Jean-Paul Sartre was a rare specimen: Not only one of the most famous philosophers of the 20th century, he also possessed real literary skill, with an uncommon ability to translate ideas into drama. No Exit, probably his most famous play, turns 75 this year and its claustrophobic vision of modern life and its discontents still resonates, long after existentialism ceased to be a hot topic among the chattering classes.
Written in the aftermath of the Nazi occupation of Paris, No Exit is understandably filled with an atmosphere of dread, with a pervading paranoia about the ways in which human beings take their private anguish and frustrations out on one another when there’s no other outlet available. For a nation that had just emerged from years of Nazi occupation and all the gruelingly routine humiliation, guilt, and moral anguish that came with it, this story about the psychological effects of confinement and guilty conscience must have felt painfully relevant. The play was a highly praised hit with the public, dealing in the same themes of paranoia and collective guilt taken up in other Sartre texts and classic French films of that era, such as Clouzot’s Le Corbeau and Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Silence de la Mer.
If No Exit has lasting value today, though, it’s partly because it resonates differently than it did in 1944—and offers surprising parallels to the way we live now.
The story concerns three very different people: a middle-aged male journalist named Joseph Garcin, and two women, a fairly butch lesbian named Ines Serrano and a young society lady named Estelle Rigault. Each are ushered in by a sullen valet one by one into a room designed in the opulent style of the Second Empire, a telling choice for a theatrical space that suggests subtle enclosure by impersonal luxury and grand ambitions. Each character understands that they are dead, and they assume that they are in hell, expecting the usual fire and brimstone. But as time wears on they gradually realize their predicament: Their eternal punishment will be to stew over the crimes that they don’t yet acknowledge that they have committed, either to themselves or to each other. As one character remarks, it turns out that they are to be their own torturers.
In the 1954 French film version, co-adapted by Sartre, the room is shown as a part of a larger hotel in the afterlife, and a group of people are busy being herded around the lobby while checking in at the front desk. The image of the afterlife as a sort of bureaucratic nightmare is a very modern conception—it’s not a rigidly ordered, Dantean universe of dramatic sights and sounds but a stultifying world of confusion and ennui, which reminds us of how truly secular the modern imagination has become (despite protests to the contrary).
Sartre’s staunch atheism puts this secularism front and center in No Exit, which bases its drama on the ways in which each character is forced to reckon with their deep-seated guilt and self-deceptions. Garcin initially presents himself as a hero for having died in the pacifist cause, boasting of 12 now-invisible bullet wounds. Estelle searches in vain for a mirror and assumes that there’s been some mistake. Ines is very no-nonsense about their individual motives and quite frank about her subversive sexuality. For a play written in the 1940s, it’s a bold move to make such a character so proudly assertive. Ines demands that everyone cut the bullshit and admit what they’ve done.
Ines brazenly explains that she seduced her cousin’s wife and was asphyxiated when the ashamed wife then left the gas on while they both slept. Ines makes no bones about her disdain for men and takes pride in her own selfishness and cruelty, which she believes is more honest than the preening pettiness of the other two. The Grande dame of French cinema, Arletty, plays her in the 1954 film with self-assured pride and a wicked eye for the vulnerabilities of others. There is more than a hint of the “homosexual villain” trope in Ines, but she is simultaneously the most powerful of the characters and the least self-deluded by far.
Given the plot’s forced constriction, it’s to Sartre’s credit as a writer that the drama keeps steadily building as each character is forced to admit that their preferred narratives are actually subtle methods to avoid confronting the reality of their actions. We discover that Garcin isn’t a martyr to a noble cause at all but was in fact shot as a deserter during the war. Estelle threw the unintentional result of an affair into the sea from a hotel balcony rather than admit its existence, which caused her lover to kill himself in grief. At different points, we see how Garcin’s wounded masculinity drives his need to be regarded as the principled tough guy, how Estelle’s denial about her own actions feeds into her desire to be desired by Garcin, and how Ines’s unrequited attraction to Estelle drives both of them crazy. Each character’s tangled motivations cause them to lash out at one another in various ways, which in turn makes them only more vulnerable as to how others will see them.
