Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Perhaps the clearest articulation of Sartre’s developing existentialist philosophy, No Exit is notable also as a rousing piece of theater, stocked with good “parts” and memorable lines, a perennial favorite with amateur and semiprofessional drama groups. Into a high-rise Hell drawn more from science fiction than from Scripture and presided over by a nearly silent functionary are cast three recently deceased characters, two women and a man, whose paths never crossed in life and likely never would have. Joseph Garcin, first to arrive, is a journalist whose pacifist convictions are somewhat at odds with his carefully cultivated “macho” image and his exploitative attitude toward women. Next to arrive in the carefully furnished room is Inès Serrano, a postal clerk who makes no secret of her lesbianism or of her parallel disregard for men. The third and last arrival, a vain, stereotypical “brainless blonde” with aspirations toward snobbery, soon polarizes the action by attracting both Garcin and Inès with her charms.
In its themes and language, No Exit often moves too close to popular culture, “soap opera” in particular, to be taken seriously as literature. Freely trading accusations, insults, and flirtations as each character seeks to get his or her own way, the trio quickly attracts and holds the spectator’s attention for approximately one hour’s uninterrupted playing time, taking turns as torturer and victim as they act out Sartre’s conviction, restated as a line in the play, that Hell is other people.
With the exception of Estelle Rigault, whose perceived beauty allowed her aunt and guardian to “marry her off” at an early age to a much older man with money, and whose subsequent life was led among the idle rich,...
(The entire section is 728 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Joseph Garcin, a South American newspaper reporter, is ushered into a drawing room by a mysterious Valet. The drawing room itself is decorated with ponderous nineteenth century furniture, and on the mantle stands a massive bronze statue. There are three couches in the room, one blue, one green, and one burgundy. The Valet, who shows him into the room, answers Garcin’s many questions cryptically.
It soon becomes evident that both Garcin and the Valet know that they are in a place far removed from the ordinary world. The room is in Hell. Garcin is dead and has recently arrived in the netherworld. The former reporter tells the amused Valet that Hell is nothing like it is supposed to be. There are no hot fires nor instruments of torture. There is only this boring room, with its heavy furnishings and huge bronze sculpture. There are no windows, no mirrors, and no switch to turn off the bright lights or the relentless heat.
Garcin notices how the Valet never blinks. Garcin surmises that in Hell eyes never close and no one ever sleeps. Garcin tries to move the sculpture on the mantle, but fails. He notices a button to press for calling the Valet, but is told that the bell works only some of the time. He asks the Valet the reason why there is a paper knife (the kind used to open envelopes or to separate pages in a book) but receives only a shrug in reply. Finally, bored by the servant’s taunting indifference, he lets the Valet leave, but then, nervously, tries the call button. Although Garcin cannot hear it ring, the Valet abruptly returns. With him comes another person, a rather drably dressed, plain woman named Inez. The Valet once more departs.
Inez immediately assumes that Garcin must be her torturer. He reassures her that he is no such person and tries to make polite conversation, but Inez replies testily that she does not believe in good manners. Although they take separate positions in the room, Garcin’s facial expressions begin to bother Inez. They sit in silence, he on the blue sofa, she on the burgundy one, until once again the door opens.
Now the Valet leads in a third guest: Estelle, a pretty, young, well-dressed socialite. Estelle hides her eyes with her hands, afraid that Garcin is someone she knows from her time on Earth—someone whose face had somehow been destroyed. When Garcin assures her that he is someone other than this faceless man, she uncovers her eyes and observes how much the room reminds her of her old Aunt Mary’s ugly home. Estelle is wearing a pale blue dress, so she begs Garcin to let her sit on the blue sofa instead of the remaining green one. Inez offers hers and flatteringly tells Estelle that she wishes she might have been able to...
(The entire section is 1110 words.)