No Exit

(Huis Clos)




 Presentation for Major 20th Century Writers Class


Jerry Hartman










Hanging Artwork by Stephanie Hartman







Contents of Presentation



(Brief) Entrance Performance


Introduction to Huis Clos (No Exit)


Early Biography of Sartre


Major Works of Sartre




Reasons the characters in No Exit are in Hell


The Torture Circle


Hell is other people


LEtre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness)


The Problem of Other


Second Empire Furniture (handout)


See No Truth, Hear No Truth, Speak No Good


Works Consulted


Excerpts from Works


A Final Note




Opening Performance



Enter the room and methodically post No Exit signs on walls. Do the sidewalls first, then the front wall. Finally, quite deliberately look at the door and post the final sign there. Then tape an X across the doorway barring exit from the room.


Return to the front of the room. Switch on the two reading lights, which are pointed toward the sign now hanging on the front wall. Slowly look across those in the room.


Helloand welcome. Welcome absentees. Welcome to. well you know where we are. I would say, make yourself comfortable, but why even bother? Even still, would you mind if I (start to remove jacket) took off my coat?


Questioner # 1 (Joanne): (demurring) As a matter of fact, I do mind.


Of course, very well then


Questioner #2 (Holly): But it is so stuffy in here.


I would say we will get used to it, but why pretend? (give a pretentious smile)


(slowly looking across the audience, very somber and serious) Going forward, you will refrain from blinking






Huis Clos No Exit

Literal translation closed doors; more specifically behind closed doors

British interpretation - In Camera referring to a court in session.

First presented in Paris May 1944.

Initial run interrupted by the uprising that drove the Germans out of Paris.


Second first night September 20, 1944.

Marked the triumph of what was known at the time as resistentialisme.


Play was written when Marc Barbelat, a printer, asked Sartre to write a play for his wife and another actress.



    easy to produce and take on tour;

    No changes in scenery;

    Only three actors.



Another consideration ensure that none of the three actors felt jealous of the two others by being forced to leave the stage and let them have all the best lines.


Hence the idea of a situation where the three characters would be locked up together a cellar during an air raid was considered.

Albert Camus had attended the opening of Sartres only previous play Les Mouches (The Flies). Camus had told Sartre of his passionate interest in theatre.


Sartre asked him if he would like to both produce No Exit and take the role of Garcin.


Camus declined on the grounds he was too inexperienced to direct a play for the Parisian stage.





Sartre was born in 1905.


His father died when he was very young.


Sartre was raised in the household with his maternal grandfather,

who had a deep influence on him.


In his autobiography, The Words (1963), Sartre stated his career as an author was a response to his childhood experiences of rejection.


He graduated from the Ecole Normal Superieure, Paris, in 1929.


He received a doctorate in philosophy.


He went on to teach in various lycees, or secondary schools, in LeHavre, Lyon and Paris until 1945.


He was a key figure among French intellectuals who resisted the Nazi occupation.


He spent nine months as a prisoner of war.


Sartre gave up teaching after the war and devoted all his time to writing and editing the journal Les Temps Modernes (Modern Times).


He emerged as the leading light of the left-wing, the supporters of which could be found at the Caf de Flore on the left bank.


He eventually broke with the communists.


His lifelong companion and intellectual associate was Simone de Beauvior.




Works of Sartre


A philosopher, literary figure and social critic, Sartres literary contributions and philosophical tenants were delivered through novels, short stories and plays, as well as through academic treatises.


Among his first works (printed in 1936) were:


LImagination (Imagination) a history of the theory of imagination;




La Transcendence de lego (The Transcendence of the Ego) a phenomenological account of consciousness.


La Nausee (Nausea) is a novel that was published in 1938. It follows the main character, Roquetin, on a metaphysical journey of discovering his being and aloneness in the world. These realizations give rise to anguish and nausea in the struggle with the problem of meaningful existence.


Sartres major philosophical premise, LEtre et le Neant (Being and Nothingness), was printed in 1943. It explored Sartres theories of being, consciousness and relations with others.


His essays on literature include What is Literature? (1948) in which he argues that literature must be political.


A later work, The Critique of Dialectical Reason (1960) is a Marxist analysis of social existence in which he attempts to explain how the freedom of the individual is related to history and the class struggle.



<This left view is debated as being at odds with the individuality of Sartres existentialism.>





Is concerned with the problem of existence:

    Who we are;

    Why are we here;

    How we make meaning in our lives.


No predestination


Humans must decide for themselves what their actions will be, then take full responsibilities for their choices.


Only by assuming this freedom can one live authentically.


