Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre (1944) (2023)

There’s a whole nest of pitfalls that we can’t see. Everything here’s a booby-trap… (p.30)

Sartre’s most famous play is just one act and forty pages long. A man is ushered by a perfunctory ‘valet’ into a closed room, tastefully decorated with Second Empire furnishings. Shortly afterwards the valet ushers two more guests in, both women. The door is locked behind them. Polite and embarrassed, slowly the trio realise that they have died and are in hell.

Hesitantly, they reveal their stories.

The characters

Joseph Garcin is a man’s man, big and burly, a journalist in Brazil, who wrote for a pacifist newspaper. He was a brute to his wife, reeling home smelling of wine and women. One time he brought home a girlfriend and made love to her deliberately loudly so that his wife (in the spare bedroom) could hear them. Next morning he had his wife bring them coffee in bed. When war came and he was called up, Garcin fled to Mexico to evade conscription but was caught, brought back, and shot by firing squad for cowardice.

Inèz Serranois a lesbian. She is arch and manipulative. She admits she seduced a woman (Florence) away from her husband, turning her against him. He was killed in a tram accident and the wife felt so guilty she gassed herself and Inèz in their sleep. ‘I can’t get on without making people suffer’ (p.26).

(Video) NO EXIT (HUIS CLOS) by Jean-Paul Sartre

Estelle Rigaultis posh and dim. She married a man three times her age for his money, but then had an affair with a man her own age, Roger. He got her pregnant and she could afford to go on an extended holiday to a hotel in Switzerland to sit out the pregnancy and birth. After she’d borne the child, with her lover watching, she attached the baby to a stone in a pillow and threw it into the lake to drown. Appalled, her lover committed suicide.

The play

So the fun, the entertainment, the interest of the play is how these three characters set about torturing each other, slowly, one by one, forced to relinquish any hopes that their time together might be bearable or redeemable, slowly coming to the awful conclusion thatl’enfer, c’est les autres = hell, it’s other people.

Having just read Andy Martins’ book about Sartre.The Boxer and the Goalkeeper, I now know that Sartre thought there were only two ways for humans to relate to each other, as sadists or masochists; and that he confessed to having a sadistic attitude towards his fictional creations. It shows. Over the hour and a bit of the play they combine every possible way of irritating, upsetting and flaying each other, emotionally.

The play can very easily, then, be seen as an example of the Theatre of Cruelty which was popular after the war.

For example, towards the end shallow Estelle offers herself sexually to Garcin: she is onlyreal when she has ensnared a man. This plays to Garcin’s sense of himself as a manly man but he discovers he can’t do it, get it up, unless Estelle really genuinely tells him that she respects him. He needs this because he has become – over the course of the hour – increasingly filled with self-loathing and self-doubt caused by reflecting on his cowardice. But neither of them can really rise to the occasion because it is taking place in front ofInèz, with her sharp tongue and cutting comments.Inèz, by virtue of her lesbianism, is revolted by big hairy Garcin – but can’t have Estelle, who she is strongly attracted to, because she is a dippy dolly bird who only fancies rough tough men.

(Video) Jean-Paul Sartre’s "No Exit": A BBC Adaptation Starring Harold Pinter (1964) | Old Movies Online

Ensnared in a cobweb. Caught in a net. If any of them moves the other two are yanked along into further depths of mutual contempt and hatred. It isa terrifying triangle of eternal frustration and torment.

Thoughts

Or at least, it is if you’re French. From Racine in the 1660s, toLes Liaison Dangereuses in the 1780s, to Zola in the 1890s, the French take love, love affairs, affairs of the heart, with a staggering, baroque and ornate seriousness. Setting his play with rather dull modern-day characters is a Sartrean joke on this Grand Tradition but the seriousness with which they take their silly emotions is unmistakably French.

No longer a troubled teenager, and cursed by being English, I wasn’t remotely moved by Huis Clos, I was interested in details and themes.

CatholicismFor example, it tends to confirm what I’d observed from Sartre’s novels, that his entire worldview only makes sense against the enormous backdrop of Roman Catholicism. You can only feelabandoned in a godless universe, if you at any time feltat home in a god-filled universe i.e. if you were a believer. Both Camus and Sartre only make sense as rebels against a stifling Catholic orthodoxy. But we Protestant English lack that intense religious background and so miss the intensity of the rebellion against it.

The gaze A more specifically Sartrean trope is the important of ‘the gaze’ and ‘the look’. Again, from the Martin book I know that Sartre was hyper-self-conscious from an early age of his appalling ugliness. Thus the act of looking is central in his fiction and his philosophy. People are engaged in an endless warfare of looking. To some extent people behave as they do because other people are watching: they want to conform to the watchers’ expectations or defy them but they can’t ignore them.

