Broken Barriers and Burned Bridges: John Lanchester’s The Wall and Xenophobia in Modern Society

By Gianluca CiuffredaHumanities, Special Issue: Pandemics & Politics, 2020



This paper will discuss the use of metaphor and imagery in John Lancester’s novel, The Wall, to argue against the manifestation of ideological and physical walls in society. Comparisons are drawn between elements of the story and the policies of former president Trump, specifically in regards to immigration and the Mexican-American experience. Xenophobia is addressed as an outcome of sustaining barriers in both the novel and in the United States. Ultimately, it will be demonstrated that maintaining a culture of building walls will bring detriment to the parties involved and only provoke division and xenophobia.

John Lanchester’s The Wall is a compelling novel that takes place in a climate-changed society in the near future when sea levels have risen to unforeseen heights. At the center of the story is the National Coastal Defense Structure (NCDS), known as the Wall, which encircles the island nation of Britain and protects it from refugees and outsiders, better known as Others. The Wall and its meaning are of particular significance when analyzing the novel’s real-world implications. Instances of division across national and ethnic lines are not unfamiliar in the United states and have persisted in political discourse. Analyzing the author’s use of literary devices in The Wall draws a clear parallel between the novel and the wall-building ideology of the Trump administration. Lanchester employs both imagery and metaphor to drive home why the Wall in the novel stands as a symbol of walls in current society, as a force of both physical and ideological division between groups that results in xenophobia. 

Joseph Kavanagh, the protagonist, is serving his duty as a Defender of the Wall when the story begins. The Wall is expressed vividly as “a cold, hard, unforgiving, desperate place” (Lanchester 5). The author describes the Wall as grey, wet, windy, and cold to demonstrate its barrenness and scale. The most effective use of imagery in the novel is in the description of how cold it can get on the Wall. In Kavanagh’s words, “there is more than one type of cold […] type 1 and type 2. Type 1 is the kind that’s always there, [but type 2] cuts and slices and seeps into you” (Lanchester 17-19). According to Kavanagh, the Wall brings with it a tremendous cold that drives the Defenders to the brink of hypothermia. Not only does this imagery invoke a distinct feeling in the reader, it also communicates the author’s point of view towards walls in society. By painting the harsh image of the Wall in a negative tone, the author shows that he is not in favor of walls such as the one in the novel. He makes the Wall come across as an uninviting place that is completely devoid of life and will bring harm to those who come near. Lanchester speaks through Kavanagh by writing, “you can, fairly easily, lose your life here [on the Wall], or the life you wanted to have” (14). Lanchester inserts his bias in this section of the text and argues that preoccupation with creating and maintaining division strips people of normal lifestyles. 

The Wall in Kavanaugh’s novel is an extended metaphor for walls that exist in the real world. For example, former U.S. president Donald Trump advocated for the construction of a wall along the border between the U.S. and Mexico in his early campaign years. His intention was to keep out foreigners and protect domestic interests in the same way Kavanagh’s government sought to preserve homeland resources. Lanchester repeatedly ridicules walls by exposing their inherent ironies. For example, the duality of Kavanagh’s and his captain’s character displays how connections can exist beyond such borders. Before Kavanagh’s service on the NCDS, his captain had been an Other who conned his way into crossing the wall and becoming a Defender. In the middle of the story, Kavanagh is banished by his own government after failing to defend the Wall from an attack and he, too, becomes an Other. The irony is that the people on either side of the Wall are treated based on where they stand in relation to the Wall and not based on the content of their character. Even Kavanagh, a former comrade and Defender of the Wall, is treated as an outcast because he is outside the physical border. The Wall points out that blocking off groups of people for political reasons is hypocritical when the citizens sheltered within the wall are no different from those outside of it. 

However, concrete is not the only thing dividing people in the story or in the real world. Mimi Yang writes in the Palgrave Communications journal that Trump’s idea of a wall “is more of a mental construct than a physical one and calls for a redefinition of 21st century American cultural identity” (1). In other words, a wall between the U.S. and Mexico would serve as an ideological divide between two sides struggling in the same economic and immigration conflicts. Similarly, the ideological divide in The Wall stems from the government’s preoccupation with distributing enough resources to sustain the preexisting domestic population. The Others take a more humanitarian approach to the crisis at hand, seeking refuge and fighting for their lives at the expense of the government’s aid. Yang continues in her writing of Trump’s wall by claiming “U.S. history has been built on incessantly deconstructive walls to always defend and protect one central and predominant group against other ones, with discrimination, bigotry, and violence. Someone had/has to rule and be the ruler, not everyone” (3). She draws back on historical examples of how the U.S. has always built ideological walls and generated conflicts, whether it be slaves vs. slave owners, North vs. South, or Democrats vs. Republicans (Yang 3). What this claim means is that ideological division continuously survives the test of time even after old walls are taken down. In the bigger picture, such persistence takes a toll on how minority groups are treated and perceived by society.

Even within the confines of the NCDS, Kavanagh’s experiences on the wall change his beliefs about his concept of home and power. He says that on the wall “nobody has to take you in […] they can choose to or not” (Lanchester 52). The essence of this statement is that walls give authority and agency over who to let in and who to keep out. Implications of this power can affect the wellbeing of others and decide the fate of an outsider. In Kavanagh’s case, the people who hold power over the Wall decide to not let in the outsiders and exercise a kill-on-sight policy. As a result, Others are forced to suffer from starvation, causing many to resort to piracy to compete for survival. When a governing body is given control over what to do with a group of refugees, it changes the way they interact. Kavanagh says that a home has to take you in when you are in need, but on the Wall, nobody is forced to take anyone under their wing. He goes on to say that home is “an ideology you’d once been passionate about but had now abandoned” (Lanchester 52). His main point is that life on the Wall distanced him from his identity and his idea of having a home in society. Ultimately, Kavanagh’s domestic life and relationship with his parents deteriorated. Kavanagh’s parents and their entire generation grew up before the Wall was built and they were largely looked down upon because they were seen as members of an old, foreign society. Maltreatment like this has broader implications in modern society.

