Jean Paul Sartre is one of the most influential writers of recent centuries. His work on existentialism offers a unique insight into the human conditions and the ways in which humanity interacts with itself. This sample literature review explores how the play focuses on the various conflicts the main characters experience as they enter their combined conception of what Hell actually is.
Abstract of “No Exit” by Jean Paul Sartre
“No Exit” by Jean Paul Sartre is an existentialism play that goes through the various internal and external conflicts the characters experience as they enter into hell and come to the realization of what hell really is. Although the three main characters appear to have nothing to do with each other, it is revealed throughout the story that they were not placed together randomly.
Each character explores the path that led them to hell, while simultaneously learning about each other. This results with them each coming to the realization that being with each other is their hell. They are forever trapped in conflict with each other.
Sartre’s creation of a one-act play
No Exit is a one-act play that was published in 1943 by Jean Paul Sartre. Sartre intentionally wrote it as a one-act play so it would not interfere with the curfew imposed by the Germans (Delahoyde). Sartre was a known existentialist, and this play is a clear example of his philosophy based work. The most famous and important line throughout the play is when Garcin exclaims, “hell is other people” (Sartre, line 45).
This line is the philosophical climax of the story. It is when Garcin realizes why they are together in that room with everything set exactly the way it is. There is no clear protagonist or antagonist in this play. Technically, each of the characters acts as an antagonist to the other two. They are all in the room because of the things they did; there is no “good guy” in this story.
“No Exit’s” focal themes
The focus of this play is on the conflicts within the story; both internal and external. “No Exit” ideally demonstrates the complex structure of three literary conflicts; character versus self, character versus character, and character versus destiny. The setting and plot are essential to the realization of the conflicts.
The play is set in a second empire style drawing room. Through the character’s dialogue, it quickly becomes clear this room is in hell. The Valet describes the place they are at as having several rooms in different styles. There is no way to sleep or turn out the lights in this place; there are only couches to sit on. Garcin arrives first, and his dialogue with the Valet sets up the story by explaining the place, the room, and the situation he is in.
Once that is accomplished, Inez and Estelle are brought into the room by the Valet, and the three main characters are left alone in the room. The setting becomes an immediate part of the plot as Estelle is very unhappy with the way the couches look.
It is immediately clear how vain and shallow Estelle is. Inez’s reaction to both Estelle and Garcin makes it clear she is a lesbian and not a nice person. Garcin is only slightly harder to understand, but it is clear he wants to be alone, opposed to with these two women.
Plot development in Sartre’s one-act play
The plot in this play is clearly laid out. It follows a traditional plot development starting with the exposition, then the rising action, the climax, and finally the resolution (Baker 2012). The exposition is presented once all three characters are introduced and in the room together. At first, they question whether they are all there by chance or if they were deliberately put together.
The rising action demonstrates both the internal and external conflicts going on in this story. At first, Inez is the only character willing to admit she belongs there; they other two insist they have no idea how they ended up there. As the arguments between the three escalate, each character admits why they are in hell.
The last to admit her sins was Estelle, which played into the fact she cared deeply what other people thought of her, and she wanted to maintain the air of innocence. The arguing between the characters continues to escalate until the climax of the play when the door to the room swings open.
Climax of “No Exit” and understanding the character’s hell
The door opening is the climax of the story because it is the point in which the characters are presumably given a choice. Throughout their arguing they all express their desire to get out of the room and away from each other. However, when the door opens, none of them leave. They fully realize they are all tied to each other now.
This is when Garcin announces “hell is other people” (Sartre, line 45). Despite the images and stories he consumed of hell when he was alive, he realized that being in that room with those two women was his hell. This was true for the two women, as well. The resolution to this story is their acceptance that they will stay in that room together for eternity.
Sartre’s three conflict types
They choose to stay in the room, rather than take the risk of seeing what would happen in they went out into the passageway. By this point in the story, they had each come to terms with their internal struggles as well. There are three types of conflict being played out in this story.
- The character versus self-conflict
- The character versus character conflict
- The character versus destiny conflict
Character versus self-conflict in “No Exit”
Garcin’s internal conflict
Although Garcin freely admits he treated his wife terribly and he wasn’t overly fond of her anyway, he struggles with whether or not people think he was a coward. He was sentenced to death and executed by firing squad after being caught trying to leave the country and evade fighting in the war. He insists he did it because he was a pacifist, and he was going to start a new pacifist paper in Mexico.
However, he didn’t stand up and announce his refusal to fight due to moral grounds and face the consequences of standing up for his beliefs. Instead, he ran away and got caught. Throughout the play, Garcin is trying to hear what people are saying about him at his old newspaper.
He doesn’t want people to think he was a coward, and the thought of it makes him crazy. He even offers Estelle his love and attention if she’ll swear she does not think what he did was cowardly.
Estelle’s internal conflict
Estelle also struggles with an internal conflict. Estelle places a vast amount of importance on society’s views of women. Sheis very vain and cares deeply what men think of her. She can not stand going without the attention of a man.
Although she does not appear to feel any guilt or regret over the fact she killed her baby, she hides what she did because she wants Garcin to see her as innocent and believe it was a mistake she was sent to hell.
When Garcin and Inez push Estelle into admitting what she had done, Estelle goes back to watching her best friend pursue a young man Estelle saw as hers. She is upset that they do not seem to be mourning her absence.
When she hears her best friend telling the young man what Estelle did, she becomes very agitated. She cared more about what people thought of her than what she actually did. Her internal conflict was over maintaining the image she worked so hard to project.
