The Play

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As the curtain rises on No Exit, Garcin and the Valet enter a French Second Empire-style drawing room. Gradually it appears that Garcin is dead and this room is in Hell. He laughs with the bellboy over his medieval expectations of physical torture, but begs for a toothbrush. The Valet explains the rules. The light is constant, with no day or night. Eyelids do not function; there is no sleep. There is no outside, only more corridors, stairs, and rooms. There are no mirrors. The statuette on the mantel is too heavy to move. The capricious room-service bell usually will not ring. Garcin laments that he will not be able to blink and enjoy a break in consciousness, but he asserts his courage. The bellboy leaves him alone.

Garcin tries the bell, calls out, and beats on the door, but there is no response. As he calms down, the bellboy returns with Inez and leaves. Inez supposes Garcin to be her tormentor. He laughs, but he is worried that she can see fear on his face. He covers his face, and they wait in silence. The bellboy then enters with the beautiful Estelle. She mistakes Garcin for another man whose face has been shot away. After the bellboy leaves, Estelle introduces herself as in a social setting. The characters can “see” scenes in the world they have left. Estelle describes her own funeral as it is being performed. They specify the means of their deaths: Estelle died from pneumonia, while Inez was killed by gas from a stove and Garcin by twelve bullets in the chest. Estelle is shocked by Garcin’s bluntness; she prefers the euphemism “absent” to “dead.” Inez is rude and hostile, but Estelle insists on social appearances. She also insists on occupying the one sofa that harmonizes with her dress, and Garcin must abandon it. He wants to remove his coat; Estelle refuses permission. She thinks that men in shirtsleeves are disgusting.

It is clear that the three are incompatible. They come from different social circles. Garcin longs for the masculine atmosphere of his newspaper offices, Estelle for her own boudoir. Inez stands between them, a man-hating lesbian attracted to Estelle. Estelle blames an administrative error for their juxtaposition, Garcin a fluke of timing in their deaths. Inez mocks the other two, insisting that nothing has happened by chance. She suggests that they tell their reasons for being in Hell. Estelle and Garcin tell and accept alibis of self-sacrifice and heroism. Inez pushes for more. Estelle objects, Garcin threatens, and Inez realizes that they are meant to be each other’s torturers. Garcin suggests that they refuse to participate by remaining silent. All three agree, but Inez is soon singing and Estelle making up her face. She asks for a mirror and nearly faints on hearing that there are none. Inez offers her eyes as mirrors but demands attention in return. Estelle only wants Garcin, who hopes to ignore her. When he tries to reimpose silence, Inez provokes open conflict.

Garcin accepts her challenge and makes advances to Estelle. He offers cruelty to his wife as the reason for his presence in Hell. He describes his wife’s current actions, but longs to see his male friends. The crux of his self-definition lies with them. He spent his life among them as a pacifist journalist with heroic pretensions. He wonders how they judge the fact that he was on his way to Mexico when he was arrested for desertion and shot. Do they see him as a coward or hero?

Inez tells the story of her destruction of...

(This entire section contains 1047 words.)

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her cousin and his wife. She seduced the wife, forced a separation, and, after her cousin’s accidental death, tortured his widow with guilt. Their suffering was her pleasure. Finally, her victim turned on the gas stove in the night and killed them both.

Estelle refuses to confess until forced. She admits to having drowned her newborn, in front of her lover. She returned to her rich old husband, and the young man shot himself. Inez offers comfort, but Estelle turns to Garcin, who makes another bid for cooperation to avoid suffering. Inez sees the last of her visions, her room let to a pair of lovers. There is no person or place left to remember her; she is entirely in Hell. She rejects Garcin’s hope, recognizes her role as an instrument of torture, and accepts definition as a lost woman. Estelle, too, sees her last of earth, her best friend dancing with a boy who worshiped her as pure. She dances too, then calls for Garcin’s help when the story of her adultery and infanticide is told to her admirer.

