Analysis of No Exit
No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre is a play that symbolizes the German occupation of France. He was a soldier in the French Army during World War II and had to face the humiliation of defeat and the suffering of war. No Exit takes place in a room which is supposed to be a part of hell occupied by three people who cannot stand being around each other. This is an allusion to the relationship between the French and German people living amongst each other during the war. In this play, Sartre discusses issues such as freedom, reliance on others, deception, and “bad faith” (Spark Notes, analysis). In this essay I will discuss the different ideas and symbolization that help the reader understand Sartre's conveyed messages about how he views death and how one must handle the present. Also, I will discuss the characters in depth to understand why they handled the situations they were in so differently than the others by comparing and contrasting their personalities. Sartre also was a firm believer in either a “being-in-itself”, a being that lets other people control them or a “being-for-itself”, a being who makes their own choices. "Existence precedes essence” was the theme to his belief that a human's consciousness was centered on a "being-for-itself," or a "being-in-itself" (Spark Notes, analysis). Humans have the power to control their choices, thoughts, characteristics, values and certain traits. With this power also comes responsibility for ones choices. This anxiety of responsibility causes people to step back and let others chose and control what they think and do. It is a way to cope and not take responsibility for one's actions. This in turn creates the idea of a “being-in-itself” instead of the human's usual “being-for-itself”. In this paper this idea will be discussed and compared with the characters reactions to their own personal reality in hell.
The four characters that Sartre portrayed in this play are the valet, Inez, Estelle and Mr. Garcin. Garcin is a journalist from Rio and the first to be introduced to the story and enter the room. His cause of death was execution by a firing squad for trying to desert during a war. The war was not specified exactly, but his excuse for deserting was that he was a pacifist and was standing up for what he believed in. During the play, it is clear that Garcin is able to deal with the idea of their hell better than the other two characters in the room. He sees and understands that the three of them were not put together by chance but actually brought together on purpose to torture each other with the others existence. He stated that the best way to cope with this predicament was for each person to keep to themselves and leave the other be in hopes of being able to coexist peacefully. Throughout the whole story, Garcin looks back into the past and looks at Earth's present and tries to make peace with himself about the evil things he had done to his loved ones on Earth. He completely understands why he is damned to hell and does not question anything about where he is. Inez is the second person to enter the room and is the most destructive of all of the characters. She makes it her mission to cause the most hostility and problems towards the other two people in the room. Her past occupation was as a postal clerk. She believes she is in hell, because she seduced her cousin's wife and practiced adultery. The reason for her death was that her lover, her cousin's wife, left the stove on while they were sleeping and the gas killed them both. She clearly dislikes men and automatically hates Garcin. In many instances she is obviously competing with him. However, she quickly finds Estelle very attractive and pursues her for the rest of the story. She tries to find any way possible to be closer to Estelle and actually scares her. Estelle is the last person to enter the hell. She is the most skittish and frightened person in the room. She relies on mirrors to remind her that she is actually there, and when she realizes there are no mirrors in the room she agrees to rely on Garcin and Inez to define her existence. She also strongly believes that she does not belong in hell, being only willing to admit to her cause of death: pneumonia. She refuses to use the word dead but asks everyone to instead use the word absent. Inez pursues her but Estelle informs them that she can only be with a man and favors Garcin. Garcin is briefly interested in Estelle but then quickly puts all of his energy into focusing on Inez and her actions. Estelle finally confesses that she had an affair on her husband and killed her illegitimate child. Lastly, the most mysterious of all characters is the valet.He was the person to lead each individual into the room, rarely answering any questions and only supplies brief, cryptic answers. He informs Garcin of the bell in the room with which he may be summoned, but it rarely works. The valet is reminiscent of a devil picture. He gives Garcin a chance to escape but knows that because of his personality, he would never leave in fear of Inez passing judgments on him for leaving the room. The characters think that the valet toys with each of them indirectly and causes them great annoyance and problems, such as the furnishing of the room.
