’s No Exit Essay, Research Paper
Hell and Enslavement. In Sartre’s No Exit
By Wallace Vincent Rose
Sartre, the most famous of the existentialist thinkers, wrote No Exit in 1944. It was first performed in Paris during the Nazi occupation. Sartre was a POW during the occupation, but escaped punishment from the Nazis. There is obviously an overall question pertaining to the play in terms of its relation to the historical period and the atrocities that were taking place in France and all of Europe. Sartre obviously knew of the racist ideology and actions the Nazis were imposing on the world. Therefore, his play is at some level be a reflection of the troubled times in which he lived. The occupying Nazis forces enslaved his nation. Did France feel like a nation that was going to Hell? Did individuals feel that they lived in Hell? This is one of the many themes found in Sartre’s play. Perhaps this is this what Sartre’s play is about? In Sartre’s play, No Exit, there is never any indication that these people are actually in Hell. The characters themselves identify with the space that holds them prisoners. For example, when Inez says,
INEZ: Yes, we are criminals– murderers– all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets; they never make mistakes, and people aren’t damned for nothing.
Sartre’s existentialist point in this frightening play is a simple one: the people, who inhabit Hell, create Hell. The Valet who leads our three characters into their Second Empire drawing room never once says they’re in Hell. He laughs at Garcin’s cynical reference to the toothbrush, acknowledging that its companion is dead, but never does the Valet say that they are actually in hell. The interaction between the three people creates a hellish situation. Again, Inez says this quite clearly:
INEZ: … Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE!
It is interesting that Sartre has placed our three characters in a room of the “Second Empire” style. In the mid 19th Century Louis Napoleon was placed on the French throne and his era was named the “Second Empire”. This reference to a re-establishment of monarchy is an oblique reference to Nazi Germany’s occupation of France. The French had re-established the third Republic, which survived until the Second World War. Furthermore, France, under occupation had no democratic elections or other forms of “freedom” of expression. Thus, drawing the parallel between Louis Napoleon’s regime and the Nazi’s regime is not a big leap. If this is true, then the incarceration of these three characters, Garcin, Inez and Estelle, may be a reflection of the incarceration of many of those who fell victim to the Nazis. Thus, the way that these characters deal with their differences and their “crimes” is the subject of Sartre’s existentialist exploration.
None of the characters have committed crimes that are beyond human understanding. Estelle’s crime is adultery, infanticide. The consequence of her actions is the suicide of her lover. Inez’s crime is seduction, lesbianism, and the destruction of another man’s life that led him to suicide. Garcin’s crimes are straightforward by comparison having abused his wife, and avoided military service. Sartre seems to be making the point that these three characters can see why they would end up in Hell, but not what will get them out. Their release, of course, would be the realization that their actions are what make them more than mere nothingness.
Existentialism is a form of philosophical thought that points out that humanity is nothing, and that there is only a void around us that we can draw meaning from. Only our actions make us meaningful. When applied to the characters in question, we can see that they are not able to take the needed action to exit their “Hell” because they cannot take responsibility for themselves. For instance, when the door opens and Garcin has the opportunity to leave the room, he does not leave. He is unable to exit the room. The implication is that he cannot take the necessary action because he cannot take responsibility for his actions. Garcin is forever trapped between nothingness and what is real. In addition, Inez cannot push Estelle out of the room, as she would really like to do. Estelle does nothing with the opportunity, and remains confined to the room.
The room is little more than a temporary holding cell from which these people can leave if they make the mental leap that will give them the foresight to do so. That is why they are in Hell. It is not because it is imposed on them, but because they impose it on themselves. Hell is made up of people like us all, who have committed crimes and refuse to accept responsibility. This is the message of the play. To challenge those institutions and their ideology was not easy, even under conditions of military defeat and Nazi occupation.
The play ends on a note of acceptance, which actually provides a hope for humanity. The characters of the play, condemned to torturing each other, work out that they are in the room forever because they have no means to escape. Sartre, however, has already shown us that they can leave. First, however, it would take a philosophical acceptance of the nature of life and humanity to do so. The characters need to accept the idea that action is everything. Furthermore, man can only act if man is conscious that “conscious action” provides meaning to life. Their enslavement is a result of their own inability to accept that they are the makers of their own destiny:
INEZ: Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes–useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever.
ESTELLE: Forever. My God, how funny! Forever.
GARCIN: Forever, and ever, and ever.
(A long silence.)
GARCIN: Well, well, let’s get on with it…
In the end, Sartre’s characters accept their lot, much as