No Exit

You know those internet quizzes where you find out what kind of Disney character you are, what root vegetable you are, which flag of the world you are? Well, I don’t know if there’s a quiz for which classic existentialist text you are, but if there were, I’m pretty sure I would be No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre.

This is a comic play about three recently dead people who find themselves in hell. But hell, in Sartre’s vision, has no burning embers or rapacious goat-monsters. Instead, it’s a mundane hotel room with a polite servant and Second Empire furniture. The three people, puzzled at their surroundings, begin to converse. They are:

  • Garcin, a grand but arrogant alpha male who brags of his courageous service in the French Resistance against the Nazi occupation.
  • Inez, a street-smart, world-weary lesbian.
  • Estelle, an attractive, somewhat brainless young woman.

Within minutes of their first meeting, the three people already start to drive each other crazy. Inez questions Garcin’s tales of bravery, and quickly uncovers the fact that Garcin exaggerated his wartime exploits — in fact he is a coward who uses antiwar rhetoric to mask his inner fear of being hurt in battle. Inez has no use for Garcin, but is very interested in the pretty young Estelle, who in turn finds Inez repulsive and is drawn to Garcin. Garcin has no interest in Estelle, though, and only yearns to win Inez’s acceptance and respect.

They have formed a perfect triangle of unsatisfied need: Garcin needs the approval of Inez, who needs the approval of Estelle, who needs the approval of Garcin. It is when they realize their predicament that Garcin utters the famous words this play is known for: ‘Hell is other people!’

But to hear these words as a statement of misanthropy is to misunderstand the real point of the play. It is only because each of the three people yearn for each other that they are in such pain.

In fact, the title of the play contains a joke, because the three characters are free to exit the room at any time. But they don’t, because what they need most is each other.

This ‘perfect triangle’ is an archetypal fictional device that recalls many other tragic literary triangles from Othello and Iago and Desdemona in Othello to Stanley, Stella and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire to Mr. Orange, Mr. Brown and Joe in Resorvoir Dogs. There are also many other kinds of geometric ‘existential templates’ — squares, pentagons, rhombi. I have been in a few complex structures like these in my own life, and like most people I often find it hard to extract myself from them, even when I am able to understand what is happening. No exit, as they say.

40 Responses

  1. fascinating explorationThis
    fascinating exploration

    This is a true epiphany. Knowing the play I am. For a long time, I assumed I was Waiting for Godot – all the parts fit me. All the absurdities of the situation as well as the gasps of disbelief and primitive utterances of Lucky.

    Who’s Lucky? Lucky to be alive? Is it all a game of living while waiting?

  2. Everyone’s Looking for
    Everyone’s Looking for Answers

    I open a book. I talk on a chat room. I’m looking for an answer.
    I go to the latest play. I want to hear Truth (capitalized, of course).

    I’m open-mouthed, listening full throttle to the non-action or the metaphors so carefully conceived.
    In the audience, all wait for the punchline.

    I hope this will be the day that revelation is played out in a way that will make meaning of my life.
    Every play is the same – potential Soothsayer to my needy heart.

    An answer is given. Mostly no answer is given. I leave the theatre. I walk home, melted down to despair. A play once more has shown me zilch.

    Everyone’s looking for answers. When no answer is given, we go home and wait for the next installment.

  3. Mister RoperThis reminds me
    Mister Roper

    This reminds me of the follies often encountered by Jack, Janet and Crissy as they struggled to maintain a household under the oppression of Mr. Roper (deftly played by the inimitable Norman Fell, natch). Just as the characters in ‘No Exit’, this trio played out the primal push and pull of the need for companionship and human presence while trying to assert their own individuality and independence. Come and knock on our door, indeed.

    And, by the way … who says there’s no Which Existential Text Are You? Quiz?

  4. Yes I lied. I declared:
    Yes I lied. I declared: ‘hominy’ – which derisively forced me into the Culture Club.

    Unable to withstand the pain, I confessed:tomato sauce. True diagnosis: No Exit.

