Sartre published the play No Exit in 1944, just as World War II was reaching its end. The play details the interactions of three people, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, who are confined within a room in hell. The drama essentially serves as a backdrop for an exploration of Sartre’s philosophical themes, notably the objectifying gaze of the other, self-deception, bad faith, and issues surrounding human freedom and responsibility.
The play begins with Garcin’s arrival in hell, which appears to be a drawing room. A valet shows Garcin around, pointing out a bell that Garcin can use to summon the valet if needed. The valet warns, however, that the bell does not always work. A woman named Inez soon arrives, and she thinks Garcin is a torturer. She says his mouth is grotesque. The valet eventually brings in another woman, Estelle, and says no one else will arrive. Estelle insults the appearance of the room.
Garcin, Inez, and Estelle discuss how and when they died, but they initially refuse to confess their crimes. They hint at what they did by describing the moral principles behind their actions but not revealing the actions themselves.
The three eventually realize that although there are no physical torments and no actual torturer in hell, they have been put together to torment each other. There are no mirrors in the room, so each of them is seen only by the other two, not by him- or herself. They can neither avoid one another’s gaze nor escape one another’s judgment. They begin to tell the truths about themselves and what they did to be sent to hell: Garcin was executed by the army because he tried to leave the country without fighting, Inez was killed by a widow she taunted about the woman’s husband’s death, and Estelle threw her baby off a balcony.
The dynamics of the group become complex as each begin asking things of the others. Inez makes a sexual advance toward Estelle, who refuses her. Estelle expresses her desire to be with Garcin, and Garcin reciprocates. However, he stops short of kissing her and says he wants her trust. He asks Estelle if he was a coward for running from the army and expresses doubt about the rightness of his actions. He asks Estelle to have faith in him. Estelle says he loves him, and Garcin says they will climb out of hell. Inez warns Garcin that Estelle is lying. Garcin dismisses both women in disgust.
Garcin then approaches the door, searching for an escape. He rings the bell to summon the valet, but it doesn’t work. As he continues pounding on the door, Estelle begs him not to leave and says she’ll go with him.
The door swings open, and Inez taunts Garcin that he can now leave. However, he finds he doesn’t want to, and the women hesitate as well. Estelle tries to convince Inez to leave so she and Garcin can be alone, but Garcin says he will stay because of Inez. He wishes to convince her he is not a coward. Garcin pledges that he will not leave unless Inez pronounces her faith in him. She does not, and Garcin, unable to exercise his freedom, instead chooses imprisonment. He concludes, “Hell is—other people!”
Inez reminds the other two that she is dead and stabs herself repeatedly with a knife. The three laugh, realizing they’ll be in hell together forever.
Both No Exit and The Flies, Sartre’s other dramatic work of the period, which was published and performed during the German occupation of Paris, endure today as essential examples of the artistic response to World War II. Many people argue that the room in hell, occupied by Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, is a metaphor for the Nazi occupation of Paris. Although this is an overly facile interpretation in many respects, without question the play was influenced by the political realities of the time. In Paris during the war, a strong and profound resistance, of which Sartre was a part, served as an ever-present antidote to German militarism. At least in that instance, the people demonstrated their collective will for freedom. The characters in No Exit, save Inez, have resigned themselves to an (after)life characterized by a lack of freedom and the ubiquitous presence of alienation and despair. As in many Sartrean narratives, beyond all the deep cynicism of human existence and human relations, there exists a small but potentially liberating seed of hope.
Aside from these common characteristics, the other essential philosophical theme exhibited in the play relates to the politics and psychology of the gaze of the other, or the ways people recognize one another and formulate identities. As Sartre details in Being and Nothingness, the other perceives the subject of its gaze as a being-in-itself, robbing it of the freedom to create its own essence. As such, the characters in the drama search for mirrors so that they might avoid the dehumanizing stare of the other. However, as they have come to view themselves as objects being perceived above all else, a mirror will only confirm the way the other sees them. The process of degradation is complete: no longer a being-for-itself, free to create himself or herself, each character instead can see only the essentialisms that have been imposed on them. Worse, as actors in a play, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are subject not only to the objectifying gaze of one another but also to the unflinching stare of the audience. The famous conclusion to the play, “hell is—other people,” is certainly a misleading phrase if one takes it as the sum of Sartre’s view of the human condition. However, the play does highlight the cynical veneer of Sartre’s philosophy, as the characters wallow in an atmosphere of despair from which there is indeed no easy exit.