- Play title: No Exit (Huis Clos)
- Author: Jean-Paul Sartre
- First performed: 1944
- Page count: 27
Jean-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, is a philosophical drama of just one act in length. The setting is a drawing-room that is decorated in Second Empire style. There are a total of four characters: Garcin, Estelle, Inez, and an unnamed valet. The valet ushers each character in turn into the mysterious room. We learn that each of the named characters are already dead, and the room represents what they themselves come to refer to as Hell. Garcin was a journalist in life, Inez a post-office worker, and Estelle had no career but married into an elite social circle. As the story progresses, each person slowly reveals more and more information about their past including their own perceived faults and weaknesses. Even though ‘Hell’ is not as they had previously imagined, they soon come to realise what form of torture exists in their new environment.
Ways to access the text: reading/listening.
There are several copies of No Exit available to read online via the Open Library. One may also access a copy of the text through the Vanderbilt University website.
If you would prefer an audiobook version then there are at least two free, online options. Go to YouTube and search for the title “No Exit – Jean-Paul Sartre” and you will find a version with a running time of 1hr and 26mins. Alternatively, the Internet Archive has a different audiobook version entitled, “No Exit (Huis Clos) by Jean Paul Sartre” and the duration is 1hr and1min.
Please note that there are multiple English translations of No Exit, but they differ significantly in some sections of the dialogue. I have used the Stuart Gilbert translation, but you may choose one of the other well-known ones, for example the translation by Margery Gerbain and Joan Swinstead, or Paul Bowles’ version.
Why read/listen to No Exit?
“Hell is – other people” (Sartre 26).
Jonathan Webber describes the above quote as follows, “This miserable-sounding soundbite, the moment of revelation in Jean-Paul Sartre’s shortest play, must be the most quoted line of twentieth century philosophy” (45). The trickiness of the quote is that it is too easy to misinterpret, and decidedly difficult to interpret fully given the weight of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy that lies behind it. What is clear is that the meaning goes far beyond the everyday irritations one experiences as a result of often unavoidable clashes with difficult people or even just people with an opposing opinion. Garcin’s words need to be appreciated in the context of his unique environment where, for example, there are no mirrors so Inez and Estelle act as his mirrors. Additionally, there seems to be no way of exiting the room so the atmosphere becomes quite oppressive and therefore intensely claustrophobic. Finally, the three characters are dead so when each is assessing their former lives then their retrospective views are subject to critique by the other two inhabitants of the room. Overall, the artificial environment of this room situated in the afterlife is Sartre’s device to open up a philosophical discussion for his audience. Other people are …
This life, not the afterlife.
Jean-Paul Sartre was an avowed atheist. Therefore, it is ironic that he places his characters in Hell where they proceed to obsess neurotically about their past lives, hoping to find meaning and/or redemption. Of course, the characters just presume that it is Hell since there is no actual confirmation, not even from the mysterious valet. Sartre’s philosophy entails no such life-review from the perspective of an afterlife since he is focused on how one lives one’s life in the here and now, among the living. Religious belief was for Sartre an example of what he called ‘bad faith’ which means that a person fails to be authentic and grasps instead toward beliefs that help ameliorate/explain life’s frequently cruel vicissitudes. No Exit may be seen as a guide to avoid the mental tortures that his characters experience as a result of their individual failures to lead worthy lives (not to be confused with moral lives). The play, while set in some form of afterlife, is assuredly about the living.
Looking at Hell Through a Living Mirror.
Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is a relatively well-known yet rarely read play. Part of the problem is that an intimidating tome, no less than Sartre’s 1943 philosophical work, Being and Nothingness, underpins the ideas held in the theatrical play. However, readers do not need to do arduous, philosophical homework before reading or watching No Exit since the play is self-contained. Furthermore, despite the age of the work, it remains a thought provoking and enlightening piece of theatre mainly due to how it explores our relationships with others. In this essay, some of the existing critical views on Sartre’s play will be outlined, including explanations of his key philosophical terms, but the main focus will be on the theme of antagonism. There is instant and palpable friction between the three lead characters in Sartre’s play and this warrants an investigation that draws upon, yet also adds to, much of the existing critiques of the work. The aim here is to inform a first-time reader about the standard readings of Sartre’s work while also delving into a specific aspect of the play that promises to make it even more accessible and comprehensible.
Even though Being and Nothingness is not prerequisite reading for No Exit, it is nonetheless important to understand the basic connection between the two works. As Gary Cox writes, “The main aim of Sartre’s fictional writing is, after all, to give real substance to his abstract philosophical ideas, to explore, develop and explain those ideas in real-life, existential situations” (11). This generally accepted analysis of the link is echoed by Sister M. Blitgen who explains that “In any Sartrean play, the character and plot are sublimated to the thought. The characters are important only is so far as they project Sartre’s thought” (59). The genre of philosophical thought in question is of course existentialism. Robert C. Solomon asserts that “Sartre’s philosophy is generally taken as the paradigm of existentialist philosophy” (761) which involves the “Sartrean themes [of] —extreme individualism, an emphasis on freedom and responsibility, and the insistence that we and not the world give meaning to our lives” (761). Focusing specifically on the play, Konstantin Kolenda summaries the main topic of No Exit as follows – “Sartre’s play demonstrates that human predicaments arise from the two faces of freedom: its radical independence of any external forces and its awareness of the equal freedom of others” (263). In this essay, the terminology of Sartre’s philosophical work will be explained as it applies to No Exit so that one can appreciate the link, but the aim will never be to explicate Sartre’s philosophical ideas in full. After all, Sartre deliberately wrote a play that would be accessible to a much wider audience than his more academic works.
Now that the play has been situated in relation to Sartre’s philosophy, one may also place it historically. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht writes, “Huis clos—a drama by thirty-eight-year-old Jean-Paul Sartre first produced in occupied Paris at Le Vieux Colombier in May 1944, only a few days before the Allies landed in Normandy—staged the impossibility of leaving a particular space and a basic existential situation” (41). Jonathan Webber addresses the politics of the play along with its initial reception, writing, “The play opened in 1944, shortly before the liberation of Paris, under the title Les Autres (The Others), … Its mixed reception may partly have been due to its claustrophobic atmosphere under the perpetual gaze of ‘the others’ being taken as an allegory of the occupation. Sartre does seem to have intended the play to have this political dimension as well as illustrating his ethical theory” (48). The events of WWII certainly help to inform one’s reading of No Exit especially on the topic of antagonism, whether it be state-led antagonism or that of private individuals like in the play. The fact that the play was written against the backdrop of war is something that one should hold in mind since it undoubtedly sets the tone of the piece.