Term not coined until Sartre and Camus writing were published.


A philosophical, literary and artistic movement that flourished in the late 1940s of postwar Europe centered in Paris.


As a movement in French thought it actually starts during the aftermath of the First World War.


While deemed existentialist in retrospect, the philosophy dates back to the 19th century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard.


Kierkegaard is the first to break with the tradition, in place since Plato, that the highest ethical good is the same for everyone.


Kierkegaard insisted that the highest good for the individual is to find his or her own unique vocation.


I must find a truth that is true for methe idea for which I can live or die.


In general existentialism emphasizes individual existence, individual freedom and individual choice.


The importance of passionate individual action in deciding questions of both morality and truth.


    While not having read any of Sartres later, leftist, writings, it is difficult to reconcile the individual nature of existentialism with the collective nature of Marxism.


SUBJECTIVITY - the understanding of a situation by someone involved in that situation is superior to that of a detached, objective observer.


That point plays deeply into No Exit and the Sartrian concept of being-for-others.


Sartres existentialism is atheistic, as opposed to Kierkegaard who advocated a leap of faith into a Christian way of life. Kierkegaard acknowledged that this leap was full of risk, but felt it was the only commitment that could save the individual from despair.


Sartre declared that human beings require a rational basis for their lives but are unable to achieve one. Thus Sartre is pessimistic and finds human life is a futile passion.


Rejecting despair however, Sartre believed that life, and the choices one makes, is what provides meaning.


Quote from Sartre (1946) in a speech Forgers of Myths:

Men are not created but create themselves through their choices.


Death is only the negation of ones possibilities.


A theme found in No Exit once the characters have passed from the world their lives are summed by others based on their actions while alive.



Torture Circle



Inez is the one who tortures Garcin makes him face his cowardice; Also Inez prevents Estelle from thinking of him as a brave man of principle, this is what Garcin desperately needs.



Estelle is the one who tortures Inez she will not allow Inez to be her looking glass. Estelle only has eyes, need for Garcin. Estelle seeks to eliminate Inez from the setting in order to have Garcin. This is revolting to Inez and creates a rivalry, in the mind of Inez, between Garcin and Inez.


Garcin is the one who tortures Estelle she is in desperate need of a man to hold and love her. She wants to be thought of as the innocent victim of circumstances rather than one who murdered her own child. Since Inez will not allow Garcin the pleasure of dishonesty in viewing his own life, Garcin is unable to afford the same to Estelle.



None of the characters is able to see the others as they want/need to be seen.


When afforded the opportunity to leave through the open door, none take it. Again, even in death, these characters are afforded a choice. Once they choose not to leave, their hell becomes a chosen one.


All three are then locked in a stalemate of perpetual torture.



Reasons for being in Hell


Acts committed while on earth:


    Garcin emotionally and physically abused his wife.


    Inez drove her cousin to his death and led her lover Florence to commit murder/suicide.


    Estelle drowned her baby simply because she did not want it; this drove her lover to suicide.


Failure to live authentically:


    Garcin and Estelle refused to accept the choices they made on earth, forever promoting and believing images of themselves that they knew were not true.

    Inez knew what she was, Im rotten to the core, but continued to treat people in a sadistic manner.


Inez then, did live authentically, if despicably. Thus her hell may not be as torturous as for the other two. I.E. if it is indeed true that she cant get on without making people suffer, she is well situated in her state in this room. For all eternity she will now be in a position to make Garcin and Estelle suffer. Could this is her reward for having lived authentically?


Inez also states I prefer to choose my hell; I prefer to look you in the eyes and fight it out face to face. (P 23)



Hell is other people.


Most simple level hell is relation with other people.

    Sartre did not believe that relationships between people were always doomed to fail.

    Sartre did not view all of humanity as floundering in a living hell.


Next level, hell is other people in so far the presence of other people reminds us of how inadequate our own behavior has been.


This happens when people refuse to make choices, take responsibility for those choices, and then have to face themselves through others as the sum total of those choices.


Garcin - Gomez and the others in the pressroom summing Garcin up as a coward.


<Interestingly at the start of the play Garcin states to the Valet, Im facing the situation, facing it. Also, referring to the furniture and his being accustom to living among furniture he didnt relish, Bogus in bogus, so to speak.>


Estelle mortified as Olga tells Peter about her killing the child.


Inez to a lesser degree, as Inez knows that while she may have seduced Florence and taken her away, Florence was miserable in the situation and killed them both as a result of being in the situation. The other person was in hell as a result of being with Inez.


