62 pages 2 hours read

Jean-Paul Sartre

No Exit

Fiction | Play | Adult | Published in 1944

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Summary and Study Guide


No Exit (1944) is a play by French philosopher, writer, and critic Jean-Paul Sartre. Sartre was drafted into the French army during World War II and spent nearly a year as a German prisoner of war. He then wrote and debuted No Exit in Paris while the city was still under German occupation and control. No Exit is comprised of one act which takes place in a single room in the afterlife, which the characters believe to be hell. Three individuals—Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano, and Estelle Rigault—have died and must share the room for eternity. The play follows their interactions, which quickly escalate into tension and animosity. Scholars often note the occupation in Paris and Sartre’s time in prison as inspiration for the play, where eternity passes in a dull room with no reprieve.

No Exit is often considered a model of post-World War II literature because of its questioning of absurdity and meaning, intense psychological introspection, and interrogation of the Subjectivity Versus Objectivity of the Self. Post-World War II literature is often framed as a bridge between modernist and post-modernist literature: The prior is built on rationality and reason whereas the latter is built on absurdity and lack of meaning. Sartre is a key figure in the development of existential philosophy. Existentialism very often explores the concept of absurdity, and how people create meaning, both of which No Exit exemplifies. Existentialism in No Exit helped pave the way for postmodern theater and films. The play ends with Sartre’s most famous line: “Hell is other people,” meaning that there is no fire and brimstone hell, only the way that we torment one another (46-47).

This guide uses the 1955 edition of No Exit, and Three Other Plays by Jean-Paul Sartre published by Random House. The Internet Archive provides a free copy of this edition (Sartre, Jean-Paul. No Exit, and Three Other Plays. Archive.org.) Several other editions can also be found for free on the Internet Archive. Pagination may be slightly different compared to other editions.

Content Warning: No Exit contains mentions of death, suicide, physical violence, self-harm, adultery, and unwanted pregnancies.

Plot Summary

The play opens in an empty room. The room is decorated sparsely: There are three sofas, a lamp, a mantelpiece, a paper knife, and a bronze ornament. Joseph Garcin enters, escorted by the Valet. Garcin is dead and the room is his eternal resting place. Garcin expects his afterlife to be a traditional hell, with torture devices, fire, and brimstone. The Valet explains to Garcin that it is impossible for Garcin to sleep in the afterlife. The Valet promptly exits, leaving Garcin alone for a long time to wander the room.

The Valet returns with Inez Serrano. The room is also her afterlife destination. Inez mistakes Garcin for her assigned torturer. Garcin explains he isn’t anything of the kind. There are no mirrors or windows, robbing them of any reflective surfaces. Inez refuses to be polite to Garcin and the two sit in silence for a lengthy period. Inez is agitated by Garcin; the two begin arguing before the Valet returns.

The Valet introduces the third and final member of the room, Estelle Rigault. By this point, Garcin has buried his face in his hands and Estelle mistakes him for somebody without a face. She believes, incorrectly, that Garcin is her ex-lover who committed suicide because of her.

The three become settled as the Valet leaves. Estelle narrates her funeral as it is happening to the other two. The three discuss how they died: Garcin was killed for desertion, Inez by a gas stove, and Estelle by pneumonia. Garcin has visions of his wife waiting for him outside of the barracks where he used to work. Between Estelle and Garcin’s visions, the audience learns that the three protagonists see events on earth whenever they are thought of or mentioned.

Garcin, Estelle, and Inez try to figure out why they have been placed in a room together. The three of them are from different cities and have never met before. Inez is convinced there are no coincidences at play and that there is a reason they are together. She believes it involves their sins. The three share their stories with one another, though they withhold critical details until later in the play. They conclude they must be together to torture one another. They all take a vow of silence which lasts a very long time until Inez and Estelle begin talking. Inez acts as Estelle’s mirror to help with her makeup. While Inez makes it clear she is attracted to Estelle, Estelle is doing her makeup to attract Garcin so she can feel womanly. Estelle rejects Inez’s advancements.

Garcin is infuriated by the lack of silence. He demands they each share their darkest secrets to figure out why they are together. Garcin wanted to flee being drafted into a war and run a pacifist newspaper; he was promptly killed at the border. He also treated his wife very poorly and cheated on her openly. Estelle married a much older rich man to escape poverty with her brother. She then took on a lover, accidentally got pregnant, and drowned the child. As a result, her lover took his life. Inez lived with her cousin and seduced his wife, Florence. Florence left her husband to live with Inez and the cousin died in an unrelated accident. Florence then killed both herself and Inez with a gas stove while they slept.

One by one, each of the three lose their last connection to Earth. Inez’s flat is rented out to a new couple, erasing the last trace of her existence. Peter, a boy Estelle was interested in, learns about her dark secrets and forgets her. Garcin is largely forgotten by his old colleagues and his wife has died. The three protagonists are the last remaining souls that are aware of the existence of one another.

Garcin fears he is a coward and unmanly. Inez, whose opinion Garcin respects, also views him as a coward. Garcin wants to feel like a heroic man and tries to seduce Estelle. Estelle, who is terrified of Inez, wishes to feel womanly and wants Garcin in turn. As the three take turns ganging up two-on-one against one another, the door to the room suddenly opens without explanation. None of them can bring themselves to leave each other’s company and all choose to stay.

Garcin is haunted by Inez’s opinion and cannot bring himself to seduce Estelle. He stays because he needs Inez to view him as more than a coward; he believes this will redeem him. Garcin, reflecting on why he has chosen to stay, says: “Hell is other people” (46-47). Estelle, who desires the validation of her womanhood through Garcin, tries to murder Inez with the paper knife. Inez reminds Estelle that they are all dead and that the knife is useless. Inez stabs herself to prove her point. They all laugh together at the absurdity of their predicament. The play ends as they each sit on their respective couches, staring at one another in silence.