As Jean Paul Sartre was both a writer and a philosopher, he used literature as a media to manifest his philosophical concepts. In this respect, his play No Exit is a manifesto of existentialism and is closely related to its major notion, freedom. Existentialism draws a gloomy picture of human life stating its overall meaninglessness, yet freedom is an opportunity to give one’s existence dignity and value. Because the three characters of the play failed to use this opportunity when living on earth, they are tormented by the absence of freedom after they die.
The play is generally simple in its setting and structure. All actions are located in a single place, which is a closed room of a hotel. The characters are confined to this space in their movements, and they are unable to escape, which underlines the absence of freedom. When the three people die, they expect to be punished in hell for their moral corruption, but instead, they are punished for their cowardice, which works in alignment with the philosophy of existentialism. Garcin, Estelle and Ines find themselves in hell that is quite different from the one which they expected. They wait for heat and torture, but instead, they feel that it is a little too warm and stuffy in the room. It takes time for them to realize that this boredom, the absence of extreme situation and, what is more, the absence of choice, is the most exquisite hell one can imagine. As a researcher points out, the play introduces major concepts of existentialism and implements them through the characters, “For not only are philosophically defining works timeless and universal in their own right, but existentialism’s constituents, “God is dead”, “man is alone”, and “life is absurd”, independently comprise a timeless concern of all “thinking” persons in every “thinking” era, and is emphatically explored in the literary dialogue of No Exit‘s trinity of the damned, Garcin, Inez, and Estelle”( Existentialism Definition: Revealed in Sartre’s No Exit).
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It is not accidental that Sartre places three people in the room without any chance to escape from the place and from each other. In fact, this is an allegory of human life where people are each other’s torturers. At the beginning, Garcin worries that he will never sleep again, so he will have to tolerate his own companionship. However, he discovers later that being attached to each other forever is even a more severe punishment than to be bored staying alone. Although the three people stay in the same place and realize that they have eternity to stay together, they are reluctant to open themselves to each other. Sartre demonstrates that this is a part of their tragedy, not just to be imprisoned together but to lie to each other. Even in hell, these people try to seem better than they are and attempt to hide their dark past because this is a kind of existential competition to each other.
The revelation of personal histories still happens in the course of the play, and it is quite painful. Thus, Ines calls Garcin a coward when he finds out his story: he was cruel to his wife so that he tried to commit suicide, and he escaped from participation in a war. In the end, he was caught and shot for desertion. In fact, Garcin feels vulnerable after Ines’ condemnation, and because of this, he tries to prove that he is different. The author demonstrates how people are dependent on each other’s opinions, so merely staying together with other people makes freedom very limited. According to existentialist philosophy, socialization turns people from subjects into objects, which is an obstacle to their free will. The background of the other two characters is no less controversial and worthy of hell. Estelle killed her child and caused his lover’s suicide. Ines is a lesbian who seduced her cousin’s girlfriend, so he jumped under the train to kill himself, and the girl poisoned herself and Ines. It is remarkable that none of the characters’ death was voluntary although the author raises a theme of suicide, which is quite interesting in terms of existentialism. The idea is that the people who commit suicide make their personal choice while the three characters are afraid to make it. Facing death, even by suicide, takes more courage according to Sartre; this is why he places different characters in his hell.
Indeed, Garcin’s escape from taking part in the war is the manifestation of fear, he is afraid of death. By doing so, he avoids to realize his potential of freedom, which is the only benefit of a human, according to Sartre. As a result, he is dead anyway, but being dead as a result of cowardice is not the same as death at the top of one’s realization. The situation of hell is revealed gradually: they cannot change anything about their past, and they are dead now, so they cannot change anything about their present and future either. So, Sartre demonstrates the ultimate absence of freedom, which is equal to being dead and being in hell. Furthermore, hell is “heated” by unavoidable presence of the others who work both as mirrors and tormentors and make life unbearable. Thus, Ines exclaims, “To forget about the others? How utterly absurd! I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out – but you can’t prevent your being there. Why you’ve even stolen my face; you know it and I don’t! You’ve stolen her from me, too” (Sartre). This passage demonstrates how the human mind works as the original source of torture as it gives birth to pictures and feelings that make the state of harmony impossible. People are not able to trust others, but their behavior does not make them safe, it makes them unhappy and utterly lonely. Loneliness is a common point of philosophical interest for many theories; in his turn, Sartre demonstrates that it takes staying with other people to become conscious of one’s own loneliness. Alienation is the opposite side of freedom, and people cannot avoid freedom’s side effects. Loneliness is demonstrated by the impossibility for the characters to feel conscious about their existence, “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much” (Sartre). So, one feels invisible and dead, which is a much deeper degree of loneliness than just not enough attention from the other people. On the contrary, they have much attention of each other, but they seem to be forgotten by God. Thus, Sartre exposes existentialist concept about the death of God. Nothing is in order in hell – its creator seems to have left it.
In conclusion, it is worth saying that Sartre is quite persuasive in making No Exit a manifesto of his existentialist philosophy. By telling a story about three people who are dead and cannot change their past, present and future, he explores the ideas of alienation and freedom. The author believes that freedom of choice is the major benefit that a human has despite the meaningless lonely life with no God on earth. However, people tend to miss their chance for freedom because of immense fear to face death. The play demonstrates how impossibility to correct the situation and make a free choice manifests a special existentialist model of hell.
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