No Exit Jean Paul Sartre

No Exit, or Huis Clos in French, is a play written by French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and published in 1945. He is famous for his system of philosophy dealing with existence, consciousness, and the social processes that shape them. His experience in Nazi-occupied France during World War II inspired him to write No Exit.

No Exit Jean Paul Sartre No Exit Jean Paul Sartre

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Table of contents

    No Exit's Author Jean-Paul Sartre

    Jean-Paul Sartre was born on June 21, 1905, to Jean-Baptiste Sartre, an officer of the French Navy, and Anne-Marie. His father passed away from a communicable disease while on tour when Sartre was still an infant.

    In his early preteen years, his mother moved them to La Rochelle. Sartre was short, pimply, and blind in one eye. As a new student, this made him a target for bullies. With the difficulty of making friends plus the absence of a father, Sarte was inclined to spend time alone reading and introspecting. His maternal grandfather introduced him to classical literature, and he subsequently developed a fondness for reading. His exposure to a variety of literature at such a young age inspired him to write in many modes, including novels, essays, plays, and scripts for film.

    Jean-Paul Sartre excelled in grammar school and attended the University of Paris, a prestigious system of colleges. After college, he taught in lycées to earn a living.

    Lycée - the name of the system for secondary schools in France

    World War II broke out in Europe in 1939, and Jean-Paul Sartre was drafted into the French Army. He was captured and held as a prisoner of war once Nazi Germany invaded and occupied France. Sarte became concerned about how the occupation was normalized in daily life. He wrote essays published in French newspapers and journals describing the polite and correct behavior of the German soldiers, which made it very easy to be complicit with them, with the simplest acts of helping with directions or saying hello. The power of the occupying forces and their ever-present watch influenced Sartre's philosophy and contributed to the underlying ideas in No Exit.1

    No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre portrait photo in Venice, StudySmarterSartre loved his cigarettes and was rarely seen without one. Wikimedia .

    Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: Summary

    The play begins with Joseph Garcin in a room with the Valet. It's simply furnished yet has no windows or mirrors. Joseph remarks to the valet that he expected something more stereotypically hellish. There are no torture devices and a complete lack of the folktale demonic images of hell. He also wonders how he will get by without the usual routines of the living, such as brushing his teeth or needing to sleep. Joseph's questions and comments amuse the Valet. He replies by telling Joseph that people always have such trivial questions to ask before quickly taking his leave. Joseph expects to remain alone in the room and wonders how he will deal with his solitude.

    What is Sartre suggesting when he presents hell as a contemporary and domestic setting?

    The valet brings in Inèz next. She asks for her late partner Florence, but the Valet doesn't seem to know her. As she enters the room, she also assumes that there will be torture, and she believes the sole occupant thus far, Joseph, is the torturer. She perceives Joseph as fearful. At first, she is guarded and unfriendly towards him. Joseph desires to be sociable, but Inèz dislikes having to coexist with him, and she is already finding the circumstances torturous. They disagree on social etiquette, with Joseph wanting to be kind and Inèz insisting she is not. She says fear has no use here, and Joseph expresses hope regarding their predicament.

    The valet brings in the last character, Estelle. She is overly concerned with her appearance, a vestige of her former life that no longer serves her here. Inèz tells her she finds her attractive. Joseph informs her that he is not the torturer. They all share how they died: Joseph by firing squad, Inèz by suicide, and Estelle by illness. These are only partially true, and they all hide important details of their deaths from each other at first. They debate the coincidence of being together in this room, and only Inèz believes it's not a coincidence. They reflect on their past lives, the friends and family who survived them and begin to wonder why they have been sent to hell.

    What purpose does the love triangle serve in No Exit?

    Inèz decides that all three of them are together as torture. Their sharing of the space and the collision of personalities were designed to drive each other crazy. Amongst their arguing, Joseph suggests they leave each other alone in silence. This works for a moment until Inèz starts to sing to the frustration of the other two.

    Inèz attempts to seduce Estelle and resorts to being mean when she's unresponsive. Estelle is interested in Joseph, but he's more concerned with salvation. He admits he hasn't told the entire truth of his death and suggests the others should come clean too.

