In one of the most original plays ever written, “No Exit” illustrates the modern day interpretation of hell; “Hell is other people,” being its central Sartrean existentialist theme. As the title suggests, it is a play about the consuming, inescapable gaze of the other and the inevitability of breeding contempt thru familiarity. The play revolves around three characters, one man and two women, who are starkly different from one another. Their idiosyncrasies, their attitudes toward their past lives and their view of themselves and the world in general make it a hell for them to live with one another throughout eternity. It is, therefore, the task of this paper to compare the three characters and how this relates to the central theme of the play.
The first character introduced in the play is Garcin. He was a Brazilian reporter who died as a result of his cowardice – the twelve bullet shots that ended his life was dealt him because of his refusal to serve in the military. He regards this refusal as standing by his principles as a pacifist. Garcin was also a womanizer, a callous one at that, and he believes that this is the reason why he is in hell. In the play, he recounts how every night he would go home to his wife, drunk from all his womanizing. He was so callous that one night he brought home a girl, oblivious of his wife’s presence, only to have her serve them coffee in the morning after. At the start, he regards Ines with abhorrence because he finds himself unable to hide his weaknesses from her and prefers Estelle because he believes that she will make him feel like a man. However, he eventually realizes that Ines is the key to his “salvation” because it is only her who can believe that he is not a coward. At the end of the play, when confronted with the choice of leaving the room, he becomes cowardly again and refuses to confront the responsibility of his actions. He, therefore, lets Ines be his judge and his savior but she refuses to do so.
The second character is Ines. She is a lesbian whose sin in the past is making her lover leave her husband. She poisons her mind until her lover eventually experiences the emotional torture of being with her that her lover kills both of them by turning on the gas stove while she was sleeping. Ines fancies Estelle and despises Garcin because to her, he is nothing but a coward because he leaves the judgment of his character to other people. To Ines, her past is inconsequential and she lives in the present. She is the judge of herself and this is what differentiates her from Garcin.
The last character is Estelle. In her past life, Estelle married a man three times her age, but deceived and cheated on him for a younger man. Another sin of hers was she aborted a baby conceived with her lover, which eventually lead him to kill himself. Estelle lusts for Garcin simply because he is a man. She sees Garcin as the one who can her define her essence, her being a woman and so rejects Ines for being the same.
A reading of the play will lead to an observation that one of its main themes also is the Sartrean maxim “existence precedes essence,” that human beings have the choice of becoming and defining themselves. The correlative aspect of this choice being given to humans, however, is that one is responsible for his choices and actions. The three characters differ in their handling of this freedom and responsibility bestowed upon them. Garcin and Estelle believes that their essence is to be defined by another – Garcin believes it should be Ines while Estelle chooses Garcin. However, Ines chooses to define herself and not depend on the two. The stubborn refusal of the three characters to grant one another’s “salvation” damns them throughout eternity. They are another’s hell, without realizing that hell is actually within themselves.
Sartre, John Paul. “No Exit and other Plays.”