Student Question

Which character in No Exit—Garcin, Estelle, or Inez—is the worst and why?

Quick answer:

Any of the characters could be considered the worst in the room and why.

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All the characters in Jean-Paul Sartre's play exhibit traits that the audience will likely find objectionable. The characters find fault with themselves, exhibiting little surprise at their assignment to Hell. But for Joseph Garcin, and perhaps for Sartre himself, Hell is equivalent to society—that is, other human beings. The characters criticize and condemn each other, based in part on their evaluation of the severity of the transgressions to which the others confess. Inez notes that "each of us will act as torturer of the two others." Each viewer or reader will differ in their opinion of whether any one character is worse than the others, and if so, which one.

Joseph Garcin was killed by a firing squad. Considering himself a pacifist, he was caught attempting to flee the war for safety in Mexico. Joseph’s opposition to war, however, may derive from cowardice more than pacifism. His worst trait may be his antipathy to his fellow humans: "Hell is other people." But he also confesses to mistreating his wife, including having a sexual relationship with a girl in their home:

I'm here because I treated my wife abominably. That's all. For five years. Naturally, she's suffering still. . . . I brought a half-caste girl to stay in our house. My wife slept upstairs; she must have heard—everything.

Inez Serrano is apparently a victim of murder; her lover killed her with gas. As her cruelty to her lover is revealed, it seems she may be responsible for the other woman’s actions, including her subsequent suicide. Her initial overtures toward her cousin’s wife also seem reprehensible. Inez is more brutal than Garcin in her contempt for humanity. Both the specific cruelty to one person and general disregard for others can be seen to indicate her immorality. Inez confesses to her cruelty:

When I say I'm cruel, I mean I can't get on without making people suffer. Like a live coal. A live coal in others' hearts. When I'm alone I flicker out. For six months I flamed away in her heart, till there was nothing but a cinder.

Estelle Rigault, once a great beauty, is vain and dismissive, rejecting her damnation. Her natural death from illness seems initially to render her misplaced. But she confesses to being a "coward." Estelle has killed her baby, who was conceived in an adulterous affair. Her refusal to accept her child and decision to murder her before the father’s eyes was despicable enough:

Roger was with me when she was born. It pleased him no end, having a daughter. It didn't please me! . . . There was a balcony overlooking the lake. I brought a big stone. He could see what I was up to and he kept on shouting: "Estelle, for God's sake, don't!" I hated him then. He saw it all. He was leaning over the balcony and he saw the rings spreading on the water—

Roger soon took his own life, indicating Estelle's responsibility for two people's deaths. Inez might be blamed for only one person's suicide, but she also claims to be partly accountable for the tram accident that took her cousin's life.

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