    Joseph cheated on his wife and was shot by a firing squad for desertion. While living with her, Inèz seduced her cousin's wife Florence, who killed them both by gas suffocation after learning her husband was struck and killed by a tram. Estelle married an older man for money, had an affair with a younger man, and drowned their child. She died of pneumonia while her child's father shot himself. For a moment, they find peace only to be interrupted with their antagonism toward each other again.

    Desertion is an attempt to leave one's military obligations after making a legal commitment to join the armed forces.

    Joseph insists that their fates are linked and they should cooperate to find peace and avoid further suffering. Inèz refuses and continues her pursuit of Estelle, who rejects her advances. Estelle is attracted to Joseph, who eventually decides to give in. This frustrates Inèz who threatens to watch them unflinchingly if they persist in their romance.

    No exit, Greek play No Exit characters, StudySmarterA greek dramatization of No Exit. The actors from right to left play Joseph, Inèz, the valet, and Estelle. Wikimedia.

    The characters continue to hear and see people from their past lives, and it tortures them. Joseph suddenly has an opportunity to escape, feeling that any possible horrors that await him must be better than this room. He realizes that he should stay because of Inèz—they are quite similar—and his salvation is somehow here in the room. Inèz relishes his needing her validation, but quickly realizes that he is also her torturer as she is to him. Estelle demands Joseph makes love to her only to be interrupted by Inèz screaming. He exclaims the famous line "hell is... other people!" Estelle furiously stabs Inèz repeatedly, who laughs knowing she can't die. They all laugh at their shared misery and decide to "continue" with their circumstances.

    Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: Characters

    No Exit has a small cast of three main characters and one minor character.

    The Valet

    The valet is a minor character that ushers the three main characters into the room.

    Joseph Garcin

    Joseph Garcin is a middle-aged man and the first character to arrive in the room. He's also the only character to have an extended conversation with the valet. He's ashamed of his cowardice and wants to be vindicated as a man by Inèz's approval.

    Inèz Serrano

    Inèz Serrano is a woman and the second character who enters the room. She desires Estelle, but her attraction goes unrequited. She is manipulative, insistent on getting what she wants, and delights in tormenting the other two characters.

    Estelle Rigualt

    A young woman who desires Joseph's affection. She is concerned with her appearance and femininity.

    Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: Analysis

    Sarte is originally famous for coining the term and philosophy, existentialism. Though he would eventually renounce being called an existentialist, his work No Exit sits on the assumptions of this philosophy.

    Existentialism is a system of thought and analysis concerning the nature of our existence, consciousness, and our sense of self within the context of social and cultural institutions.

    While existentialism is broadly defined, according to Sartre you are an existentialist if you believe that "existence precedes essence", as he explains in Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946). To Sartre, humans have an innate capacity to redefine themselves. The only precedent to this is the acknowledgment of one's existence—something that virtually anyone can agree with.2

    In No Exit, Sartre explores the power and presence of other minds imposed on our minds. Other people can affect our choices and distort our sense of self. Our essence is the freedom to make choices. If we can be influenced into believing we have no choice or must let others make choices for us, we essentially deny our own humanity.

    "The Others"

    The power of "the others" and their gaze is the main idea of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit. Sartre experienced this first hand in Nazi-occupied France, as Nazi soldiers were ever-present and watchful. French citizens were always made aware of their powerlessness as long as they were being observed. This inspired Sartre to use the phrase "the others".

    Humans are social creatures and seek validation from others. These moments occur in the play when Inèz offers to be a mirror for Estelle, or Joseph insists his vindication must come from Inèz. While this validation can be helpful, it can also be harmful.

    Inèz represents the worst of the gaze and the power of "the others". She uses her presence and gaze to control the other two characters. However, she is not immune to "the others". The romance between Joseph and Estelle together is her torture, and the mere possibility of them touching each other is painful and inescapable for her.

    Estelle welcomes Joseph's gaze. Estelle's past life was dominated by her desire to be validated by other men. Her femininity is important to her, and she constantly thinks about how she appears to others.

    Symbolism in No Exit

    The hell of No Exit could easily be any social situation where one feels they cannot politely excuse themselves without social repercussions. The room in No Exit symbolizes the afterlife but also contemporary social situations where one could not leave without fear of punishment. This would likely compare to how many French citizens felt in Nazi-occupied France. They feared any invitation to interact with nazi soldiers, yet these day-to-day interactions became normalized. Everything became predictable and somewhat pleasant on the surface. Yet beneath that appearance, there was a more disturbing truth. Sartre shared that often friends and family could and would disappear without a trace.

    Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit: Themes

    The main themes of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit are freedom and responsibility, aloneness, and the failure of religion.

    Freedom and Responsibility

    In No Exit, a pivotal moment occurs when the characters harness their innate capacity to choose when they all decide to confess their true stories. However, the mere existence of "the others" threatens to take away that freedom and responsibility. Joseph has an opportunity to leave. It's his moment to recognize his own agency, his freedom to choose, and the responsibility for his actions. Instead, he chooses to stay, hoping for salvation through Inèz. It was easier for Joseph to let Inèz make the decision for him. It's also easier for Joseph to let Inèz vindicate him instead of him finding absolution within himself.

    Humans have virtually unlimited amounts and varieties of choices in any scenario presented to them. Sartre was fascinated by this human condition. For Sartre, there were objects that simply existed, like a chair. Consciousness defines itself by its relation to that chair, not being a chair, and being unlike the chair. Consciousness doesn't occupy space, nor can it be seen by others. So essentially consciousness has a "no-thing-ness". Therefore, consciousness is defined by the actions we take.


    To Sartre, being alone allows one to truly embrace one's own inherent autonomy. The constant presence of "the others" in No Exit, keeps the characters from self-actualizing and making decisions for themselves. Their present choices are shown to be a continuation of past behaviors. Estelle defines her worth by attaching herself to a man. Inèz insists on being cruel to others in order to feel in control, as she equally hates the influence of others on her. Joseph needs women to validate his insecure masculinity.

    Failure of Religion

    Having a very unexpected, rather iconoclastic representation of hell strongly suggests that religion has failed to prepare people for the contemporary world. Sartre grew up within Catholicism, which relies heavily on the imagery of damnation and injecting a healthy dose of the fear of hell into its followers. As Sartre read more classical literature, he gradually moved away from religion. He felt it offered little support or help in face of a dramatically changing world while living in the backdrop of the rise of nazi Germany and its subsequent invasion and occupation of France.

    No Exit - Key Takeaways

    • No Exit is based upon Jean-Paul Sartre's experience living through the Nazi occupation of France.
    • The play consists of three main characters stuck in a room that represents the afterlife.
    • The three main characters are Joseph Garcin, Inèz Serrano, and Estelle Rigualt.
    • No Exit is concerned with the "gaze" and "the others" which represent the power of the presence of others to impose on our well-being.
    • The main themes of Jean-Paul Sartre's No Exit are "the others", Freedom and Responsibility, Aloneness, and the Failure of Religion.
    1. Murdoch, Iris. Sartre : Romantic Rationalist (1989)
    2. Palmer, Donald. Sartre for Beginners (1995)
    Frequently Asked Questions about No Exit Jean Paul Sartre

    Who wrote No Exit?

    No Exit was written by Jean-Paul Sartre, a famous existentialist philosopher.

    What is the main message of No Exit?

    The main message of No Exit is that the gaze from "the others" is powerful enough to distort our reality and deny our autonomy.

    What does the room symbolize In No Exit?

    The room in No Exit symbolizes the afterlife, but also it symbolizes contemporary social situations where one could not leave without fear of punishment.

    What is the theme of No Exit and how does it relate to existentialism?

    The theme of No Exit is the power of "the others" to deny our autonomy. Sarte believed the essence of existence is the freedom to make choices. If others persuade us into believing we have no choice, we deny the essence of our existence.

    What happened at the end of No Exit?

    At the end of No Exit the characters almost decide to change their situation but decide to accept and to "continue" with it.

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