Existentialism is the rejection of any traditional approach to objective understandings of human behavior. Existentialists choose to study and look at individual humans who exist independently of any sort of community, tradition, or law. In No Exit, it can be a perfect place for existentialism to be observed because of how each character is taken out of his or her element to be picked apart and analyzed. Since there is no way out and no mirrors, the characters are left to decide for themselves if they are really there and have an essence. Sartre questions the differences between existence and essence with each character. Each person has died on earth and is left to only survive off of what they have left of their souls. They are able to see for themselves who they really are due to their closed off situation. A ménage a trios has been created in this play where each character must either ignore or accept the judgments of the others in the room. In the beginning, both Inez and Garcin have a conflict about the way Garcin's face looked. She did not like the way his mouth turned and she demanded that he stop. He chose to believe her opinion and tried to stop. This is one of many examples of how these characters agree to rely on the opinion of others to define their existence. Garcin allowed Inez to define his essence. Another interesting point about this work is that Sartre did not describe hell as being a definitive place. He allows you to see that hell could be a state of mind. Sartre most likely wrote this play during the German occupation of Paris and so one can conclude that he compared the eyelid-less stare of the valet to the Nazis and their surveillance of the French people. Garcin is deeply bothered by the valet staring at him because of his fear of being judged by others questioning eyes.
Sartre practices the technique of exposition, or giving a detailed background to each character, to introduce each character by placing them in an awkward and strange situation. Sartre also foreshadows many of the major points of the play before they occur later on. For example, every character is already dead and yet they still are in denial and continue to think of themselves as alive. They continue to make comments like nothing is different about their lives and refuse to accept where they are at first. Also, there is foreshadowing of the character development between Garcin and Estelle. In the beginning when Estelle first sees him, she recognizes him and connects him with her lover on earth. This foreshadows their relationship later on in the story. Existence and essence is also talked about with the example of how Estelle relies on a mirror to believe that she is really there. She relies on material things to define her existence. Inez on the other hand refuses to let other people define her existence or essence. “She claims that she is always "painfully conscious" of herself” (Spark Notes, analysis). "Hell is other people" is also a main topic portrayed in this play (Scridb). Estelle needs Inez to be her mirror but it is not possible for her to assist Estelle fully because they have different opinions about appearance. There will always be a difference in the way they would see each other. Inez greatly dislikes the way Garcin looks at her, and feels like he is always judging her. Garcin also hates the idea of other people judging him for what he has chosen to do and would stop at nothing to prove them wrong, even if it means him staying in the room forever. Both Estelle and Garcin refuse to let go of their pasts and accept what has already been done. They each cause their own hell, and it seems like a never ending cycle of personal torture. They still both act like they are in the past and refuse to look at the here and now, unlike Inez. She clearly sees her present and understands that the past cannot be altered, and so she decides not to linger on it. “All you own is here” is an evidently true quote said by Inez that greatly emphasizes the idea of acceptance (Spark Notes, analysis). Garcin, towards the end proves that he has the least amount of self understanding and worth. He is unable to decide on his motives as to why he ran from the war and whether he considers himself a coward or not. He asks Estelle to tell him what her opinion is and relies on her to convince him either way. Just like Inez, Garcin is extremely worried about others laying judgments on him, and fears a lack of control. He believes that now that he is gone, he has left his memory and legacy in other people's hands to do what they please with it. He gives his freedom to define himself to others. He has now became a "being-in-itself". This is the whole reason why he chooses to not leave when the valet opens the door for him. He believes that people will always judge him from the choices he has made in his past, and decides to damn himself to the room for eternity. Sartre powerfully shows that hell could simply be other people by putting Garcin, Estelle and Inez together. Hell can be a mindset and not just a physical place. Just the power of each person's gaze on one another takes away from each person's individuality as a whole. There is no need for physical torture when the mere existence of the other causes enough anguish. Each character loses and ignores their given freedom and responsibility.
No Exit is an extremely interesting piece of literature which I recommend to anyone who wants to see an abstract way of looking at life and its many important themes. Responsibility for one's actions, acceptance of others, self-reliance on defining one's self, existence, concentration on looking at the present and not dwelling on the future are very important ways of operating life which are echoed throughout this work. Each character symbolizes weaknesses in which many people have and can relate to.
1. Scribd. “No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre.” Non-commercial copyright. 9 May. 2008. <http://www.scribd.com/doc/2925864/No-Exit-by-Jean-Paul-Sartre>.
2. SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on No Exit.” SparkNotes LLC. n.d..17 Nov. 2009. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/noexit>.