Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit is a one-act play, which consists almost entirely of dialogue. No Exit's plot is driven entirely by hyperrealist character interaction and several recurring philosophical statements. These statements are introduced in the first few pages, alongside the play's characters and setting.
No Exit begins by defining the physical setting: a valet brings Garcin, the only major male character, to a drawing room in Hell. It is here where Garcin (and several other tenants who have not yet arrived) will be spending all of eternity. Understandably, Garcin has many questions concerning the living conditions. Baffled by Hell's casual appearance of a Second Empire drawing room, he anxiously makes inquiries concerning the apparent absence of torture instruments.
Here we observe the first example of one ongoing motif: assumptions and memories the characters developed during their lifetimes that are maintained in their afterlife. The valet quips that all residents ask similar kinds of presumptive questions: about torture instruments, where they might sleep, and about the absence of everyday objects on earth, such as toothbrushes (Sartre 4). This motif of assumptions and expectations is a manifestation of a major statement Sartre makes in the work: people often try to comprehend the present by recalling their personal pasts.
Garcin learns from the valet that the lack of beds should not have any effect on him, as in hell he no longer requires sleep. 'Why should one sleep?'(5) enquires the valet, who does not sleep himself--nor blinks his eyes. These conditions exemplify one of the play's dominant philosophical statements: that 'life without a break' (5) is detrimental to one's ability to function rationally. Garcin insists to the valet that respite exists in solitude, memory, and waking life; and he is troubled in accepting a fate that does not provide for these:
"Don't let's quibble over words. With one's eyes open. Forever. Always broad daylight in my eyes—and in my head." (7)
The valet soon returns with Inez, the second character to arrive and likely the most troublesome—and philosophically pivotal—of any we will encounter. Upon arriving, she immediately begins to rant about her dead lover: Florence, whom she describes as "a tiresome little fool" (8). In this rambling dialogue, the play's statement of perpetual reminisces—as though they still hold some significance, even in eternal damnation—is introduced. Inez bickers with Garcin excessively until the next guest is introduced—an action typical of her demeanour.
Estelle, the final tenant to arrive, also bears old memories of life. She compares the drawing room's furniture to that owned by an Aunt of hers, and says that it makes her "think of New Year's Day". The party soon begins to converse about how and where they lived their lives, and try to determine whether or not they had at some point crossed paths. Garcin begins to take off his coat; but Estelle—whom he has insulted in this action—requests that he replace it, and Garcin complies. Even in hell, Estelle cannot relinquish old irritabilities to vexing trivialities.
After much discussion concerning the rationale for their everlasting congregation, Inez concludes that they have all been selected to exist in death as one another's torturers. Even more, she suggests that it is of economic benefit for the maintainers of Hell to uphold this system of torture. Garcin suggests that, in order to prevent themselves from subjecting each other to eternal torment, they hadn't converse or interact ever again, "Like soldiers at our posts" (18).
This decision marks the play's long-delayed first turning point, its inciting incident. All that transpired prior to their vow of silence serves chiefly to introduce the audience to the characters, setting, and themes. With this inciting incident, the first objective of the characters is established: to make life in hell more bearable.
Unfortunately, Garcin's ideal of braving the afterlife starkly contrasts to Inez's. Breaking the silence, Inez begins singing a song. Estelle (who is meanwhile attempting to occupy herself by putting on make-up) asks Garcin for a looking glass; however, as he is not speaking, Inez seizes the opportunity to offer her own. Rummaging through her bag, Inez realises that it had been taken out of her possession—there are no mirrors in hell. Indeed, upon his initial examination of the room, Garcin noted an absence of mirrors and other reflective surfaces in the drawing room—however, a bronze mantelpiece fixedly gazes upon the tenants eternally (46).
Desiring to apply makeup but having no way to observe herself, Inez suggestively acts as Estelle's "mirror", by offering advice and guiding her hands at times (20). This interaction is in many ways an allegorical summary of one of the play's societal and psychological statements, and is a recurring motif. Estelle, having no way to observe her own external appearance, accepts Inez's offer to act as a mirror. However, Estelle's makeup is not applied in accordance with her own aesthetic preference, but Inez's own beauty ideals. Inez even teases her by telling her that she has a blemish, when she does not.