A final obstacle to be overcome is that many believe No Exit is just too sombre a play to incite broad public interest. Gary Cox writes that No Exit “is Sartre’s best-known and most iconic play. Simple in structure (one act, once scene) and intellectually accessible, it epitomizes the absurdity, anxiety and hopelessness that are synonymous with existentialism in the popular consciousness” (132). Apart from the promise of intellectual accessibility, Cox hardly sells the play to a general audience. Sister M. Blitgen is also uninclined to add sugar to the medicine when she states, “Generally the Sartrean hero feels challenged to heroic existence; man can be saved if he strives with all his heart, if he represents an affirmation to the world, if his human consciousness reveals its essence which is being. But heroic existence for Garcin, Estelle and Florence is impossible. They are frozen in a posture by death” (61). If the characters are doomed to eternal stasis, then one finds little incentive to engage with the piece. However, Cox tackles the topic of existentialism and highlights a core redeeming factor – “Sartre is often characterized in shallow, flippant accounts as a nihilist, as a man advocating despair in face of a cruel and meaningless universe. Although he certainly explores this attitude, particularly in his 1938 novel, Nausea, his philosophy is in fact ultimately positive and constructive” (12). There are two approaches to No Exit that offer an incentive for a prospective reader, one is to view it as a classic, cautionary tale based on Sartre’s philosophy of life, and second, one may read the characters as actually progressing and growing by the end of the story, albeit in a tortuous environment! With a focus on such plus points, the play may be avidly tackled.
Critiques of No Exit.
One cannot unequivocally state that there is one dominant interpretation of No Exit. However, most critics do tend to merge their understanding of Sartre’s brand of existentialism with an analysis of the characters’ actions to come to a final reading. The interpretative conclusions of many such critics are remarkably similar. Jonathan Webber provides a summation of how the play is usually read. He writes as follows:
“Discussions of the play … generally describe each of the three main characters as frustrated by their inability to control the thoughts and actions of the other two, especially where these threaten their preferred images of themselves. They usually point out that the characters have died and so are incapable of adding to their life stories. From which they generally conclude that Sartre’s message is simply that we should not be too concerned with the views others have of us at the moment, but should concentrate on developing ourselves through our future actions. We are not dead yet” (47).
In truth, such a reading is not a bad basis for understanding the play. There are certainly key points that most critics adhere to, before adding their own interpretative twists. In Webber’s own essay, he does not believe that the dead characters are ‘incapable of adding to their stories’ but this is certainly how Sister M. Blitgen reads the play and therefore she falls into the category of predictable reader/critic. Her insights are as follows:
“In uttering such a definitive phrase as ‘Hell is – other people,’ Garcin, the journalist-deserter, opens up to the reader of No Exit the potential to understand or to completely misunderstand Sartre’s conception of hell. Before one is in hell, one must die. What is death for Sartre? Paradoxically, it is just this: that alive man is not, and dead, he is. ‘Death changes life into destiny’ says Malraux in his novel Espoir. ‘One always dies too soon or too late,’ is the cry of Inez” (60).
For Blitgen, the power of others is intensified by one’s death because, “As soon as man dies he is frozen, posed, petrified. His being is no longer his but is left in the hands of others; death gives the final victory to the point of other people” (61). To avoid such a horrid end, she proposes a religiously tinted cry of carpe diem because – “Hell is the failure to recognize the value of free personal choice and to live those choices out, day by day” (63). This clearly matches Webber’s observation that many critics see Sartre’s message as pedagogical – concentrate on self-development while you are still living.
But what if we try to dismantle the core assumption present in most readings of No Exit? Gary Cox dares to rattle one’s faith by questioning, “is it really true that hell is other people? … In that place [the room] hell is not only other people, hell is no windows, no mirrors, no darkness, no sleep, no books, no tears, no exit. An eternity in one miserable room with a handful of people and no distractions would be hell, but would it not be the circumstances rather than the company that made it so?” (138).
An adequate response to Cox’s query would be to state that the physical environment is an intensifier of the unease the characters feel due to their combative interactions, but the room is never the true focal point of our attention, nor should it be. In contrast, Sister M. Blitgen allocates the room a larger role, namely as part of the punishment, when she writes, “Because Sartre abhorred their lack of authenticity and their failure to commit themselves to life, he placed his characters in a stuffy, realistic drawing room of the Second Empire which reads hell” (59). If the room itself symbolizes Hell, then maybe we need to consider the characters as devils! As should be apparent by now, even though many critics focus on the same issues in the play, namely Sartre’s philosophy of life and his characters’ actions, the resulting readings are often quite nuanced, even at variance.
Most readers hope to reach a conclusive reading. Jonathan Webber helpfully gives an account of Sartre’s own view on No Exit’s famous line about other people being hell, followed by an intriguing rebuttal of the author’s stance. Webber writes as follows:
“The standard reception of the slogan misunderstands it. Which is indeed something Sartre pointed out some twenty years after the play was first published. ‘It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned,’ he said ‘But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell.’ But this standard reading does not seem to fit with Sartre’s philosophy or with what he said about the play. For it is central to Sartrean existentialism that we cannot help but see ourselves through the eyes of other people.” (46-47)
Webber gets to the crux of the matter because one does indeed have to evaluate what role ‘other people’ play in No Exit. Other people are either a ubiquitous problem, or the problem is solely with difficult other people. The friction that Webber exposes is the friction between a stand-alone play when one sets it against the philosophical writings of Sartre. Should these two entities align perfectly? Since this essay will go on to focus on the theme of antagonism, it should correspond with Sartre’s own view but in fact, the findings are complex. However, before launching into a detailed new reading, one may familiarize oneself with Sartre’s main philosophical terms since they are the tools one requires to grasp the relevance of the character’s relationships in the play.
Sartre’s No Exit is an excellent, dramatic work in its own right and should not be considered an accompaniment to his philosophical writings. To read No Exit without any reference to Sartre’s existentialist ideas just means that one would appreciate the play in a different way. However, the consequent disadvantage for anyone studying the text is that one is constantly faced with unfamiliar terms in the existing criticism. Beyond this niche readership, and with a general reader in mind, a basic understanding of Sartre’s ideas as they relate to the play simply enhance one’s appreciation of the complexity of the work. If the terminology is required or not depends on one’s reading aims. The vital Sartrean terms covered here are ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself,’ along with ‘bad faith,’ and Sartre’s ideas on consciousness.
