The play opens with a man named Joseph Garcin, a journalist and "man of letters" (as he puts it), entering a drawing room decorated in the style of the Second Empire. The room contains a mantelpiece with a bronze ornament and three sofas of different colors, but there are no mirrors and no windows. A Valet shows Garcin in and answers his questions. Garcin, it seems, is in hell, which appears to be a series of rooms, each designed in a style that fits its inhabitants. "We cater for all sorts," the Valet explains. "Chinamen and Indians, for instance." Garcin asks where the torture instruments are, only to discover that there are none. He asks whether there is a toothbrush, but again, the answer is a negative. There is also no bathroom and no sleep in hell. Garcin fearfully tries to come to terms with the idea of staying awake forever - "So one has to live with one's eyes open all the time?" he asks - and is informed that he cannot even turn off the light in the room. There is a bell he can ring if he wishes to speak to the Valet again, but, the Valet warns him, it often does not work.
Soon enough, Garcin is left alone in the room. He tries calling for the Valet, but his efforts are all in vain. When he calms down, the Valet returns with a new character: Inez Serrano. Inez immediately demands that Garcin tell her where "Florence" is, but he has no idea who she is talking about. "Florence was a tiresome little fool," Inez concedes, "and I shan't miss her in the least." When Garcin asks her who she thinks he is, she replies: "Why, the torturer, of course."
Once Garcin has explained the situation to Inez, Estelle Rigault enters the room. She sees Garcin holding his face in his hands and says: "Don't look up. I know what you're hiding with your hands. I know you've no face left." When Garcin looks up at her, she exclaims: "What! But I don't know you!" The set-up quickly becomes apparent. Estelle, Inez, and Garcin are to stay in the drawing room forever.
Inez immediately remarks on Estelle's looks: "You're very pretty," she says. "I wish we had some flowers to welcome you with." Her attraction to Estelle is readily apparent, and will soon play a major role in the narrative. For now, however, the characters simply introduce themselves to each other. Estelle died only a day ago, of pneumonia, and she takes a look at her own funeral: "The ceremony's not quite over," she comments.
One of the most interesting devices of the play is that the characters can briefly look down on the world they left behind, but no one else is privy to what they see (the visions are localized, based on the each character's life prior to their death). Estelle claims to see a girl named Olga accompanying her sister to the funeral. "Olga was my bosom friend," she explains.
Inez, it turns out, has been dead longer than Estelle - about a week. Her cause of death was, as she succinctly puts it, "the gas stove." Garcin has been deceased for about a month, and died from chest wounds inflicted by twelve bullets. Estelle, turned off by these descriptions of death, suggests the characters refer to themselves instead as "absentees."
We learn more about the characters' pasts. Estelle was a married Parisian, and quite the society lady, judging by her reliance on her makeup and her assessment of the room's aesthetics. Garcin was a journalist in Rio, also married, and Inez was a single postal clerk. "My life's in perfect order," Inez calmly replies when Garcin suggests she set her past straight. "It tidied itself up nicely of its own accord. So I needn't bother about it now." Garcin is skeptical, and notes how stiflingly hot it is in the room. He begins to pull off his coat, but Estelle implores him to keep it on, explaining that she loathes "men in their shirt-sleeves."
Quickly it becomes apparent that time on earth passes at a different speed than in hell. Already it is midnight in Paris, and Olga is undressing for bed. "How quickly the time passes, on earth!" Estelle exclaims. Inez, for her part, sees a room for let, while Garcin's vision involves a barracks his wife is not allowed to enter, and then a chamber full of men. Estelle casually notes that she expected to be grouped with acquaintances of hers - such as the man "with a hole in the middle of his face" whom she first thought Garcin to be. A "charming old friend," she calls him. "He danced the tango so divinely."
Inez argues that the three of them have been placed together as part of a larger plan. Nothing, she claims, has been left to chance: "I tell you they've thought it all. Down to the last detail." Nonetheless, Estelle is convinced the whole thing must be a mistake - including her even being in hell. She married a man older than she, fell in love with another, and refused to leave her husband for him. Is she to be punished for her fidelity? Garcin likewise claims never to have done anything wrong: he opposed a war on pacifist grounds and refused to fight in it. For that, he was shot. Where is the logic, therefore, in his being sent to hell? Inez, however, maintains that "they never make mistakes" and that "people aren't damned for nothing."