  5. Cliches, Points, and Hell1.
    Cliches, Points, and Hell

    1. What you think you need might be different after you get it.
    a. Often what you feel is missing is what you think you need.
    2. Everyone knows these:
    a) Say nothing at all
    if you’ve nothing good to say,
    or should have been taught.
    b) Small minds talk people,
    larger minds discuss objects,
    the greats ideas.
    3. As for Cartesian geometry, all people could be considered points;
    but nothing Euclidean-wise.
    4. Hell is a 4-letter word.

  6. Hell and WolvesI find the
    Hell and Wolves

    I find the occult view of the meaning of Hell very interesting. They say that we are in hell. Hell, or ‘the halls of suffering” is the World, the physical plane. To go to hell when we die, is to reincarnate. to go to heaven, is to reach that level of purification wherein there are no more forces pulling us back to earth. ascending like J man, etc.

    Aparrently this is why Jack the Ripper signed his letters: From Hell.

    As for need, I think we are all wolves in sheep’s clothing, among wolves in sheep’s clothing. Its surely a matter of spiritual development whether we overcome our ‘addiction’ to feeding off of each other?

  7. According to the test, I’m
    According to the test, I’m Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky!

  8. The Geometry of NeedThe
    The Geometry of Need

    The geometry of need is a complex pattern of longing and denial.

    Once we’re caught in it, we, like the protagonists in Sartre’s No Exit, negate who is attracted to us by means of denying that person, while at the same time, we also negate whom we are attracted to through a process of objectification. We deny the individual existence of the one we long for in order to re-build her or him according to our needs within our own mind.

    In the geometry of need, we are dependent on other existences to mirror our own; we need other minds to tell us the qualities of our own existence, and we need other minds to tell us that we exist at all.

    When we’re rejected by the object of our attraction, when our potential mirror refuses to give up its individuality and be reduced to our reflecting device, we begin to wonder if we really exist.

    Hell is other people when we depend on their mercy – and we are all in that hotel room, longing for a mirror that offers us a reflection; we are all Schroedinger’s cats, waiting for the box to open, howling in the dark ambiguity of our existence, yearning for and dreading the certainty of what we are.

    We are all waiting for our mirrored proof to experience our state of being in someone’s else’s presence… we are all waiting for someone to lift the lid above us to grant us the mercy of knowing if we are alive or dead.

  9. here i’ve been going along
    here i’ve been going along not being being and nothingness… not being the plague… but being ‘beyond good and evil’…

    and all this time i thought i was the gay science…

  10. panta! this is just a really,
    panta! this is just a really, really great post. really. i was about to post a response to the original topic, but yours summed it up for me. again–great post.

  11. i’m notes from the
    i’m notes from the underground …makes sense.

    “…not again” each morning upon waking, indeed!

  12. I suppose this means I should
    I suppose this means I should actually read Notes from (the) Underground, rather than just living it.

  13. I’m Kissing to Be

    I’m Kissing to Be Clever!

    coffee first then world
    was ‘Not again…’
    and some days it still is….
    but mostly these days its
    ‘First coffee, then the world.’
    and I simply looove tuna!

  14. Yes, Panta, I think that is
    Yes, Panta, I think that is what gets me about this topic too. Like, in Sartre’s play, there is the fact that it would be incredibly simple for any of the three characters to make one of the other three happy — Garcin could pay attention to Estelle, Estelle could pay atention to Inez, Inez could lie to Garcin and tell him she believes he is as brave as he wants to think he is. But … none of them choose to do what they could easily to do to make each other happy. It’s almost as if it would upset the cosmic balance of the world if we were all to cease tormenting each other with our judgements.

    Sartre has written about this topic elsewhere as well — I guess it’s just about his major theme. I really want to delve more deeply into it.

  15. Yes – by giving in to the
    Yes – by giving in to the others’ needs, they would have to open up to the realization that the other person isn’t a reflection of their own needs and failures, isn’t their mirror, but an indivual, independent being.

    Ironically, by making each other happy, they’d give up on their co-dependency on each other and put their own existence at stake – and thus would disturb the delicate balance within which they are able to define themselves through their suffering and futile longing.

    Tragically absurd, isn’t it?

