On Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall 

I pull To the Lighthouse off the shelf at least a couple of times a year. I should have long ago replaced my copy, which is so full of my freshman marginalia and underlining in blue ballpoint that the book beneath is barely legible. Back then I read the world, and the books I took as capsules of it, as a lineup of binaries for me to ingurgitate like Pac Man: “feminine vs. masculine,” “subjectivity vs. objectivity,” “domesticity vs. intellectuality.” (Two kids and a hand-over-hand literary career later, LOL forever on that last one.)

Locating a central ironfisted symbol around or toward which to arrange my understanding of a text was how I learned to read—the bespectacled billboard in The Great Gatsby, light and shadows in The Trial—and anything that didn’t fit the allegory was incidental, unimportant, maybe even the oversight of an unrigorous editor. I racked up As in English with my soft redaction of the circumstantial stuff, recapitulating how our minds edit the world in order to make sense of it. I was merely repeating the redaction without seeing it, the examination of that exact human tendency being the arguable essence of an exemplary artwork. 

 Here is Virginia Woolf on the outsized symbol sweeping its arm over the whole of her book:

I meant nothing by The Lighthouse. One has to have a central line down the middle of the book to hold the design together. I saw that all sorts of feelings would accrue to this, but I refused to think them out, and trusted that people would make it the deposit for their own emotions—which they have done, one thinking it means one thing another another. I can’t manage Symbolism except in this vague, generalized way. Whether it’s right or wrong I don’t know, but directly I’m told what a thing means, it becomes hateful to me. [1]

I slowly but finally learned not to reduce what I read to a one-note sauce, largely because at this point I almost exclusively read books by women.

In Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall, which first came out 1963 and whose 1990 translation from German was just reprinted by New Directions, an unnamed woman repairs to an Alpine hunting lodge for a leisure weekend and the next morning discovers that an invisible but literal wall has materialized and separated her from the nearby village. She appears to assume that it renders her the last living member of humanity, although the extent neither to which this is in fact her assumption, nor of its truth, ever becomes all that clear. All living things that she can see through the wall have died and/or are petrified (which is either a complete or merely technical difference that exemplifies the difference between living and being that the book fundamentally concerns). She finds a pregnant cow nearby, on her side of the wall, and brings it back to the hunting lodge, where she sets to gathering resources and setting up a toilsome but tolerable life for herself, the cow, the lodge’s resident dog, and a series of ill-fated cats.

The book is a retrospective account of her daily activity, which amounts almost solely to tedious backbreaking work—milking, planting, reaping, hunting, repairing. She cares tenderly for her animals, on whom she relies for companionship and various life-sustaining services. Very little happens or changes in the book and at times I wondered if I was reading a charming animal story, which cast a pall over my enjoyment. There are kittens. The moods and movements of the dog, Lynx, are tracked to a mind-numbing degree. She watches deer, mice and crows doing their instinctive things, and all the while she is ignoring the wall, which is so perverse that I couldn’t put the boring book down.

The wall changes everything—is everything—and she lives entirely in light of it while barely giving it thought and denying the reader room to think about it either. The wall makes no sense: if it circles the earth, then half the world and its inhabitants are on her side of it and presumably alive. If it has boxed her in, then shouldn’t she locate its three other sides and determine what and who’s been boxed in with her? She idly wonders once if she might dig under the wall, which would either give her access to all of the foodstuffs and other resources languishing on the other side, or zap her instantly and relieve her of an isolated life of work and constant worry. Sometimes she gets up high and looks through the wall with binoculars but not very often. Occasionally she wonders where it came from, but brushes it off as a Cold War experiment gone awry. It seems that everyone has died and she is alone, but why not verify?

What Haushofer does is deny the wall symbolism, which is a monstrous act of authorial autocracy. Dropping a honking conceit of an all-determining impediment into a story is both badass and ridiculous, like the monolithic slab among the apes in 2001 (which is the opposite of the figural and figurative monolith at the end of Planet of the Apes—how weird they came out the same year, and all three in the same decade). But the wall, by utter contrast, means and stands for nothing. It’s just a fact. “Damn you all to hell!” wails Charlton Heston, after falling to his knees, while The Wall’s narrator gets busy making hay. The book is marketed as feminist, but I just think it’s feminine.

I shudder to think what my marginaliac kinder-literary self would have done with The Wall circa 1992. At a time when the respective walls of East Germany and Pink Floyd had a stranglehold on the cultural imagination, a wall was a nonpareil symbol—a thing that divides, that needs to be surmounted, that closes in or out. More than almost any other thing, a wall can’t signify nothing. I think The Wall is subverting the sapient urge to identify and latch onto motifs, using the wall to set off the extra-intellectual everydayism and animal instinct on display in the book.

What the barely-there barrier divides from what we not only never learn, but are denied narrative room to speculate on. And to speak both reductively and from personal experience, this speculative embargo is what makes the book feminine; a woman doesn’t dwell on the monolithic obstacles that appear in her life, because she has no power to change them. As Doris Lessing says in the sole blurb on the back of my 1992 edition of The Wall, [2] “It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine's loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory against everything that would like to undermine and destroy.” [3] In other words, a woman keeps her head down in her lot and tackles its conditions.