Inez’s internal conflict
Inez’s internal conflict was a bit harder to see. While Inez freely admitted that she belonged in hell and told people what she did, she seemed conflicted over her own personality. She knew she was a mean person, and she drove Florence into killing them both. Although she appears to have no guilt, she admits to Garcin that she does not know why she is the way she is.
This appears to be her struggle. She wishes she had been different, but at the same time, she feels no guilt. Her dissociative personality plays a catalyst for her uncaring and almost sociopathic tendencies. She does appear to care about Florence and what happened to her, but it is unclear whether she asks because she cares about Florence or because she still wants to dominate Florence.
Character versus character struggles in “No Exit”
Aside from their internal struggles, the characters are also experiencing character versus character conflicts with each other. There are struggles between each of the characters individually; however, they are all connected, so each conflict impacts another conflict.
Inez and Garcin show conflict over Estelle
Inez is clearly attracted to Estelle. But Estelle cannot respond to his advances because women are expected to remain faithful to their mates as opposed to the sexual double standard that men are allowed to be more promiscuous. While Inez wishes to attract Estelle to her, Estelle is too busy trying to get Garcin’s attention.
This causes Inez to lash out at Estelle and make her feel insecure, which causes Estelle to try even harder to get Garcin’s attention. Garcin is uninterested in Estelle but is willing to give her what she wants if she is willing to assure him he is not a coward.
Although Estelle does this, Inez points out how obvious it is that Estelle is lying. Garcin realizes that the person he needs to convince is Inez. He wants to convince her that he was not acting cowardly when he ran away.
However, Inez’s naturally mean spirit enjoys the position of power this puts her in over Garcin, and she refuses to give him what he wants. Each conflict feeds into another conflict in a circular motion between the three characters.
Impact of external factors and character’s conflicts
Each of the character’s internal conflicts is also impacted by the external conflicts. Both Estelle and Garcin are attempting to maintain the image they have of themselves. In attempting this, they each lie about how they ended up in the room. However, the truth is brought out through the arguments between them.
Garcin is the first to admit his true nature when Inez insists he is lying about being a stand-up pacifist with no reason to end up in hell. Ironically, the author provides for ending up in hell have nothing to do with how he died or ended up in the room.
He is hesitant at first to admit how he treated his wife because he does not want it to affect his image as a political activist. Once Garcin admits what he had done, both Inez and Garcin turn on Estelle.
Estelle’s resilience in the face of conflict
Estelle holds on to her secrets much longer than Inez or Garcin did. She only admits what she had done when Inez and Garcin confront her with their theories. When Estelle first walked into the room and saw Garcin with his hands over his face, she exclaimed she knew it was the man with no face. Inez and Garcin remembered her saying that and badgered her asking who the man with no face was.
Still, Estelle maintained her innocence until they decided he must have shot killed himself over her. After badgering her over causing a man to kill himself; she finally tells the story of the young man and their baby. Interestingly, once the story is told, Estelle shows no guilt over her actions. Additionally, she feels no responsibility for the father her of her baby killing himself. Later in the play, when trying to convince the other two how attractive she is, she even brags that a man shot himself over her.
Character versus destiny conflicts in “No Exit”
The third conflict played out in this story – the character versus destiny conflict – rhetorical devices to show the characters have no control over life. Although they eventually admit their sins, Garcin and Estelle start out insisting they do not belong in there. Garcin feels he was wrongfully judged and Estelle insists she was there by mistake. Neither wants to face the fact they belong in hell because of the things they did.
The other part of this conflict is they each have to face their own hell. They each enter the room expecting something drastically different than what they found. Garcin, at first, expects to be physically tortured. Once he realizes he will spend eternity in that room, he sees it as an opportunity to think about everything and work things out in his mind.
Inez, at first, expects to see Florence in the room. When she realizes she will not be able to see Florence again, she sets her sights in Estelle but quickly realizes that will never come to fruition. Estelle, at first, expects to see the man with no face and is happily surprised to see that he will not be there. Estelle then sets her sights on Garcon.
Although she is led to believe she may have a chance to win his attention, she is let down when Garcin announcing he can not be with Estelle with Inez in the room. They each realize they have to spend eternality seeing and being with the thing they want, but not being able to have it.
Sartre’s view that hell is other people
When Garcin announces “hell is other people,” Sartre is reaffirming the philosophy of existentialism. Everyone’s hell is different because they create their own hell. The three characters are in eternal conflict with each other because of who they are. The plot and setting produce and amplify the external conflicts, which amplify the internal conflicts being played out.
While Garcin would still be struggling with not knowing if he was really a coward, his struggle is amplified by Inez accusing him of being a coward and Estelle telling him it doesn’t matter. Likewise, Estelle’s need for male attention is confounded by Garcin’s refusal to give her the attention she wants. The conflicts in this play are an essential part because they are what allow the characters, as well as the audience, to see the truth in the situation.
Baker, M. (2012, April 24). Elements of Literature | UsefulCharts.com. UsefulCharts.com | History Timelines, Psychology Charts, more. Retrieved March 11, 2013, from http://www.usefulcharts.com/english/elements-of-literature.html
Delahoyde, M. (n.d.). Sartre, No Exit. Washington State University – Pullman, Washington. Retrieved March 11, 2013, from http://public.wsu.edu/~delahoyd/20th/sartre.noexit.html
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1943). No Exit.