Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit

“Hell is other people.” What if hell is not an inferno but being trapped in a room with people who judge and condemn you? In Sartre’s play No Exit, three condemned souls must stay with each other for all eternity, watching, condemning, torturing one another. Garcin seeks understanding from Inez for deserting the army but only receives her judgment. Estelle, who killed her newborn baby and caused her lover to commit suicide, seeks Garcin’s affection to define who she is, but only receives his snub. Inez tries to seduce Estelle, but only scares the latter. They seek redemption through others but only receive condemnation. For Sartre, that is the picture of hell, and hell exists not in the afterlife but here in this life.

Jean-Paul Sartre

The most poignant moment in the play is when the door is opened, but Garcin doesn’t leave the room to escape his hell. He remains to persuade Inez to accept his cowardice, his betrayal of his country and his wife. This is Sartre’s vision of the contemporary person, unable or perhaps unwilling to escape his hell for fear of taking on the responsibility of defining his own person. As Erich Fromm has said, freedom can be frightening when we have to accept the responsibilities associated with that freedom. Ultimately, for Sartre, hell is when others, friends and family, career and leisure, society and culture, religion and government, define who we are.

Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone deBeauvoir

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