    And I could substitute “they” so easily by “we”…

  16. Talking about playsHere’s a
    Talking about plays

    Here’s a part from a play I really love.

    One of the great things about this play is that you can open it at any page and get something out of it.
    Its “Rosencranz and Guildenstern are Dead”, by Tom Stoppard. Opened at random:

    GUIL: If it is, and the sun is over there (his right as he faces the audience) for instance, that (front) would be northerly. On the other hand, if it is not morning and the sun is over there (his left) … that … (lamely) would still be northerly. (Picking up.) To put it another way, if we came from down there (front) and its morning, the sun would be up there (his left), and if it is actually over there(his right) and it’s still morning, we must have come from up there(behind him), and if that is southerly (his left) and the sun is really over there (front), then it’s the afternoon. However, if none of these is the case——–

    ROS: Why don’t you go have a look?

    GUIL: Pragmatism?! – is that all you have to offer? You seem to have no conception of where we stand! You won’t find the answer written down for you in the bowl of a compass –
    – I can tell you that. (Pause) Besides, you can never tell this far north – it’s probably dark out there.

    ROS: I merely suggest that the position of the sun, if it is out, would give you a rough idea of the time; alternatively, the clock, if it is going, would give you a rough idea of the position of the sun. I forget which you are trying to establish.

    GUIL: I’m trying to establish the direction of the wind.

    ROS: There isn’t any wind. Draught,

    GUIL: In that case the origin. Trace it to its source and it might give us a rough idea of the way we came in — which might give us a rough idea of south, for further reference.

    ROS: It’s coming from the floor. (He studies the floor.)
    That can’t be south can it?

    GUIL: That’s not a direction. Lick your toe and wave it around a bit.

    Ros considers the distance of his foot.

    ROS: No, I think you would have to lick it for me.


    GUIL: I’m prepared to let the whole matter drop.

    ROS: Or I could lick yours, of course.

    GUIL: No thank you.

    ROS: I’ll even wave it around for you.

    GUIL: (down Ros’s throat) : What in God’s name is the matter with you?

    ROS: Just being friendly.

    GUIL: (retiring): Somebody might come in. It’s what we’re counting on, after all. Ultimately.

    ROS: Perhaps they’ve all trampled each other to death in the rush… Give them a shout. Something provocative.
    Intrigue them.

    GUIL: Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are … condemned. Each move is dictated by the previous one- that is the meaning of order. If we start being arbitrary it’ll just be a shambles: at least, let us hope so. Because if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know we were lost. (He sits) A Chinaman of the T’ang Dynasty – and, by which definition, a philosopher- dreamed he was a butterfly, and from that moment he was never quite sure that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a Chinese philosopher. Envy him; in his two-fold security.

    A good pause. Ros leaps up and bellows at the audience.

    ROS: Fire!

    GUIL: Where?

    ROS: It’s all right – I’m demonstrating the missuse of free speech.
    To prove that it exists. (He regards the audience, that is the direction, with contempt – and other directions, then front again.) Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes. (He takes out one of his coins. Spins it. Catches it. Looks at it. Replaces it.)

    GUIL: What was it?

    ROS: What?

    GUIL: Heads or tails?

    ROS: Oh, I didn’t look.

    GUIL: Yes you did.

    ROS: Oh, did I? (He takes out a coin, studies it.) Quite right-
    it rings a bell.

    GUIL: What’s the last thing you remember?

    ROS: I don’t wish to be reminded of it.

    GUIL: We cross our bridges when we come to them and burn them behind us, with nothing to show for our progress except a memory of the smell of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.

    Ros approaches him brightly, holding a coin between finger and thumb. He covers it with his other hand, draws his fists apart and holds them for GUIL. GUIL considers them. Indicates the left hand, ROS opens it to show it empty.

    ROS: No.

    Repeat process. GUIL indicates left hand again. Ros shows it empty.

    Double bluff!

    Repeat process- GUIL taps one hand, then the other hand,
    quickly, Ros inadvertently shows that both are empty. ROS laughs at GUIL turns upstage. ROS stops laughing, looks around his feet, pats his cloths, puzzled.

    Pause. goes backward, again at random

    ROS: I remember-

    GUIL: Yes?

