No Exit

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No Exit












Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit is considered by many to be the author’s best play and most accessible dramatization of his philosophy of existentialism. Sartre wrote the original draft in two weeks at the Cafe Flore in Paris. Titled Huis clos in the original French, it was first produced in Paris’s Vieux-Colombier Theater. At the time, during World War II, this part of France was occupied by Nazi Germany. Sartre deliberately wrote No Exit as a one-act play so that theater-goers would not be kept past the German-imposed curfew. Many forms of entertainment, including plays, had to be approved by German censors. During rehearsals, clearance to perform the play was given and taken away several times. Despite such setbacks, No Exit opened in the spring of 1944, and it was an immediate success. The original production played in Paris for several years, even after the war ended and Paris was liberated. Parisian audiences appreciated Sartre’s subtle message of resistance and implied subversiveness. Critics, however, gave it mixed reviews, mostly because of the social and political climate of the time. The fact that Inez was a lesbian was an extremely controversial point for both audiences and critics alike.

No Exit was translated into English (and is sometimes known as Behind Closed Doors), and made its Broadway debut in 1947. In general, American audiences were not as appreciative as their European counterparts. Some critics did not know what to make of the play and its themes.

Others thought that the play stretched the fundamental concept to its breaking point. Still, most appreciated the clever concept: three people confined to a drawing room as their punishment in hell. Despite these mixed reviews, No Exit was voted the Best Foreign Play in New York in 1946.


Jean-Paul Sartre was born on June 21, 1905, in Paris, France. He was the only son of Jean-Baptist Sartre, a French naval officer, and his wife, Anne Marie. Sartre’s father died when he was only 15 months old, and Sartre and his mother moved in with her parents in Paris. His grandfather, Charles Schweitzer, doted on him and instilled a love of literature. Sartre did not attend school; instead, his grandfather, a language professor, taught him and arranged for tutors. Sartre began writing stories during this time. Religion played a key role in his education; his grandfather was a staunch Protestant while his grandmother was Catholic. An atheist, Sartre did not believe in either religion, but retained some of the ideals of both. This influence is felt in No Exit, which is set in Hell.

After his mother remarried in 1916, Sartre began attending school and excelled in his studies. He studied philosophy at the University of Paris where he met his life-long companion, Simone de Beauvoir, an author and scholar. After graduation, Sartre served in the army for two years, then taught at lycees (French high schools) for several more. While teaching, Sartre continued to study philosophy and develop his own. In 1938, Sartre published his first novel, a largely autobiographical book titled Nausea (published as La Nausée in French). The success of this book brought him some notoriety in France. Like many of his fictional works, including No Exit, Nausea explores Sartre’s philosophical and political ideas in a fictional setting.

When World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, Sartre again served in the French army and was taken as a German prisoner of war (POW) for several months in 1940-41. After his release, Sartre returned to Paris and participated in the Resistance, a French underground movement that worked against the Germans occupying the country. Sartre continued to study philosophy, and in 1943 he published Being and Nothingness (known in French as L’Être et le néant). In this book, Sartre develops his philosophy of existentialism, arguing that each human is alone in the world and thus totally free to make his or her own choices to define and re-define himself or herself, but is ultimately morally responsible for his or her actions. They do not have to stay in the roles society has defined for them. These aspects of existentialism are also explored in No Exit, written in 1944.

In addition to No Exit, the second play written by Sartre, he also wrote a handful of other dramatic works, several screenplays, short stories, and novels. The bulk of Sartre’s writing after the end of World War II is nonfiction. Many of these works reflect Sartre’s refinement of existentialism as well as his increasingly Marxist political views. Sartre refused both the Nobel Prize for literature and the French Legion of Honor for his writings. His output decreased due to failing health in the late-1970s, and Sartre died in Paris on April 15, 1980, of uremia.


No Exit opens with a valet leading Joseph Garcin into a drawing room. The small room has three couches and a mantelpiece with a bronze statue on it. Garcin is surprised by the room and its contents. He expected instruments of torture, not a windowless room. The room upsets him and he asks why they did not leave him at least a toothbrush. The valet finds his concerns silly, like the concerns of all the other guests, because they have no need for such human concerns. Garcin guesses that they will never sleep in this room, and notices that the valet never blinks. Garcin becomes further upset when he finds out that the lights are always on. Before the valet goes, Garcin asks if the bell works. The valet tells him it works only intermittently, then exits.

Garcin is left alone for a few minutes, then the valet returns with Inez. After the valet leaves again, Inez thinks that Garcin is to be her torturer. Garcin is amused, and assures her that he is not. Garcin notices that there are no mirrors in the room. Garcin suggests they be polite to each other so that they can survive in the small space, but Inez refuses. They are silent for a moment, and Garcin twists his mouth around. This annoys Inez, who is curt with the man. They both agree that they have not yet begun to suffer. Inez paces while Garcin sits down. His mouth twitches again and he covers it with his hands.

The valet enters again with Estelle. Garcin looks up and is about to uncover his mouth when

Estelle begs him not to. She has mistaken him momentarily for someone whose face had been mangled. After the valet tells her that no else is coming, Estelle comments on the colors of the sofas. She insists on taking the couch that Garcin is sitting on because it better matches her dress. Inez immediately tries to get Estelle’s attention, telling her that she wishes that she had some flowers to give her. Estelle has died yesterday and she can see her funeral. She tells them that she died of pneumonia, Inez died from the fumes of gas stove, and that Garcin was shot with twelve bullets in his chest. Estelle is uncomfortable with the word “dead” and insists that they use the term “absentees.”

