No Exit seems relatively straightforward. That’s instantly concerning…one of my greatest fears is to read poorly, but at this point, reading Sartre poorly seems inevitable. No Exit is the 50 page theatrical distillation of Sartre’s 700 page philosophical manifesto Being and Nothingness…yikes? Since I have not had time to familiarize myself with all his exciting vocabulary, this month will serve as a general introduction as I plod my way through No Exit and begin my 5 month trek down the existential rabbit hole.
In his very helpful book How to Read Sartre Robert Bernasconi sets the stage: “Sartre is not merely difficult; he courts misunderstanding. He seems almost incapable of issuing a measured statement when an exaggeration might be more provocative. He writes to get the reader’s attention rather than to solicit their agreement.” (1)
That being said, here it goes:
Concept: Three strangers (Garcin, Inez and Estelle) trapped together in a single room for the rest of eternity. Each one is a reprehensible human for a variety of different reasons, one has drowned her infant daughter, one has been a philanderer, one has crawled into a marriage and slowly destroyed it from within...but that's not why they are here in hell, Sartre is not concerned with "sin" but rather the inability to be honest with oneself. They are not victims of a clerical error, they have not arrived in hell flukishly and without merit...and yet initially they are willing to pretend, to lie to themselves and to others that this is the case.
Famous Quote: (quite possibly the most famous Sartre quote of all time) “Hell is other people”.
The Scene: Second Empire drawing room with: three sofas, one hideous bronze sculpture on the mantle piece by Barbedienne and no windows, or mirrors, or reflective surfaces of any kind. The air is stale and stifling, not the heat one would expect to find in a “fire and brimstone” scenario, but enough to make one constantly uncomfortable.
During the 1930’s and 1940’s writers and historians saw the Second Empire with all it’s lavish pomposity as a precursor to fascism.(2) (This is no longer the case for historians of the late 20th century onward…which seems somewhat disconcerting and in need of more research on my part.) Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte quickly amassed substantial control as an authoritarian president and on December 1852 threw out his old title of Prince President and became Napoleon III, Emperor of the French. While it would be easy to say he tyrannically power grabbed, his Empire was officially elected with 97 percent of the vote…although there were rumors that these votes materialized out of thin air. Sartre seemed to loath this whole voting set-up and found the trend of the secret ballot very disconcerting. (See Sartre's ‘Elections: A Trap for Fools’)
After a little sleuthing I discovered that Ferdinand Barbedienne was famous during the 1840’s-1890’s for democratizing art, a miniature bronze statue in every home! What could possibly be wrong with that? Why does he end up in hell? I think it may have something to do with authenticity. He created a machine that could produce miniature bronze replicas of famous Greek and Roman statues…so in some sense, sitting on the mantle in hell is a shrine to the disingenuous. The fake. The inauthentic.
Symbolically the statue also represents the finality and immovability of where they are. It is indestructible, too heavy to move, and will remain for the rest of eternity watching the occupants trapped in their Second Empire hell.
Garcin, the first occupant of the room, finds everything somewhat shocking and unexpected:
GARCIN: Yes, of course you're right. And why should one want to see oneself in a looking-glass? But that bronze contraption on the mantelpiece, that's another story. I suppose there will be times when I stare my eyes out at it. Stare my eyes out— see what I mean?. ..All right, let's put our cards on the table. I assure you I'm quite conscious of my position. Shall I tell you what it feels like? A man's drowning, choking, sinking by inches, till only his eyes are just above water. And what does he see? A bronze atrocity by— what's the fellow's name?— Barbedienne. A collector's piece. As in a nightmare. That's their idea, isn't it?. ..No, I suppose you're under orders not to answer questions; and I won't insist. But don't forget, my man, I've a good notion of what's coming to me, so don't you boast you've caught me off my guard. I'm facing the situation, facing it. So that's that; no toothbrush. And no bed, either. One never sleeps, I take it?
The valet finds the futility of brushing ones teeth in hell amusing:
VALET: That's good! So you haven't yet got over your— what-do-you-call-it?— sense of human dignity? Excuse my smiling.
You could argue that this “sense of human dignity” is the problem. It distorts reality with desires and demands that are not situationally realistic…the idea of who we are trumps the reality of what we are and this is a prime example of ‘bad faith’. Hell is represented as our individual self deceptions and “the refuge we seek (in others?) in lieu of facing the anguish and terror of existence.” (3)
In the above quote, we see Garcin talking with the valet, which is interestingly the only time he has a dominant personality. Even with the valet there is the tension of competitive subjectivity, and the isolation that results from the failure of language. (More on that later.) The valet is not really participating in this dance of social constructs…but Garcin still feels the need to win his approval, to be ‘seen’ by him and prove he is not a coward. He’s lived his life “facing the situation” head on, but he died poorly and now in hell he must confront the fact that beneath his bravado was always a shirking coward. He can’t do this of course…that’s why he’s in hell, and so instead he eaves drops on the world below hoping to hear one positive assessment of his life. He’s seeking his validity and value in the opinion of others and not in owning up to his own actions.
