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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 new inhabitants of the room with no exit are hardly surprised to find themselves in Hell; they are surprised only by the details of the place. Garcin and Inès have both died violently, in ways that both feel they richly deserved: Garcin has mistreated his wife, and Inès considers herself responsible for the death of a cousin whose wife became first her lover and subsequently her killer in a murder-suicide. Only Estelle has died a “natural” death, yet she, too, is soon revealed as a murderess, having drowned her newborn “love child,” whose father was too poor to be considered as a future husband.

Throughout the action to follow, it becomes clear that Estelle, although technically guilty of murder, is in Hell mainly because of her passive, unexamined life, lived in “bad faith” and in hopes of pleasing the Other, whomever he/she may be. Garcin, shot by firing squad at the start of World War II, ostensibly for his pacifist convictions, still fears that he might have been considered a deserter and a coward, having been arrested in flight between Brazil and Mexico City. Inès Serrano, more lucid than the other two about their collective situation, may seem at first glance to be ill-placed in Sartre’s selective Hell, serving so often as the playwright’s “voice” and spokesperson. On reflection, however, it becomes clear that Inès has chosen her own Hell, never having questioned society’s judgment of her homosexual lifestyle; at the time, “damned women” was a common euphemism to denote lesbians, and Inès has accepted the label at face value, without ever trying to reach beyond it in search of genuine self-discovery. Still, it is Inès who will conduct most of the “hearing behind closed doors,” capturing the sense of the original French title. Garcin will remain torn between the two women, Estelle, who, trying hard as ever to please, appeals to his body, and Inès, whose superior intellect dares him to prove that he was not a coward when he fled Rio. Estelle could care less about Garcin’s cowardice, “so long as he kisses well”; Inès, meanwhile, covets Estelle’s affections and keeps Garcin’s advances eternally in check as she renders her “verdict” upon his...

(The entire section is 3,158 words.)