No Exit

No Exit Study Guide

No Exit was first performed in Paris in May 1944, only three months before the city's liberation from the Nazi occupation. The theater in which it was performed was called the Vieux-Colombier. Startlingly simple in design, the play's power stems from the focus and precision of its form. Three characters are trapped in hell, but there are no instruments of torture or pits of fire. Rather, the setting is a drawing room containing only Second Empire furniture: there are no windows, no mirrors, and no signs of the outside world save for a single, locked door.

Sartre was a tireless champion of human dignity, and despised many of the bourgeois values of his society (refusing even to marry his longtime companion). The Second Empire style is the epitome of the ostentatious, neo-classical tendency of French art and design, and is therefore a perfect representative for Sartre's distaste for the bourgeoisie. Within this decidedly bourgeois framework, Sartre introduces three characters with two-syllable names: Garcin (very close to garcon, French for "boy"), Inez ("Ines" in the French version), and Estelle (suggesting "star", and therefore heaven). Placed together, the names seem odd, somehow out of place. Beckett would later expand this technique in his absurdist dramas, giving his characters increasingly bizarre names.

Indeed, No Exit is in many ways the predecessor of the theater of the absurd, though it does adhere to careful narrative construction and follow a conventional dramatic progression, as opposed to the work of Beckett or Ionesco. More than anything else, however, the play establishes the philosophy of existentialism as Sartre perceived it. Though the philosophy originated in the 19th century, existentialism is now commonly associated with Sartre and his writings. Inez's proclamation that "you are - your life, and nothing else" is a perfect distillation of the central existentialist argument. Later, Sartre would develop theories of social responsibility, tying existentialism to humanism and steering it away from its more nihilistic implications. Here, however, his worldview seems a definitively pessimistic one. There is no exit for his characters; their hell is not a fiery furnace, but a "hell of the mind."