The 1963 novel The Wall, by Austrian author Marlen Haushofer, seems supremely relevant to the tumultuous era we are living through. By depicting the surreal end of the world, the book provides a bold, thought-provoking commentary on patriarchal society.
The Wall is recognized as the greatest literary achievement of Marlen Haushofer. It tells the story of a middle-aged woman struggling to survive after a mysterious, global catastrophe. Facing the extreme solitude of her new situation, isolated in a mountain wilderness, the protagonist goes through a gradual but ultimately spectacular transformation. As she adapts to the harsh conditions, she creates a uniquely strong bond with nature, which redefines her humanity.
Terrible disaster amongst picturesque landscapes
The catastrophe occurs while the protagonist and narrator of The Wall – an unnamed 40-something widow – is spending a vacation together with her cousin and her cousin’s husband somewhere in the Austrian Alpine countryside. Shortly after their arrival at a hunting lodge, the couple set out for a nearby village, but they do not return. The woman goes out to search for them. At the end of the way, she encounters an invisible and impassable wall, separating her from the rest of the world. On the other side of the wall, all forms of life have seemingly been petrified by an unexplained disaster.
Days go by, but no help arrives. The woman realises that whatever catastrophe occurred, it probably affected the whole world. While mourning the loss of her previous life and of those she loves – her two adolescent daughters, whom she will never see again – she is forced to start a brand new life. As probably the last human being on Earth, she faces extreme solitude and isolation, fighting every day to survive in her new environment of the woods and mountains. In this new, bleak reality, her only companions are animals: a dog, a cow, a calf, and several cats.
Something new has begun
To stay alive and take care of her animals, the woman must learn new skills: farming, haymaking, fishing… From being a homebody and city dweller, she transitions into a different person- a hard-working farmer, focused on the present and living in an almost symbiotic relationship with her surroundings. The care of her animals and her unconditional love for them keep woman alive and help make sense of her life.
The daily labour deeply affects her appearance: she becomes slim and takes on an androgynous look. Her new identity ceases to be conditioned by gender and age. Gradually, she distances herself from her past and her former self.
The novel The Wall is constructed in the form of a report written by the woman “who has lost her world and is on the way to finding a new one”.
Reflecting on her life before and after the apocalypse, the protagonist of The Wall comes to the conclusion that her former living was not a happy one and that she was never fulfilled. Her previous existence was largely defined by the roles of woman, wife and mother imposed on her by patriarchal society.
She confesses in her report that when she was young “she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries… (She was- JZ) a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling… All in all her mind was governed by terrible disorder, a reflection of the society in which she lived, which was just as ignorant and put-upon as herself”.
Self-discovery in the wilderness
Far from civilisation, woman realises she has been given the chance to start truly living. Free from the socially established roles, conventions and limits imposed on her in previous life, she gets the opportunity to completely determine her fate, surrounded by wild nature.
She discovers the great brilliance of life in the simple things: careful observation of environment, listening to birds singing, breathing fresh air, being with her beloved animals- just feeling alive. By learning the laws and cycles of nature, she begins to perceive her surroundings very emotionally through all of her senses with respect to every form of life.
In the woman’s new world, the distinctions between human and non-human become more and more blurred. The protagonist of The Wall finds a deeper level of reality in nature’s cycles and transformations. Gradually, woman becomes immersed in her environment.
„The Alm lay outside of time. Later, during the hay-harvest, when I returned from the underworld of the damp gorge, I seemed to be coming back to a land which mysteriously released me from myself. All my fears and memories stayed behind beneath the dark spruces, to attack me every time I went down there. It was as if the big meadow exuded a mild narcotic called oblivion.”
The story takes a horrific turn when a mysterious man appears on the horizon…
This is not the end
The Wall (1963) by Austrian Marlen Haushofer anticipated the ecofeminist movement, which started in 1974, by pointing at patriarchal culture as a source of social and ecological crises. The author saw a chance for the salvation for humanity and nature by replacing dominant, patriarchal system with a new worldview. The protagonist of The Wall rebuilds her world maintaining respect for any being and adopting values commonly linked with femininity such as sensitivity, tenderness, empathy, compassion and nurturance.
The disturbing, ambiguous end of the book will leave us with lingering questions and images long after the last page is turned…
“The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer (Original title: “Die Wand”)
The English translation by Shaun Whiteside
Publisher: Quartet Books (UK)
Cleis Press (USA)
Images: stills from the movie adaptation of the novel directed by Julian Pölsler