Garcin shares that he is from Rio, and he describes what he sees. His wife is waiting for word about him in front of a barracks. Garcin becomes rather warm and begins to remove his jacket. Estelle stops him, saying she cannot stand a man in shirtsleeves. She asks Inez’s opinion, and Inez replies that she does not care much for men, period. Estelle believes a mistake has been made in putting the three of them together, but Inez believes that everything, including the room, was planned to the last detail.

Garcin believes they should talk about why they are there, and Inez seconds the idea. Estelle is reluctant, but tells the others that she married an older man for the sake of her younger brother. Then she met a younger man with whom she fell in love. She does not believe this is a sin. Garcin asks if a man should stand by his principles. He tells them about the pacifist newspaper he ran, and that they shot him for believing in this. Inez implies that she does not believe that Garcin and Estelle are telling the whole truth, and they are in hell because they are damned. She believes that they are each other’s torturers.

Garcin suggests that they remain silent to counteract this, and work out their own means of salvation. After they agree to this and there is silence for at least a few moments, Inez begins to sing. Estelle tries to fix her makeup, but she realizes that there is no mirror for her to look in. Inez says that she will act as Estelle’s mirror for her, and does so. Inez’s forthrightness embarrasses Estelle, and she asks for Garcin’s help. Garcin ignores them for awhile, until it becomes intolerable. He begs them to be silent, but they will not. Estelle tries to get his attention as a man, and Inez wants Estelle’s attention. Inez points out they cannot ignore each other.

Garcin sees the wisdom in Inez’s words, and begins to fondle Estelle’s neck. This makes Estelle uncomfortable. Garcin believes that each of them should be totally honest about why they are there, for this might save them. Garcin admits he was mean and abusive to his wife. Inez describes her affair with a woman named Florence. Inez lived with her cousin and his wife, Florence. Inez seduced her away from her cousin, and he died in a tram accident. Inez told Florence that they killed him, and eventually Florence turned on the gas stove one night and killed them both. Inez admits she is a very cruel person.

Estelle still says that she has no idea what she has done. After some goading by the other two, Estelle admits she had a baby with her lover that she did not want. She murdered the infant in front of him and he killed himself over the incident. Estelle’s husband knew nothing of the baby or the lover, and she returned to his side after the suicide. She tries to cry, but finds that tears do not flow in hell.

Inez tries to comfort Estelle. In her grief, Estelle allows Garcin to take off his coat. Garcin thinks the next step is to try to help each other for that is the only way they can save themselves. Inez does not want Garcin’s help. She starts to have her own vision of the room where she died. Someone is looking at it. When the vision is over, she refuses to try to help him because she is too rotten. She says she cannot even feel sorry for herself. Still, she agrees not to harm him if he will leave her and Estelle alone. But Estelle wants his help. Inez says that she will be Estelle’s forever, but Estelle ignores her. Estelle asks Garcin to take her in his arms, but Inez signals for him not to do that. Garcin complies, but Estelle rejects Inez, spitting in her face. Inez threatens Garcin.

Garcin seizes the opportunity to approach Estelle. Estelle fawns on him, taking him for what he is. They nearly kiss. Garcin begs Estelle to trust him, but she is evasive. Garcin admits he ran away to Mexico to evade military service. He asks if Estelle thinks he is a coward, but she says he must decide that for himself. Garcin begs for Estelle to have faith in him, but she laughs at him. She loves him because he is a man; his cowardice is immaterial to her. This upsets Garcin, and he says he is disgusted by both of them.

Garcin goes to the door and rings the bell. He pounds on the door, while Estelle begs him not to leave. Estelle says that if the door opens, she is leaving, too, rather than stay with Inez. The door suddenly opens, and Garcin is immediately afraid. He will not leave, nor will he help Estelle push Inez out of the room. After shutting the door, he further explains that Inez understands cowardice, and he must convince her that he is not a coward. Estelle and Garcin align themselves together, and Inez is hurt. She calls him a coward, reminding him of the power she has. Garcin moves away, saying he cannot be with Estelle while Inez is watching. Estelle tries to stab Inez with a paper knife, but it does nothing. Inez says they are dead and stuck there forever. The three of them laugh, and as it ends, Garcin says, “Well, well, let’s get on with it.”


Joseph Garcin

Garcin is the first of the three dead people to enter the drawing room. Prior to his death, he was a newspaperman in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was shot twelve times because he tried to avoid serving in the military. He is a pacifist, and he tells Inez and Estelle that is why he was condemned. Garcin is polite, keeping his coat in on the stuffy room because Estelle cannot stand a man in shirtsleeves. Garcin tries to make the situation tolerable, suggesting that they all keep quiet. This does not work, however, as the three continue to hound each other. He reveals that the real reason he is in hell is that he abused his wife and fled to Mexico to avoid military service. His former friends in Rio are now calling him a coward. Garcin desperately wants Inez to see him as a hero and strives to change her opinion of him. In contrast, Estelle seeks his attention and he continually rebuffs her. When the door to the drawing room opens, he has the opportunity to leave, but he is afraid of the unknown and he still has not proven himself to Inez. His inability to act on the opportunity of the open door represents his inability to change or to learn from his mistakes, one of the reasons why he is in the room in the first place.

Estelle Rigault

Estelle is the last of the “absentees” (her preferred term for their deceased state) to enter the room. Before her death, she was a beautiful young society woman married to a rich older man. Estelle is demanding, insisting on taking the sofa that best matches her dress. At first, Estelle says she does not know why she is in hell. She believes it is an error. Estelle is superficial, concerned with her makeup and her appearance and almost immediately discovers that the room has no mirrors. Though Estelle died from pneumonia, it is revealed that she is in hell because she drowned her newborn daughter in front of the man with whom she was having an illicit affair. The lover subsequently killed himself over the incident, and Estelle returned to her husband. Though Inez tries to console Estelle, Estelle is repulsed by Inez and concerned only with Garcin, ingratiating herself to him and trying to seduce him. When Inez pushes her too far, Estelle tries unsuccessfully to stab her with a paper knife. This incident makes Estelle realize that she is indeed stuck in hell for eternity.