<What about redemption? Cannot one who has made bad choices in the past be redeemed? How does this play out particularly as the existentialist does not accept predestination? Is one condemned based on one bad choice? >




LEtre et le Neant

(Being and Nothingness)


Two aspects of human beings:


    In-itself (en-soi)

    For-itself (pour-soi)


Subject/Object relationship with oneself.


The problem of the Other


The look






    Is the being aspect of something or someone;

    It is inactive, inert, the object-like part of a person.

    Being without knowledge of itself.


Because the in-itself lacks self-consciousness it necessarily lacks freedom as well.


Examples a table, a tree, a rhinoceros.


For-itself is what distinguishes humans from other forms of life by the fact that it possesses a reflective consciousness.

The for-itself (unlike the in-itself) is aware of itself and the objects around it.


For-itself is not its own being in terms of physical mass or shape.

It is nothingness it is the origin of freedom and origin of human existence.


The freedom of the for-itself is expressed through its choices and acts.


This freedom is what defines the for-itself and the person.



The subject like for-itself is envious of the inactive, object-like in-itself.


The for-itself is always trying to become thing-like.



I am thinking about Cathy.


Subject = I


Object = Cathy


I can think about Cathy because she is a separate entity.


I can view her objectively.


I am thinking about myself.


Subject = I


Object = myself


Because I am both I cannot have an outside view of myself.


The inability to see myself objectively leads me to rely on others to define who I am.




The Problem of the Other



I am a subject that can assert my freedom by organizing things and people as objects.


Others are also subjects they also possess a reflective consciousness that can perceive me as an object.


This robs me of my freedom.


<This, at times, may not be rejected. Witness Estelle and her desire to be had by Garcin. >


It is through human relations that a person and another engage in a battle of consciousness, each acting as a subject in an attempt to capture the other and make them into an object.


One does not want to be captured as an object, forever defined by what the subject views. <Garcin by the men in the pressroom; Estelle by Peter. >


Yet it is necessary to be viewed by other as we would have no idea of who we are. <Estelle accepting the offer for Inez to be her mirror, then coiling back because her image was so small. >


Our acts inevitably escape us : they put us at the mercy of others since we are only defined by our acts and our acts are defined by other peoples reaction to them.


We dont do what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are. - Sartre


Estelle seeks to be objectified (perhaps slightly above) in offering herself to Garcin. She does not want to become nothingness. Surely Im better to look as than a lot of stupid furniture.


Garcin trys to escape objectification. Wants Estelle/Inez to see him as a man of principle. Does not want to be labeled as a coward. Inez will not release him :

Youre a coward, Garcin, because I wish it.


The approval of Estelle is of no value to him, for he knows it is false and only granted with her own gain (to be objectified by him) in mind.


Inez -- Estelle wants to turn her into nothingness. Dont listen to her. She has no eyes, no ears. Shes nothing.


Also note that the issue Inez had with the world was not how others perceived her, but that the room she shared with her lover was let to a heterosexual couple who made love on her bed. In essence erasing her existence there.


    In an effort to know themselves, the characters attempt to be seen as the objects they believe themselves to be and to escape any objectification that contradicts their view.


    The look of the other two is the method of objectification.


There is no escaping the look

    always light;

    no sleep;

    no eyelids.


No mirrors to see ones self or ones own reflection must be looked at by others.






Second Empire Furniture (handout) the type of furniture in No Exit hell.








See No Truth, Hear No Truth, Speak No Good drawing unveiled.

v   This is my 11 year old daughters Dante-themed interpretation of the three eternally linked characters in No Exit.

v   Estelle : See No Truth

v   Garcin: Hear No Truth

v   Inez : Speak No Good



Works Consulted

Banham, Joanna (Ed). Encyclopedia of Interior Design. London: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers, 1997.

Dempsey, Peter. The Psychology of Sartre. Cork, Ireland: Cork University Press, 1950.

Fell, Joseph P. Emotion in the Thought of Sartre. New York: Columbia University Press, 1965.

Howells, Christina (Ed.). The Cambridge Companion to Sartre. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge, 1992.

Jeanson, Francis. Sartre and the Problem of Morality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980.

LaCapra, Dominick. A Preface to Sartre. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Lein, Stephanie. Sartrian Existentialism in No Exit. 9 October 2000. <>

Murphy, Julien S. Feminist Interpretations of Jean-Paul Sartre. University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999.

Thody, Philip. Sartre : A Biographical Introduction. London: Studio Vista, 1971.

Warnock, Mary. Sartre: A Collection of Critical Essays. Garden City, New York: Anchor Books, 1971.