The three compete for one another’s attention, even while suffering from it. Estelle wants Garcin’s masculinity to validate her; she rejects Inez. Inez desires Estelle and hates Garcin. When Garcin and Estelle embrace, Inez threatens them with her watching eyes. Garcin sees a vision in which he is called a coward, in an offhand way, by men who will soon forget him. His adoring wife is dead. He turns to Estelle and offers a love pact if she will trust him to be a hero. She cannot satisfy his longing, since she transparently wants only his male shell. Inez taunts him with Estelle’s inadequacy. Garcin is begging for physical torture rather than mental anguish, when suddenly the locked door opens. Estelle wants to throw Inez out, but Garcin announces that he will stay in the room for Inez’s sake alone. Inez can save him, if he can convince her that he is no coward. She taunts him that his heroic intentions were not his real life, that his actual deeds are the truth of his being. Garcin suffers from her words, and Estelle offers him revenge in a kiss. Inez suffers from their embrace but taunts them with her vision of the coward kissing the infant-killer. Garcin breaks away from Estelle, having realized that Hell is not a place, but other people. Estelle stabs Inez, but her unhurt victim laughs. Estelle finally knows that they are truly dead, together forever. They laugh, fall silent, and gaze at one another. Garcin calls them to continue as the curtain falls.

Dramatic Devices

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The most successful of Jean-Paul Sartre’s plays, No Exit can be said to follow the classical French rule of the three unities of time, place, and action. All the action takes place in a single room, in a time corresponding exactly to that of the presentation. Only one problem is broached; there are no extraneous actions, or extra characters. Everything is concentrated on the exposition of Sartre’s ideas with an elegant economy of language and dramatic resources. Each object on stage has its role in the action as it unfolds. The bronze on the mantelpiece has its weight as a symbol of its stylistic period, but also as a representation of the futility of escape. It is too heavy to be used to smash the ever-shining electric light. The seemingly useless paper knife beside it on the mantel serves as a weapon and thus as the instrument that reveals the finality of the hellish situation. The color of the furniture is predetermined in relation to the development of the characters.

There is no recourse to special effects. When the characters “see” the living world, their visions are presented in words. The wartime necessities of the play’s first composition and production precluded any extravagance of costume or set design, but Sartre believed that dramatic illusion functioned best when recognized as illusion, without great attention to props.

Sartre wrote No Exit in two weeks. The play was conceived as a vehicle for three of his friends (Garcin was to be fellow existentialist writer Albert Camus). When presented with the problem of giving each role equal value, Sartre imagined a confinement in the same space and time, a situation elaborated into the Hell of No Exit. Each of the characters embodies a certain kind of bad faith, but the role of Inez is most often used in forcing realization of unpleasant facts on her fellows and the audience. It is she who renders explicit the hellish nature of the details of setting and personality.

Places Discussed

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Hell. As the play opens, a man is being ushered into an ordinary-looking room by a valet. It appears at first to be a hotel or the guest room of some country mansion. The man notices that the furniture is French Second Empire, an elaborately decorative pastiche of earlier styles, which makes the furniture appear to transcend history. There are three sofas: one claret red, another vivid green, and the third a more neutral color. The guest, Garcin, also notices a bronze statuette by Ferdinand Barbedienne, known for his copies of famous originals. Again, this implies that nothing in the room is authentic or real. Garcin also remarks on the absence of mirrors and observes that the only domestic tool in the room is a letter opener. He inquires of the valet about its purpose and is assured that its purpose will soon be revealed. As the valet exits, he indicates that the door will be locked behind him and that the servants’ bell does not always function.

Two women are then let into the room by the valet. After some intense conflicts and confessions, it becomes obvious to the three people that they are in Hell, locked together for eternity. They pound on the door to no avail. Committing suicide with the letter opener only intensifies their agony since they are already dead. They are their own devils. There are some intense exchanges between the characters in this tiny room, and it becomes clear that this torture will last forever. The setting, a room in Hell, is Jean-Paul Sartre’s metaphor for his belief in existentialism, the philosophy that states that outside circumstances have no power to affect human beings’ lives. Humans are responsible for their own destiny and cannot escape that responsibility.