 Not only do walls alter domestic culture, they cause discrimination and produce xenophobia. In the novel, Kavanagh’s society practices slavery by exploiting the Others and minority groups to serve wealthy citizens with anything they may need. The outsiders who live within the Wall do not have citizenship and, therefore, are forced into a system of involuntary servitude called the Help. The Help cook, clean, and perform handy tasks for anyone that can afford them. Kavanagh is quoted saying “Help is free but you have to feed and clothe and house it” (Lanchester 56). Kavanagh addresses Help as an “it” as if the slaves forced into labor weren’t human beings at all. It is subtle details such as this that Lanchester uses to highlight how commonplace dehumanization has become in the conversation about xenophobia. Even though Trump’s border wall was not built, the xenophobia behind it has driven similar widespread maltreatment, specifically of Mexican-Americans. A publication in the New Global Studies journal states that “the Trump administration has consistently attempted to prevent both legal and illegal immigration” (Myambo and Frassinelli 295). According to Myambo and Frassinelli, Trump tried everything in his power to make the lives of Mexican-Americans more challenging in the hopes that they would submit to his nativist policies.

Additionally, xenophobia dehumanizes foreign minorities and strips them of their identity. An event that happened to Kavanagh’s friend, Hifa, serves as a metaphor for this theme. When Kavanagh and Hifa encounter pirates after they are banished from the Wall, Hifa is mistaken for a man and not taken prisoner. Her Defender uniform masked her face and bodily features, giving her the appearance of a male Defender (Lanchester 218). In this scene, Hifa was not seen for who she was, but was instead judged for wearing a uniform that represents ideological allegiance to the Wall. The Wall stripped Hifa of her personal identity and replaced it with a label that other people used to judge her by. Ever since the Wall was built, society began placing labels on Others, Defenders, Pirates, and Help to deliberately alienate opposing groups. The process of labeling seen in the text is comparable to the way President Trump labels immigrants as criminals. Monica Romero Meza of Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada extends this comparison by discussing how labels and dehumanization relate to policy. She maintains that “President Trump’s actions in immigration policy have shown how bordering practices are even more dispersed across the US territory, social practices, and political discourses, which are mainly intended to divide and differentiate” (Romero 190). She argues that political policies such as those enacted by President Trump deliberately create division in multiple areas of society. The reason he does this is to force the public to pick sides and work against his enemies as opposed to with them. Romero Meza’s claims corroborate the instances of labeling and division in Lanchester’s novel and show how creating walls in the midst of conflict results in xenophobic responses.

The world is in a state of unprecedented political and social polarization, the likes of which have not been seen for generations. The construction of walls limits inclusion and contributes to a less globally connected world. John Lanchester’s novel, The Wall, stresses that building walls in a time of crisis will ultimately carry sour sentiments and widespread xenophobia. Critics retort that the building of walls, whether physical or ideological, is necessary to preserve the stability of domestic life and keep outsiders from damaging the integrity of what they stand for. However, John Lanchester’s novel reveals that if ideological barriers remain, outsiders and insiders alike will face unnecessary consequences. The author uses imagery and extended metaphors to make the Wall in the story a symbol for the ideological barriers that exist in the real world. The themes he articulates are seen in the rhetoric of former President Trump and his policies towards immigration. Future discourse should branch off into other instances of wall-building in society, such as the rise of Islamophobia in the western world (Sundstrum 1).  If society as a whole continues to place walls and ideological barriers when faced with opposition, foreign relations and global progress will come to a superfluously rapid halt.



Lanchester, John. The Wall. W. W. Norton & Company, 2019.

Myambo, Melissa T., and Pier P. Frassinelli. “Introduction: Thirty Years of Borders since Berlin.” New Global Studies, vol. 13, no. 3, 2019, pp. 277-300. ProQuest,

Romero Meza, Mónica Socorro. “The Power Struggle Along the US-Mexico Border: A Space of Dehumanization and of Assertion of Justice.” Geopolitica(s), vol. 10, no. 2, 2019, pp. 185-206. ProQuest,

Sundstrom, Ronald R. “Sheltering Xenophobia.” Global Dialogue (Online), vol. 12, no. 2, 2010, pp. 1-8. ProQuest,….

Yang, Mimi. “Crossing between the Great Wall of China and the “Great” Trump Wall.” Palgrave Communications, vol. 3, no. 1, 2017. ProQuest, Accessed 25 October 2020.


Gianluca Ciuffreda

My name is Gianluca Ciuffreda, I am 19 years old, and I am a sophomore here at UNC. I am interested in studying environmental sciences, but my major is currently undecided. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin until I moved to Charlotte with my wonderful parents and my older brother and sister. My sister graduated from UNC as a part of the class of 2020 and her success inspires me to forge a path of my own here at Chapel Hill.

Gianluca Ciuffreda

My name is Gianluca Ciuffreda, I am 19 years old, and I am a sophomore here at UNC. I am interested in studying environmental sciences, but my major is currently undecided. I was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin until I moved to Charlotte with my wonderful parents and my older brother and sister. My sister graduated from UNC as a part of the class of 2020 and her success inspires me to forge a path of my own here at Chapel Hill.