Always Alone: Solitude in The Wall and The Long Dark
Welcome back to a series of articles written by Patrick Carlson. Throughout this series, Patrick will analyze a piece of survival “literature” — be it a novel, a film, a game, etc. — and frame it within the context of The Long Dark. This entry deals with Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel The Wall, which was adapted into a feature film in 2012.
“I’ve taken on this task to keep me from staring into the gloom and being frightened. For I am frightened. Fear creeps up on me from all sides, and I don’t want to wait until it gets to me and overpowers me. I shall write until darkness falls, and this new, unfamiliar work should make my mind tired, empty and drowsy. I’m not afraid of morning, only of the long, gloomy afternoons.” — Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, 1963
We don’t need an apocalypse to experience profound solitude. The planet still has a few empty corners where we can go to put distance between ourselves and a noisy 21st century. But when severed from our technology, do we really belong in these wild places?
It’s a question that’s put to the test in The Long Dark. Dropped into a disaster scenario, I feel fragile in a way that doesn’t fit at all with the beautiful, frightening order I see in the game’s simulated wilderness. Rabbits graze, wolves roam, and birds ride the wind. They’re at home but I’m just visiting. My world becomes a lovely, frigid prison that I can’t escape, only endure.
I see a similar moment of desperation surface in The Wall, both in the 1963 novel by Marlen Haushofer as well as its 2012 film adaptation of the same name. While visiting a mountain cabin with two of her friends, our nameless protagonist (played in the film by Martina Gedeck) goes to sleep after the pair leave to visit a nearby village. She wakes up the next morning only to discover that her friends never returned.
And while walking into town to see what’s happened, something incredible takes place. Along a slender road in a narrow green canyon, she encounters an inexplicable force.
“I stood up three more times and convinced myself that here, three yards from me, there really was something invisible, smooth and cool blocking my path. I thought it might be a hallucination, but of course I knew that it was nothing of the kind. I could have coped much more easily with a momentary insanity than with this terrible, invisible thing.”
There’s an unknowable, menacing quality to the transparent wall. It appears to pulse with an energy that belongs to some other time or place. The structure’s power might be meant to keep her trapped inside or keep the rest of the world out.
Or maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with her at all. What’s clear is that the wall has trapped her, seemingly alone, on one side of a remote mountain valley.
During her first summer, our survivor comes to see the appearance of the wall as “the catastrophe.” But this observation doesn’t perfectly mirror the transformation that will occur thanks to her new confinement. To even call it a confinement doesn’t speak clearly enough to our central figure’s new approach to survival. Although there aren’t any other human beings around, she isn’t occupying a dead landscape, just an isolated one. She finds herself caring for a group of animals that share her mysterious prison. A faithful dog, a cow, and a pair of cats make up her new family.
Because of her position relative to the environment and her animal companions, the nameless woman manages to carve out a new, self-reliant identity among the tall trees and high meadows of her mountain home. The emergence of this new vision of herself helps her recognize a kind of monstrous freedom in her captivity and isolation. She doesn’t wither and die during her first winter alone. She flourishes.
“The only creature in the forest that can really do right or wrong is me. And I alone can show mercy. Sometimes I wish that burden of decision-making didn’t lie with me. But I am a human being, and I can only think and act like a human being. Only death will free me from that.”
As we hear the story of her first months and years behind the wall, it slowly becomes clear that this is a woman who has witnessed her mind change as much as anything else. Although she has created a home for herself, a way to live, she has also become hardened against reading any nobility into her predicament.
“It isn’t honourable to be born and to die, it happens to all creatures and has no meaning beyond that. Even the wall’s inventors didn’t obey a free decision of the will, but simply followed their instinctive curiosity. They should only have been prevented, in the interest of the greater order, from making their invention a reality.”
I don’t view this observation as inherently dark or pessimistic. Some facts of the world can simply be true without carrying with them any other meaning. In an experience like The Long Dark, I see this play out in every corner of the landscape. Things may be going badly for me, but the world goes on. The sun will rise. I will die, but there’s no meaning in this observation on its own. The living of life, the surviving, is what counts.
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