Sartre’s depiction of conscious characters in the afterlife is both an artificial and thought-provoking scenario. For one, Sartre himself had no expectation that such a place as Hell existed. The hot, stuffy room in which the characters find themselves is simply a device employed by the playwright to expose the inner workings of their minds. How should one react in such extreme circumstances, especially when one’s companions are prickly, selfish individuals? The answer lies in Sartre’s ideas on the power of the human mind. Robert C. Solomon explains that “as a Cartesian, he [Sartre] never deviated from Descartes’s classical portrait of human consciousness as free and sharply distinct from the physical universe it inhabited. One is never free of one’s “situation,” Sartre tells us, but one is always free to “negate” that situation and to try to change it” (763). Therefore, we can assert that the momentous challenge for Garcin, Estelle, and Inez, is to transcend the ever-nettling company of each other, and the oppressiveness of the room too. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht sums up the situation quite succinctly – “What makes the space a hell for them is the fact that they must live forever in the presence of others and their gazes” (41). Through an understanding of Sartre’s Cartesian standpoint along with his implicit expectations of how each character may find mental relief, one gains huge insight into his characters.
The difference between ‘being-in-itself’ and ‘being-for-itself’ is essential knowledge when discussing works by Sartre. In The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, the following definition is supplied.
A contrast heralded in the phenomenology of Husserl and Heidegger, and central to Sartre’s work Being and Nothingness. Being for-itself (pour-soi) is the mode of existence of consciousness, consisting in its own activity and purposive nature; being in-itself (en-soi) is the self-sufficient, lumpy, contingent being of ordinary things. The contrast bears some affinity to Kant’s distinction between the perspective of agency or freedom and that of awareness of the ordinary phenomenal world.”
While the above definition is certainly helpful, one may also refer to definitions which are more easily applied to the situation depicted in No Exit. For example, Solomon writes, “Sartre defines his existentialist ontology of freedom in terms of the opposition of “being-in-itself” and “being-for-itself,” which in us as individuals is manifested in the tension between the fact that we always find ourselves in a particular situation defined by a body of facts that we may not have chosen—our “facticity”—and our ability to transcend that facticity, imagine, and choose—our transcendence” (763). For even more insight, one may seek to understand these terms as they relate to time. Gary Cox explains how, “Being-for-itself is always not what it is (past) and what it is not (future). We all know what this means if we think about it because we all live this paradox all the time. I am my past which is no longer, and all my actions in a world which is the result of the past aim at a future which is not yet. As for the present, there is no such moment as the present, for when being-for-itself reaches the future at which it aims that future does not become the present but rather immediately becomes the past” (16). Cox goes on to link one of the philosophical ideas with everyday terms more familiar to readers, he writes, “being-for-itself refers to the essential nature or way of being of consciousness or personhood. Every consciousness or person is essentially a being-for-itself. So, in many contexts, the terms ‘consciousness,’ ‘person’ and ‘being-for-itself’ can be used interchangeably” (15). Armed with such comprehensive explanations, a reader may feel more secure in addressing these issues in Sartre’s play.
The last essential term to be addressed here is ‘bad faith.’ Solomon explains this term, writing that “When we try to pretend that we are identical to our roles or the captive of our situations, however, we are in “bad faith.” It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). It is evident that Garcin is in bad faith since he sees himself as identical to his role as a journalist, just as Inez sees herself as fixed in her belligerence as if this aspect of her personality is utterly unalterable. Cox makes an interesting observation on bad faith as it applies to an afterlife – “The person in bad faith may act as though he is immortal, believing that he will always be as he is now or that he will live on in an afterlife cleansed of all inconveniences and acrimony” (12). Sartre robs his characters of the illusion of a peaceful afterlife, forcing them to confront what they patently failed to face in life.
Building on current criticism.
There are surely innovative approaches to Sartre’s play, yet the hellish room and hellish characters are always obligatory focal points for any comprehensive appraisal of the work. Sartre contemplates the impossibility of existing with other people, making solitude appear heavenly by comparison. The question, already touched upon, is if this discomfort arises only from broken relationships or from the unavoidable nature of human interaction? Solomon explains a term not yet addressed which helps to frame human relationships.
“Sartre also defines a third ontological category, which he calls “being-for-others.” Our knowledge of others is not inferred, for example, by some argument by analogy, from the behavior of others. Our experience of other people is first of all the experience of being looked at, not spectatorship or curiosity. Someone “catches us in the act,” and we define ourselves in their terms, identifying ourselves with the way we appear “for others.” We “pin down” one another in the judgments we make, and these judgments become an inescapable ingredient in our sense of ourselves” (Solomon 764).
The idea that others act as the mirrors to our hidden selves, revealing our core identities, is certainly disconcerting. Gary Cox explains further that “In being subject to the judgement of the Other, a person is at the mercy of the freedom of the Other, he is, as Sartre puts it, ‘enslaved’ (BN, p. 291) by the freedom of the Other. The freedom of the Other transcends his freedom, transcends his transcendence, reducing him to what he is for the Other” (137). The question that No Exit prompts readers to pose is whether this torment is ever escapable, because if not then existentialism delivers quite a nihilistic message.
Critics are divided on this question, and like all unresolved questions, it signals a gap for a new reading of the play. Konstantin Kolenda argues that “It is evident from Sartre’s play that not everybody’s thoughts matter to us; we are interested only in opinions of people whose judgement we respect” (264). Jonathan Webber makes a somewhat similar claim, writing that, “The problem is not our reliance on other people, but the combination of this with our relationships being ‘poisoned’” (47). While such interpretations echo Sartre’s own comments on the play, they still clash with existentialist theory when one considers the nature of being-for-others. A new answer may rest in an analysis of interpersonal antagonism as depicted in Sartre’s play.