Historical Context

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Occupation of France Influences Philosophy
World War II engulfed Europe beginning in 1939. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and embarked on an aggressive military campaign as early as 1936. He began annexing European states by 1938. France declared war on Germany in 1939, and Hitler invaded and conquered France by 1940. The war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, and Paris was finally liberated.

Daily life was difficult in France during World War II. A large part of France was occupied by Nazi Germany, including Paris, where Sartre lived. Because France was an occupied country, life, in many ways, was at a standstill. In Sartre's hell, too, life was very static. France's occupation also led to shortages of everything, including heat and electricity. Sartre makes an ironic comment on this situation by having an overabundance of heat and light available in hell. German censors controlled the plays performed in the theater and the movies shown in the cinema.

During the occupation, France was ruled by the Vichy government. It was ostensibly semi-independent but still under Nazi control. French people who worked with the Nazis were called Collaborators. The prewar pacifists Garcin talks about were often considered Collaborators. Many French citizens fought the Nazi control by participating in the Resistance. The Resistance was an underground movement that began soon after the Nazis took over Paris. Charles de Gaulle, a government official in the French government before the occupation, organized a French government in exile in Great Britain. In 1940, he called for French citizens to resist the Germans via a radio broadcast. Though only a few people in France heard him speak, a Resistance was formed.

The Resistance was not formally organized, but it took on many forms. It worked to block delivery of supplies and men to Germany. French citizens were conscripted by the Germans when they needed people to work in factories and the like. Many such draftees took to the hills in France and worked against the Germans. Other French citizens passed military intelligence to Great Britain and other Allies, helped British pilots who were shot down by the Germans escape, and wrote and distributed anti-German pamphlets. Sartre was active in the Resistance. At the end of World War II, it was thought that the Resistance contributed to the liberation of Paris.

The wartime atmosphere also created a change in the intellectual climate. The reality of war forced intellectuals to make political choices. This was reflected in the literature of the day. A poetry of the Resistance was developed with a direct language, and Paul Valéry was regarded as the best of these. Sartre was influential in the literary scene, and his philosophy of existentialism became the theory of the Resistance. Existentialists believed in the liberty of humankind and that everyone is endowed with a certain responsibility for their lives. No Exit, an existentialist play, is regarded as a symbol of the liberation of Paris.

Literary Style

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SettingNo Exit can be called an existentialist play and a philosophical drama. The action takes place in hell, which is represented as a hot and stuffy drawing room, with the only entrance a door that is locked. There is a bell to ring for servants, but it works only intermittently. The room is decorated in Second Empire style. A heavy bronze statue sits on a mantle, but it is too heavy to move. There are three sofas of different colors for the three characters to sit on. There is also a paper knife next to the statue, but no books. There are also no mirrors or windows. This tight setting forces the characters to constantly see each other, and thus engage in torture.

Furthermore, the drawing room is somewhat unremarkable, except that it is in hell. In depicting hell as a familiar setting, Sartre suggests that hell is more of a state of mind than a place. There is nothing particularly hellish about the drawing room itself; instead, it is the combination of personalities in the room that makes the experience so hellish for Garcin, Estelle, and Inez.

Symbolic Props
The few objects in the room have symbolic meaning, especially in defining the characters. The sofas are of different colors—wine-colored, blue, and green—and Estelle insists on taking the blue one because it best matches her dress. This symbolizes her superficiality. Estelle also uses the paper knife to stab Inez. This is ineffective and leads to Estelle's acceptance that she is truly dead and in hell. The bronze statue serves a similar purpose for Garcin. The statue represents how escape is futile because it is too heavy to move. Garcin is also concerned about the bell, and if it works, more than the other characters. The bell symbolizes a link with the outside world, but it does not always ring.

The characters all have visions about what is going in the world they left. Though these visions are unseen by the audience, they represent the last links to the living world for the characters. Garcin sees two different parts of his former life. He has visions of the newsroom where he worked. His co-workers are calling him a coward, which upsets him greatly. Garcin also sees the wife he mistreated. She stands outside the prison, awaiting word of his fate, then learns that he has died. Later, she dies. Estelle's visions always include her friend Olga. Estelle sees her own funeral and burial, where Olga escorts Estelle's sister, who can only manage a few tears. She later sees Olga with Peter, a young man who admired Estelle in life. Olga tells Peter about the crimes that Estelle has committed, and he is shocked. Unlike Garcin and Estelle, there is no living person who cares about Inez. The only vision she sees is of the room where she and Florence died. She views it twice: once when it is empty and dark, and a second time, when potential renters come in to look the place over.

