Sartre, No Exit
Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Sartre, No Exit
The traditional reading of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, published in 1943, seeks to identify the various tenets commonly associated with Sartrean existentialism, namely that man is an absolutely autonomous individual, determined by his own will alone, for whom his consequent separation from others facilitates infallible liberty and free choice. No Exit is widely regarded as the literary expression of another Sartrean work, Being and Nothingness, published the same year.
Sartre deliberately wrote No Exit as a one-act play so that theatergoers would not be kept past the German-imposed curfew. Many forms of entertainment, including plays, had to be approved by German censors. During rehearsals, clearance to perform the play was given and taken away several times before the first performance in May 1944 just before liberation of Paris.
The most famous line in the play is given by Garcin, saying that hell is other people (“l’enfer, c’est les autres”). How is Hell other people?
One student wrote:
These characters torture each other because they are able to reflect one another better than any mirror. That being said, they also torture one another because they are what they can’t have. Inez wants Estelle, who wants Garcin, who sides more with Inez (after wanting Estelle’s love/trust, which she is incapable of giving). Great big happy un-love triangle. But there is much more to Sartre’s quirky and fun imagining of hell than just three people’s torment. Sartre’s saying something that’s very true to human nature.
Some people we hate without mercy but can’t live (or be dead) without. Dealing with other people is hell. Not circumstances or red-hot pokers, physical torture or our own emotional pain. For example, me and my sister mutually despise one another. At the end of the day, we pull out the metaphoric paper knife and try to kill each other with insults, catty remarks, and the occasional threat of bodily harm. But it doesn’t get us anywhere, because as Estelle, Inez and Garcin find out, ultimately, there is no escaping.
There’s no escaping each other and there’s no escaping the truth.
How is this Hell?
Another student wrote:
This is, perhaps, the most legitimate and frightening picture of Hell I’ve seen to date, and in light of my experiences in illustrative and textual fantasy works that concern themselves primarily with physically and psychologically scaring the crap out the viewer/reader with a particularly disturbing view of Hell, that’s quite a statement for my own part. My views are, of course, subject to no less than a dozen personal fears which Sartre touched on individually:
1> Forever: I don’t care if it’s bliss or burning, you propose having to be subjected to anything forever, with no foreseeable or even imaginable end, and I’ll promptly take living a hundred contemptible lives over it any day. The mere abstraction of ‘forever’ makes me shiver. Reality outside of a timeline doesn’t really seem to carry with it any kind of need for initiative, for good or evil.
2> Futility: At least in life we know that no matter how terrible things are, we can do something, anything, no matter how small or large. Being robbed of the ability to stab your annoying roommates is a fine expression of this. If the stabbing won’t accomplish anything, why would you even want to, and if you can’t stab them, why hug them, since on that infinite timeline they’ll likely want to be stabbing you every now and then too.
3> Repetition: Forever and futility certainly bring with them some pattern of consistency, even on the most stretched out timeline. “Hm, it’s been about five years now, so I’m sure I’m due for another futile stabbing.” “I’d like to sit…. Hm, let’s see, the green couch, the red couch, or the blue couch. So much variety!”
4> Things made of bronze: I can’t explain it, the particular shade just rubs me the wrong way. Probably has something to do with traumatic metallic crayola encounters in my youth. Even more irksome is the unexplained fascination that Garcin has with the bronze ornament in the room. “They knew that I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me” (45).
5> Reading plays as scripts: The hugemongous gaps in discernable individual character are certainly a result of this. Inez, Estelle, and Garcin seem like the same person arguing three different character synopses at themselves.
6> The bell/buzzer which does and doesn’t work: As if hell isn’t bad enough, they want to tease you too.
7> Hell’s patrons have family: Somehow being stuck with the valet and his uncle down the hall is far more torturesome than some terrible looking multi-horned, bile-spouting, noxious smelling demon stamping around and dishing out punishment. Demons, at least, are exciting.
8> No food: Although hunger wasn’t mentioned, I’d assume that it would enhance the whole torture mood, in the absence of food.
9> No privacy: Having company every day, every minute, forever seems like the worst guest/host jumble imaginable.
10> No light switches: Dark is good, what an ironic twist.
11> No ending: The play starts where I began, with that terrible idea of forever. And then it ends. Again, how ironic.
12> No twelfth thing: That’s right, I ran out!
All in all I like it because it seemed so much more believable than all those other depictions of hell we get. I have trouble believing a few people can-crash land on some lost island and peacefully build a new society, let alone not kill each other by the end of the week, so the play adequately sucks all that ridiculous romance out for me. Delightful.”
“Hm! So here we are?” (3).
“I had quite a habit of living among furniture that I didn’t relish, and in false positions. I’d even come to like it” (3).
“Your eyelids. We move ours up and down. Blinking, we call it…. You can’t imagine how restful, refreshing it is” (5).
“And, by the way, how does one recognize torturers when one sees them? Evidently you’ve ideas on the subject.””They look frightened” (8).
“I’d rather be alone. I want to think things out, you know; to set my life in order, and one does that better by oneself” (9).
“Well? What’s going to happen?”
“I don’t know. I’m waiting” (10).
“I’m not the torturer, madam” (10).
“But you can’t expect me to sit on that one. It would be too horrible for words. I’m in pale blue and it’s vivid green” (10).
“Oh, well, the great thing is to keep as cheerful as we can, don’t you agree?” (11).
“I never could bear the idea of anyone’s expecting something from me. It always made me want to do just the opposite” (15).
“It’s obvious what they’re after–an economy of manpower–or devil-power, if you prefer. The same idea as in the cafeteria, where customers serve themselves” (17).
“No, I shall never be your torturer…. So the solution’s easy enough; each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others” (17).
“When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much” (19).
“When I say I’m cruel, I mean I can’t get on without making people suffer. Like a live coal. A live coal in others’ hearts. When I’m alone I flicker out.” (26)
“Peter dear, think of me, fix your thoughts on me, and save me” (32).
“No, I couldn’t leave you here, gloating over my defeat, with all those thoughts about me running in your head” (42).
“A man is what he wills himself to be” (43).
“You are — your life, and nothing else” (43).
“You can’t throttle thoughts with hands” (44).
“l’enfer, c’est les autres”
“Hell is — other people” (45).
Decino, Denchu Jose. “Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).” Sartre Online.http://www.geocities.com/sartresite/sartre_biography. 2001.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. NY: Vintage International, 1976.