Jean--Paul Sartre's No Exit; Is Hell Really Other People?
Jean- Paul Sartre’s play No Exit coined the famous phrase “Hell is – other people!” One may wonder when hearing such a harsh statement, if this is a description of mankind or just a description of certain types of individuals that make life more difficult than it needs to be. Jean—Paul Sartre's unique vision of hell takes us to a remote hotel located in a very hot place with many rooms for occupants that are better known as the damned.
This particular play is about three people who have died and gone to their eternal destination, Hell. They are three rather depraved and selfish individuals, if you see them in one light. On the other hand, you could say, they are three fragile souls that are in desperate need of something, yet have no ability to give of themselves. Like vampires sucking the best of all men, wanting to be fulfilled, yet unwilling to give or to care for anyone, but themselves.
The first character we meet is Joseph Garcin, a journalist who runs what he calls a pacifist newspaper and was shot during World War II, even though he had deserted his post and escaped to Mexico. He is always trying to escape from the judgment of Gomez and others who say he is a coward for being a deserter in time of war. His greatest accuser is himself, the one person he can never escape. He was also an adulterer and a drunk. He blatantly cheated on his wife on a consistent basis; even making the poor women serve coffee to him and his mistresses. He was so callous that he didn’t care how much he made his poor wife suffer. She died soon after him, of a broken heart.
Next we have Inez Serrano, a self professed sinner and rotten to the core. She describes the depths of her depravity in the following statement: “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.” Despite her cruel nature, Inez has one virtue; she calls them as she sees them. Inez is like a vampire. She lives for her fleshly pleasure. She is a lesbian and is guilty of breaking up a marriage and turning a wife against her husband. She made that women her lover and together they killed her lover’s husband. Inez, can look at her depravity and accept it as part of who she is. She accepts being in hell and does not expect anything better. In hell she lusts after Estelle, who loathes her, and rejects her attempts to seduce her. She cannot fulfill her fleshly longings and must endure the fact that Estelle wants Garcin, in the same way she wants Estelle.
Inez describes herself in the following way: “It’s no use I’m all dried up. I can’t give and I can’t receive. How could I help you? A dead twig, ready for the burning.” She also goes on to state: “”What’s the good of trying to enlist my sympathy? I assure you I know everything and I can’t feel sorry even for myself. A trap! Don’t I know it, and I’m in a trap myself, up to the neck, and there’s nothing to be done about it?” Inez is a very perceptive, but depraved woman, her own worst enemy and harshest judge.
Then we have Estelle Rigault, a woman who married a man three times her age because he was wealthy. She satisfied her sexual longings by having affairs with men her age, the man she loved, was a younger man with whom she had a child with. Being a selfish immature, unloving brat, who only wanted to satisfy her own fleshly desires, she hadn’t the love or maturity to account for the needs of an infant. She is in many ways a psychopathic pseudo infant. The depths of her depravity were so profound that she even killed her own child by drowning her in a lake. Her lover, who loved the child couldn’t live with what she had done to their child and committed suicide.
Estelle was also narcissistic. She lived surrounded by mirrors and regarded her beauty to be her only personal asset. She felt worthless if she was not esteemed by a man. She craved for her young lovers, like an addict would crave narcotics. She shamelessly throws herself at Garcin, she even gives him false reassurance, by telling him he’s not a coward.
There is one other character that shows up at the beginning of the play. He is simply known as the valet. He simply directs the occupants of hell to their quarters. He is bored of being asked the same questions about hell, over and over again. He answers politely, yet with a hint of impatience. He tells his guests that he might come when they ring the buzzard, and excuses himself by blaming the faulty wiring.
Sartre’s version of hell is very different from how most people describe this hopeless place. For our three occupants hell is a very hot room, it is decorated with three ugly colored sofas in French empire style, with a bronze ornament in the middle. The room is always lighted. The occupants never sleep, so there is no reason for turning of the light. The room has no mirrors; therefore the occupants cannot see themselves physically.
The occupants find that they are in a dimension of time that seems to go slower than earthly events. They are able to see what is happening on earth and observe what those who were in their own personal circles do and they can even hear what they say about them, in their absence. Even though, they are far from the living, the accusations that drive their souls to utter despair still remain with them. Garcin is constantly haunted by Gomez, a significant person from his past. Garcin sees Gomez talking to others about what a coward he was. Constantly, Garcin feels accused of being cowardly. Estelle, who needs a man to feel validated, is haunted by scenes of one of her former lovers, Peter and his new conquest Olga. Estelle, who is no longer in the land of the living, has to see those who are still living, enjoying themselves, in ways she never can.
Inez, who sees men as nothing more than brutes, has to see that her former apartment is being rented and a couple is having sex on her bed. Inez now has to endure having a man on her bed, the bed she possessed in her former life. This scene leaves Inez feeling desiccated, really dead at last.
Imagine sharing a room with two other selfish individuals, who have what you need, but have not capacity for love, or empathy. They certainly would never sacrifice for the greater good of another person. Their goals are to meet only their needs, whether that needs be personal validation or simply satisfying fleshly lust. These are the kind of people, who make you cringe, when you see their number on caller id. On earth these three would have never been friends or even acquaintances. Despite being mismatched, they are now bound together in a room with only each other company. They cannot escape by ignoring the others, because they can always feel the other’s presence. Here you have hell, with no need of torture chambers, no torturers and yet, these three can have a profound feeling of hopelessness which will never go away.