Inez Serrano

Inez is the second person to enter the drawing room. Before her death, she worked as postal clerk in Paris. When Inez first comes in, she thinks that Garcin is to be her torturer. He dispels her fears immediately, but she remains hostile to him throughout the play. On the other hand, Inez is attracted to Estelle from the moment she enters the room. She tries to win Estelle’s favor several times but to no avail. Garcin tries to win Inez’s favor, but she thinks he is a coward. Unlike the other two, Inez is realistic about her reasons for being in hell. She lived with her cousin and his wife, Florence, and Inez seduced Florence away from her husband. Florence’s husband died in an accident, and Inez tortured Florence by claiming they had killed him. Inez died when Florence turned on the gas stove, consciously committing a murder/suicide. Inez knows she is sadistic and acknowledges that she received pleasure from making Florence and her husband suffer. Unlike Garcin and Estelle, there is no one left in life who is thinking about her. The only vision she has from her life is the empty room where she died. Inez is the first to realize that they are each other’s torturers, and relishes the role from the first.


The valet escorts each of the characters into the drawing room. It is unclear what he is; more than likely he is a demon. He is amused by the others’ preconceived notions of hell as well as their need to cling to their humanity. He does not blink, which is Garcin’s first realization about the nature of his new


  • No Exit was filmed in French as Huis Clos in 1954. It starred Arletty, Nicole Courcel, Louis De Furies, and Jean Debucourt.
  • The play was adapted for film again in 1962, starring Rita Gam as Estelle and Viveca Lindfors as Inez.

existence, and possibly symbolic of the fact that in hell, one is not able to close one’s eyes or turn away from the truth anymore. The valet tells Garcin that the bell used to summon the servants only works sporadically. This fact may indicate that one crucial element of hell, in Sartre’s definition, is not being heard by others.


Choices and Consequences

Though nothing will change for any of the characters in No Exit, the choices they made while they were living are directly responsible for their sentence in hell. Each one of them made irresponsible and immoral choices during his or her lifetime. Garcin teased and abused his wife. He also brought home another woman and slept with her while his wife was in the house. She served them coffee in bed. While married, Estelle ran away with her young lover. She bore him a child, then murdered it in front of him. He later committed suicide because of the incident. Inez was a sadist. She lived with her cousin and his wife, Florence, and seduced her away from him. When her cousin died in a tram accident, she tortured the wife by saying that their affair led to his death. Inez’s actions led the wife to turn on the gas stove during the night, murdering them both. Each character chose to commit theses crimes, and


  • Research Sartre’s philosophy of existentialism. Discuss No Exit in terms of this theory.
  • Explore the history of the time and place in which No Exit was written—German-occupied Paris during World War II. How do you think these conditions influenced Sartre when he wrote No Exit?
  • Compare No Exit to other depictions of hell in art, music, literature, and other plays. One possible book is Dante’s Inferno.
  • Compare No Exit to The Victors, another play by Sartre that takes place in a single room and concerns the torture of others. Discuss possible reasons why No Exit has retained its popularity and The Victors has not.

for these crimes they were condemned. Consequently, they will torture each other over their weaknesses for eternity.

Appearances vs. Reality

Two of the characters in No Exit hide behind facades for much of the play, unwilling to admit the real reason they are condemned to hell. Only Inez is willing to acknowledge from the start that she is a cruel person. Though Garcin worries about his cowardice from the first moments of the play, he says that he is unsure why he is in hell. He rationalizes that he stood up for his pacifist principles and that is the reason he was put to death by his government. In reality, Garcin was trying to escape to Mexico to avoid serving in the war, and he was extremely mean to his wife. He admits these two incidents only after goaded. Estelle does not understand why she is in hell at all, at least at first. She thinks it is some sort of error since she died from pneumonia. Like Garcin, she only acknowledges the truth—that she murdered her baby and drove a man to suicide—when pressed by the other two. Reality, in this play, is facing up to the truth about oneself.

Self-definintion and Interpersonal Relationships

Throughout the rounds of conversation that comprise No Exit, the characters are forced to define themselves through their relationships with each other. Their eyes are constantly open (there is no blinking in hell). The lights are always on. There are no mirrors. They are stuck in the same, small, stuffy room together. These conditions force each person to interact with the other two, and look for some acknowledgement about who they are. Garcin wants Inez to believe he is not a coward. Estelle wants Garcin to be a man for her. Inez wants Estelle to be attracted to her. Since no one will get what they want from another without conflict from the third, their interlinking desires ensure an eternity of torture. Garcin believes that if they work together, there might be some kind of redemption. But their conflicting personalities ensure that this will be impossible.

Death and Permanence

What makes the situation in No Exit so desperate is the fact that Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are dead. They are permanently in hell, and permanently in the drawing room with each other. During the play, they are afforded an opportunity to leave when the door opens unexpectedly. However, they are too afraid of the consequences to leave. Similarly, they cannot change or grow as people because they are dead. They are forced throughout eternity to “live” with the choices they made in their lives. They will forever rationalize these choices to each other.



No Exit can be called an existentialist play and a philosophical drama. The action takes place in hell, which is represented as a hot and stuffy drawing room, with the only entrance a door that is locked. There is a bell to ring for servants, but it works only intermittently. The room is decorated in Second Empire style. A heavy bronze statue sits on a mantle, but it is too heavy to move. There are three sofas of different colors for the three characters to sit on. There is also a paper knife next to the statue, but no books. There are also no mirrors or windows. This tight setting forces the characters to constantly see each other, and thus engage in torture.