Antagonism is a personality trait not shared equally among all individuals, and some people express hardly any antagonism. To interpret the scenario depicted in No Exit as solely due to interpersonal antagonism would therefore be incomplete. However, there is a second and complementary reading of antagonism which does not refer to the personality trait but instead to a perceived attack one feels when assessed through the eyes of another, what Sartre refers to as ‘being-for-others.’ A reading of No Exit which focuses on the theme of antagonism in these two formats is a reader-friendly way of deciphering the play. It is salient to state that antagonism is on the opposite end of the scale from agreeableness. In The Handbook of Antagonism, edited by Joshua D. Miller and Donald R. Lynam, one reads that “Antagonism/Agreeableness appears in all major models of personality. It has its most explicit representation in the Five-Factor Model of personality (FFM)” (42). The full list of key personality traits in this model are extraversion, neuroticism, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. In short, one may be classified as a particular personality type based on the presence/absence of such traits. When one looks at the antagonistic individuals in Sartre’s play then one sees people almost completely devoid of a highly determinant personality trait, agreeableness, and this allows one to predict and analyse their behaviour in an academic as opposed to informal manner. What one can expect from someone high in antagonism, like Inez for example, is as follows.
“Antagonism, defined here as the low pole of trait Agreeableness, references traits related to immorality, combativeness, grandiosity, callousness, and distrustfulness. It is a robust correlate of externalizing behaviors such as antisocial behavior, aggression, and substance use; in many cases, it is by far the strongest correlate of these behaviors among the traits that make up the five-factor model of personality” (Miller & Lyman 38).
The second aspect of antagonism relates to how others may oppress us with their judgments. How does this link, if at all, with Sartre’s decision to use the setting of Hell for the play? Sister M. Blitgen finds Sartre’s tactic quite perplexing, and writes, “For one who makes the denial of God the very essence of his system and who asserts that God is merely a projection of the psyche, it is paradoxical that Sartre must employ Christian values and a Christian ethical system in presenting his thought. Even his use of the term ‘hell’ is a referent to the Christian tradition” (60-61). Yes, the word ‘Hell’ has great significance in many major religions and obvious connotations for a reader: eternity, punishment/torture, afterlife, sin, devils, and fire! By activating such thoughts, Sartre also alerts us to the manner in which the ‘Other’ becomes one’s personal hell since they prick our conscience, expose our inner truth, excite shame, and evoke despondency, and furthermore nothing ever changes in Hell, it is eternal stagnation in sin. Jonathan Webber draws attention to the fact that Inez first names the location – “Describing their situation as hell is useful for getting the other two to focus on their sins” (52). The two readings of antagonism merge seamlessly here when one understands that Inez would like the others to unburden themselves of their sins because these personal divulgences of past indiscretions and sins are a veritable invite for an antagonist like Inez to mercilessly punish the sinners. Sartre constructs a perfect storm of emotional turmoil, and antagonism of various sorts is what powers this storm.
In simple terms, Sartre depicts the stark contrast between people working with, or against one another. Miller and Lyman cite how, “Antagonistic individuals place less value on interpersonal harmony, being more likely to sacrifice interpersonal harmony for other goals. Agreeable individuals, on the other hand, are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Even though none of the characters is high in agreeableness, Garcin does endeavour to find agreement given the characters’ joint predicament. First, he proposes silence, “the solution’s easy enough; each of us stays put in his or her corner and takes no notice of the others … And that way we – we’ll work out our salvation. Looking into ourselves, never raising our heads” (10). The intention is to avoid Inez’s predicted nightmare scenario where each character morphs into the other’s personal torturer! Keeping with the religious tone set by the word salvation, Garcin goes on to explain why, failing silence, each character should make a full confession. He says, “I want to know whom I have to deal with …so long as each of us hasn’t made a clean breast of it – why they’ve damned him or her – we know nothing … if we bring our specters into the open, it may save us from disaster” (14). Garcin fixates on his presumption that there is an external enemy of as yet unseen devils who are their prison guards and who will eventually enact a punishment. As readers, we understand that the enemy is already in the room. The styles of interpersonal behaviour exhibited by Inez and Garcin may be formally classified as agency and communion. Miller and Lynam explain these terms, writing, “Agency is primarily concerned with becoming individuated and involves behaviors/traits such as dominance, status, control, and power (Gurtman, 2009). Communion is concerned with connecting with others and involves behaviors/traits such as love, friendliness, and affiliation” (47). An understanding of the characters’ traits helps one appreciate the dynamic of their ongoing and seemingly irresolvable conflict.
The hell that Sartre presents to his audience is missing one key figure – a devil. Webber singles out the character of Inez as having privileged levels of knowledge and therefore she is conspicuously unlike her companions. He writes, “Focusing on Inez in this way brings out the possibility that she is not in the same position as the other two and that perhaps she is a demon in disguise. If this is right, then she genuinely is, as she herself says, cruel right to the core, and her role is simply to torture the other two” (51). Webber’s reading is quite convincing, up to a point. For instance, Inez seems disingenuous when she first identifies Garcin as “the torturer” (5) because she counterintuitively bases this on her perception that he is frightened. She then proceeds to be very curt with him and this is not a tactic one would risk with a real torturer. It is also suspicious how quickly Inez foresees their dilemma, grasping the fact that “each of us will act as torturer of the two others” (10). As an aside, one may imagine that Inez is grooming a fellow demoness when she tells Estelle that her reapplied lipstick is “far better. Crueler … quite diabolical” (12). Webber’s assessment of Inez as the cruel torturer aka demon, seems fully assured when Inez states – “I’m rather cruel, really … I mean I can’t get on without making people suffer” (15). She even recruits Garcin’s help in persecuting Estelle when they both chant – “He shot himself because of you” (16) in reference to Estelle’s lover. However, to characterize Inez as a demon is eventually shown to be erroneous because she suffers her own torture inflicted by Estelle, the object of her affection. When Inez prohibits Garcin and Estelle from making love by her incessant insults, Estelle correctly identifies Inez’s weak point, telling Garcin to “Revenge yourself … Kiss me, darling – Then you’ll hear her squeal” (25). Just as Inez was disgusted by the heterosexual couple making love in her old bed, she is equally upset by her loss of Estelle as a potential partner especially when it is to a male rival. Even if Inez is no literal devil, no consort of Satan in this strange hell, she does underline how the ‘other’ is always the unseen enemy, displacing Garcin’s idea of devils lurking outside the room. Estelle initially ponders the mix of people in the room, saying, “Really I can’t imagine why they put us three together. It doesn’t make sense” (8). However, the precise mix of personalities is crucial to excite the worst antagonism and therefore the worst torture.