Three Unities of French DramaNo Exit follows the classical rules of unity of action, time, and place. The play takes place in the length of time it takes to perform it. There is only one course of action, and everything in the setting works towards that one end. The action is also confined to one place, the drawing room. There is nothing extraneous about any aspect of the play; it is focused to one purpose.

Compare and Contrast

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1944: In occupied France, German censors must approve plays before they are allowed to be performed.

Today: A controversial rating system has been put in place on television programming in the United States. The labels are primarily for parents, to inform them of content that may not be appropriate for children.

1944: Many plays and movies are concerned with World War II and its effects on society, either explicitly or implicitly.

Today: World War II continues to be a popular theme in television, movies, and literature. One of the biggest box office successes in the United States in 1998 is Saving Private Ryan, which re-enacts the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France.

1944: The philosophy of existentialism develops in France, which has been devastated by two world wars, as a way of dealing with the nature of good and evil and one's responsibility in life and as an explanation of the nature of being in general.

Today: Existentialism continues to be influential in literature and the arts, mainly as its ideas have been co-opted by more recent movements, such as the Beats, who believe that one is responsible only to oneself.

Media Adaptations

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No Exit was filmed in French as Huis Clos in 1954. It starred Arletty, Nicole Courcel, Louis De Furies, and Jean Debucourt.

The play was adapted for film again in 1962, starring Rita Gam as Estelle and Viveca Lindfors as Inez.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Gibb, Wolcott. ‘‘Dream Boy,’’ The New Yorker, December 7, 1946, pp. 61-64.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. ‘‘Man and His Acts,’’ in Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 62-72.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. A review of No Exit in The Nation, December 14, 1946, p. 708.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit in No Exit and Three Other Plays, Vintage, 1976,pp.1-47.

‘‘Three in a Room,’’ Newsweek, December 9, 1946, p. 92.

Barnes, Hazel E. Sartre, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1973.
This is a critical overview Sartre's life and work.

Champignay, Robert. Sartre and Drama, Summa Publications, 1982.
A comprehensive analysis of Sartre's work in the theater, including No Exit.

Cohn, Ruby. ‘‘No Exit (Huis Clos),’’ in From "Desire" to ‘‘Godot’’: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 36-51.
This book discusses the background of plays and their productions. The essay on No Exit includes details on the writing, casting, and critical reception.

Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, editors. Sartre on Theatre, Pantheon Books, 1976.
This is a collection of documents written by Sartre on theater, including his own plays.


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Bradby, David. Modern French Drama 1940-1990. 2d ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991. Looks at Sartre’s career and locates No Exit as part of Sartre’s early period. Presents a significant view of how the dramatist came to regard his own work later in his life.

Champigny, Robert. Sartre and Drama. Birmingham, Ala.: French Literature Publications, 1982. An evaluation of Sartre’s role as a dramatist that takes the beginnings and end of his career into account. An interesting and comprehensive discussion that features an expansive examination of No Exit.

Cohn, Ruby. From Desire to Godot: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987. An illuminating look at the original production of No Exit and how critics and audiences during the German occupation of France responded. A lively, fascinating interpretation emerges, complete with important details of subsequent productions.

McCall, Dorothy. The Theatre of Jean-Paul Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1969. Although somewhat dated, this analysis of how the playwright’s works relate to his views on theater still makes for highly informative reading.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. Sartre on Theater. Edited by Michel Contat and Michel Rybalka. Translated by Frank Jellinek. New York: Pantheon Books, 1976. In this collection of the playwright’s own writings on his own play, the editors compile some pieces that deal directly with No Exit and several others that discuss Sartre’s views on drama and theater during the time the play was composed and performed.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide