No Exit and its Existentialist Themes

Kerry Wood

I would like to take this opportunity to discuss Jean Paul Sartre's philosophy and it's integration into his play "No Exit". Embedded within the character interactions are many Sartrean philosophical themes. Personal attributes serve to demonstrate some of the more dominant ideas in Sartre's writings. Each of the three characters in the play show identifiable characteristics of sexual perversion, bad faith, and interactions of consciousness.

This play takes an interesting setting, that of the afterlife. The plot centers around three main characters, Joseph Garcin, Estelle Rigault and Inez Serrano. Hell, as portrayed in this work, is no more than a room with three couches and Second Empire decorum. There are no mirrors, no windows, no books, generally no form of amusement. Some very human privileges that we take for granted have also been taken away: sleep, tears, and even momentary reprieves of blinking. Each of the three characters is introduced into the room by a surprisingly polite Valet. Initial confrontations are "uncomfortable", each person knowing that he/she is deceased, but they are not impolite. However, as the true reasons why each person has been sentenced to Hell are revealed, the true nature of the place takes shape.

Rather than try to explain the chronological progression of the play, I would rather take each character and their opinions individually in an attempt to highlight what I believe are the important parts.

The first person to appear in the play is Mr.Garcin. At first glance, he is a very polite, gentlemanly, and moral individual. However, the further into the play that we read, we find that he is none of these things. Instead, he represents some of the worst ails that afflict humankind (according to Sartre). He was graced with a wife that loved him unconditionally, and he loathed for no other reason. In fact, one the first memories that he has of her is how "she got on his nerves". There is one story that is obviously intended to shock the reader, and provide a good interpretation of Garcin's true character. He states:

"Well here's something you can get your teeth into. I brought a half-caste girl to stay in our house. My wife slept upstairs; she must have heard - everything. She was an early riser and, as I and the girl stayed in bed late, she served us our morning coffee." (No Exit, pg. 25)

This fact is the one that he believes condemned him to his fate in Hell. Chronologically, this is our first example of sexual perversion. Garcin was a complete womanizer, he dominated his wife in any way possible, and used other women for nothing other than sex. Sartre would say that he destroyed any gains from sexual desire by actually fulfilling those needs. The play serves to enforce that idea. Not only does Garcin know that it was this behavior that brought him to Hell, but he sees his wife in a "saintly" light. His words insinuate that Garcin did not have a sexual relationship with his wife, and yet she still craved him. I believe that this is meant to enforce the desire theory. Garcin hated his wife for wanting him so much, she had achieved the ultimate end of sexuality, a state that he spent his time continually destroying. Therefore, it was not so much hatred, but it's remarkably similar cousin: jealousy.

However, what proves even more interesting is the case of his desertion from the military. He was formerly a "pacifist reporter". This supposed pacifism was the cause of his death. A time of war eventually erupted around him, and he was demanded to fight. It was his desertion for which he was summarily killed by firing squad.

Yet, that brief story is not quite correct. Anyone who chose pacifism, (and in this case a quick train to Mexico), would certainly not be punished. This is presented as Sartre's classic case of bad faith. Further into the story, as Garcin watches his colleagues on Earth, he discovers they are viewing him as a coward. He is quickly engulfed in rage, disgusted that his peers could brand him a coward supposedly knowing his character. All of this is understandable, except that Garcin himself questions his true motives in running from service. One of his "roomates", Inez asks of him:

"That's the question. Was that your real motive? No doubt