Garcin contemplates the exact nature of the tortures on several occasions. At first, he sums up the situation to the valet, saying, “Shall I tell you what it feels like? A man’s drowning, choking, sinking by inches, till only his eyes are just above water” (3), and finally he is mocked by the sight of a Barbedienne sculpture in the room. The room is formally furnished and decorated with sofas and art, so the innocuous conventionality mocks the horrors Garcin expects to suffer. Garcin contemplates the enduring, unbroken nature of the upcoming torture since one can never sleep, but the true punishment will be psychological – “How shall I endure my own company? … I’m used to teasing myself. Plaguing myself” (5). Garcin’s distress caused by his habit of bombarding himself with negative thoughts makes him more liable to seek comfort from others, the salve of another’s kind words. As an antagonist, Inez would wholeheartedly welcome such revelations and indeed she pre-empts Garcin’s later suggestion when she suggests that each person confess the true reason for their damnation, saying, “If only each of us had the guts to tell” (9). The call to courage seems specifically directed to Garcin’s weakness and he and Estelle do give sanitized accounts of their lives. Inez promptly eviscerates her companions, calling Estelle “my little plaster saint” (10) and Garcin is mocked as “the noble pacifist” (10). Inez’s deceitful nature and inclination to contrariness is quickly revealed when she denigrates what was originally her own suggestion, saying tauntingly – “Well, Mr. Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?” (17). The nudity referenced is emotional vulnerability and it is not a desired state in the presence of someone like Inez who says, “I’m a pitfall” (18). The characters begin to view each other like physical traps which may be triggered by a mere look. By the end of the play, Garcin is no longer preoccupied by the rankling of his own thoughts, but by the thoughts generated through his contact with his horrible companions whom he must endure for eternity. He would welcome any physical torture rather than his allocated fate, and says, “Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough” (24).
It is virtually impossible to untangle the effects of ‘being-for-others’ from the effects of high levels of antagonism. Nonetheless, characters high in agreeableness would interact differently, but would fall prey occasionally to the discomfort caused by other’s judgements. Antagonism is undoubtedly an accelerant to the fiery Hell Sartre depicts, lending credence to the reading where hell is only especially difficult people, like Inez. Be that as it may, No Exit does not relinquish its secrets quite so easily.
Mirroring in No Exit.
Garcin’s predicament is identical to that of his fellow prisoners in the room. Sartre shows how each character has the potential to wear down the other psychologically. In such circumstances, they must pay attention to the personalities and personality traits of each character. Miller and Lyman explain how the set of “antagonism traits include manipulation and arrogance – both representing strategies for deceiving and dominating others. Antagonistic manipulation involves a duplicitous interpersonal style that utilizes flattery or deception to control others” (218). This is an apt explanation of the interplay between the characters, especially between Inez and her companions. Much of the interpersonal dynamic seen in the play is linked to traits of antagonism and Sartre communicates many interactions with direct and oblique references to mirroring.
First, one may consider the significance of mirroring. In a book entitled Mirroring People, Marco Iacoboni explains how mirror neurons function to activate certain responses in the brain, and he gives the everyday example of watching a movie. He writes, “because mirror neurons in our brains recreate for us the distress we see on the screen. We have empathy for the fictional characters – we know how they’re feeling – because we literally experience the same feelings ourselves” (9). In No Exit, the three people have no access to mirrors or even a basic, reflective surface, and consequently each becomes the other’s mirror. If one uses the analogy of watching a movie, then the scene is tortuous because the characters have no eyelids and therefore, they are effectively forced to continuously watch and react to each other. For instance, Garcin immediately feels great discomfort when he notices how piercing the valet’s look is – “there’s something so beastly, so damn bad-mannered, in the way you stare at me” (3). The irritation that Garcin feels is not generated solely by the valet’s stare, but also by his inability to shut his own eyes, to short-circuit his response. Garcin’s distress is visible and therefore the valet’s nonchalance exaggerates the discomfort, communicating that they have quite separate fates. Iacoboni explains that “By helping us recognize the actions of other people, mirror neurons also help us to recognize and understand the deepest motives behind those actions, the intentions of other individuals” (11). In light of such an explanation, one conceives how Sartre’s strange room in the afterlife may become a haven of empathic interconnectedness, or conversely a savage arena where individuals will suffer mental disintegration. The major deciding factor is the personality types involved. Iacoboni ponders our existential condition when he writes that mirror neurons, “show that we are not alone, but are biologically wired and evolutionarily designed to be deeply interconnected with one another” (284). Sartre portrays how this can become the stuff of nightmares.
There are many examples of characters mirroring and thereby ‘reading’ one another in No Exit. One example occurs quite early when Inez perceives that Garcin is frightened and tells him so. Garcin scoffs but Inez explains, “I know what I’m talking about. I’ve often watched my face in the glass” (5). Inez soon capitalizes on the room’s lack of mirrors, obviously understanding the potential power they hold, when she says to Estelle, “suppose I try to be your glass” (10). Though this game starts with Inez honestly fulfilling the role of reflecting back what she sees, namely Garcin’s fearful facial expression and the accuracy of Estelle’s reapplication of lipstick, it soon devolves into a mind-game where the ‘mirror’ becomes unreliable. Estelle confides in her new, human mirror – “You scare me rather. My reflection in the glass never did that” (12). Estelle rejects Inez’s help which results in Inez’s quick retaliation, “Suppose the mirror started telling lies?” (12). Whoever performs the role of mirror wields great power and this threat is first exposed by Inez. Miller and Lynam provide information that allows one to understand the role of personality in the situation just explained, they write “Antagonistic people are competitive and they often view others as tools to be used for their own ends” (341). Inez is the most antagonistic of the three and therefore this tendency to manipulate others is most obvious in her. Her competence to act as a dispassionate mirror is impossible due to her overtly antagonistic personality.
