Jean Paul Sartre wrote his theatrical masterpiece, No Exit as a play representing his philosophical work up to that point, and as a reflection of his renowned treatise released just a year earlier, entitled Being and Nothingness. The most famous line of the play, “hell is other people,” has often been mistakenly taken as the primary existential theme in and of itself, but to contemptuously describe such an explanation as superficial (which the theater critic Leah Frank does in a review of No Exit) belies Sartre’s purposes in writing the play (“Sartre’s Version of Hell”). This is because the famous phrase was only meant to hint at Sartre’s idea of human existence on a whole, not explain his ideology in and of itself. Sartre exposed this sentiment in an interview with a colleague’s son, John Gerassi, by stating that generalized ideas can seem arbitrary when not paired with the feelings that humans endure, “which is why I must test them [his philosophical ideas] in concrete situations, hence my plays and novels. Gerassi: So I don’t need to read Being and Nothingness if I read or go see No Exit? Sartre: In a way that’s true” (Talking with Sartre). Not only did this reflect Sartre’s view on the importance of theater as an expose of human emotion, but also it revealed his main intention in writing No Exit. This was not only to express the angst in interacting with other people, but it showed why Sartre believed other people are hell, in that their reactions and general presence bring out the kind of self-loathing that would not be actualized without other humans present.
Martin Heidegger, with his monumental philosophical work Being and Time, had an obvious affect on Sartre’s way of thinking, made apparent by the similarity in Sartre naming his most important book Being and Nothingness. The focus on the word being had to do with how modern philosophers previously overlooked the question of human existence. Heidegger called for modernists to stop making the assumption that the question of existence was minimal in relation to more seemingly complex philosophical questions. Sartre took this a step further in the opening page of Being and Nothingness by disregarding Descartes’ famous statement “ I think therefore I am” as inconsequential in a single paragraph. Sartre capitalized on this philosophical capital offense in No Exit by showing that the difference between existence and nothingness was not merely in the act of thinking, but in creating and living according to one’s own set of values. No Exit argued this groundbreaking idea brilliantly by gradually unveiling why each character: Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, were in hell, which was because they lived hypocritical lives contradicting the values they intended to live by or by not having any at all.
Garcin indeed contradicted the values he had created for himself and was constantly seeking reassurance that he was justified in his self-proclamation of being pacifist. Although instead of taking responsibility for his actions, he hypocritically treated his wife with malicious disregard by openly being unfaithful toward her, even forcing her to serve him and his mistress coffee while in bed. Garcin openly admitted his cruelty without remorse while conversing with Inez, stating, “I’m here because I treated my wife abominably” (No Exit). Garcin was doomed to be confined to hell because all he wanted was for others to think favorably of him instead of being true to himself. This was why he was constantly visioning what his co-workers at the office were saying (or not saying) about him, and also why he needed a feminine character such as his mistress in life and Estelle in death for self-validation. Margot Bonel Morgan, in his essay on modernist drama, dedicated a section to Sartre’s theatrical writing, and described the philosophical intentions in Garcin’s character, saying that Sartre’s view of true freedom “means living with the uncertainty that comes from having to make choices and stand by those choices without the security of a final judgment” (The Decline of Political Theatre in 20th Century Europe). Garcin could not live with making choices and standing by them, which was why other people were hell to him, since he only wanted those around him to show him respect without first respecting himself.
