wall. In “The Tell Tale Heart,” it is beneath a floorboard, rather than behind a wall, that a corpse is hidden.
H.P. Lovecraft, the spiritual descendant of Poe, came up with “The Rats in the Walls,” a short story featuring rats in the walls of an ancestral home. The scurrying sound, enough to drive anyone to distraction, leads the protagonist to discover the entrance to a subterranean city in which his family have raised generations of human cattle. To eat. Unlike the character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is driven mad by what lies behind the walls, rather than what covers them.
In these examples, walls screen past indiscretions. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. They obscure dark history, but only for so long, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Walls in literature, as well as history, have a tendency to collapse.
3. Prison Walls
We may suppose that walls are erected to keep a threat, be that a metaphorical secret or a literal danger, apart and out of sight. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” it initially appears that the reverse is true. We’re introduced to a character of royal blood, Asterion. He tells us how he spends his days roaming the corridors of his infinite house. There are no locked doors, only endless passageways. His world is walls.
The story ends:
Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.
The house is the Labyrinth, Asterion is the Minotaur. His walls are those of a jail. The reader understands that it sucks to be the Minotaur, especially as he gets killed and, who knows, maybe he’s not so much of a monster after all but, as my father used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The Minotaur looks bad, after all.
Harvard University is transformed into a prison in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Prisons need walls, for, as in the story of the Minotaur, wardens tend to prefer prisoners on their side of the perimeter.
The Wall in Atwood’s story has “ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.” Not a structure you’d fancy climbing and mildly reminiscent of English lower league football stadia.
You don’t need to have studied high-school English to mark the significance of a university converted to a prison. Citizens of Gilead are forced to attend ritual viewings of the dissidents that are hanged on the Wall.
4. Office Walls
There’s a chance that you’ve spent at least a portion of your working life gazing blankly at an office wall. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby, the Wall Street worker who prefers not to, spends hours staring at a “dead” brick wall through his office window. The narrator describes these periods as “dead wall reveries.” When Bartleby is finally admitted to jail, he is found with “his face towards a high wall.”
Clearly, there’s something significant going on here. Bartleby begins the story walled off from his colleagues, his job the only thing with which he is able to form a connection. When even this fades, he stares at walls, symbols of urban separation in Melville’s story of capitalism’s forced individualism.
5. Biblical Walls
Let down by works of fiction, I look to The Bible because I remember that it’s full of good stories and also walls. The Walls of Jericho, felled by marching and horn blowing, is one of the most famous moments, found in Joshua 6:1–27.
Therefore he said unto Judah, Let us build these cities, and make about them walls, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us; because we have sought the Lord our God, we have sought him, and he hath given us rest on every side. So they built and prospered. (2 Chronicles 14:7)
God loves walls. At least, according to the Old Testament, he does. I’ve been to cathedrals with fantastic walls and it’s a sin to doubt His judgment. Yet, like the notion of eternal grace in a place called Heaven, I still feel this nagging doubt. The Old Testament, like the modern world, may contain walls, but it also contains smiting.
Franz Kafka wrote about walls, most famously castle walls and bedroom walls, but in “The Great Wall of China,” written in 1917 but not published until 1931, he describes an elderly mason looking back at the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall.
Each team of builders is allocated 500 meters of wall to build over five years. When finished, they are transferred to a different region to do the same again. As they journey to their new project, they see other sections of the wall, built by other teams. This proves, therefore, the success of the project, despite there being “gaps which have never been built in at all.”
The “invaders from the North,” against whom the wall is protecting China, never invade.
When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms.
It doesn’t matter, the construction occupies the people. And the building of the wall illustrates the power and wisdom of the Emperor, for such a huge undertaking cannot be anything but impressive.
Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
Fear of invasion, suggests Kafka, is a more powerful form of control than bricks and mortar.
7. Your Neighbor’s Wall
Robert Frost is no fan of walls. Or, at least, the poet-persona in “Mending Wall” isn’t. The verse describes a springtime meeting between neighbors, during which they repair the wall that divides their property. The speaker is happy for the structure to fall down.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence.
The neighbor isn’t persuaded. Described as “like an old-stone savage armed,” he “will not go behind his father’s saying:”
Good fences make good neighbors.
He builds a wall because we always build walls. There may be nothing to wall in or wall out, but that doesn’t matter: the wall is all.
Image courtesy of the author.