Excerpts from Works 

It is important to repeat the assumption of Sartres famous analysis of "concrete relations with others," which finds its dramatics summation in the play No Exit (Huis Clos): Hell is other people. Not only is the concrete individual identified with the for-itself for the purposes of the analysis. The for-itself is presented as pure and total freedom, which allows of no internal alterity or overlap with the "other." I am not seen as always already decentered by an "other" within me. Nor am I both the same as and different for the "other."

A Preface to Sartre (P. 135)

What is to become of the supreme moral value of generosity, which, according to Sartre, lies closest to freedom? It would seem, indeed, that if original alienation is the alienation caused by the simple materialization of freedom, then there is no way out; as in No Exit, the last word would be "continuons" and now even more desperate because this would be a cosmic No Exit, extending out to the whole of the relation of man to the world since this relation can never dispense with matter.

The Cambridge Companion to Sartre (P. 189)

Behind this lies the principle that the power of an emotion is directly proportional to the immediacy of the perceived stimulus. First the threat is veiled by distance, and the emotion is "delicate." As it approaches the obscuring veil is cast aside, only to be replaced by a very much thicker veil in the form of a vehement emotion whose purpose is magical annihilation of the threat.

Sartres play No Exit affords an illustration. Inez, Garcin and Estelle find themselves in hell. The disaster is indeed "total." But as the drama begins our three characters have caught "only an imperfect glimpse of it." The story, then, consists in the gradual revelation of the eternal hopelessness of their situation. They try various means to ameliorate their plight ("If we bring our specters out into the open, it may save us from disaster, says Garcin). For a while they attempt to treat each other civilly, to remain calm: in short to use rational means. But as the realization of the magnitude of their misfortune grows, their emotional reactions, at first delicate, mount in intensity. Finally the "veil" is thrown aside, and the disaster which their emotions could not quite hide is directly revealed. They have no means to save themselves, and they now know it explicitly. "knives, poison, ropes -- all useless." They give themselves over to hysterical laughter. But even this vehement emotion -- their response to the recognition of the absolute and eternal futility of their circumstances -- is useless. Their emotion transforms nothing but themselves, and themselves only momentarily. "Their laughter dies away and they gaze at each other." as the curtain falls. Emotion, then, seem for Sartre responses to extreme situations, even when an emotion first appears either "delicate" or "positive."

Emotion in the Thought of Sartre (P. 26-27)


(Huis Clos) was apparently written with purely aesthetic considerations in mind. (Sartre) had been asked by Marc Barbezat, the printer, to write a play for his wife Olga and for another actress called Wanda. It would have to be easy to produce and take on tour, with no changes in scenery and only three actors. Sartre was also asked to ensure that none of the three actors felt jealous of the two others by being forced to leave the stage and let them have all the best lines; consequently he began to think in terms of a situation where three characters would be locked up together -- in a cellar during an air raid, for example. Suddenly, he hit upon the idea of locking them all up in Hell, and the play was made. Albert Camus had come to the first night of Les Mouches and introduced himself to Sartre. He was passionately interested in the theatre, and Sartre asked him if he would like to both produce the play and take the part of Garcin. Camus eventually declined, on the grounds that he was too inexperienced to direct a play for the Parisian stage, and was replaced by a professional director called Raymond Rouleau. Huis Clos had its first production in May 1944, at the Theatre du Vieux Colombier, and its initial run was interrupted by the uprising which drove the Germans our of Paris. It was the first play to be performed in Paris after the Liberation, and its second first night, on 20 September 1944, marked the triumph of what was known at the time is resistentialisme.

The immediate success of Huis Clos offers a microcosm of the mixture between popularity and notoriety which Sartre enjoyed in post-war France. His critics found it morbid; his admirers brilliantly written and morally challenging; and the public at large stimulating as well as occasionally annoying by its metaphysical pretensions. It has, however, continued to prove extremely successful as a play, with countless amateur as well as professional productions to its credit. The gloomy picture which it gives of human relationships is, in fact, ambiguous, and its meaning can vary according to the context in which it is studied. Three people are in Hell, and it is reasonable to assume that they are being punished for something. Garcin, the only man, has based his whole life on the assumption that he was a hero. Yet when the crisis broke and he had to stand by his principles, he ran away. His punishment lies both in his knowledge that the living will always think of him as a coward, and in the perpetually haunting possibility that one of the dead with whom he is now incarcerated, Estelle, might perhaps be persuaded to change something in this verdict by thinking of him as a brave man. She would be quite happy to do this, if he would agree to think of her as the innocent victim of circumstances rather than a frivolous and immoral woman who murdered her own child. Their exchange of mutual bad faith would be quite satisfactory were it not for the third person with them, the lesbian Ines, who has caused her own and her girl friends death by a suicide pact, after driving this girl friends husband to kill himself. Simply by looking at Garcin and Estelle, she can use her knowledge of what they are really like to destroy the complicity between them; and since the first half of the play consisted in a general confession, each of the three people knows just exactly how bad the other two have been. Their punishment lies in the fact that Garcins presence will always destroy the potential affair between Ines and Estelle; while Estelles presence will always create rivalry between Ines and Garcin, preventing the two male characters from establishing any kind of modus vivendi. Meanwhile the presence of Ines will always prevent any pact between Garcin and Estelle. The powers that be, Garcin, realizes, are economizing on manpower. Each person is a torturer for the people with him.