This device reminds us that the characters do not have any method of objective self-reflection in hell, physical or mental. The aforementioned lack of solitude impairs the characters" ability to meditate upon themselves—Garcin earlier spoke of the pleasure of rest and respite. Without the opportunity to break from other people, all observations must be made through their own thoughts and words. This is a particularity dangerous scenario to be in, as Inez explains:
"Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes—as he is doing—and refused to look at you, all that loveliness of yours would be wasted on the desert air. No, don't be afraid, I can"t help looking at you, I shan't turn my eyes away." (21)
Estelle is quickly made uncomfortable by Inez's demeanour, which is both promiscuous and goading. Inez expresses romantic interest in Estelle, but she would rather not acknowledge it. Estelle asks Garcin for help—and distraction from Inez—but he continues to fruitlessly maintain his own method of self-preservation though isolation.
It is only after relentless badgering from Estelle and Inez that Garcin realises that his attempt is in vain, and finally to abandons it. Garcin drops all previous demonstrations of moderation: he now accuses Estelle of 'making eyes' at him, and reminds her that during his life he "used to be mad about women" (23). Contrary to his previous desire for solitude, Garcin now expresses a new desire: he wishes for the party to more openly expose their personas to one another, and also attempts to court Estelle:
"..presently we shall be naked as- as new born babes … Well, I'd warned you, anyhow. I'd put my fingers in my ears. Gomez was spouting away as usual, standing in the center of the room, with all the pressman listening. In their shirt-sleeves. I tried to hear, but it wasn't easy. Things on earth move so quickly, you know. Couldn't you have held your tongues? Now it's over, he's stopped talking, and what he thinks of me has gone back into his head. Well, we've got to see it through somehow…. Naked as we were born. So much the better; I want to know whom I have to deal with." (24)
This marks the next crucial turning point in the story, the pivot. The characters have fully realised the penal severity of their living condition. Now, they shift their focus to exploring each other's vulnerabilities, and utilising this knowledge for their own benefit.
The tenants, for the first time, begin to unveil the grim circumstances surrounding their own demises and damnation: Inez murdered a man and committed suicide; Garcin was executed for abandonment and condemned for adultery. Only Estelle exhibits reservations in explaining herself.
Garcin and Inez resort to acting as the aforementioned allegorical lying mirror, in an attempt to expose Estelle. The two accuse Estelle of myriad outrageous sins. Estelle projects some of these accusations upon the reality of her damnation, and is disturbed by those that are false. The harrowing combination of her reality and the nightmarish suggestions of her two roommates pressures her into revealing the past: Estelle bore a child in an adulterous relationship. She drowned the child, and her lover subsequently committed suicide; Estelle died without her husband ever learning of these things.
Having heard the stories of all of her roommates, Inez says to Garcin (who initiated the conversation), 'now you have us in the nude all right' (29), referring to emotional exposure and thus vulnerability.
Vulnerability is a major subject of the play. Indeed, one of its statements may be that unrealised vulnerabilities only intensify with suppression. Inez is constantly reminding both the audience as well as the other characters of this. As Inez recites her involvement in the murder, she describes the victim as having been 'vulnerable'. After hearing this, Garcin impulsively insists that he himself is not. Inez grimly rebukes this claim, and referring to her lover in life, saying to him:
"Don't be too sure… I crept inside her skin, she saw the world through my eyes. When she left him, I had her on my hands." (26)
Reaction to the elevating intensity of their conversation, Garcin once more removes his jacket without thinking. However, this time Estelle excuses it. This tolerance signifies that Estelle is become more comfortable with him (though perhaps only due to his juxtaposition with Inez), and that she no longer dogmatically clings to prejudices as she did before. This foreshadows that Estelle is harbouring a growing romantic interesting in Garcin.