Furthermore, the drawing room is somewhat unremarkable, except that it is in hell. In depicting hell as a familiar setting, Sartre suggests that hell is more of a state of mind than a place. There is nothing particularly hellish about the drawing room itself; instead, it is the combination of personalities in the room that makes the experience so hellish for Garcin, Estelle, and Inez.

Symbolic Props

The few objects in the room have symbolic meaning, especially in defining the characters. The sofas are of different colors—wine-colored, blue, and green—and Estelle insists on taking the blue one because it best matches her dress. This symbolizes her superficiality. Estelle also uses the paper knife to stab Inez. This is ineffective and leads to Estelle’s acceptance that she is truly dead and in hell. The bronze statue serves a similar purpose for Garcin. The statue represents how escape is futile because it is too heavy to move. Garcin is also concerned about the bell, and if it works, more than the other characters. The bell symbolizes a link with the outside world, but it does not always ring.


The characters all have visions about what is going in the world they left. Though these visions are unseen by the audience, they represent the last links to the living world for the characters. Garcin sees two different parts of his former life. He has visions of the newsroom where he worked. His coworkers are calling him a coward, which upsets him greatly. Garcin also sees the wife he mistreated. She stands outside the prison, awaiting word of his fate, then learns that he has died. Later, she dies. Estelle’s visions always include her friend Olga. Estelle sees her own funeral and burial, where Olga escorts Estelle’s sister, who can only manage a few tears. She later sees Olga with Peter, a young man who admired Estelle in life. Olga tells Peter about the crimes that Estelle has committed, and he is shocked. Unlike Garcin and Estelle, there is no living person who cares about Inez. The only vision she sees is of the room where she and Florence died. She views it twice: once when it is empty and dark, and a second time, when potential renters come in to look the place over.

Three Unities of French Drama

No Exit follows the classical rules of unity of action, time, and place. The play takes place in the length of time it takes to perform it. There is only one course of action, and everything in the setting works towards that one end. The action is also confined to one place, the drawing room. There is nothing extraneous about any aspect of the play; it is focused to one purpose.


Occupation of France Influences Philosophy

World War II engulfed Europe beginning in 1939. Nazi leader Adolf Hitler took power in Germany and embarked on an aggressive military campaign as early as 1936. He began annexing European states by 1938. France declared war on Germany in 1939, and Hitler invaded and conquered France by 1940. The war in Europe ended in the spring of 1945, and Paris was finally liberated.

Daily life was difficult in France during World War II. A large part of France was occupied by Nazi Germany, including Paris, where Sartre lived. Because France was an occupied country, life, in many ways, was at a standstill. In Sartre’s hell, too, life was very static. France’s occupation also led to shortages of everything, including heat and electricity. Sartre makes an ironic comment on this situation by having an overabundance of heat and light available in hell. German censors controlled the plays performed in the theater and the movies shown in the cinema.

During the occupation, France was ruled by the Vichy government. It was ostensibly semi-independent but still under Nazi control. French people who worked with the Nazis were called Collaborators. The prewar pacifists Garcin talks about were often considered Collaborators. Many French citizens fought the Nazi control by participating in the Resistance. The Resistance was an underground


  • 1944: In occupied France, German censors must approve plays before they are allowed to be performed.

    Today: A controversial rating system has been put in place on television programming in the United States. The labels are primarily for parents, to inform them of content that may not be appropriate for children.

  • 1944: Many plays and movies are concerned with World War II and its effects on society, either explicitly or implicitly.

    Today: World War II continues to be a popular theme in television, movies, and literature. One of the biggest box office successes in the United States in 1998 is Saving Private Ryan, which reenacts the D-Day invasion at Normandy, France.

  • 1944: The philosophy of existentialism develops in France, which has been devastated by two world wars, as a way of dealing with the nature of good and evil and one’s responsibility in life and as an explanation of the nature of being in general.

    Today: Existentialism continues to be influential in literature and the arts, mainly as its ideas have been co-opted by more recent movements, such as the Beats, who believe that one is responsible only to oneself.

movement that began soon after the Nazis took over Paris. Charles de Gaulle, a government official in the French government before the occupation, organized a French government in exile in Great Britain. In 1940, he called for French citizens to resist the Germans via a radio broadcast. Though only a few people in France heard him speak, a Resistance was formed.

The Resistance was not formally organized, but it took on many forms. It worked to block delivery of supplies and men to Germany. French citizens were conscripted by the Germans when they needed people to work in factories and the like. Many such draftees took to the hills in France and worked against the Germans. Other French citizens passed military intelligence to Great Britain and other Allies, helped British pilots who were shot down by the Germans escape, and wrote and distributed anti-German pamphlets. Sartre was active in the Resistance. At the end of World War II, it was thought that the Resistance contributed to the liberation of Paris.

The wartime atmosphere also created a change in the intellectual climate. The reality of war forced intellectuals to make political choices. This was reflected in the literature of the day. A poetry of the Resistance was developed with a direct language, and Paul Valery was regarded as the best of these. Sartre was influential in the literary scene, and his philosophy of existentialism became the theory of the Resistance. Existentialists believed in the liberty of humankind and that everyone is endowed with a certain responsibility for their lives. No Exit, an existentialist play, is regarded as a symbol of the liberation of Paris.


When No Exit was first produced in Paris in 1944, the critical response was mixed, due in part to the political climate of the time. Much of France was occupied by Germany. Sartre was identified with the Resistance, the French underground movement that sought to overthrow the German occupation. No Exit was regarded by many as subversive, full of in-jokes and subtle wartime criticism. Critics might have been afraid to openly praise such a play for fear

of repercussions, though No Exit was produced by permission of German censors. Those critics who favored the Germans or collaborated with them would not have wanted to praise something this controversial. Several critics, including Andrè Castelot, called for censoring the play.