Respect was irrelevant for Inez, as her pessimistic attitude was prevalent in that she refused to live by any values. This was not out of ignorance, but because of an aversion to other human beings resulting in a nihilistic outlook of the world and other people. Inez was bound to nihilism as a result of her fear of people treating her as an outcast because of her sexual orientation. This amounted to Inez feeling the need to preemptively make other people suffer. When Garcin implored her to see reason in working together in order to avoid giving in to the torture devices that were themselves, Inez claimed that no effort for compassion could be mustered on her part. “Human feeling. That’s beyond my range. I’m rotten to the core” (No Exit). Sartre was commenting on the pitfalls of nihilism through Inez by characterizing her with contempt for other people that was toxic and would result in nothing other than a self-condemnation to perpetual torture. Inez’s personality was a device used by Sartre in order to represent the presence of nihilistic solipsism in people. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre asserted nothingness as being for itself, as opposed to being in itself, in that the former can be described as to nihilate, or to choose to believe that the Other is non-being, or only a representation. Inez could not see consciousness in other humans, her mode of thinking, thus, completely disregarded compassion and caused her to see others as beneath her, as if they were only non-sentient animals. “If animals are machines, [or, void of consciousness, hence, being] why shouldn’t the man whom I see pass in the street be one? What I apprehend on this face is nothing but the effect of certain muscular contractions, and they in turn are only the effect of a nervous impulse of which I know the course” (Being and Nothingness). Inez was attracted to Estelle partly for this reason, because Estelle’s superficial beauty played on Inez’s objectification of human beings. In this light, Inez’s attitude toward Estelle proved that the former’s solipsist perception of the world amounted to her being a misogynistic feminist.
Estelle’s personality was relatable to Inez in that the way that the latter hated men unjustifiably; the former was drawn to them for seemingly no reason. Estelle needed a man in the way that Inez needed a woman in order to fill the void inside them. When Estelle rejects Inez’s attempts at seducing her, she turns to Garcin, only because she witnessed her lover move on with her best friend in a vision of the living world. However, Garcin sees through her and knows that Estelle responds to him saying that she needed him, not just any man only in order to fool herself into playing the part of a lover. “No humbug now. Any man would do your business. As I happen to be here, you want me” (No Exit). Unlike Inez who has selfish values, Estelle has none at all, because of her shallowness. This was the reason why Estelle suffered in hell, in that she would forever be unsatisfied with those around her, which was why she ended up killing the baby she had birthed, because of her lover. Other people were hell for Estelle because she had no values, she was not interested in any, she only wanted to live in a fake world, which resulted in her causing her choices in life to be sordid.
Immorality was essential in Sartre’s meaning of the term hell is other people, but it was only one facet of how the phrase could be applied to existential thought. Sartre could not extensively elucidate his theoretical concepts on phenomenological questions of being within the confines of dramatic dialogue. Stating that a shortened aphorism such as hell is other people (like Leah Frank) would be completely missing the point, because Sartre’s intentions were the opposite, in that he desired to create a theatrical representation through No Exit of the complex philosophical ideas he had expressed a year prior in Being and Nothingness. Morgan’s essay elaborated on Sartre’s connection of philosophy and theater by agreeing that the philosopher was interested in using No Exit as a dramatic form of Being and Nothingness in order to express his concepts in a more simple and clear manner. “The role of drama, like the role of philosophy, is to elucidate the material constraints and moral dilemmas that shape an individual’s choices, and to interrogate his actions” (The Decline of Political Theatre in 20th Century Europe).
Morgan focused on Sartre implementing his own distinct expression of existential thought in his theatrical writing pointing out that Sartre called a theater of situations. The progression of the situation in No Exit mirrors Being and Nothingness in terms of characterizing each character into different forms of being. Garcin, Inez, and Estelle suffered each other’s torments because they chose to do so in life and in death. Garcin and Inez realized that this was the case quickly because they were aware of the Other, but they couldn’t do anything to better their situation because their values were misplaced. Estelle had no values, and thus was in self-denial about her situation, even after she finally confessed infanticide. It was apparent to Sartre, that theater expressed this kind of existential thought through situation in a more affective way to an audience, and that was why when Gerassi asked if he did not have to read his philosophical work if his play was seen or read in its stead, Sartre answered that in a way that was true. Ultimately, Sartre realized that his philosophical concepts had a more profound effect on a wider audience through theater: hence his use of the short but dynamic existential one-liner, hell is other people.