In one of the most original plays ever written, “No Exit” illustrates the modern day interpretation of hell; “Hell is other people,” being its central Sartrean existentialist theme. As the title suggests, it is a play about the consuming, inescapable gaze of the other and the inevitability of breeding contempt thru familiarity. The play revolves around three characters, one man and two women, who are starkly different from one another. Their idiosyncrasies, their attitudes toward their past lives and their view of themselves and the world in general make it a hell for them to live with one another throughout eternity. It is, therefore, the task of this paper to compare the three characters and how this relates to the central theme of the play.
The first character introduced in the play is Garcin. He was a Brazilian reporter who died as a result of his cowardice – the twelve bullet shots that ended his life was dealt him because of his refusal to serve in the military. He regards this refusal as standing by his principles as a pacifist. Garcin was also a womanizer, a callous one at that, and he believes that this is the reason why he is in hell. In the play, he recounts how every night he would go home to his wife, drunk from all his womanizing. He was so callous that one night he brought home a girl, oblivious of his wife’s presence, only to have her serve them coffee in the morning after. At the start, he regards Ines with abhorrence because he finds himself unable to hide his weaknesses from her and prefers Estelle because he believes that she will make him feel like a man. However, he eventually realizes that Ines is the key to his “salvation” because it is only her who can believe that he is not a coward. At the end of the play, when confronted with the choice of leaving the room, he becomes cowardly again and refuses to confront the responsibility of his actions. He, therefore, lets Ines be his judge and his savior but she refuses to do so.
The second character is Ines. She is a lesbian whose sin in the past is making her lover leave her husband. She poisons her mind until her lover eventually experiences the emotional torture of being with her that her lover kills both of them by turning on the gas stove while she was sleeping. Ines fancies Estelle and despises Garcin because to her, he is nothing but a coward because he leaves the judgment of his character to other people. To Ines, her past is inconsequential and she lives in the present. She is the judge of herself and this is what differentiates her from Garcin.
The last character is Estelle. In her past life, Estelle married a man three times her age, but deceived and cheated on him for a younger man. Another sin of hers was she aborted a baby conceived with her lover, which eventually lead him to kill himself. Estelle lusts for Garcin simply because he is a man. She sees Garcin as the one who can her define her essence, her being a woman and so rejects Ines for being the same.
A reading of the play will lead to an observation that one of its main themes also is the Sartrean maxim “existence precedes essence,” that human beings have the choice of becoming and defining themselves. The correlative aspect of this choice being given to humans, however, is that one is responsible for his choices and actions. The three characters differ in their handling of this freedom and responsibility bestowed upon them. Garcin and Estelle believe that their essence is to be defined by another – Garcin believes it should be Ines while Estelle chooses Garcin. However, Ines chooses to define herself and not depend on the two. The stubborn refusal of the three characters to grant one another’s “salvation” damns them throughout eternity. They are another’s hell, without realizing that hell is actually within them.
On the other hand “The Respectful Prostitute” is a play by Sartre that aims to expose the supremacy of the white race and how man’s inhumanity is visible in this world. The prostitute in the story was abused by a man who has great connections to the senate. In order to avoid the said attack to her, she rushed towards the other corner of the train to save herself. It is very visible in the play that the prostitute is stuck in a situation where racist people are found everywhere. But as she went away from her abductor, one black man ended up as the victim of the white man. The climax of the story happened when the prostitute witnessed the said crime and the train they were riding is heading to the South. The said murderer was later found out to be a senator’s nephew.
In order to save the murderer, the senator’s son made some arrangements with the prostitute and forced her to sign a testimony that will attest that the white man did the killing as a sign of self defense. No matter how he tries to please him so that she will give in to their plea of lying and making defenses for the murderer, she opt to refuse the request although there is something intimate that happened between the prostitute and the senator’s son. The senator also uses his power to manipulate the prostitute to save his reputation and his nephew as well. He used a different approach to her by talking about the feelings of their other relatives towards the issue. He even cites the fact that his nephew is known as a successful white man. The prostitute was give too many reasons which made her signed the papers to acquit the murdered of the case. She was manipulated by the senator by comparing the role of the black and white people in the society. She was paid for signing the witness letter and although she had guilt feelings, she remained prostituting herself.
A realization is seen in the play because white people will do everything to preserve their image even if it means putting every sanction at the expense of the black people. The dominant theme in the play is the lack of freedom. The prostitute in the story claims that she came from the North where racism is not that rampant compared to the South. No matter how she tried to practice her free will and decide to say the truth, she is hindered by the fact that she was trapped in a situation where she can do nothing but remain loyal to the white race.
A reading of the two plays, readers will lead to the conclusion that both story shows the theme of Sartrean maxim “existence precedes essence,” people can choose how to behave and define themselves. But due to unavoidable circumstances and the environmental influence, there are things that hinder people from achieving absolute freedom. The characters on both plays differ on how they handle such kind of freedom and responsibility given to them. Simply because such scope and freedom exists, one cannot claim that in human beings existence precedes essence. Existence preceding essence would imply that humans are nothing by themselves, that whatever they want to make of themselves they have to strive to become that.
Jean-Paul Sartre based on these two plays was a contemporary philosopher who gave his view on freedom and how it inflicted so much doom and dread to our being as Being-in-this-world. Apparently, Sartre’s position argued his philosophy on freedom as having so much negative impact on the characters presented in the toiw plays.
Freedom, according to Sartre, is the comprehension that the characterization of “me” is the collection of all reflections and mental deliberations, state of affairs, judgments, and actions both precedent and current (2007).
Sartre, Jean Paul. “No Exit and other Plays.”
Sartre, Jean Paul. “The Respectful Prostitute.”
Sartre, Jean-Paul. “Existentialism is a Humanism.” Yale University Press, 2007.