Numerous French critics, regardless of their political views, agreed that the core idea of the play was brilliant. But there was controversy among critics and audiences alike over the brutality of the crimes committed by the characters as well as the character of Inez herself. Openly lesbian characters were unusual at the time.

No Exit was first produced in the United States on Broadway in December, 1946. American critics and audiences shared some of the French concerns over the characters, but many did not know what to make of the play as a whole. Wolcott Gibb, writing in The New Yorker, attributed the play’s success in Europe (the play was also a hit in London) to the Europeans’ “temperament.” Gibb dismissed No Exit as “little more than a one-act drama of unusual monotony and often quite remarkable foolishness.” The critic for Newsweek was not as negative, calling the play “weird and fascinating.” Like their European counterparts, many American critics were intrigued by Sartre’s concept of hell, but many Americans thought the play became repetitious near the end. Joseph Wood Krutch of The Nation took this view. He wrote, “Chief among the virtues is a genuinely macabre quality which makes itself felt most effectively during the first fifteen minutes. Unfortunately, like most plays based upon a conception which can be effectively stated in a few words, No Exit suffers from the fact that the interest tends to decline steadily from the moment the conception has been grasped.”

One point that the American critics of the time debated was the nature of existentialism, since No Exit was regarded as an existentialist play. The philosophy was relatively new and not completely understood in the United States. Since its original productions, existentialism has become widely studied and discussed by scholars. The play has been debated in these terms. No Exit and its themes are now better understood, and the play is generally regarded as a classic. Unlike most of Sartre’s other plays, No Exit has retained an accessibility because it is not rooted in a specific time and place.

There has been an extensive critical debate over the meaning of the play’s most famous line, “Hell is other people.” Many believe it means that interpersonal relationships are inevitably hellish. Others, including Sartre, disagree, arguing that it means people are too dependent on other people’s opinions of them. Critics and scholars also have debated the meaning and nature of Sartre’s hell, comparing it to other literary depictions. In an essay Jacques Guicharnaud contributed to Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, he wrote, “the play is not a metaphor of Hell but that the image of Hell is a metaphor of the hopeless suffering of individuals in search of their definitions in the eyes of others, yet constantly brought back to themselves.”


A. Petrusso

In this essay, Petrusso discusses the theme of cowardice and how it affects the plot of Sartre’s play.

The three characters that are condemned to the hell in No Exit all have one thing in common: each of them displays cowardice. Cowardice means they lack courage. Joseph Garcin, the pacifist newspaper reporter, and Estelle, the young socialite, both lacked courage in their lives, and in hell, they cannot face the truth about themselves. Inez is at once a more complex yet more simple character. She believes she is a sadist, and her actions more than prove that. But a sadist needs others to torture, and Inez cowers from aloneness. No matter what their differences, all three of them share one act of cowardice at a key moment in the play. The door to the drawing room opens, offering an unknown opportunity, but none of them is brave enough to leave. In understanding each character, and what hell does for them as a whole, the reason why they make that decision becomes clearer.

Garcin’s cowardice is the most obvious of the three and takes several forms. When he was alive, he was an editor at a newspaper in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. Garcin was a pacifist, and he was put to death for his convictions. These are the first two facts Garcin presents about himself to the women in hell. Garcin agrees with Estelle at first; they do not know why they wound up in hell. He thinks it’s a fluke. Garcin asks at one point early in the play, “do you think it’s a crime to stand by your principles?” But Garcin is ultimately forced to admit the truth about himself. He was cruel to his wife, going as far to bring another woman into their home and sleeping with her while his wife was upstairs. To make matters worse, his wife served Garcin and his lover coffee in bed.

The other truth about Garcin is his most literal cowardice. Though Garcin was indeed a pacifist, he acted on his beliefs in a spineless manner. Instead of staying and exclaiming his pacifist beliefs in Brazil, Garcin jumped on a train to Mexico, where he intended to start a pacifist paper. He was caught by officials near the border, imprisoned and shot by a firing squad for trying to run away from military service. But even in his cell while he awaited his fate, Garcin rationalized that “If I face death courageously, I’ll prove I am no coward.” Inez asks him how he faced it, and Garcin admits, “Miserably. Rottenly.” This is compounded by the fact that from hell, Garcin can hear his colleagues at the paper talking about him and calling him a coward. Garcin did not have enough time in life to correct this image of himself, and he regrets it.

Estelle’s cowardice takes on similar forms. In her life, she married a rich older man because she was poor and needed help taking care of her younger brother. Roger, an impoverished young man, became enamored with her, and she fell in love with him. They carried on an affair, and Roger wanted to have children with Estelle. She became pregnant by him and delivered a baby without her husband’s knowledge. But Estelle did not want the baby, so in one cowardly act, she murdered the infant in front of its father. Roger was so distraught that he committed suicide. Estelle cannot admit her cowardice had a suicidal effect on him. She claimed “It was absurd of him, really, my husband never suspected anything.” Instead of facing her crime, she chose to be superficial and cowardly. She eventually died from an unrelated illness, pneumonia.

