Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 505
Joseph Garcin, a pacifist journalist from Rio who reached Hell by means of a firing squad, after an attempted escape to Mexico. Garcin affects a macho style and denies his fear of Hell. He is the first of the central characters to survey the set and is the first and the last to speak. As the play progresses, his swaggering façade crumbles. He is exposed in his fear of the judgment of his colleagues on earth and his companions in Hell, because his life was cut off at an ambiguous point. Was he a coward, running away from danger, or a hero on his way to glory? Garcin employs varied tactics to stave off recognition of this fear by his fellow prisoners, realizing that the suffering endured from them is worse than physical torture. He delivers the play’s best-known line, “Hell is other people.”
Inez Serrano, a postal worker killed in her sleep when her lesbian lover/victim turned on the gas in the night. She enters Hell sure of her reasons for damnation and brutal in her contempt for men in general and Garcin in particular. She realizes the specific necessity for each inmate of their room in Hell as torturer for the others. Inez is attracted to the lovely Estelle and competes with Garcin for her attention, thus becoming vulnerable to suffering through desire. Her savage lucidity rejects excuses and cover-ups, forcing the group confrontation of their hellish situation. It is this quality that makes her Garcin’s ultimate challenge. He is held in Hell by his need to convince her of his heroism.
Estelle Rigault, a society beauty who enters Hell as if invited for tea. She deplores blunt language and tries to preserve social distinctions and surface appearances. She argues a theory of administrative error to account for her presence in Hell. Only Garcin and Inez combined force her to admit to drowning her newborn child before its father’s eyes. She returned to her rich, old husband, leaving her lover to shoot himself. Estelle’s only concern is her outer image. She panics in the absence of mirrors and clings to Garcin for reassurance of her beauty through his masculine attention. He offers her a love pact, mutual protection against their joint punishment, but she is too self-centered to understand his fears or offer him honest support. Women are nothing but competition to her; therefore, any relationship with Inez is impossible. Estelle stabs Inez with a paper knife. The futility of her attempted murder opens her eyes to the finality of her own death.
The Valet, who establishes the framework of the drama. He is a semicomic character, a junior demon with an uncle in a top administrative position. He ridicules the cliché of the medieval Hell expected by Garcin and explains the various physical features of the custom-fitted Hell to which he introduces the three main characters. Once they are all in place, he leaves and does not return.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 762
Garcin is the first of the three dead people to enter the drawing room. Prior to his death, he was a newspaperman in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was shot twelve times because he tried to avoid serving in the military. He is a pacifist, and he tells Inez and Estelle that is why he was condemned. Garcin is polite, keeping his coat in on the stuffy room because Estelle cannot stand a man in shirtsleeves. Garcin tries to make the situation tolerable, suggesting that they all keep quiet. This does not work, however, as the three continue to hound each other. He reveals that the real reason he is in hell is that he abused his wife and fled to Mexico to avoid military service. His former friends in Rio are now calling him a coward. Garcin desperately wants Inez to see him as a hero and strives to change her opinion of him. In contrast, Estelle seeks his attention and he continually rebuffs her. When the door to the drawing room opens, he has the opportunity to leave, but he is afraid of the unknown and he still has not proven himself to Inez. His inability to act on the opportunity of the open door represents his inability to change or to learn from his mistakes, one of the reasons why he is in the room in the first place.
Estelle is the last of the "absentees" (her preferred term for their deceased state) to enter the room. Before her death, she was a beautiful young society woman married to a rich older man. Estelle is demanding, insisting on taking the sofa that best matches her dress. At first, Estelle says she does not know why she is in hell. She believes it is an error. Estelle is superficial, concerned with her makeup and her appearance and almost immediately discovers that the room has no mirrors. Though Estelle died from pneumonia, it is revealed that she is in hell because she drowned her newborn daughter in front of the man with whom she was having an illicit affair. The lover subsequently killed himself over the incident, and Estelle returned to her husband. Though Inez tries to console Estelle, Estelle is repulsed by Inez and concerned only with Garcin, ingratiating herself to him and trying to seduce him. When Inez pushes her too far, Estelle tries unsuccessfully to stab her with a paper knife. This incident makes Estelle realize that she is indeed stuck in hell for eternity.
Inez is the second person to enter the drawing room. Before her death, she worked as postal clerk in Paris. When Inez first comes in, she thinks that Garcin is to be her torturer. He dispels her fears immediately, but she remains hostile to him throughout the play. On the other hand, Inez is attracted to Estelle from the moment she enters the room. She tries to win Estelle's favor several times but to no avail. Garcin tries to win Inez's favor, but she thinks he is a coward. Unlike the other two, Inez is realistic about her reasons for being in hell. She lived with her cousin and his wife, Florence, and Inez seduced Florence away from her husband. Florence's husband died in an accident, and Inez tortured Florence by claiming they had killed him. Inez died when Florence turned on the gas stove, consciously committing a murder/suicide. Inez knows she is sadistic and acknowledges that she received pleasure from making Florence and her husband suffer. Unlike Garcin and Estelle, there is no one left in life who is thinking about her. The only vision she has from her life is the empty room where she died. Inez is the first to realize that they are each other's torturers, and relishes the role from the first.
The valet escorts each of the characters into the drawing room. It is unclear what he is; more than likely he is a demon. He is amused by the others' preconceived notions of hell as well as their need to cling to their humanity. He does not blink, which is Garcin's first realization about the nature of his new existence, and possibly symbolic of the fact that in hell, one is not able to close one's eyes or turn away from the truth anymore. The valet tells Garcin that the bell used to summon the servants only works sporadically. This fact may indicate that one crucial element of hell, in Sartre's definition, is not being heard by others.