"No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre Summary of Characters and Themes

"Hell is other People"

production of No Exit
Sarahszloboda/Wikimedia commons/CC SA 3.0

Life after death isn't quite what we expected. Hell is not a lake filled with lava, nor is it a torture chamber overseen by pitchfork-wielding demons. Instead, as Jean-Paul Sartre's male character famously states: "Hell is other people."

This theme comes to life painfully for Garcin, a journalist who was killed while trying to flee the country, thus avoiding being drafted into the war effort. The play begins after Garcin's death. A valet escorts him into a clean, well-lit room, very similar to that of a modest hotel suite. The audience soon learns that this is the after-life; this is the place Garcin will be spending eternity.

At first, Garcin is surprised. He had expected a more traditional, nightmarish version of Hell. The valet is amused but not surprised by Garcin's questions, and soon he escorts two other newcomers: Inez, a cruel-hearted lesbian, and Estelle, a heterosexual young woman who is obsessed with appearance (especially her own).

As the three characters introduce themselves and ponder their situation, they begin to realize that they have been placed together for a specific purpose: punishment.

The Setting

The valet's entrance and behavior connote that of a hotel suite. However, the cryptic exposition of the valet informs the audience that the characters we meet are no longer alive, and therefore no longer on earth. The valet only appears during the first scene, but he sets the tone of the play. He does not appear self-righteous, nor does he seem to take any pleasure in the long-term punishment in store for the three residents. Instead, the valet he seems good-natured, anxious to partner the three "lost souls," and then probably move on to the next batch of new arrivals. Through the valet we learn the rules of No Exit's afterlife:

  • The lights never turn off.
  • There is no sleep.
  • There are no mirrors.
  • There is a phone, but it rarely works.
  • There are no books or other forms of entertainment.
  • There is a knife, but no one can be physically hurt.
  • At times, residents can view what is happening on earth.

Main Characters

Estelle, Inez, and Garcin are the three main characters in this work.

Estelle the Child Killer: Of the three residents, Estelle exhibits the most shallow characteristics. One of the first things she desires is a mirror in order to gaze at her reflection. If she could have a mirror, she might be able to happily pass eternity fixated by her own appearance.

Vanity is not the worst of Estelle's crimes. She married a much older man, not out of love, but out of economic greed. Then, she had an affair with a younger, more attractive man. Worst of all, after giving birth to the younger man's child, Estelle drowned the baby in a lake. Her lover witnessed the act of infanticide, and horrified by Estelle's action, he killed himself. Despite her immoral behavior, Estelle does not feel guilty. She simply wants a man to kiss her and admire her beauty.

Early on in the play, Estelle realizes that Inez is attracted to her; however, Estelle physically desires men. And since Garcin is the only man in her vicinity for endless eons, Estelle seeks sexual fulfillment from him. However, Inez will always interfere, preventing Estelle from attaining her desire.

Inez the Damned Woman: Inez might be the only character of the three who feels at home in Hell. Throughout her life, she accepted even embraced her evil nature. She is a devout sadist, and even though she will be prevented from attaining her desires, she seems to take some pleasure knowing that everyone else around her will join in her misery.

During her lifetime, Inez seduced a married woman, Florence. The woman's husband (Inez's cousin) was miserable enough to be suicidal but did not "the nerve" to take his own life. Inez explains that the husband was killed by a tram, making us wonder if she perhaps pushed him. However, since she is the character who feels most at home in this strange Hell, it seems that Inez would be more blatant about her crimes. She does tell her lesbian lover, "Yes, my pet, we killed him between us." Yet, she might be speaking figuratively instead of literally. In either case, Florence wakes up one evening and turns on the gas stove, killing herself and the sleeping Inez.

Despite her stoic facade, Inez admits that she needs others if only to engage in acts of cruelty. This characteristic implies that she receives the least amount of punishment since she will be spending eternity thwarting Estelle and Garcin's attempts at salvation. Her sadistic nature might very well make her the most content among the three, even if she is never able to seduce Estelle.

Garcin the Coward: Garcin is the first character to enter Hell. He gets the play's first and last line. At first, he seems surprised that his surroundings don't include hellfire and non-stop torture. He feels that if he is in solitude, left alone to put his life in order, he will be able to handle the rest of eternity. However, when Inez enters he realizes that solitude is now an impossibility. Because no one sleeps (or even blinks) he will always be in view of Inez, and subsequently Estelle as well.

Being in full, contrast view is upsetting to Garcin. He has prided himself on being manly. His masochistic ways resulted in his mistreatment of his wife. He also views himself as a pacificist. However, by the middle of the play, he comes to terms with the truth. Garcin simply opposed the war because he was afraid of dying. Instead of calling for pacifism in the face of diversity (and perhaps dying because of his beliefs), Garcin attempted to flee the country and was gunned down in the process.

Now, Garcin's only hope of salvation (peace of mind) is to be understood by Inez, the only person in Hell's waiting room who might be able to relate to him because she understands cowardice.

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Bradford, Wade. ""No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre Summary of Characters and Themes." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/no-exit-overview-2713437. Bradford, Wade. (2020, August 27). "No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre Summary of Characters and Themes. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/no-exit-overview-2713437 Bradford, Wade. ""No Exit" by Jean-Paul Sartre Summary of Characters and Themes." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/no-exit-overview-2713437 (accessed March 26, 2023).