Even more than Garcin, Estelle is in denial about her reasons for being in hell. She even cowers from the word “dead,” insisting on the phrase “absentee.” She thinks there has been some sort of clerical error that led to her being in this room with the others. “Just think of the number of people who—who become absentees every day . . . probably they’re sorted out by—by understrappers, you know what I mean. Stupid employees who don’t


  • Being and Nothingness, a nonfiction book published by Sartre in 1956 in translation, explicates his early theories on existentialism. It was originally published as L’Être et le néant in French in 1943.
  • Man and Superman is a play published by George Bernard Shaw in 1904. It is set in hell.
  • Devils, Demons, Death, and Damnation, is a book published in 1971 by Ernst and Johanna Lehner. It features images of hell throughout history.
  • The Victors, another play published by Sartre in 1948, also concerns a small group of people confined to a small room. They are French Resistance fighters who must decide the meaning of their own deaths. It was originally published in French as Les Morts sans sépulture, c. 1946.
  • Old Times, a play by Harold Pinter published in 1971, is centered around three characters. In a relatively unadorned set, the three engage in a sexual power struggle.
  • The History of Hell, published by Alice K. Turner in 1993, discusses images of hell in art and literature throughout history.

know their job. So they’re bound to make mistakes sometimes.” She does not have the courage to face truth in either life or death but is forced to by Garcin and Inez. This is reinforced by Estelle’s vision of her friend Olga, who is still alive. Olga tells Peter, another young man who admired Estelle in life, about Estelle’s indiscretions.

Inez does not show cowardice in the same way as the other two. From the first, she accepts her fate in hell. She believes that she deserves to be there. She says that she was not human, even when she was alive. When Garcin asks for her aid in defeating “their devilish tricks” by helping him, she replies, “Human feeling. That’s beyond my range. I’m rotten to the core.” In life, Inez was a self-described sadist. She lived with her cousin and his wife, with whom she began a lesbian affair. The cousin was distraught and eventually died in a tram accident. Inez tortured Florence by telling her that they killed him together. Florence eventually killed both herself and Inez by turning on the gas stove during the night.

Inez’s sadism is the core of her cowardice. She needs someone else to torture to be sadistic. Though she despises Garcin and desires Estelle, she needs both of them to be recipients of her sadism. Inez wants to control Estelle as she did Florence, and use her to punish Garcin. Garcin puts himself at the mercy of Inez, wanting her confirmation that he is not a coward. Inez needs these kinds of relationships. She engineers them in the course of the play. Though it is never explicitly stated, Inez is afraid to be alone. Without others, she cannot exist. This comes into focus late in the play when Garcin and Estelle try to ignore Inez and kiss. Inez squeals in agony, saying anything to break them up, just so she can be part of the action. She does not have to be at its center, but she must control it in some way.

The three characters’ cowardices come to a head during a moment of crisis for Garcin. He decides to accept Estelle’s advances towards him, but only if she has faith in him that he is not really a coward. Inez forces Estelle to admit that she likes him simply because he is a man. She cannot assure him he is not a coward, because she does not understand what he wants from her. Garcin is appalled and starts banging on the door to escape from the two women. While Inez tries again to seduce Estelle, Estelle says she will leave with Garcin. All of a sudden, the door flings open and Garcin nearly falls into the passageway. Garcin and Estelle hesitate, but then do not leave. Inez finds the situation outrageously funny, and starts to laugh. Estelle tries to push Inez out, and Inez cries, “Estelle! I beg you let me stay. I won’t go, I won’t go! Not into the passage.” Garcin says that he is staying in the room for Inez’s approval, and shuts the door.

This exchange shows how each of the characters cowers from the unknown. Garcin needs Inez to confirm he is not a coward. Estelle will not leave without Garcin. And Inez resists going out into the passageway where there might not be anyone for her to torture. They would rather be in a small, stuffy, overheated room with people they do not like or trust than to be caught in the passageways of hell. There is more certainty in a room that is always alight, where they can never blink or rest, than in the unknown of the hallway. They accept at that moment that their eternal fates are linked together. They can face the truth about themselves, but they cannot face the unknown. Their cowardice has a new dimension.

For most of the play, the threesome come to grips with who they are and why they are in hell. They learn that they can only face the truth with each other. Their fates, as Inez points out, are intertwined. There are no mirrors in which to see themselves. They can see who they are only through the eyes of another. Such self-realization combined with the circle of tension will occupy them for eternity because they can do nothing about their crimes. Growth is impossible because they are already dead. Inez says, “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.” Their punishment is to see their lives and their crimes judged by the others forever. To live the life of a coward is bad enough, but to “live” as one for eternity is even worse.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1999.

John Mason Brown

Brown reviews the English translation of No Exit, discussing Sartre’s portrayal of Hell and how it compares to modern perceptions and those presented in classic literature.

As if the contemporary world were not reason enough, there is also No Exit, a new play by Jean-Paul Sartre, to make hell highly topical as a subject just now. M. Sartre’s hell is quite a different place either from the hell to which life of recent years has exposed people everywhere, or that to which literature and the drama have accustomed us.

Tantalus, old and withered, standing in a pool up to his chin, and in his terrible thirst lapping at the water which disappears eternally just as he is about to moisten his parched lips. Sisyphus, his body arched everlastingly against a rock which he must push up a hill, only to find at the crest that it rolls down again and he must recommence his labors. Tityos, stretched on the earth, his giant hands powerless to move, as vultures on either side of him plunge their beaks into his flesh and pluck at his liver. These are among the classic images of the punishments of the damned. Ever since Odysseus looked upon them, they or their kind have haunted men’s minds.

Dante added to these images his own longer catalogue of horrors in “The Divine Comedy.” What is more, most of us are brought up even now to picture a Christian hell in terms of variations of these themes. Stoke the furnaces of Gehenna; add demons, pitchforks, and brimstone; but, above all, let the flames roar and include the agonies of eternal roasting, and you have some approximation of that hell of physical suffering in describing which hosts of ministers have not only exercised but demonstrated their fictional talents.