At this point, we are gradually eased into the next turning point: the complication. Inez, through supernatural clairvoyance, sees her house on earth being sold and herself forgotten. Immediately afterwards, she loses any power to (gaze upon earth). From this point onward, Inez more often exhibits her strictly fatalist outlook on the party's condemnation. She believes that the demonic overseers of the afterlife have predetermined all interaction to occur between the members of the group; and that for all of eternity they will torture one another. Garcin tries to persuade her not to cling to such ideas, rationalising that if she does not, "you'll bring disaster to all three of us." (31) Inez stubbornly refuses to believe that this is a possibility, due to their certain fate of everlasting suffering. Inez's attitude will last the rest of the play. Meanwhile, Estelle sees her husband on earth courted by another woman. Inez warns her, "nothing on earth belongs to you" (32); for Inez has already come to terms with the idea of letting go of earthly memories and dwellings. There is no comfort for her in her own life, and attempts to persuade Estelle and Garcin that they are the same. The sins that led to Estelle's damnation are revealed to her husband, and she loses her sight of earth—she is forgotten.
The play's complication is announced by the characters being forgotten—one by one—on earth. Although the characters realised the necessity of finding a way to maintain sanity during the progressive complications of the first turning point, only during the second—the pivot—does a new objective become clear: to cope with being forgotten by all, for the rest of time.
For Estelle, one method of coping with this is by clinging to Garcin, and attempting to maintain a romantic relationship in afterlife. She turns to him for comfort, but Garcin reminds her that she ought to be looking to Inez for solace, as she has expressed philanthropic interest in Estelle since her arrival.
Estelle completely rejects the idea of being comforted by Inez; she seems to require the affection of Garcin in order to feel like she is appreciated by another human being. Her moral character can explain this desire. In life, she surrounded herself with men—multiple men—and found great social satisfaction in this situation. Earlier, Inez acted as a mirror, reflecting Estelle as its subject. But she is not only subjected to others through this allegory, but throughout her entire life. In her life, her lovers were the mirrors, and reflected Estelle's self-image much more positively. She still craves this reflection, and has already realised that Inez's pessimistic outlook will not be able to provide it for her. It is because of this that Estelle attempts to altogether purge the idea of romance from Inez's psych: by spitting on her face.
Garcin realises that, although her affection is outwardly centred upon him, Estelle seeks another man merely to fill the place of her lost lovers: "No humbug now. Any man would do your business. As I happen to be here, you want me," he proclaims (35). He argues that he himself is not the sort of man she would usually be attracted to, to which Estelle replies, "I'll take you as you are. And perhaps I shall change you", thus exemplifying a yearning to reclaim what she has lost in death.
The two settle on an mutual understanding: that Estelle would hardly care for most things Garcin thinks about as he sits in solitude, and that Garcin is emotionally incapable loving her. Based on this, they decided to engage in a primarily physical relationship. The agreement is certainly a potentially anomic basis for a relationship.
These curious terms can be best explained by the character's personalities, and the thematic bases for them. As previously mentioned, Estelle seeks only to recreate her past, to gaze into a mirror and see only that which she desires. If Garcin possesses unappealing traits or emotional neglect, she will simply refuse to see it in her reflection.
Garcin's rational is extremely similar; however, instead of basing his self-image on the compliments of others, he chooses to focus instead on their criticisms. When Inez acted as a mirror, Estelle chose to block her out completely. Contrarily, Garcin often chooses to listen to her criticisms and fatalist rationalisations. Therefore, when he decides to engage in a relationship with Estelle, he fully realises the improbability of being able to truly love her. He even finds it necessary to say this aloud, because he feels his thoughts must be clear and rational. Estelle listens to him carefully, but entertains the possibility of romance arising regardless.
Just as they are about to finally kiss, Garcin psychically sees something on earth, which arouses his attention: Gomez, a former co-worker of his, berates him posthumously. It is followed by other visions of his past friends considering his abandonment cowardly. Because he clings to criticism as a medium for self-reflection, Garcin is disturbed these images. Finally, he sees the death of his wife, and his life is eternally forgotten. He is haunted by the idea of being remembered as a coward.