The characters agree that the absence of a torturer means they themselves are meant to torture one another. They therefore agree to not interact with each other, to keep quiet and to stay in separate places. The agreement is quickly broken when Estelle asks for a looking glass. Inez, smitten with the young lady, offers herself as a mirror - via the reflection of her eyes and her own account of Estelle's appearance. Estelle wishes Garcin would notice her in the way Inez does; her need for a man's attention is palpable.
Inez and Estelle's conversation irritates Garcin, who has been trying to zone it out, to focus on a man named Gomez (who is expounding on Garcin's past in the chamber of men), and to forget about the others in the drawing room. Inez launches into a short monologue in reply:
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. Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I'm certain you hear mine. It's all very well skulking on your sofa, but you're everywhere, and every sound comes to me soiled because you've intercepted it on its way. Why, you've even stolen my face; you know it and I don't!
Thus the essential existential paradigm of the play is established. "Hell is - other people," as Garcin will famously put it near the play's end. For now, however, the characters agree to break their attempt at silence. Garcin is no longer up for concealing his wrongdoings. He confesses why he is in hell - because he treated his wife "abominably." He would come home drunk night after night, "stinking of wine and women," and would hurl insults at his wife, who would never offer up the slightest reproach. He even brought into their home "a half-caste girl." "My wife slept upstairs," he adds. "[She] must have heard - everything. She was an early riser and, as I and the girl stayed in bed late, she served us our morning coffee."
Inez proceeds to tell her own story. She had gone to live with her cousin and his wife Florence. Gradually she fell for Florence and grew to detest the cousin - and soon enough, she had Florence on her side. The two women left together, got "a bed-sitting room at the other end of town," and not much time later the husband was conveniently run over by a tram. Inez says: "I used to remind her every day: 'Yes, my pet, we killed him between us.' I'm rather cruel, really." For a time she and Florence were in love; but then something changed: "For six months I flamed away in her heart, till there was nothing but a cinder. One night she got up and turned on the gas while I was asleep. Then she crept back into bed. So now you know."
Next, Inez and Garcin gang up on Estelle and pressure her to reveal her past. We learn that the man with the hole in his face shot himself in the head on account of Estelle. He was her lover, the one who beckoned her to come away with him. but he was poor. Estelle's marriage ensured her wealth, and she was not about to let that go. When she became pregnant with the young man's child, she went to Switzerland, far away from her unsuspecting husband. The young man was overjoyed when the baby was born, but Estelle was not to be a mother for long. In front of her lover's horrified eyes, she dropped the baby from a balcony, into the lake below. She then returned to her husband in Paris, who never knew a thing. The young man, devastated, took his own life.
"Well, Mr. Garcin," Inez says, "now you have us in the nude all right. Do you understand things any better for that?" Garcin is unsure, but suggests that the three of them try to help one another, now that their pasts have been aired. At that moment, Inez sees the room in which she died being let; the vision fades, all goes black, and Inez's last ties to the earth are cut off. No longer can she gaze on the world of the living. Garcin offers to help Inez, warns her that Estelle is fated to be her torturer, but Inez seems to have given up all hope. "Do you think they haven't foreknown every word you say?" she asks. "And of course there's a whole nest of pitfalls that we can't see. Everything here's a booby-trap. But what do I care? I'm a pitfall, too. For her, obviously. And perhaps I'll catch her."
Inez turns on Garcin, claiming that she will make Estelle see him through her eyes, just "as Florence saw that other man." Her unrequited feelings for Estelle have met with an obstacle in Garcin, the only man in the room, and her words ring with the pain of rejected love. She concludes by saying that if Garcin leaves her and Estelle alone, she will do him no harm.
Estelle bursts out with an account of a vision she is having, a scene from the world of the living. Olga is dancing with Peter, a man in love with Estelle. The song is "Saint Louis Blues." To Estelle's horror, Olga tells Peter of her friend's past - of Switzerland, of the baby. Peter does not even seem too surprised. And yet once he called Estelle "his glancing stream, his crystal girl." Soon enough, Estelle's connection to the earth dissolves as well, and she pleads to Garcin to take her in his arms.