Garcin seems to operate in a moderate level of bad faith. He clearly desires to be an agent of change in his ‘life’, he wants to ‘work out his salvation’ through quiet contemplation and introspection (another form of self deception according to Sartre) …and yet he’s trapped in the delusion that the opinion of others can redefine his reality:
GARCIN: Still there? Now listen! I want you to do me a service. No, don't shrink away. I know it must seem strange to you, having someone asking you for help; you're not used to that. But if you'll make the effort, if you'll only WILL it hard enough, I dare say we can really love each other. Look at it this way. A thousand of them are proclaiming I'm a coward; but what do numbers matter? 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 for ever. Estelle— will you?
(Side Note: Arguably ‘love’ is not at the heart of the issue here…Estelle and Garcin have their correlating anatomy going for them and eternity…that’s about it. This is lust and as such is another scenario of bad faith. They are seeking to evade their situation by apparently engaging in awkward sex for eternity…)
Sartre argues that you make yourself what you are, the ‘self’ is defined repetitively through choice and action. So at any moment it’s kind of like being Schrodinger's cat, you have both the potential to be brave or a coward in every scenario, but if you act like a coward that is what you are, there’s no going back. Instead of admitting that he is a coward, he feels shame at the others perception of him as such.
GARCIN: I died too soon. I wasn't allowed time to— to do my deeds.
INEZ: One always dies too soon— or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are— your life, and nothing else.
Inez seems to be the most Sartrean, she is completely aware of what and who she is. She makes no excuses for herself and is the first to vocalize that they are in hell. She comes up with the theory that this is the self-service economy of manpower version of hell, where instead of torture devices like the rack, they are all perfectly designed to torment each other in one intricately designed “vicious circle.” And yet, she needs Estelle. She needs her to see her, value her, want her. While she’s honest about her jealousy she is still relying on another for her sense of self and as such operating within bad faith.
Estelle is the poster child for bad faith, completely in denial about her surroundings. She steps into the drawing room without missing a beat, telling the valet/gatekeeper of hell that she’ll ring for him when she needs him. Initially her biggest complaint is that her dress doesn’t match the color scheme of the room. Perseverating on the aesthetics of hell…seems to be missing the point. But to acknowledge her surroundings would be to acknowledge her reality, something she seems incapable of doing. And so she powders her nose and fixes her lipstick and makes the best of things, demanding that Garcin change sofas with her and keep himself in a state of formal dress while sanitizing his language to remove crude words like “dead” in exchange for “absentee.”
She demands the gaze of others and needs to be able to see and watch herself to feel alive.
ESTELLE: I feel so queer. Don't you ever get taken that way? 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.
She needs to be looked and desired and exemplifies Sartre’s concept of ‘being-for-others’ in that she is incapable of generating a sense of identity without the other’s gaze. Sex and desire also end up as categories of bad faith because they reduce both parties into objects…I’m not sure how this is different from the everyday competitive subjectivity sans sex…I need to do more research.
In the end, the characters are incapable of change, and this for Sartre is the definition of encrustation:
“Encrustation refers to the difficulty of changing ourselves since others through their gaze transmit an image of us that constrains us and so restricts our freedom. Sartre can be taken as saying that if one lives in the world as if everything is unchangeable, then one has created hell.” (4)
The play is bookended with an object: the pen knife. In the beginning of the play the pen knife seems strangely out of place in a world where there are no paper items to open. It is meaningless in an environment without paper. At the end, the penknife becomes a weapon, and yet murdering or even wounding someone in hell is futile. And so again, symbolically the characters are confronted with the fact that context doesn’t generate meaning for humans, they must make their own meaning.
The last line, spoken for the benefit of the audience is: “so, let’s get on with it.” For those still in the land of the living it’s not too late to become an authentic version of oneself, all that’s needed is a good dose of honesty and the ability to embrace both growth and change.
All No Exit quotes from: Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit And Three Other Plays: No Exit. Vintage International, 1989.
1. Bernasconi, Robert. How to Read Sartre. W.W. Norton & Co, 2007.
2. Price, Roger. Documents on the Second French Empire, 1852-1870. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. pp.272
3. Shmoop Editorial Team. "No Exit." Shmoop. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 28 Nov. 2019.
4. Bernasconi, Robert. How to Read Sartre. W.W. Norton & Co, 2007.
Bakewell, Sarah. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone De Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others. Vintage, 2017.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Communists and Peace, New York: George Brazier, 1968.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. Being and Nothingness. Atria Books, 2019.