    ROS: I remember when there were no questions

    GUIL: There were always questions. To exchange one set for another is no great matter.

    ROS: Answers, yes. There were answers to everything.

    GUIL: You’ve forgotten.

    ROS flaring: I haven’t forgotten – how I used to remember my own name – and yours, oh yes! There were answers everywhere you looked. There was no question about it – people knew who I was and if they didn’t they asked and I told them.

    GUIL: You did, the trouble is, each of them is … plausible, without being instinctive. All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. A man standing in his saddle in the half-lite half-alive dawn banged on the shutters and called two names. He was just a hat and a cloak levitating in the gray plume of his own breath, but when he called we came. That much is certain- we came.

    ROS: Well I can tell you I’m sick to death of it. I don’t care one way or another, so why don’t you make up your mind.

    GUIL: We can’t afford anything quite so arbitrary, Nor did we come all this way for a christening. All that – preceded us. But we are comparatively fortunate; we might have been left to sift the whole field of human nomenclature, like two blind men looting a bazaar for their own portraits…. At least we are presented with alternatives.

  17. Arty Ficialfigures, scattered
    Arty Ficial

    figures, scattered by time
    broken, addicted by
    sensoric stimulation, neuron excitement:
    what we call filling in the space,
    dimensions of life, mind nodules,
    identity, lost and found –
    nirvana between states of balance.
    Furious libra, with the load of conscience
    implanted, the green pressure of desire,
    eye contact, schemes of answers, cheap and yet
    everything we are, message skin, hungry skin,
    silver spiral staircases
    of insight, the chalice of wine,
    no choice, don’t reject, reflect, it’s all
    about mobilizing courage, come near ..
    entreat for communication,
    oh dam up your pride, trivia of distinction
    within the game, at least
    make assured
    resting children,
    bend ice crystal eclipses to
    flower rains: your
    existential imagination

    Molecules –
    like other individuals in interacting ensembles
    can be described in a liquid not isolated
    but only by a complex of relationships
    between the molecules
    because only these
    the state of the (active) molecule
    (similar to the interactions of love and anarchy)

    “And Polo said: The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.”
    (Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities)

  18. … it’s kinda like
    … it’s kinda like everyone’s waiting for the next thing, never seeing the beauty of it all staring them in the face … mark

  19. … of those shows that
    … of those shows that I always heard the dialogue but never hardly saw, cause I was most times working on my wired ones or doing collage, now my wife at the time watched it religiously, the words still play within my artwork from that time…..mark

  20. Yes, I think this is a good
    Yes, I think this is a good point. Hell is endless repitition. Heaven, or Nirvana, is the achievement of a higher plane than we will ever know in this world. In terms of this play, these are three people who are earthbound — unable to ascend to the next level.

    This thought made me remember another interesting detail in this play: if I remember correctly, the three dead characters are physically normal in every way except one: they have no eyelids. Their eyes remain open all the time.

  21. Yes, Panta, I’m really glad
    Yes, Panta, I’m really glad you stated this so well.

    I think the next question is: does it make sense for human beings to even *try* to break out of these structures? Or would we simply cease to exist without these structures? What would we be? What would we look like, without mirrors?

  22. ExistencialismWell, my mother

    Well, my mother was the existencialist and the Kafka fan of the family. I read some of her books when I was a teenager and in my early twenties: La invitada by Simone de Bouvair, La n

  23. The Geometry of NeedThe
    The Geometry of Need

    The geometry of need is perhaps best depicted in the famous play of Bernard Shaw, “Pygmalion”.

    The main protagonists of the play, Prof. Higgins and Eliza Doolitle, have a desperate need for each other.

    Prof. Higgins thinks (aloud) that his need for Eliza is primarily for the purpose of his experiments in phonetics. However, the readers realise that his need for Eliza is the need of a lonely man for a friend and conscience keeper. It is the essentially primordial need of a man for a woman.

    Eliza Doolitle needs Prof. Higgins in a way in which every woman does. He is her role model. He is her teacher. He is what she yearns to be. Her need is undisguised, unlike that of Higgins.