Inez employs a game of divide and conquer based on prior, successful experience. Mirroring plays a role here since Inez has already detected a particular vulnerability in Garcin (3). When she tells her story of the “affair with Florence. A dead men’s tale. With three corpses to it” (15) then Garcin understands the covert threat as it applies to the current ménage à trois. Inez poisoned Florence’s mind against a male lover so that she could win (in the romantic sense) and control Florence – “I crept inside her skin, she saw the world through my eyes” (15). Interestingly, all three characters were involved in love triangles of various sorts when they were alive. Inez makes a direct threat to Garcin, saying, “I’ll catch her [Estelle], she’ll see you through my eyes, as Florence saw that other man” (18). This confrontation occurs due to Inez’s reading of the situation as a win/lose scenario, which also explains her refusal to cooperate with Garcin. True to Sartre’s calculated mix of personalities, Inez is fated to fail with Estelle. At first, Inez predictably tries to manipulate and deceive Estelle, hoping to replace Peter who was an admirer and dance partner – “Come to me, Estelle. You shall be whatever you like: a glancing stream, a muddy stream. And deep down in my eyes you’ll see yourself just as you want to be” (20). Estelle is a narcissist and relies upon the good opinions of others to sustain her own fragile self-approval. There is a clever allusion to the myth of Narcissus in the reference to the ‘glancing stream’ since Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and eventually died when he could not turn away from it. Inez dreams of being just such a malignant mirror. However, Inez has lost her potential dupe because previously she recklessly encouraged the revelation of sordid secrets from each of them. Consequently, Inez’s approval is worthless because, as Estelle says, “You know too much about me, you know I’m rotten through and through” (19). True to her dogged competitiveness, Inez persists and is also quite open about her sexual desire until Estelle finally spits in her face to make her desist! We witness how the hellish game is programmed to continually restart, allowing no player a lasting advantage.
Estelle’s narcissism is not just an impediment to Inez’s plan, but also affects Garcin. At an early point in the play, Estelle remarks, “There are some faces that tell me everything at once. Yours [Garcin’s and Inez’s] don’t convey anything” (9). Estelle’s inability to read faces results from her own self-obsession and tendency to see others only when they are useful to her. The traits of antagonism, including deceiving and dominating others, have many commonalities with “the interpersonal manipulation seen in psychopathy, narcissism, and borderline personality disorder” (Miller & Lynam 218). In short, Estelle is comparably manipulative to Inez but as a consequence of narcissism. Garcin is also narcissistic and thus inwardly insecure, so he needs approval to validate his views. Estelle wishes to take Garcin as her lover, but she fails to act as the kind of mirror he desperately requires, a flattering one. Estelle flippantly says, “Coward or hero, it’s all one—provided he kisses well” (22). This disgusts Garcin who says, “You’re [Estelle] even fouler than she [Inez]. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh!” (24). Once again, the focus is on how the opinion of others has such a tremendous effect on one’s morale. The human mirror is nightmarish because one may sink into those eyes, or as Inez did with Florence, one may end up seeing the world through another’s eyes.
The relevance of mirroring goes beyond the already touched upon topic of mirror neurons in the brain which are responsible for empathy and ‘reading’ others. In an essay called “The Uncanny Mirror” by Philippe Rochat and Dan Zahavi, the issue of mirroring is explored with reference to the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty. A key point from the essay that assists our understanding of Sartre’s play is as follows, “one can only become self-conscious (in the sense of becoming an object to oneself) in an indirect manner, namely by adopting the attitudes of others on oneself, and this is something that can only happen within a social environment” (3). This explains why Garcin longs for a trustworthy assessment of him by one of the women in the room because that would constitute an objective view. Garcin’s own view of himself is always insufficient since he cannot trust its objectivity, he needs other people. The significance of the mirror/other may be traced back to early childhood development – “the mirror permits the child to see itself as it is seen by others, and might also bring about the explicit realization that it is given to others with the same visual appearance that it is being confronted with in the mirror” (Rochat & Zahavi 6). Estelle gives an example of this occurring in adulthood when she says “I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself [in the mirror] as the others saw me” (11). The interchangeability of a mirror with a person acting as a mirror is quite fascinating.
Garcin will later decline the opportunity to escape the room because he needs someone to mirror him. He singles out Inez as his only hope since she shares his characteristic of cowardliness, he says, “SO it’s you whom I have to convince; you are of my kind” (25). Garcin is in a perverse situation since he must rely on someone who will clearly relish the power it affords her, yet without her, he remains in crisis. Inez sums up her complete dominion over Garcin as follows.
“Now then! Don’t lose heart. It shouldn’t be so hard, convincing me. Pull yourself together, man, rake up some arguments. [GARCIN shrugs his shoulders.] Ah, wasn’t I. right when I said you were vulnerable? Now you’re going to pay the price, and what a price! You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it—do you hear? —I wish it. And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you. [He walks towards her, opening his hands.] Ah, they’re open now, those big hands, those coarse, man’s hands! But what do you hope to do? You can’t throttle thoughts with hands. So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25).
Sartre exhibits a perfect understanding of a trait we all share, the need for another’s approval. This is something that is first in evidence in childhood, as already noted, and the following quote additionally explains the root link to self-consciousness.
“In his essay, Merleau-Ponty remarks that the other’s look starts to be felt as an annoyance when the child reaches the age of around 3, and that the reason for this is that the other’s look displaces the child’s attention from whatever tasks it is concerned and preoccupied with to a concern for the way in which it is presented to others” (Rochat & Zahavi 6).
Mirroring is foundational to how we function in the world, from the mirror neurons firing in our brains to the responses we learn as part of our normal, psychological developments. An appreciation of how personality traits influence these normal brain functions and psychological responses brings one closer to understanding the fantastic environment constructed in No Exit. So far, we have looked at characters who are seemingly defined by their past lives. The unspoken premise is that the characters have no prospect of redoing, correcting, or erasing, so acceptance is the final option. As a consequence, the opinion of the other person holds more sway now than ever before given the unusual circumstances. However, Sartre’s philosophy is broader and still requires one to look at other aspects of the play.
Hell and ‘bad faith.’
In the traditional, Christian interpretation of Hell, one is damned for all eternity. This contrasts with the idea of Purgatory where sinners may do penance and gain eventual salvation i.e., the soul is cleansed. This is a line of thought which Webber pursues, writing that “Part of the reason why the characters are often assumed to be in hell might be the common view that there is no change, no progression, no quest or discovery during the play” (49). Webber challenges this view. As a reader, one also needs to decide if the characters have any potential to progress and thereby resolve their past faults. Sartre depicts Garcin as someone who attempts to find unanimous agreement on how to thwart the unseen devils whom he imagines are his real enemies. This means he has hope, something normally impossible for someone in Hell. The potential of the characters to progress lies solely in their hands but we must be alert to what may obstruct them. The primary obstruction to personal progress in Sartre’s philosophy is ‘bad faith.’ This interlinks with personality type in several interesting ways.
