Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1110
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 welcome her with a bouquet of flowers, but Estelle takes Garcin’s blue couch, and Garcin moves to the green.
The Valet leaves. Garcin tries to remove his coat, but Estelle is appalled at such informality, asking Inez if she approves of men in shirtsleeves. Inez replies that she does not care much for men one way or the other. The three begin to speculate as to why they were placed together in this room and speak of the possible reasons each had been sent to Hell. Estelle said that although she had been married she had run off with another man. Garcin said he, during wartime, had worked for a pacifist newspaper. Inez mocks Estelle’s excuses about infidelity and Garcin’s story about his unpopularity. She says she now understands that they have been placed together because they will torture one another simply by being there.
To prevent this, Garcin decides they should stay on their separate couches and just sit there, in silence—this way, no one can hurt the others. Still, after a time, Inez cannot help singing to herself, and Estelle, upset that her handbag mirror has been taken from her, complains that she cannot put on her makeup. Garcin remains quiet, but Estelle and Inez talk; Inez convinces Estelle to come over to her sofa, where she will act as Estelle’s mirror. Now Estelle, with Inez’s guidance, puts on her lipstick. Then Inez admits that she is attracted to Estelle, who is shocked and returns to her own sofa. Estelle tells Inez that she would have preferred Garcin to notice her.
Garcin hears their conversation but resists speaking. Now Inez exhorts him to talk, adding that it is better to choose one’s own hell than to try to avoid the inevitable. Exasperated, he joins Estelle and begins to kiss her, but he is haunted by images of his wife who, still alive, had suffered from Garcin’s mean behavior. Inez recognizes that his cruelty to his wife had brought him here, just as her betrayal of her cousin, whose wife she had slept with, had landed her in Hell. The two confront Estelle, who unwillingly confesses that she had not only deceived her husband but also murdered the illegitimate child she had with her lover. As they reveal their horrific acts, the images of the real world begin to disappear. They are now really dead—forgotten by the living, alone in a room.
Finally the combined irritation, guilt, and anger in the room make each character unleash the wild rage within. The characters’ bitterness and hatred make it impossible for them to find any peace. Inez’s scornful and scorned presence makes it impossible for Estelle and Garcin to make love. Garcin’s masculine presence makes it impossible for Inez to find happiness with Estelle. Estelle’s presence will forever drive a wedge between Inez and Garcin. Garcin vainly tries to open the locked door to the room. Then, suddenly, the door opens and the three face the possibility of leaving. However, they do not leave—the heat and the uncertainty of what lay beyond the part of Hell they know frightens them more than the room. They close the door.
The three attempt yet again to make their time in Hell more reasonable, but the frustration of each having the other two there becomes more than they can bear. When Garcin pushes Estelle away from him because he cannot stand letting Inez watch them together, Estelle takes the paper knife and tries to stab Inez. Inez does not die. She merely laughs uproariously because, she reminds them, they are already dead. There is never any chance of leaving their awful, eternal agony. They discover that Hell is other people.
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