Why fictional talents? Because, as we are tempted to forget, the hell which the Thunderers of the Sawdust Trail have always loved to depict in every lurid detail as if they were travelers just returned from there, is hard to find in the Bible. Apparently as a notion, fearsome and corrective, it shared one, and only one, trait with Topsy. It “jes’ growed.”

It grew out of man’s natural fears, out of his knowledge of pain, out of his conviction that Satan in his great power must exceed even man’s inventiveness at cruelty. It came as an inheritance from, and an extension of, mythology. It blossomed by association, because Gehenna was a valley near Jerusalem used for the disposal of garbage.

To prevent disease, this refuse was burned, and constant flames flared there. The intellectual step connecting the disposal of garbage with the disposal of humans who, so to speak, were also refuse, was a simple one. The belief in purification through fire must be as old as fire itself. Hence the nostril-choking flames of Gehenna became almost inevitably for the imaginative the sulphurous flames of hell. But hell as it is usually pictured—hell as many people envisage it—is apochryphal. One of the most terrible reflections on man’s nature is the torture he has been able to imagine in God’s name.

No punishments known to Hades or “The Inferno,” or dear to the traditionalists of the “Old-time Religion,” are worse than the tortures to which the lost souls in M. Sartre’s No Exit are condemned. M. Sartre’s is a very special, post-Freudian, post-Briffault hell. In its choice of inmates and range of torments, it is French. It is French in its flavor, too; French in its intellectual agility; French because even in such sulphurous surroundings neither the eternal triangle nor “La Garçonne” has been forgotten. They have merely gone underground.

Yet Gallic as it is, it is more than that. It casts its oblique light on the thinking of a Europe wearied and ravaged by these past years. For this very reason it is comparable in its interest to a book so dubious in its detail, though evidently so valid in its general tone, as Curzio Malaparte’s “Kaputt.”

“The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven,” says Milton’s Satan. M. Sartre’s hell is free of active physical cruelties. It gets along without scourges, flames, or furnaces. No devils intrude, pitchforking the damned into the gaping bicuspids of a smoking “Hell-Mouth” as they did in the old Mystery plays. They do not have to. Beelzebub is already in full possession of the brains of the three lost souls in this intellectual guignol. The punishments with which M. Sartre appalls and intrigues us are all mental, a fact which does not lessen their pain.

The first misery suffered in his House of the Dead is claustrophobia. Hell, says one of his characters, is other people. It is also ourselves, because, in spite of what M. Sartre may preach as an Existentialist, as a dramatist he holds individuals accountable for their own doom. His hell is likewise the fearsome fate of being compelled to live with two other unbearable persons in a small windowless room. Not only this, but also of seeking help in vain from these companions, and then being engulfed all over again in the same pattern of repeated meannesses.

The room into which M. Sartre’s condemned are led by a satanic bellboy is a forbidding place. Had the devil been a stage designer, he could not have done a better job at exercising his spell than Frederick Kiesler has done for him. Mr. Kiesler’s setting is an interior, ugly and out of joint. Yet it is


more than this. Palpably it is meant to make self-destruction impossible. Though it is not one, it has the feeling of a padded cell and is as constricting as a straitjacket.

It is a tawdry living room seen in nightmarish terms. But it is also a dungeon, made the more unendurable because its furnishings do not confess its function. In spite of being lighted, there is in it something of that “darkness visible” which was seen after the Fall by Milton’s Satan. This makes itself felt terribly, for example, at the moment when we learn that behind the curtains which promise a window, a view, and even some hope of escape, there are only imprisoning bricks where there should be glass.

The three people M. Sartre sentences to torturing one another with their obsessions and their memories are not a pretty trio. One of them is a Lesbian because of whom a girl has committed suicide. The second is an American nymphomaniac who has betrayed her husband and her lover. The third is not only a collaborationist, at one moment swaggering, at the next sniveling, but a sadist who has brought misery to his wife. What they undergo for an hour and a half in their shifting antagonisms and relationships is an anguish macabre and terrible, though nonetheless absorbing.

George Jean Nathan has wisely pointed out how much half-baked Wedekind and Strindberg there is in M. Sartre’s script. Almost everyone who has seen No Exit has realized that during the last ten minutes the play drags and the attention wanders. Certainly, M. Sartre’s play is not all it might and should be as a drama. For me, at least, it suffers, in addition to its own insufficiencies, because of the intermittent colloquialisms of Paul Bowles’s translation.

Even so, I found No Exit one of the most interesting of the season’s offerings. I, for one, would rather sit before it than a monthful of such shopworn fables as “The Fatal Weakness,” “Happy Birthday,” or “Present Laughter.” At least it abandons the familiar stencils and grapples with an unusual idea. A mind is at work in it; a mind, alert, audacious and original, which has been touched by the agony of the modern world.

The evening No Exit affords is not designed for those whose only demand of the theatre is that it take over where the soap operas leave off; that it bolt its doors on the unpleasant; or that it function as a public nursery where adult kiddies can be left untroubled for an hour or so to play with toys which cannot hurt them. In spite of what is too special in them for the play’s good, the sinners in No Exit can claim one radiant virtue. They shatter the ordinary formula. They supply playgoers with escape from escape, rather than escape itself. In the words of a man who, though royal, was not a Prince of Darkness, this is “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d.”

Moreover, as adult theatre, M. Sartre’s play has been given an adult production here. A certain fear of inviting the baneful siren of the Black Maria may at times inhibit the acting (as apparently it did not either in Paris or London). But the production has been sensitively and, for the most part, unflinchingly directed by John Huston. It is admirably acted by Peter Kass as the bellboy, Claude Dauphin as the collaborationist, and Annabella as the homosexual. As the frenzied American Ruth Ford has her excellent moments, too, though she lacks the fire Tallulah Bankhead would have brought to the part without any stoking.