Are Sartre’s three main characters in bad faith? Webber explains that “Although we always need the eyes of other people in order to see ourselves, bad faith condemns us to be being reliant on seeing ourselves as this or that and therefore reliant on other people in a way we would not otherwise be” (54). The inflexibility of one’s self-image is the core flaw and as previously quoted from Solomon, but worth repeating here, – “It is bad faith to see ourselves as something fixed and settled, defined by a job or by “human nature”’ (764). Whitaker provides insightful classifications of each character’s personality type, writing that, “Estelle, a narcissist … depends on the mirroring gaze of others to make her seem a valued object. Inez, a self-declared sadist, needs the suffering of others in order to maintain that of herself … And Garcin, who is narcissist and sadist by turns, a confused idealist with a self-deceiving will to self-sufficiency, finally sees that one who identifies consciousness with any role or ideal must submit to the unpredictable validating judgement of others” (170-171).
To begin with Garcin, it is true that he has a firm sense of self-identity. For example, he rather pompously asks the valet, “Do you know who I was?” (2), and later introduces himself to Inez as, “I’m Joseph Garcin, journalist and man of letters by profession” (5). The problem for Garcin is that he cannot relinquish the idealized image of himself as a journalist who was guided by his ethical convictions. When Inez labels him a deserter, he defensively replies – “Let that be. It’s only a side-issue. I’m here because I treated my wife abominably” (14). For Garcin, it is the ultimate blow for another to taint his professional life with the slur of deserter, a journalist who ran away rather than stick to his convictions. On the other hand, his wife never concerned him much and still does not. Identifying her as the reason for his current punishment is merely a deflection. He clings to an image of himself that is fragile and maintained only via self-deception and as a consequence, the image of heroic journalist is especially vulnerable to others’ comments. In contrast, Inez takes no particular pride in her old job as a post-office clerk, but instead sees her personality as fixed and unchangeable. Her identity doubles as a defence mechanism, she says, “I was what some people down there called “a damned bitch”’ (15), and she goes on to define herself using a negative, saying, “I’m rotten to the core” (17). Like Garcin, Inez holds to her image as if it were set in stone, saying, “My life’s in perfect order. It tidied itself up nicely of its own accord. So I needn’t bother about it now” (8). Estelle is also trapped in the past, and as a narcissist she forever relies on the good opinion of others. The revelation that she is a “baby-killer” (26) irrevocably shatters her pristine self-image, leaving her as a “hollow dummy” (20). Rather than reform, she desperately searches for a new source of flattery.
Bad faith is clearly what makes each character vulnerable, so why don’t they choose to abandon what hinders their potential progress? The answer is power, but more specifically it relates to cachet for Garcin and Estelle, and simply the dark side of cachet for Inez, namely being hated and feared. Each character has connected their personal worth with a fixed idea of self which they fear losing. Antagonism interrelates with bad faith. For instance, one learns from Miller and Lyman that, “Broadly, in romantic relationships, antagonistic individuals are more likely to behave in ways that are hurtful and upsetting to their partner” (605) and “antagonistic individuals are more likely to be unfaithful to their romantic partner” (609). All three characters behave abominably to their romantic partners and though they would vehemently deny it, each ultimately fears the consequences. Although Garcin denigrates his wife and her “martyred look” (8), he must accept that if his perfect self-deception of being a great journalist should finally crumble then he is indeed left as just a worthless man, a cad who mistreated his wife before being shot as a deserter. Inez deceived and dominated her lover Florence, true to the traits of an antagonist, but Florence disempowered Inez when she gassed them both. A sleeping Inez is rendered impotent when her life is ended by the lover she treated as a puppet, yet Florence turns out to be the real puppeteer. Inez fails to accept this truth, and the evidence is her continued affectation of dominance now with her fellow prisoners. Estelle, who is manipulative and selfish as a consequence of her narcissism, murders the child she conceived with her lover but shows no concern for his feelings. Yet, she pays the price when her latest admirer Peter learns of the horrid tale. Estelle initially gloats about “how he was terribly in love with me” (18) but soon begins to squirm when Olga tarnishes her formerly, perfect image. Estelle pleads from afar – “no, no. Don’t tell him. Please, please don’t tell him” (19). As Miller and Lyman write, “Some patterns of antagonistic behavior in romantic relationships are more likely when certain conditions are met” (605) and these conditions are quite simple – “low agreeable people engaged in transgressions because they thought they would get away with it, not because it was the right thing to do” (605). Sartre constructs a scene where each of his characters clings to a specific self-image, but their individual sins of antagonism serve to undermine those perfect images. The personal, iconographic images for the respective characters are great journalist, bitch, and flawless beauty. Should these iconic images shatter then what is left except horrible, deceitful, antagonists?
Inez and Estelle do not abandon, nor do they demonstrably seek to escape their respective self-images as established in life. They remain steadfastly in bad faith. Garcin is different and thus he presents a considerable problem for readers since he simultaneously gestures towards two opposing goals. First, one may reasonably read him as being in bad faith like the others. One may confidently assert this because he is offered an opportunity to escape the room but chooses to remain, and his reason for remaining is the hope that he will eventually convince Inez that he is the courageous journalist and manly man he professes to be, and no coward. Inez, true to her old self, says, “So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy” (25). To digress briefly, this reconfirms her unwillingness to change, and Inez in turn exposes Estelle’s bad faith when she correctly interprets Estelle’s romantic interest in Garcin, saying, “She’d assure you you were God Almighty if she thought it would give you pleasure” (23). In this first reading, Garcin is a prisoner to the idea of himself as a heroic journalist and that alone holds him prisoner in the room.
The contrasting second reading sees Garcin as capable of real progress. This requires one to look at Garcin temporally and to comprehend his desire for a specific goal in the current predicament. At the beginning of the play, Garcin tells the valet about the horror of the situation, but he quickly adds, “I won’t make a scene, I shan’t be sorry for myself, I’ll face the situation, as I said just now. Face it fairly and squarely” (3). Despite his antagonistic traits, he does exactly as promised and tries repeatedly to form a peaceful alliance with Inez and Estelle in the hope of thwarting an external enemy. One is struck by how different this Garcin is from the man who fled to Mexico, the man who had an embarrassing “physical lapse” (22) when standing before the firing squad. It is also significant that he resigns himself to the fact that his earthly reputation is ruined since his fellow newspaper men think, “Garcin’s a coward” (22). Yet, Garcin clearly backtracks when he transfers his hopes from his old colleagues to Estelle as follows:
“If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I’m not the sort who runs away, that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it—well, that one person’s faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me? Then I shall love you and cherish you forever. Estelle—will you?” (23).