When they first arrive, Estelle and Garcin try playing the victims. They act as if there must be some sort of mistake. They even tell versions of their lives, in which they justify themselves, by leaving out all their sinful deeds. They blame circumstances, but not themselves. Inez, on the other hand, is more realistic and does not pretend she is an untainted flower. Inez also sees past their façade of “innocence” and simply states the following. “Yes I see. Look here! What’s the point of play acting, trying to throw dust in each other eyes? We’re all tarred with the same brush” She then goes on to say. “Yes, we are all criminals—murderers--all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets; they never make mistakes, and people aren’t dammed for nothing.” Inez although, morally bankrupt understands the meaning of having to pay the piper, she doesn’t quarrel with her lot in life, she simply accepts the consequences for her hour of pleasure, as she calls it.
As the play progresses Garcin and Estelle reveal their evil deeds as does Inez. Through the play they play mind games with one another, hoping to get what they want from the other. Garcin, who is haunted by the words of Gomez and the dread of having to live with being a coward desperately needs Inez to give him assurance that he isn’t a coward. He wants this from Inez, because he feels her opinion will be truly honest, objective and not tainted by desire. Estelle’s opinion, on the other hand, is of little worth to Garcin. She tells him what he wants to hear, because he knows that her desire for a man has blinded her. She will say anything just to get her physical needs met.
As Estelle tries to gain Garcin’s trust, in order to get him to trust her, Inez also makes it clear to Garcin that Estelle is merely using flattery in the following statement: “That’s right! That’s right! Trust away! She wants a man’s arm around her waist, a man’s smell, a man’s eyes glowing with desire. And that’s all she wants. She’d assure you, you were God Almighty, if she though it would give you pleasure.” To which Estelle has to admit her true motives to Garcin in the following statement: “What do you expect me to say? Don’t you realize how maddening it is to have to answer questions one can’t make heads or tail of? You make things so difficult…...Anyhow, I’d love you just the same, even if you were a coward. Isn’t that enough?” This only causes Garcin to get disgusted with both women. With Inez for her cruel honesty, that cuts like a knife and no willingness to ever make him feel valid as a man, not even for a moment. He also feels animosity for Estelle, who says the words he wants to hear, only to satisfy her own desires.
Inez is frustrated. Estelle the object of her desire, is only interested in men and is sickened by her attempts to seduce her and can’t bear to hear her use the same words that she loved to hear Roger, her earthly lover, say to her. She is so repulsed by Inez that she says the following to her: “Oh, leave me in peace. You haven’t any eyes. Oh, damn it, isn’t there anything I can do to get rid of you? I’ve an idea (she spits on Inez’s face) There!” At this point Inez realizes that her battle to win Estelle isn’t going to be easy, yet she knows time is on her side and she has patience to spare. Therefore, she will wait for Estelle, no matter how long it takes, she also hates Garcin for being able to obtain Estelle so easily, simply because he's a man.
Estelle is a simple vain creature, who only feels valid in the arms of a man. She justifies her choices by telling them that she came from a very poor family and saw no harm in marrying for money. She only wants to be taken care of and has no desire to take care of another human being. She even went as far as drowning her own little girl, in order to avoid responsibility. She is haunted by her former lover’s suicide. She loved Roger in a carnal manner, she loathes him for actually caring for the little girl she so callously drowned. She never shows any remorse for the child she killed, never mentions her. Estelle is also a slave to her appearance; she even worries when Inez tells her she has a zit. Inez is only mocking Estelle, yet the thought of having a mere pimple make Estelle want to cringe.
There you have three people who could meet one another’s needs, yet are one another’s worse nemesis. It gets to the point where Garcin in desperation wants to leave this infernal room and these two corpses that call themselves women. Garcin says the following, as he tries to leave the room: “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 believe it. You remember all they told you 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.”
Although, Garcin’s description does not even begin to describe the real hell, the place of torment described in the Bible, in which one is separated from God for all eternity. He does have a very good grasp on how deeply frustrated we all get when we are surrounded by very selfish people.
There are many people who went through great sorrow when growing up, because they came from very selfish and uncaring families. These people grew up in homes in which vices were practiced, homes where money was spent only on indulgent pleasures and not common necessity. Homes where no one ever spoke a kind word, no encouragement was ever given. There are many children, who grow up in such dwellings. Many individuals grow up emotional cripples due to having to grow up in this type of environment.
Marriages can also be a heaven or a hell. Sometimes two people marry only seeking their own interests. They want their partner to fulfill their every longing. They see no need to contribute to the good of the other person. These are the marriages that not only end in divorce, but also bring children, who live empty lives and never learn to love.
Is hell other people? Well it depends on the person. There are certain people who are even synonymous with hell itself. People like Hitler, Nero, and Jezebel, these people are remembered for being merciless. We don’t even have to go to those extremes, when we are selfish; we make this life a hell for those around us.
It comes to reason, that if hell is other people, than we also have it in us to make life more of a paradise for those around us. We can change our environment with a simple act of kindness. How often has the sacrifice of one man made it possible for the many to have a better life? Jesus, set the supreme example when he gave his life, so that we wouldn’t perish. Because of His sacrifice we have the hope of eternal life. What about the words we speak. They matter, for it says in scripture in Proverbs 18:21 “The tongue has the power of life and death.” Therefore, we must be careful and choose our words wisely, for cruel words are like arrows that injure even from a distance. We all have a profound effect on those around us. Therefore, we must always take into account, that yes we can make one another’s life a heaven or a hell. It’s our choice to make.