(Video) No Exit, Huis Clos, by Jean Paul Sartre, Out-Loud Reading

In another way, people watch and observe themselves acting and behaving, especially if there are mirrors around. So, in Huis Clos Estelleneeds mirrors to reassure herself that she exists: she has six big mirrors in her house. But here, in the well-furnished room, there are no mirrors at all, not even hand mirrors. In a particular sequence she goes to put her lipstick on but has no way to see her reflection and so has to trustInèz to tell her she’s doing it correctly. Except that half way throughInèz cruelly asks, what if I’m deceiving you? What if I’m deliberately making you look stupid? Which makes Estelle distraught but also clarifies how horrible life is going to be in hell where she will never be able to see herself. Already she feels herself, somehow, fading away…

[Estelle] When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself to make sure, but it doesn’t help much… When I talked to people I always made sure there was [a mirror] nearby in which I could see myself. I watched myself talking. And somehow it kept me alert, seeing myself as others saw me… (p.19)

And then again, people control and intimidate others through their gaze, asInèz spitefully promises to watch Garcin wherever he goes, whatever he does:

[Inèz] Very well, have it your own way. I’m the weaker party, one against two. But don’t forget I’m here, and watching. I shan’t take my eyes off you, Garcin; when you’re kissing her, you’ll feel them boring into you…

In an interesting twist, that isn’t much reported in the summaries of the play I’ve read, all three characters can continue, for a while at least, to see how their partners and colleagues are continuing to live back on earth. Thus Estelle sees the mourners walking away from her funeral, while Garcin has a particularly vivid vision of all his colleagues at the newspaper lolling around and discussing what a coward he was. This makes him all the more want Estelle to SEE him, to bring him to the present with her gaze, to rescue from his inner consciousness with the power of her look.

(Video) No Exit | Jean Paul Sartre

[Garcin] Come here, Estelle. Look at me. I want to feel someone looking at me while they’re talking about me on earth… (p.38)

Women as slimy It’s a small detail, really, but having read the four novels ofThe Roads to Freedom involved reading lots of descriptions of slime and mucus and vomit. Sartre wants to debunk the smoothness of the traditional ‘bourgeois’ novel by including lots of bodily functions, but also just likes being revolting. So it’s a small but telltale moment when Garcin, in despair, makes for the bell by the door (which doesn’t work), Estelle goes to hug him and tell him everything’s OK, and Garcin pushes her away with:

[Garcin] Go away. You’re even fouler than she. I won’t let myself get bogged in your eyes. You’re soft and slimy. Ugh! Like an octopus. Like a quagmire. (p.41)

Andy Martin, in his book on Camus and Sartre, says the threatening symbol of the octopus appears in a number of Sartre’s writings as the terrifying threat of being sucked in, absorbed and digested by other life forms, part of Sartre’s ‘biophobic tendency’. Like the tree whose boley roots almost give Roquentin a nervous breakdown inNausea. Like women who threaten to drown and swallow men in their gloop.

The BBC TV adaptation

In which the staggering thing, almost impossible to overcome, is the breath-taking poshness of the actors, in particular the ludicrously upper-class voice of renowned playwright Harold Pinter, here playing Garcin. To some extent many of the moments, the phrasing, the thoughts and the similes only really make sense when voiced by essentially very restrained middle-class characters. My kids watchBreaking Bad andThe Wire. I showed them a snippet of this and they fell about laughing.

(Video) Snowglobe Theatre presents No Exit 2018

Academics have to continue solemnly judging that this kind of thing is ‘a searing tragedy of the human condition’ and so on – while the rest of us, who live in normal-people-land, can actually relax and admit that the whole thing is pompously ridiculous.

Credit

Huis Closwas first performed in Paris in May 1944.This translation by Stuart Gilbert was published in Britain in 1946. All references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

  • The Flies (1943)
  • Huis Clos (1944)
  • The Age of Reason (1945)
  • The Reprieve (1945)
  • Existentialism is a Humanism (1945)
  • The Respectful Prostitute (1946)
  • Dirty Hands (1948)
  • Iron In The Soul (1949)
  • The Last Chance (1)
  • The Last Chance (2)

FAQs

What is No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre summary? ›

No Exit, one-act philosophical drama by Jean-Paul Sartre, performed in 1944 and published in 1945. Its original, French title, Huis clos, is sometimes also translated as In Camera or Dead End. The play proposes that “hell is other people” rather than a state created by God.

What is the core lesson in No Exit when it comes to our social identities? ›

Its message is that individuals are responsible for what they have done, for who they are, for how and in what way they face and deal with the world, and ultimately responsible for the way the world is.

Who tortures who in No Exit? ›

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.

What is the most famous line from Sartre's play No Exit? ›

Hell is Other People.” That's actually a famous line from French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre's 1944 play, “No Exit.” In the play, three characters arrive in Hell.

What is the main message of No Exit? ›

In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that true misery comes from the human inability to control the nature of one's own existence. To make this point, he portrays hell as a simple drawing-room that accommodates three recently deceased people—Garcin, Inez, and Estelle.

What is the theme of Huis clos? ›

The themes in Huis Clos are as follows: suffering, judgement, sexual desire, dishonesty and the afterlife. Our three main characters, Garcin, Inès and Estelle, arrive in a mysterious hotel together only to discover that they are in hell and are meant to torture each other psychologically.