In contrast to the fact of her sudden containment by a physical barrier, the form of the narrator’s life, with its would-be continuity and overdetermining endpoints, loses its shape or falls away as she becomes pure content. Only rarely does a thought about her past or future stray in and she quickly dispatches it. We learn that she was widowed not long before the wall appeared and that she has two grown daughters, but we aren’t told a thing about them because she doesn’t seem to think about them much. In the first year of her confinement she dreads the arrival of Christmas and its nostalgic longings, but it slides by without giving her much trouble and then she is good to go, woodcutting and haymaking through her days. No, not even through—woodcutting and haymaking constitute her days, as her existence is relieved of prepositional relativity. Her clock breaks and then her watch and she is released from mechanical time, too. She abandons the arrow of living for the point of being, which is a dot with no dimensions.  

Woolf’s first conceptualization of To the Lighthouse was of pure content filling an arbitrary shape, like sand poured into a bucket [4]:

All character—not a view of the world.
Two blocks joined by a corridor

[hand-drawn H]

The corridor of To the Lighthouse is time itself, reclaiming grains of lives and the house that once contained them. The corridor of The Wall is a summer the narrator spends in a high-altitude pasture with her cow and its calf. In the open air and under the stars, she begins to have marginally mystical experiences, feeling the tug of a universe away from earthly concerns. But having already let the lines defining the meaning of her life become indistinct, she recognizes that allowing that other invisible wall between herself and the world-at-large to entirely dissolve would be highly dangerous. She needs to retain her distinct mind and daily drive to survive. “I had got as far from myself as it is possible for a human being to get,” she says of her time in the celestial pasture, “and I realized that this state couldn’t last if I wanted to stay alive.” [5] From there on, she doubles down on her transformation into a nose-to-the-ground animal.

In 2001, at the dawn of man, the apes palpate the monolith, then skitter away to technologically off themselves into the sunset. Either similarly or contrarily, depending on whether one takes the terminal giant space baby as a fresh start for mankind (and also either like or unlike the apes on their eponymous planet, according to one’s interpretation of whether those apes’ recidivism was voluntary), The Wall’s narrator throws this trajectory of soi-disant “progress” into reverse, curling away from the human-centric world and its disastrous ambitions, back into her basic animal necessities. Meanwhile, I, the reader, grow increasingly agitated about the wall: Poke that shit with a stick, already. Don’t you want to know how high it is? Toss something over and see what happens. What’s it made of—glass? Maybe you can shatter it! Her lack of interest in the obstacle, only in its exigencies, dusts off all kinds of effortfully buried monoliths in my own life—marriage, motherhood, daughterhood, consumerism, social status, political positions, gender norms and other identity-related metrics—that together point to the question of whether by the end of the book the narrator has evolved or devolved; and, either respectively or crosswise, whether she is a higher or lesser form of being than me.

My friend who read an early draft of this essay pointed out rightfully that I attribute a lot of narrative decisions to the narrator because I don’t know how to understand what the novelist is doing. If the wall refuses the meanings that want to accrue to it, then it feels wrong, by extension, to stick them to the author, whose most basic authorial principle I can’t even tell—is The Wall “all character” or “a view of the world”?  

The Wall ends with the question that prompted the narrator, four years into her ordeal, to sit down and write the account that constitutes the book. The answer, she says, is: “I’ll never find out, and it may even be better that way.”  The nature of the wall is not her question, but the answers might be the same.


[1] Woolf, Virginia, The Letters of Virginia Woolf , letter to Roger Fry dated 27th May 1927, Eds. Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Vol. III: 1923-1928, (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1977. 6 vols.)

[2] The questions of the wall’s nature and physical extent upstage the question of why the woman wants to stay alive in the first place. And that question is upstaged by whether this is a question the book wants me to ask.

[3] There is some richness to this statement, since (and I’ve written about this elsewhere) Doris Lessing abandoned her first two children to pursue a literary career on another continent. Perhaps both my and Lessing’s hypocritically sexist characterizations of The Wall merely point to the difficulty of discerning and/or understanding Haushofer’s intentions, due to said lack of monolithic organizing principle. We can fog up but not eliminate the patriarchal lens of literary criticism.

[4] Dick, Susana, To the Lighthouse: The Original Holograph Draft. (Toronto: University of Toronto, 1982), 48.

[5] Haushofer, Marlen, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside (Pittsburgh: Cleis Press Inc., 1990), 184.

Kate Colby is the author of nine books of poetry, including Reverse Engineer, which just came out from Ornithopter Press in Fall 2022. She has received awards and fellowships from the Poetry Society of America, Rhode Island State Council for the Arts, and Harvard’s Woodberry Poetry Room. Recent work can be found in Chicago Review, Conjunctions, Fence, Lana Turner and The Nation. She lives in Providence and performs with Spatulate Church Emergency Shift.