Source: John Mason Brown, “The Beautiful and the Damned, in the Saturday Review, Volume 29, no. 52, December 28, 1946, pp.26–29.

Joseph Wood Krutch

In this excerpt, Krutch discusses the worldwide popularity of Sartre’s play, affirming its appeal as both an intellectual treatise and an entertaining work of theatre. Of the work’s virtues in the latter category, Krutch praises the play for a “genuinely macabre quality.”

No Exit (Biltmore Theater) is the English version of a phenomenally successful French play by Jean-Paul Sartre, high priest of existentialism. The scene is hell, the running time only a little over an hour and a quarter, and the total effect that of a rather ingenious shocker of a sort which would not have been out of place on the program at the Grand Guignol a generation ago. Three people—a Lesbian, a male collaborationist, and an American playgirl who murdered her child—find themselves after death shut up together in a hotel room. They enter at once upon a brief cycle of disputation in the course of which each manages to torture the other; then, as the cycle begins to repeat itself exactly, the curtain goes down. The three, it is evident, will pass eternity going over the same painful ground again, and again, and again. Since they will never sleep, hell, as one of them says, is merely life with no time off.

Of existentialism I know only what I read in the papers—including The Nation. It is, I have been told on various occasions, the theology of Kirkegaard with God left out; the conviction that though the world is both evil and without meaning nothing much can be done about it; and, finally, the determination to reject society while acting as an atomic individual. So far as I can see, it neatly combines the disadvantages of religious faith with those of nihilistic atheism. It seems, in other words, to assert moral responsibility while at the same time insisting that virtue has no reward, and it thus enables M. Sartre to revive the ancient proclamation, “There is no God and I am his prophet.” But if this summary is inadequate, the fact is of no great importance at the moment, since no more—indeed hardly that much—could be deduced from the present play, whose virtues and limitations are obvious enough even to a spectator who has received no previous indoctrination.

Chief among the virtues is a genuinely macabre quality which makes itself felt most effectively during the first fifteen minutes, when the central conception is being presented and the atmosphere of horror being established. The ugly room, furnished in rather expensive bad taste and hideously lit by an unshielded chandelier in the ceiling, is just small enough to generate in the spectator a disconcerting claustrophobia, and as the victims are introduced one after another we share to some real extent both their nervous apprehension and the horror with which they realize the implications of their situation. Baudelaire talked about the frisson nouveau, and though it is no longer exactly new the shiver or thrill can still be provoked. Unfortunately, like most plays based upon a conception which can be effectively stated in a few words, No Exit suffers from the fact that the interest tends to decline steadily from the moment when the conception has been grasped and the playwright begins to try to fill in with sufficient material to stretch the action out beyond playlet length. In the present instance the revelation at the very end that the action is to repeat itself exactly through all eternity does provide an effective curtain, but up to that moment the tension has been going down rather than up, and there is no very good reason why the whole should not have been presented in half the short time now given it.

The popular French actor Claude Dauphin, who has been brought over to undertake the leading male role, gives a very effective if necessarily unpleasant performance as the bad-tempered, cowardly, neurotic, and self-despising collaborationist. Indeed, he seems to feel and transmit the emotions called for to a degree never-appro ached by Annabella and Ruth Ford, who play competently enough the other two principal parts. But not even the genuineness of his performance can conceal the fact that the main action itself is not very different from that of a sensational triangle play as, let us say, Bourdet or even Bernstein might have written it. It is one thing to say that hell will merely be life lived eternally and without respite. It is another to illustrate that statement by an action not essentially different from one which has been presented many times by dramatists who were saying merely that life is sometimes hell, not—what is really quite different—that hell is life.

To compare the reaction of an American audience with what is said to be the reaction of Parisians is to realize how much the success of the play in France must be the result of the special state of the post-war mind. Here it was being discussed during the one brief intermission merely as a tour deforce, sl sensational novelty; there it obviously means something to a population whose pessimism has become not so much an intellectual conviction as a neurotic derangement. Existentialism would appear to be less a philosophy than a state of mind, and less a state of mind than a state of nerves. “Hell,” said Shelley, “is a city much like London,” but that does not make Shelley an existentialist, for the simple reason that he was neither cold, nor hungry, nor defeated. And the difference makes the artistic as well as philosophical difference between “Peter Bell, III,” and No Exit.

Source: Joseph Wood Krutch, review of No Exit in the Nation, Volume 163, no. 24, December 14, 1946, p. 708.



Gibb, Wolcott. “Dream Boy,” The New Yorker, December 7, 1946, pp. 61-64.

Guicharnaud, Jacques. “Man and His Acts,” in Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962, pp. 62-72.

Krutch, Joseph Wood. A review of No Exit in The Nation, December 14, 1946, p. 708.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit in No Exit and Three Other Plays, Vintage, 1976, pp. 1-47.

“Three in a Room,” Newsweek, December 9, 1946, p. 92.


Barnes, Hazel E. Sartre, J.B. Lippincott Company, 1973.

This is a critical overview Sartre’s life and work.

Champignay, Robert. Sartre and Drama, Summa Publications, 1982.

A comprehensive analysis of Sartre’s work in the theater, including No Exit.

Cohn, Ruby. “No Exit (Huis Clos),” in From “Desire” to “Godot”: Pocket Theater of Postwar Paris, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 36-51.

This book discusses the background of plays and their productions. The essay on No Exit includes details on the writing, casting, and critical reception.

Contat, Michel, and Michel Rybalka, editors. Sartre on Theatre, Pantheon Books, 1976.

This is a collection of documents written by Sartre on theater, including his own plays.