Inez counters the situation with words of tenderness and affection, calling Estelle her "glancing stream," her "crystal." Estelle scoffs at the advances and finally spits in Inez's face. Garcin, aware of how much pain he can cause the spiteful Inez, finally agrees to Estelle's pleas, admitting that he does in fact want her. Inez is forced to watch, and Garcin taunts her with the prospect of he and Estelle making love before her aghast eyes. In a flash, however, something changes in Garcin. He seems more earnest, more worried. He demands that Estelle trust him.
Then he reveals the true nature of his "principles." When the war broke out, he was too afraid to stay at home and oppose it from there. Instead he wished to flee to Mexico and start a pacifist newspaper. He was caught while trying to cross the frontier by train. Was he a coward? As if in answer to that question, he faced death "miserably...rottenly." Now he is left gazing upon Gomez and his compatriots, who agree amongst themselves that "Garcin's a coward."
Estelle comforts Garcin: "I like men, my dear, who're real men, with tough skin and strong hands. You haven't a coward's chin, or a coward's mouth, or a coward's voice, or a coward's hair. And it's for your mouth, your hair, your voice, I love." Garcin is full of joy; Estelle's words set him at ease. But Inez readily leaps in, claiming that the girl does not mean a word of what she says and that Garcin is a fool to believe her. From here on out, save for a single instance, Inez has the upper hand. Estelle makes the wrong move in trying to convince Garcin that it all doesn't matter: "I'd love you just the same, even if you were a coward," she tells him. He is disgusted and struggles to open the door of the drawing room in which they are stuck. In some of the most chilling lines of the play, he cries out for help, for mercy, for freedom:
Open the door! Open, blast you! I'll endure anything, your red-hot tongs and molten lead, your racks and prongs and garrotes - all your fiendish gadgets, everything that burns and flays and tears - I'll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough. Now will you open?
Suddenly, the door swings open. And yet, at the moment when escape is finally possible, Garcin cannot move. He stays in place. "I shall not go," he says. Estelle suggests he and she push Inez out. Inez pleads to stay in the room, and Garcin explains that it is because of her that he too wishes to stay. She is the one he must convince, the one who best knows human cruelty, human weakness, the one who can see through him, and therefore the one whose judgment he most cares about. The characters are essentially immobile - confined to hell by their own choosing.
Inez, however, refuses to bend to Garcin. When he argues that he cannot be a coward, that he simply died too soon, she answers: "One always dies too soon - or too late. And yet one's whole life is complete at that moment, with a line drawn neatly under it, ready for the summing up. You are - your life, and nothing else." Garcin lashes back at her by preparing to kiss Estelle, but is unable to go through with the act. In a rage, Estelle stabs Inez with a paper knife. Of course, it is no use. The characters recognize that they are dead and doomed to stay together "for ever, and ever, and ever." "Well, well," Garcin finally says, after a long silence, "let's get on with it..."
No Exit offers a distillation of Sartre's existentialism in Inez's famous line: "You are - your life," she says, "and nothing else." The play ends with the characters' realization - or, rather, confession - that they are indeed dead and trapped: "Dead! Dead! Dead!" Inez cries. "Knives, poison, ropes - useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever." Prior to this climactic moment, Estelle has steered them away from the use of the word "dead," preferring the comical "absent." With these three words - "life," "dead," and "absent" - Sartre fashions a distinctive worldview.
If death is what follows life, where precisely is the line at which one ends and the other begins? Estelle notes, in defense of her refusal to use the word "dead," that she has rarely felt as "alive" as she does now. Presenting herself as an "absentee" instead, she suggests that what the audience is watching is itself an absence. Much like the frame of an empty image, Sartre's play provides the stage for characters who, in a manner of speaking, simply do not exist.
Time and again, Garcin, Estelle, and Inez strive to reach out to the world of the living - the world they have left behind. Estelle observes Olga and Peter in disgust, while Garcin describes Gomez destroying his reputation before his helpless eyes. At a certain moment, however, the link between each character and his or her former world dissolves; the "curtain" falls. "It's getting dark" is how Inez describes the feeling. "Pitch-dark now. I can't see anything, but I hear them whispering, whispering. Is he going to make love to her on my bed? What's that she said? That it's noon and the sun is shining? I must be going blind. Blacked out. I can't see or hear a thing. So I'm done with the earth, it seems."
