Themes and Meanings

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No Exit is not about traditional punishment for sin. There is no consideration of God, and the functionaries of Hell are seen less as demons than as bureaucrats. Jean-Paul Sartre uses the concept of Hell as a semihumorous frame. Here is a torture chamber in the guise of an overheated hotel salon. The bellboy has an uncle to visit in off-hours, the head valet in Hell. This ironic frame serves to explore ideas about self-definition and interpersonal relations drawn from existential philosophy. Everything serves in definition of the characters or their situation.

The details of interior decoration are calculated in terms of the personality triangle Sartre presents. The colors of the sofas are set by Estelle’s dress; her reaction defines her superficial character. Estelle can contemplate infanticide with equanimity but is horrified by blunt speech. She is the vagina dentata incarnate, incapable of love or nurture, seeking to fill herself, a slimy morass into which Garcin fears to sink. Garcin, at the opposite end of the scale, is a macho bully, a man’s man, whose women are only witnesses for his masculinity. Inez holds the sexual middle ground; as a lesbian, she is female, but she competes with the man for the erotic favors of her fellow woman. She is invariably the only one who forces confrontation, while Garcin seeks peace and Estelle admiration.

The characters are not fully rounded, nor are they meant to be, since they represent concepts of the self seeking its validation in the sight of other people. Sartre did not believe in an afterlife. His attention focused upon human life in the here and now. In his Hell, there is no future, only an eternal present in which to contemplate the past lives that have frozen the characters into cautionary figures. Vision is the sensory metaphor for the process by which each character is rendered an object, frozen and dead to personal freedom and change. The open eyes of the characters are paralyzed; there is no escape from seeing and being seen. Moreover, there are no mirrors, thus no possibility of escaping the vision of others in self-observation. Each character is “onstage” for his fellows, doubly so, since they are actors actually on a stage and caught in the vision of the audience.

Garcin put off real life with heroic intentions until he lost his nerve in front of the firing squad; Inez froze herself in the role of lost woman; Estelle chose to live for surface appearances. They all neglected the responsibility of choosing and living authentic lives. There are possibilities of redemption in their attempts at solidarity in nonaggression and love, but they cannot profit from them. Sartre has loaded the dice by presenting them as already dead. The spectator is intimately involved in judging each one for his crimes and bad faith. Yet the spectator also must recognize his own situation of bad faith, with the fundamental difference that continued life gives him the ability to change. When the curtain falls on Garcin’s call to continue, the audience is compromised. Each individual has been warned of the responsibility to choose life in good faith or suffer the hell of other people.


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Choices and Consequences
Though nothing will change for any of the characters in No Exit , the choices they made while they were living are directly responsible for their sentence in hell. Each one of them made irresponsible and immoral choices during his or her lifetime. Garcin teased and abused his wife. He also brought home another woman and slept with her while his wife was in the...

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house. She served them coffee in bed. While married, Estelle ran away with her young lover. She bore him a child, then murdered it in front of him. He later committed suicide because of the incident. Inez was a sadist. She lived with her cousin and his wife, Florence, and seduced her away from him. When her cousin died in a tram accident, she tortured the wife by saying that their affair led to his death. Inez's actions led the wife to turn on the gas stove during the night, murdering them both. Each character chose to commit theses crimes, and for these crimes they were condemned. Consequently, they will torture each other over their weaknesses for eternity.

Appearances vs. Reality
Two of the characters in No Exit hide behind facades for much of the play, unwilling to admit the real reason they are condemned to hell. Only Inez is willing to acknowledge from the start that she is a cruel person. Though Garcin worries about his cowardice from the first moments of the play, he says that he is unsure why he is in hell. He rationalizes that he stood up for his pacifist principles and that is the reason he was put to death by his government. In reality, Garcin was trying to escape to Mexico to avoid serving in the war, and he was extremely mean to his wife. He admits these two incidents only after goaded. Estelle does not understand why she is in hell at all, at least at first. She thinks it is some sort of error since she died from pneumonia. Like Garcin, she only acknowledges the truth—that she murdered her baby and drove a man to suicide—when pressed by the other two. Reality, in this play, is facing up to the truth about oneself.

Self-definition and Interpersonal Relationships
Throughout the rounds of conversation that comprise No Exit, the characters are forced to define themselves through their relationships with each other. Their eyes are constantly open (there is no blinking in hell). The lights are always on. There are no mirrors. They are stuck in the same, small, stuffy room together. These conditions force each person to interact with the other two, and look for some acknowledgement about who they are. Garcin wants Inez to believe he is not a coward. Estelle wants Garcin to be a man for her. Inez wants Estelle to be attracted to her. Since no one will get what they want from another without conflict from the third, their interlinking desires ensure an eternity of torture. Garcin believes that if they work together, there might be some kind of redemption. But their conflicting personalities ensure that this will be impossible.

Death and Permanence
What makes the situation in No Exit so desperate is the fact that Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are dead. They are permanently in hell, and permanently in the drawing room with each other. During the play, they are afforded an opportunity to leave when the door opens unexpectedly. However, they are too afraid of the consequences to leave. Similarly, they cannot change or grow as people because they are dead. They are forced throughout eternity to "live" with the choices they made in their lives. They will forever rationalize these choices to each other.