Desperate for rectification, he begs Estelle to convince him that he is not a coward. She complies, as earnestly as possible. Inez, the negative reflection the allegorical mirror motif which projects upon others, exposes the insincerity of Estelle's statement. Estelle admits to her insincerity, and Garcin is completely distraught by the idea. Searching for an escape, he futilely tries to open the drawing room's locked door.
To everyone's surprise, it jerks open suddenly; it provides at last an exit from the room's torment. The final turning point's objective—to cope with the knowledge of eternal disregard—is quickly jerked into a new direction. The door opening is perhaps the play's most obvious turning point, as it provides the plot with a violent twist, as well as a climax. However, Garcin refuses to leave the room; and a new objective arises: to face his own insecurities.
Garcin chooses to stay behind and confront Inez, instead of departing defeated. Meanwhile, Estelle begs of him to help shove Inez out the door, in order to rid them both of a source of intellectual anguish: Estelle would rather ignore her than face the reality of her criticisms, as Garcin does.
Inez's pessimism leaves Garcin emotionally defeated. Searching frantically for some soft of defence mechanism, Estelle begs him to kiss her, to arouse spite in Inez; as her desire for Estelle marks her one Archilles Heel. However, Inez realises what they are trying to do, and defends herself:
"It's no use trying to escape, I'll never let you go. What do you hope to get from her silly lips? Forgetfulness? But I shan't forget you, not I! It's I you must convince. So come to me." (45)
Garcin asks her, 'Will night never come?', expressing the play's running theme of entrapment (46). Inez reassures him of his certain fate.
Accepting this, Garcin reflects upon the ever-gazing, ever-judging bronze mantelpiece. He then proclaims, "Hell is-other people" (47). However, although Garcin has at last been defeated and settled on a belief in destiny, Estelle still rejects the idea. She attempts to murder Inez with a paper-knife, only to realise that she is already dead, and thus, invulnerable. Concluding the play, Garcin addresses the party and says, "Well, let's get on with it" (47).
All of the turning points" objectives are resolved in Garcin's admittance of his fate. Although Garcin does not 'defeat' his insecurities, he circumvents the necessity to do so by admitting them. This is something he certainly was not willing do in the play's beginning—or in life—when he insisted to Inez that he was not vulnerable. However, Inez eventually defeated his attempts to reflect upon himself him rationally and positively.
Inez represents the conscious admittance of self-criticism, and in many ways act as a "reflector" character—constantly providing new perspectives for the characters. She does this through bitter honesty, with not only Garcin and Estelle, but herself as well. Inez is the only character that has gazed upon her own self-image in the mirror, and she even says this upon first arriving: "…I know what I'm talking about. I've often watched my face in the glass" (9).
Earlier character goals, which dealt chiefly with coping with the realisation of their own faults and grim histories, are also resolved. All of these objectives—the need to cope with being forgotten, the exposure of their vulnerabilities, and the necessity of braving eternal damnation—mark the play's series of progressive crises. They are ultimately made irrelevant by the admittance of an objective, inescapable reality.
The play is not left resolved completely, however. Garcin's proclamation that "Hell is other people" is really an attempt to blame others for his own vulnerabilities. Just as the cast could not dismiss their earthly expectations of hell when they were first arrived, Garcin still cannot realise his own bias, which drives him to search only for self-criticism in other people. Any summarisation of No Exit, which proclaims that the play's underlying statement is "Hell is other people", is grandly misled; as the quote reflects only upon Garcin's character. Estelle certainly does not feel this way, as she seeks escape from suffering through Garcin. Inez also fails to express this attitude: though she is bitter and interacts almost exclusively with others through constant berating, she never reflects negatively up on herself because of Garcin and Estelle.
The play's fundamental statement is contained within its allegorical mirror motif: one must not find in self-reflection only their vulnerabilities or desires, nor the explicit criticism of others. Instead, the goal of self-reflection is to find a subjective reality that aide in one's ability to understand their true self, and others. However, this must not be done not explicitly through criticism, as it is by Inez. Thus, No Exit's ironic ultimate statement—to live and let live—is much more philanthropic than any of the drawing room's tenants might have lead us to believe.
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, courtesy of SUNY Purchase
Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit and Three Other Plays. New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1949.