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.