    Their need for each other is more on an intellectual plane. It is the need of the creator for the creation, and vice versa.

    On the other hand, Freddy’s need for Eliza exists purely on the physical plane. It is the common need of a man that we come across in everyday life. It is devoid on intellectual pretensions.

    Eliza doesn’t need Freddy. However, he is the only alternative she has. As she asks Higgins, “What shall I do with myself? What have you left me fit for? I sold flowers. I didn’t sell myself. Now I have nothing else to sell.”

    Higgins’ need for Eliza is checked by their age difference as well as his feeling of superiority.

    Thus the geometry of need is best understood in all its varieties and complexities by George Bernard Shaw and depicted in this play.

  24. Yes, that’s the question,
    Yes, that’s the question, exactly.

    If we were placed in a room with no reflecting surfaces, it would be impossible for us, using only our eyes, to behold our own faces – the organ of sight would be imperceptible to itself. If we were placed in a world with no reflecting others, would it be impossible for us, using only our self-consciousness, to experience our own existence – would our own being become imperceivable, and therefore non-existent to us?

    Just as we cannot taste our own tongue or smell the inside of our nose, our consciousness can never view itself as a consciousness and is only aware of itself through its experience of an object. It cannot truly apply its abilities back to its own self, and therefore cannot be understood as an object of consciousness, but as an activity of constituting the objects of consciousness.

    What would happen if we’d be deprived of the objects?

    Our being, our existence is in a constant state of flux and becoming, and we are constantly busy with re-shaping and re-interpreting ourselves, with accumulating facts and forms, features and illusions about ourselves around us, with constantly trying to define ourselves through situations, actions and others.

    Could we stand ourselves in our absolute existence, could we bear our being in itself if we weren’t able to define ourselves relative to someone else anymore?
    Would our being per se be enough to exist for us – and would there be any self-consciousness at all, apart from the definition through and reflection in others?

    Do they inevitably belong together – our existence per se, our process of unveiling it (the movement called consciousness), and our mirrored existence?

    And if they do – are we still free to break away from what we are, are we still always responsible for what we have made of ourselves, despite of the given and complexe structures?

    I wish to think we are – but then, it’s more than a question of balance. It’d be a completely different way to navigate ourselves through it that is still unknown to me.

  25. open eyesdoomed to
    open eyes
    doomed to see
    condemned to look
    for reflections

    no rest
    in sight

    staring into eternity
    cursed by tragic attractions

  26. culture club here, too. but
    culture club here, too. but if you think about it, life on a culture club album would be pretty interesting. at the very least, it would have a lot of pep.

  27. The Geometry of MeI am The
    The Geometry of Me

    I am The Center
    of this fragile network
    who believe
    are the center.

  28. Since there is only the
    Since there is only the present moment, Hell is some thing place body, that can be experienced at any time. I mean, have you ever had a mechanic look you in the eye & tell you it will be 150 bucks to install that 3 dollar thingy? Yeah just a little hell….

    In the same light, you can have heaven in any possible moment. I find TRUTH in the possiblity of both — even though they are indeed two sides of the same coin.

    Desire=Hell, No desire, No Hell. Got ta have a little heaven in there though now don’t ya?

  29. “A human being is a part of
    “A human being is a part of the whole, called by us “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

    — Albert Einstein, quoted in H Eves Mathematical Circles Adieu (Boston 1977).

  30. yes, the perfect moment to
    yes, the perfect moment to bring einstein round to remind us of how we compress ourselves for no reason into a mindset of reason

  31. what are wordswhat is
    what are words

    what is language
    but an attempt to describe our world
    in edible bites?

    Release the need for description
    and perhaps we would be
    able to simply be
    heaven/hell or yin/yang
    we are everything
    while clinging to the lie
    that we’re nothing

  32. ‘You have to play the game,to
    ‘You have to play the game,

    to know why you are playing the game.’

    from the movie Existenz.

    (such a trippy movie)

    haven’t read “no exit” yet but it sounds interesting.

  33. This Mortal PredicamentNo way
    This Mortal Predicament

    No way out of this mortal predicament. The hell Sartre describes is a continuation of the Earth.

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