When Estelle proves to be a false hope, Garcin turns to Inez seeking the precise same validation. In this respect, he continues to be in bad faith. The counter-reading relies on an appreciation of the continuous effort Garcin makes to forge a better future for all three of them. When Inez tells Garcin that he has been defined by his life, she also says, “It’s what one does, and nothing else, that shows the stuff one’s made of” (25). What Garcin does in the room is seek solutions, solidify bonds, instil hope and all of these are signs that he has abandoned his former self. Miller and Lyman explain that “Agreeable individuals [unlike antagonists] are likely to be motivated to maintain harmonious relations across many interpersonal contexts, whether it be with a romantic partner or an acquaintance” (40). Garcin has arguably evolved from the antagonistic man who allowed his wife serve morning coffee to him and his mistress (14). His decision to stay in the room rather than accept his freedom is explained by his perceived need for Inez’s approval, but it is also an act of courage. At the close of the scene, the characters burst into laughter due to their acknowledgement that hell is forever, and Garcin has the last words – “Well, well, let’s get on with it. . ..” (27). Webber asserts that Garcin’s line is significant since, “the play then ends with his expressing an unambiguously courageous attitude to their situation” (50). Is Garcin courageous despite his doubts, does he really need someone to confirm his courage, isn’t courage reliant on doing rather than thinking? Garcin faces the current moment with resolve knowing that Inez may never accede to his wishes. Are his false mirrors making him believe that he is still trapped in his past when in fact he has evolved into a different man? While Inez holds significant power in the trio of characters, the power is always negative. Garcin may transcend his doubts if he only continues on his present course. He is the only character of the three who may be read as breaking away from the habit of bad faith. This represents the only true freedom.
Sartre’s No Exit presents an engaging story while additionally raising serious, philosophical questions. In this essay, I have endeavoured to present a new reading of the play by focusing on the personality trait of antagonism while also addressing long standing interpretative battles about this work. A few key observations and questions have been raised herein which may be more fully addressed now. First, one may reread an important quote from the play and in light of the information from this essay, show how philosophically weighted it now appears.
Garcin eloquently surmises the predicament that he shares with Inez and Estelle:
“They’ve laid their snare damned cunningly—like a cobweb. If you make any movement, if you raise your hand to fan yourself, Estelle and I feel a little tug. Alone, none of us can save himself or herself; we’re linked together inextricably. So you can take your choice” (Sartre 17).
Garcin imagines the snare has been set by devils, but the trap is really just elements of human nature and human psychology with which we all must contend. For instance, the ‘little tug’ that is referenced is an apt metaphor for the workings of one’s mirror neurons. As previously outlined, these brain neurons allow us to understand at an empathic level the motivations behind the actions of others. The ‘cobweb’ is a wonderful image but there is no satanic spider at the center, it is just a series of almost invisible human connections. The reference to being ‘linked together inextricably’ is arguably an encapsulation of Sartre’s idea of being-for-others. Of note is how Garcin envisages no way of succeeding alone so there is no true escape from others, except involving an even greater sacrifice to oneself, for example, social isolation. The ‘choice’ to be made refers to failing alone or succeeding together, but at a more philosophical level it communicates the necessity to abandon ‘bad faith’ so that one may indeed work in conjunction with others, without intolerable friction. This new reading is only possible when one has a basic grasp of Sartre’s philosophy.
The pressing question that exercises most people is how one should interpret the line, ‘hell is other people,’ which is taken to be the thesis statement of the play. The exploration of the theme of antagonism offers a nuance on existing readings. Like most nuanced readings, it requires some explanation. In No Exit, one views a distinctive space that Sartre carefully designed and constructed. Regarding the physical set, it is a brutal environment of bright light and excessive heat, and there is no way of exiting the room. The characters have also been designed, proven by their not-quite-normal features such as the absence of eyelids. Maybe Sartre was being ironic when he decided that his small cast of the talking-dead also needed no sleep. Garcin, Estelle, and Inez have long been classified by various critics as an assortment of two narcissists and one sadist. It is insufficient to call such people difficult because, in truth, they suffer from recognizable personality disorders. In addition to this mix of elements, the playwright depicts his characters as expressing high levels of antagonism which is a key personality trait from which we can reliably predict various outcomes. The overall effect of such a theatrical presentation on an audience is best described as an alienation effect. M H Abrams quotes the playwright Bertolt Brecht when providing an explanation of the aim of employing an alienation effect. He writes as follows:
“This effect, Brecht said, is used to make familiar aspects of the present social reality seem strange, so as to prevent the emotional identification or involvement of the audience with the characters and their actions in a play. His aim was instead to evoke a critical distance and attitude in the spectators, in order to arouse them to take action against, rather than simply to accept, the state of society and behavior represented on the stage.” (5)
Sartre employs an alienation effect because it facilitates his pedagogical aims. His play is essentially a cautionary tale, and the core message is that each of us needs to avoid ‘bad faith.’ The characters are monstrous enough for us to stop and think. An analysis of the theme of antagonism in the work has shown why the series of interpersonal interactions always turn sour. The participants are simply too high in the personality trait of antagonism. In this light, Sartre has deliberately fixed the game so that the characters will return again and again to an excruciating state of deadlock. It may be called Hell because it is a conspicuously, unnatural scene and meant to be so. Therefore, Sartre’s assertion that Hell is only other people when one’s relationship with such people has already been vitiated, is entirely correct in the context of the work. If the characters were high in the trait of agreeableness, then the scene would play out quite differently. Sartre employs an extreme example so that he may more effectively communicate the essence of his philosophical ideas. There is no contradiction between Sartre’s concept of being-for-others and the above reading since he also teaches that one is not vulnerable to the other when one abandons the state of bad faith. He proclaims the ever-present facility of one’s mind to transcend any current predicament.
Dante finally emerges from Hell in the famous work of literature, Inferno, but Sartre’s Garcin only gets to the exit before it becomes apparent that he has not done sufficient work to merit escape. Hell is only other people when one is a prisoner to a fixed, false idea of oneself, an idea that makes one eternally vulnerable to the gaze of the other. Antagonism simply debars Sartre’s characters from making any progress because they are also already in bad faith. It turns out that through an exploration of the theme of antagonism in No Exit, one comes to a far better understanding of the ingenious mechanics of Sartre’s Hell.
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