No Fire and No Exit
Friday, June 26, 1992
Honors Seminar VIII – Honors 402
Dr. Regis Martin
Franciscan University of Steubenville
Since the earliest days of storytelling, men have been fascinated with the topic of hell. Homer, Virgil, Dante and other great authors of literature have offered their own descriptions of the underworld. Jean-Paul Sartre, a twentieth-century author and philosopher, offers a rather unique view of hell: In his play entitled No Exit, hell is not a place where people are confronted with steaming coals and ghastly spirits. Instead, the torture of the damned is a group dynamic. By examining the main characters in the play—Garcin, Estelle and Inez—and the way in which they interact with one another, Sartre’s concept of hell will become clearer.
Garcin is a man preoccupied with the opinions of others—a painful preoccupation because he assumes that others disapprove of his character. Shortly after he has been introduced to Inez, he says to her: “I can quite understand that it bores you having me here” (9). His need for approval dominates his interaction with Inez and Estelle. At times his need for approval overrides even his conscience. When Inez scolds him for committing adultery in the presence of his wife, he responds as follows: “Yes, [I am] a brute, if you like. But a well-beloved brute” (25). He does not mind being called a brute: What he fears is the title of coward. Whenever he has a chance to observe the activities of his living associates, he assumes that they are thinking of him, and thinking of him as a coward: “That’s what they’ve decided, those dear friends of mine. In six months time they’ll be saying: ‘Cowardly as that skunk Garcin'” (39). Garcin desperately wants to think of himself as a hero, a self-actualized man: “I didn’t give a damn for wealth, or love. I aimed at being a real man…. Can one possibly be a coward when one’s deliberately courted anger at every turn?… I made my choice deliberately. A man is what he wills himself to be” (44). Garcin’s preoccupation places him in a vicious cycle of insecurity; his need for approval haunts him with the sense of being a coward, which in turn increases his need for approval.
While Garcin seeks approval of his character, Estelle seeks a more superficial acceptance. She is a woman concerned with trivialities, as evidenced by the commentary she provides as she watches her funeral: “Oh dear! What a sight Olga looks this morning!… She’s not crying, and I don’t blame her; tears always mess one’s face up… ” (12). She is not alone in her pettiness: Some of the first concerns voiced by her companions in hell concern toothbrushes and mirrors. However, Estelle is especially concerned with appearance. At times, her vanity borders on narcissism: “I feel so queer…. When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much” (19). When she speaks about herself—which is almost always—she describes herself entirely in terms of external attributes; she desires to be praised for her physical beauty. As she tries to arouse Garcin’s interest, she says: “Don’t turn away…. Everyone says I’ve lovely hair and, after all, a man killed himself on my account. You have to look at something…. Surely I’m better to look at than a lot of stupid furniture” (34). She deals in superficiality primarily because of the pain she feels concerning the murder of her child: “Everyone knows by now what I did to my baby…. I’m just a hollow dummy, all that’s left of me is the outside… ” (35). In her own way, she is as insecure as Garcin; just as Garcin desires moral approval, Estelle seeks physical approval.
Although Inez also exhibits a certain insecurity, she has given up all hope of gaining the approval of others. Of the three main characters in the play, she is the only one who doesn’t pretend to be surprised at having ended up in hell: “We are criminals—murderers—all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets… people aren’t damned for nothing” (17). She has taken merciless inventory of herself, an inventory that plagues her continually: “I’m always conscious of myself—in my mind. Painfully conscious” (19). Her self-evaluation leads her to the conclusion that she is incapable of any positive sort of relation: “I’m all dried up. I can’t give and can’t receive. How could I help you? A dead twig, ready for the burning” (30). Having determined that she is incapable of love, she tries to quench her insecurity by seeking power. She describes herself as a torturer; she knows what a torturer looks like because “I’ve often watched my face in the glass” (9). She views her relationship with herself and with others as one of war. At one point in the play, she lashes out with belligerence at Garcin: “I prefer to choose my hell; I prefer to look you in the eyes and fight it out face to face” (23). Constantly she betrays her hunger for control. Garcin and Estelle also exhibit this hunger—Garcin prides himself on “facing situations”(5) and Estelle speaks of taming her mirror and possessing her former lover—but Inez is unique in her desire to inflict pain on others. Her response to being confronted with her own faults is to torture others with theirs; she hopes to sugarcoat her own suffering by dragging other people into suffering with her. In her own words: “When I say I’m cruel, I mean I can’t get on without making people suffer. Like a live coal. A live coal in others’ hearts. When I’m alone I flicker out” (27).
The attitude of Inez toward others reveals the sort of degradation the human person experiences in hell. Inez is especially sensitive to such degradation; making reference to Garcin’s efforts to learn more about the two women, Inez declares: “Well, Mr. Garcin, now you have us in the nude all right” (29). She responds to him as though she were a victim of rape, behaving in a way that betrays her fear of being degraded. Her fear is not without basis: The characters in hell treat each other as mere objects. When Estelle shows interest in Garcin, she is merely looking for personal satisfaction, as Garcin points out: “Any man would do your business. As I happen to be here, you want me” (35). Estelle provides a confirmation of this statement by saying: “I’ll take you as you are. And perhaps I shall change you” (35). She speaks to him as if’ he were a mere object—perhaps a sofa that needs reupholstering. Respect for the human person in all of its uniqueness and beauty is nonexistent. Garcin even intimates that knowledge of a person shatters the possibility for love: “I shan’t love you; I know you too well” (36). The world of hell is a world in which the dignity of the person is disregarded.
In the midst of this hell, there seem to be a few glimmers of charity: Inez, noticing Estelle’s distress, offers to serve as a looking-glass for her; Estelle at one point speaks words of consolation to Garcin; and Garcin manages to offer his love to Estelle near the end of the play. None of these actions, however, constitutes a true act of charity; each act is driven by an ulterior motive. When Inez offers to be Estelle’s mirror, she is giving herself leverage in their relationship. When Estelle consoles Garcin, she does it in the hope of acquiring physical satisfaction from him. When Garcin offers to love Estelle, it is a conditional offer: “Will you have faith in me? Then I shall love you and cherish you for ever” (40). In short, the actions in the play that seem to demonstrate charity are actually revelations of each character’s desire to manipulate others.
Manipulation is the one of the primary tortures that constitutes hell. According to the pIay, hell is a community effort. Inez is the first to recognize this—“Each of us will act as a torturer of the two others” (18) —and Garcin summarizes the experience of the damned in this single statement: “Hell is—other people” (47). In this play, hell isn’t a place of fire and brimstone. It isn’t even a place of absolute nothingness: Garcin describes it as “life without a break” (5) and Estelle comments that “I feel we’ve never been so much alive as now” (12). Instead, hell is for these characters an eternal extension of their lives on earth, lives that were dominated by their choice for hell. This explains their reluctance to leave the room when the door is opened: These people have chosen hell, and since their arrival in the underworld, they haven’t lost any taste for the preoccupations that brought them there. The very things that torture them are things that they can’t do without. Garcin will forever worry about being viewed as a coward, Estelle will always seek physical approval, and Inez will never cease to insult others to give herself pleasure. In other words, in the hell of No Exit, the damned experience the torture of depending on others for the torture they have chosen.
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Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit. No Exit and Three Other Plays. Trans. S. Gilbert. New York: Random House, 1955. Pp. 1-47.