This is where Sartre’s existentialism comes to the forefront. Put simply, Sartre’s famous phrase “existence precedes essence” argues that the human condition is to exist in the world before you have a chance to make anything of yourself. One’s life is a constant battle to make choices within the vast possibilities of an indifferent universe, and precisely because of this radical freedom every choice is one that you must take ultimate responsibility for making—you’re “condemned to be free.” The characters in No Exit may be dead, but the tremendous burden of how to make sense of their lives hasn’t gone away. But, of course, if everybody’s existentially free their choices are going to inevitably bump up against those of others, and the inevitable judgment that results ultimately becomes an unbearable responsibility for all involved.
One of the notable changes in the film version is that instead of simply narrating as in the original, each character eventually pulls back the curtains and watches life go on without them through the empty window. They can’t help but futilely comment on the action and plead for the living to change their opinions about the deceased. In a sense, their lives are projected onto large screens, and the forced exposure puts their private lives out in public for all to see, much as the screens that dominate our daily life now create the opportunity for endless self-display.
In an age where being “judgmental” is frowned upon, where the mainstream culture encourages tolerance and acceptance as guiding virtues, it’s quite ironic how we’re all judging each other pretty much all the time. Of course, the media loves to attract eyeballs with headlines and photographs depicting the vulgarity of one group of people or another, whether they are faces twisted in outrage at a rally or anonymous trolls operating somewhere in the vast space of the internet. The constant need for self-display fostered by social media brings the image of the Other paradoxically closer and farther away, since you can gaze at as many images of other people’s lives as you want, but they’re all just abstracted images floating in cyberspace, easily disposable with a mere click.
Easily the most famous part of the play is the often-misunderstood line that Garcin murmurs towards the end: “Hell is other people.” This is not a fancy way of saying that people are annoying, but a concise way of pointing out that, like it or not, one’s own existence is inevitably defined in large part by others. As Proust (whom Sartre wrote critically about) suggests in the overture to Swann’s Way, “our social personality is created by the thoughts of other people.” Is there any more relevant way to explain both the tragedy and the allure of social media?
The idea of hell being other people surely had more bite when heard by an audience that had recently been smothered under Nazi occupation. But in today’s atomized world, it’s no less relevant. As Robert Putnam made famous, the social clubs and community institutions that were once the bedrock of our civil society have now faded dramatically, with the majority of people’s time spent in enclosed areas like cars, cubicles, and in front of screens. Wrapped in a cocoon of self-curated media, mini- speakers wedged in both ears, it becomes all too easy to ignore the outside world. The very technology that makes facile promises about promoting “connection” and “community” only make one’s experience of the outside world more myopic and disconnected.
The inevitable result is that an encounter with a new person will tend to be filled with more anxiety and apprehension than it probably should; other people’s strangeness becomes more immediately apparent right off the bat. When a new person appears in one’s carefully constructed space, it’s easy to notice their quirks and defects much faster—and much easier to assume the worst of others when they’re not specifically catering to you. One tends to buoy oneself from the constant inner chatter by pointing out the flaws in others, as if to prove that at least you’re not as bad as all those other weirdos.
It’s a dynamic that can now be seen in the structure of any sitcom. Think Seinfeld, with its small cast of characters who only hang out with each other while joking about other people’s foibles. There’s an atheistic, Sartrean quality to the “show about nothing”: None of the Seinfeld gang seems to care or believe in anything beyond their immediate surroundings, and the perpetual strangeness thereof. Their conversation is almost entirely focused on things like man hands, marble ryes, and soup Nazis. Part of the show’s genius is how it plays the character’s self-absorption for laughs, even as we might relate to their neuroses. It’s easy to imagine the gang yakking away within a Sartrean afterlife setting, eternally stuck at that diner or in Jerry’s apartment.
But then again, I don’t really have to imagine it—Sartre got there first. Recall that the final scene in the last episode of Seinfeld is of the four leads sitting in a jail cell, chatting away amiably to the end of time. Sartre’s ending to No Exit is a darker variation on the theme. By the play’s end the trio starts laughing uncontrollably at the sheer absurdity of their predicament, and then Garcin composes himself and fatalistically says “well then, let’s get on with it.”
At this point, the characters have spent the entire play inflicting emotional damage on each other, and they’ve only just begun. They have an eternity of passive aggression to look forward to. This is Sartre’s modern version of hell. If we alone are responsible for our life choices, but they inevitably end up as fodder to be scrutinized and judged by others, then we must all sort out our guilty consciences in front of one another. That is why, for Sartre, “hell is other people”—and it’s why No Exit still resonates more than 75 years later.