In this moral interpretation of the play, Sartres famous statement that Hell is other people takes on a fairly precise and limited meaning. Other people are Hell only in so far as their presence reminds us of how inadequate our behavior has been. If, like Corneilles Rodrigue, we could declare : Je le ferais encore si javais a le faire, other peoples critical glances would not matter. We should be able to defy them because we knew that we had done the right thing, and this is certainly how the Orestes of Les Mouches or the Goetz of Le Diable et le Bon Dieu would act. It is when we read LEtre el le Neant that Huis Clos takes on a much less obviously moral significance. There, Sartre asserts quite categorically that conflict is the original meaning of myself as I am for other people, that my original fall resides in the existence of other people, and it does seem in this respect as though the boundary situation described in Huis Clos is privileged in the sense that it reveals the essence of mans relationship with his fellows. One critic asked whether the situation would be the same if the three people incarcerated were a general, a nun and the mother of a family, and it is probable from Sartres general attitude towards society that three such people would be so steeped in bad faith that their mask of respectability would soon disappear. But even if Che Guevara, Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Simone de Beauvoir were locked up together, they would still, according to LEtre el le Neant, be unable to avoid making their lives a hell. "Enter not in the judgment of Thy servant, O Lord, for in Thy sight shall no man living be justified is a phrase that expresses the impossibility for a Christian of ever feeling that he has escaped from the burden of original sin which weighs down even the most virtuous; and Sartres apparent dismissal, in LEtre el le Neant of the possibility that anyone should ever have an authentic and positive relationship with his fellows seems to indicate that for him, as for Newman, some terrible aboriginal catastrophe lies at the root of the human adventure. If LEtre el le Neant can be seen as the summa of the comprehensive analysis which he offers of the human condition, Huis Clos is a kind of instant catechism in which simplified answers are given to a number of basic questions about the nature and destiny of human beings.

It is also an interesting coincidence that the ethic which can be inferred from Huis Clos should be a rigorous as any put forward by Calvin, John Knox or the Pascal of the Provinciales. "We dont do what we want and yet we are responsible for what we are writes Sartre in Quest-ce que la Litterature?, and the curious mixture, characteristic of extreme Protestantism, between insisting that people do their duty and telling them that they will never attain virtue, is perhaps one of the most troubling features of this play. We have no one to blame but ourselves, and non of the characters can seek refuge in their good intentions; but even a Garcin who had lived up to his own ideals would still be tormented by Ines and Estelle. The production of Huis Clos established Sartre as a major dramatist, just as the publication of La Nausee had marked him out as an outstanding novelist. A year earlier, in 1943, the appearance of LEtre el le Neant had been greeted by a disconcerting silence. It was not until 1945 that it became the most widely discussed work of contemporary philosophy, and one which had attained , by 1957, its fifty-fifth edition.

Thody, Philip. (1971). Sartre : A Biographical Introduction. London : Studio Vista Limited. (P. 64-66)


A Final Note

Well, if you have made it this far would you be good enough to indulge me a few personal notes? This presentation was for a class in the School of Continuing Education at New York University. Perhaps I am unduly flattering myself, but if somehow you have found merit in this effort and would like to use it in some way, please feel free to do so.

I would like to thank my daughter for her artwork (she gave a fresh perspective to her Pop as he fretted over the deep meaning of the play). I would also like to acknowledge the value I received from the work written by Stephanie Lein and cited above. I found it online and reading and rereading it (on a plane to and from Houston while in my corporate identity) is what finally made this philosophy click for me. Finally, to my fellow students, who at least feigned interest during my time in front of them and to our professor who makes every class an adventure, thanks for putting up with the only guy and the only one over forty in the class. Im a pretty luck old dude to have had the company of and to have learned so much from such intelligent and interesting women these past three months.


December 3, 2000