Book Review: No Exit – Jean Paul Sartre

No Exit is one of Jean Paul Sartre’s most interesting existentialist short stories. It is a one-act play that was widely praised when it was first performed in 1944, shortly after the Liberation of France. The original title “Huis Clos” refers to a private discussion behind closed doors. It tells the story of three characters who find themselves trapped in a mysterious locked room, which they later find out, is in fact, hell. Sartre brilliantly emphasises that hell is not so much a specific place, but a state of mind.

The book is the source of one of Sartre’s most celebrated phrases: “Hell is other people”, which is frequently misinterpreted and disregarded as misanthropic. However, this is not the case. It is connected with his idea of the Look, which explores the experience of being seen, as we are always under the eyes of others.

You are a subject, but if someone gazes into you for a long time, you start becoming hyper aware of yourself as an object in other people’s views. It is the perpetual struggle of being caused to see oneself as an object from the view of another person’s consciousness.

The conflict of being a subject (an agent of one’s life) and being an object that other people are observing, alienates us and locks us in a particular kind of being, which in turn deprives us of our freedom, because we are unable to escape the “devouring” gaze of the other.

Sartre illustrates the difficult coexistence of people, as the entire social realm is based on adversarial aspects.

The one-act play opens on a drawing room with Second-Empire style furniture and a massive bronze statue on a mantelpiece.

A quiet yet peculiar looking Valet leads Garcin, a journalist from Rio, into the room.

At first, Garcin is very confused and then claims that this is not what he expected hell to be like. The Valet laughs at Garcin for wanting his toothbrush and asking where the bed is: he has not fully accepted his death.

The Valet does not have eyelids and Garcin is bothered by having someone gaze at him so intently. He begins to worry about having to keep his own eyes open during eternal daylight, especially when there are no books around.

As the Valet leaves, he points out a bell that should summon him, but he says that it does not always work. After he is left alone, Garcin gazes at the bronze statue for a moment, but then repeatedly rings the bell and tries to open the door. As soon as he gives up and sits down, the door opens.

A woman named Inez comes in, and she immediately suspects that Garcin is a torturer. But Garcin laughs at her. Inez states that she does not like men and Garcin tries to make peace with her to no avail.

The Valet re-enters followed by Estelle, the third and last character, who is a wealthy young housewife from Paris. Inez instantly takes a liking to her.

The three characters reflect on how they had died. Garcin was shot by a firing squad for being an outspoken pacifist during the war, Inez died from a leaky gas stove and Estelle from pneumonia.

They can all see their funerals and how people react to their death. Garcin and Estelle think they have been randomly put into a room together. But Inez disagrees, explaining that it had all been planned as the perfect method of torture. There is no need for physical torture in hell, as they will just torture each other simply by being together.

The three strangers locked in a room and divorced from the world and people they knew is the perfect setting for an existentialist “laboratory”. Their actions and feelings will define exactly who they really are. They are given a choice: will they define who they are on their own or rely on the other members to decide who they are?

Garcin believes that a man is what he wills himself to be, while Inez believes one is what one does. “You are your life, and nothing else.”

The characters constantly look for mirrors in order to avoid the judging gaze of each other. Inez tells Garcin that his mouth looks grotesquely frightened and he must decide if she is right or what he thinks himself is right. However, Garcin believes Inez rather than his own judgment, letting her define his essence (his personal characteristics).

Similarly, Estelle believes she does not really exist unless she can see herself, and since there are no mirrors – she looks into the eyes of Inez to see her own reflection. Estelle is unable to define her essence as she does not trust her own judgment but relies on other people to verify her existence, she sees herself as others do. This leads to Inez to take advantage of her and tell her she has a pimple when she really doesn’t. She surrenders her individuality to Inez’s gaze.

Sartre calls this “bad faith”, a way of denying the fundamental nature of our freedom and responsibility. Even though they are already dead and have nothing to lose, each character continues to lie to themselves. One of the core existentialist ideas is being authentic to oneself.

Sartre examines the question of existence and essence through the characters, which leads to his fundamental idea that existence precedes essence. An individual first exists and then creates himself (his essence) through what he does, he is what he does.

With this freedom of choice comes the absolute responsibility of one’s actions, giving way to anxiety. This anxiety leads many people to ignore their freedom and responsibility by letting other people make choices for them, resulting in bad faith.

Sartre believed that suffering was an essential step in affirming one’s existence, he states that:

“Life begins on the other side of despair”

When they all start to argue with each other again, Garcin tells them that it is best to just remain silent and mind their own business. He says:

“I think I could stay ten thousand years with only my thoughts for company.”

However, after a short while – they disturb him and start talking. It is essentially impossible for them to ignore each other’s existence.

Inez can’t stand Garcin looking at her because she thinks that he is automatically judging her. Since she thinks that is her own role, she accuses him of “stealing” her face. Garcin’s mere existence thus reduces Inez’s feelings of autonomy.

As this approach fails, they decide to tell each other everything and why they think they might be in hell. Garcin admits that he treated his wife horribly, Inez confesses that she enjoys making vulnerable people suffer and Estelle admits that she drowned her unwanted baby, making her lover shoot himself.

They enter a sort of love triangle. Estelle tries to seduce Garcin while Inez tries to seduce Estelle. As Garcin and Estelle begin to kiss, Inez refuses to look away, screaming that she will watch them the whole time they are together.

Garcin, however, wants something more from Estelle. He confesses that the reason he was executed was because he was a deserter. He explains that he faced death poorly and has been haunted ever since by the judgments of his friends and co-workers. The only thing Garcin wants is for her to say that he is not a coward and she agrees. But Inez starts to laugh, explaining to Garcin that Estelle was just agreeing with him because she wanted to be close to a man.

Garcin turns out to have the worst case of “bad faith” of all three characters, stemming from his complete inability to accept responsibility for his actions. He can’t decide on his own that he is not a coward, but will only believe it if Estelle says so herself.

Disgusted with both of them, Garcin begins ringing the bell for the Valet and furiously pounding on the door. He exclaims that he would be willing to withstand any physical torture if the door opens. Suddenly, the door opens but Garcin hesitates to step out, he can’t imagine existing on his own, knowing that Inez will be judging him and that he won’t know what she is saying. He decides to stay to convince Inez that he is not a coward.

Garcin and Estelle remain prisoners of the past, they look at their friends and loved ones back on earth, attempting to justify their existence by only thinking about their past experiences. They keep listening to what people are saying about them, rather than listening to their own voice in the present.

Inez sees her past as meaningless and inaccessible, choosing to exist in the present instead – she asserts her freedom to choose her essence in the present, even though she is in hell. She confronts her responsibility and her suffering, an essential step in asserting her existence.

Sartre wrote that the responsibility of one’s freedom is so overwhelming that “we are condemned to be free”, a statement literally played out by Garcin’s inability to leave the room. Unable to exist without people judging his past, Garcin condemns himself to remain in the eternal present of the room.

As Garcin discovers, there is no need for physical torture: the gaze of the “other” reduces and “devours” his individuality. He is unable to do anything, even kiss Estelle, when Inez is watching. Ignoring his innate freedom and responsibility, Garcin thinks Inez’s judgment is the only proof of his existence.

Realizing that they are stuck together forever, they maniacally laugh together as the curtain falls.

“All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So, this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!

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No Exit in 10 Minutes | Jean Paul Sartre

No Exit (Huis Clos) is one of Jean Paul Sartre’s most interesting existentialist short stories. The book is the source of one of Sartre’s most celebrated phrases: “Hell is other people”.

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