Significantly, her words are all we have to share her experience; the ineffable is rendered through text, but that text in turn points to a structuring absence. That is to say, due to the confines of the stage, we remain locked in the Second Empire drawing room, unable to see what the characters claim they see; those images of the world flutter before the characters' eyes like celluloid projected on a screen, but the totality of the image, as well as the sounds the characters hear, are reduced to textual components. When the text is forced to describe nothing, it must resort to typical denotations of absence: silence, blackness, dark. The void, like death, is unfathomable, and cannot be represented through language. We feel this inadequacy in Sartre's language, and it is a deliberate move on the author's part. In a brilliant subversion of theatrical technique, Sartre takes the convention of the offstage action or event (a feature of all ancient Greek drama, for example, in which any death had to occur offstage and was communicated to the audience through a character's account of the event) and uses it to give "presence" to what is absent. Estelle, Garcin, and Inez are themselves spectators. We watch them as they watch that which we cannot see. Christian Metz's theory of the imaginary mirror, though usually applied to the screen, can here describe the stage-based construct Sartre establishes, whereby one "world" is reflected and refracted via another.
"How I'd love to go down to earth for just a moment and dance with him again," Estelle cries at her own moment of "severance." "The music's growing fainter. They've turned down the lights, as they do for a tango. Why are they playing so softly? Louder, please. I can't hear. It's so far away, so far away. I-I can't hear a sound. All over. It's the end. The earth has left me." Later, Garcin offers his own version of the experience: "I can't hear them any longer, you know. Probably that means they're through with me. For good and all. The curtain's down, nothing of me is left on earth - not even the name of coward." The allusion to a curtain is not insignificant; Sartre peppers his play with references to the stage, a mode of self-consciousness that weaves its way through the work and culminates in Inez's climactic outburst:
What a lovely scene: coward Garcin holding baby-killer Estelle in his manly arms! Make your stakes, everyone. Will coward Garcin kiss the lady, or won't he dare? What's the betting? I'm watching you, everybody's watching, I'm a crowd all by myself. Do you hear the crowd? Do you hear them muttering, Garcin?
Inez is, in a sense, referring directly to us, crying out in Brechtian fashion that "this is a play" and paving the way for Beckett's theater of the absurd. (Certainly Endgame, with its vision of what also seems like a version of hell, and Waiting for Godot, with its characters trapped in a prison of their minds, both owe a great deal to No Exit.) But if we return to "life," "dead," and the "absent," one can now see that these terms are ambiguous and slippery. What is absent is present; what is dead remains alive.
Time is also in flux. Early in the play, Garcin mentions that he has been dead a month. Later, he says it has been six months. When asked if his wife has died, he replies: "Yes, she died just now. About two months ago." Sartre suggests that the time plane upon which his characters operate is separate from our own, from that of the "living" world; a month can pass in a matter of minutes; a day can flash by in an instant. On the other hand, what we have here is not the science-fiction model of suspended time or separate dimensions; instead, Sartre proposes a perpetual ambiguity, one that hangs over all the proceedings. Without windows or doors, who knows when day ends and night begins? Without mirrors, how can one know what one even looks like?
Estelle takes the ambiguity to a peak when she says: "When I can't see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist." When Inez offers herself as a "looking glass," the problem of identity in a world without reflection is crystallized: if a man does not know what he looks like, how can he be sure he is not someone else? It is our self-image that separates us from "the others." What terrifies us the most is the prospect of that which has no image - like Estelle's vision of the man without a face, the victim of her callousness in life. The absence of an image denotes an absence of identity. And without identity, what becomes of existence? And, in the existentialist model, without existence, what becomes of everything?
The questions multiply without end. It is part of the peculiar power of Sartre's one-act play that it engenders so much speculation, extending beyond the parameters of existentialist philosophy. A room without mirrors, without time, without "life" presents a problem that cannot be solved, a paradox that must be confronted - just as the characters must confront their own inner demons, their own pasts, their own hell. "Hell is-other people!" Garcin shouts. When identity breaks down and one face becomes indistinguishable from another, the "other" dissolves; hell is then, by necessity, oneself.