What did the ending of No Exit mean? ›

The end of “No Exit” reveals that police reacted to the message Darby sent from the dead cop's communicator. Then we see her in the same rehab where we first saw her. She now has a drawing of two girls holding hands, and the name Jay is also there. So it is a gift from Jay.

What does the ending of No Exit mean? ›

Darby tells Sandi that this was never about a ransom; the kidnappers are caught up in a child trafficking scheme. Ash demands to know where the keys are, and Sandi tells him that Darby hid them somewhere. Realizing that Darby is the only one he needs, Ash shoots Ed and Sandi, killing them both.

How is freedom represented in the play No Exit? ›

Man is free to do anything he wants, as long as he is willing to accept the consequences. With this freedom comes a similarly radical personal responsibility; man must own up to his actions and deal with the fall-out. In No Exit, three characters trapped in hell are forced to come to terms with this concept.

Who kidnap the girl in No Exit? ›

Ash, Lars, Ed, and Sandi are married among the people inside. Darby discovers a kidnapped girl in a van belonging to one of the people inside. Based on the license plate on the van, Darby identifies Lars as the kidnapper. The girl talks to her as she breaks into the van, promising to save her.

Did the little girl survive in No Exit? ›

Ash burns the house, just as the police show up. Darby shoots Ash down, leading the police officer to then shoot Darby. That, in turn, leads Ash to shoot the officer dead. Darby is still alive though – just – and she eventually stabs Ash and manages to stop him.

Which character suffers the most in No Exit? ›

The valet suffers more than any of the main characters in No Exit.

What does the paper knife symbolize In No Exit? ›

The paper-knife refers to Sartre's philosophy in, Being and Nothingness. In this work, Sartre explains his fundamental idea that, existence precedes essence. In other words, the paper knife exists because an object was needed to open envelopes or separate the pages of a book; the reason it exists is to fulfill a need.

What does the room symbolize In No Exit? ›

The drawing-room's lack of mirrors represents Sartre's interest in how perception influences a person's sense of self. Unable to check her reflection, Estelle feels existentially amiss, as if her mere existence depends upon her ability… Lannamann, Taylor. "No Exit Symbols." LitCharts.

What does the door symbolize In No Exit? ›

People have locked themselves into a closed room with no windows to see out into other ways of life. Satisfied with their meaningless existence, they feel no need to better themselves or society. They have closed their minds to anything fresh or new. Even when the door to hell swings open, they are unwilling to go out.

Why is it important that there are three of them in No Exit? ›

Three characters come together in this microcosm of Hell in a way which shows their indispensability to one another: They become inextricably involved in each other's stories, and they represent the fundamental idea of the play-namely, that other people are torture for us.

What is the main conflict of the play No Exit? ›

The focus of this play is on the conflicts within the story; both internal and external. "No Exit" ideally demonstrates the complex structure of three literary conflicts; character versus self, character versus character, and character versus destiny.

Why is it called Huis clos? ›

The original title, Huis clos ("closed door"), is the French equivalent of the legal term in camera (Latin: "in a chamber"), referring to a private discussion behind closed doors.

Why doesn't Garcin leave the room when the door is open explain? ›

Rather than acknowledge his freedom to choose his own personality, Garcin surrenders his free will to other people. He becomes a "being-in-itself," whose essence is determined by the look of the "other." This is why he can't leave when the door opens.

What did Jean-Paul Sartre said about freedom? ›

Sartre writes “no limits to my freedom can be found except freedom itself or, if you prefer, that we are not free to cease being free”[20] (1943, 439). However, individuals are born into the world or into a 'situation' – this is what he calls 'facticity'.

What is the author's message about human interaction in No Exit? ›

In No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre suggests that true misery comes from the human inability to control the nature of one's own existence.

Which character best represents existentialism in No Exit? ›

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Most prominently, No Exit focuses on the ideas of competitive subjectivity, the look and others, objectification, and bad faith. One of the characters in this play – Inez Serrano – comes close to having the perspective of an existentialist, maybe even that of Sartre himself.

How did the girl in the box get away? ›

Janice Hooker and her husband Cameron kidnapped Colleen - who is now 59 - and beat, raped and tortured her when they didn't have her imprisoned in the tiny box. Opening up about her terror, Colleen says it was Janice who was the one to eventually help her escape seven years after they took her.

Is there romance in No Exit? ›

No Exit though was different. For starters, there were no irksome romantic subplots.

Is Darby a drug addict in the book No Exit? ›

Darby, brilliantly acted by Havana Rose Riu, is a drug addict teetering on the crossroads of relapse and recovery.

What did Estelle do to her baby No Exit? ›

Estelle had an affair with a man and became pregnant; she went to Switzerland for five months and gave birth to a daughter. Her lover, Roger, wanted the child, but Estelle didn't, so she drowned the child; later, she died of pneumonia.

Why doesn't Garcin leave when the door opens why doesn't he want to get away from Inez and be free? ›

Why doesn't Garcin leave when the door opens? Doesn't he want to get away from Inez and be free? Garcin suffers from "bad faith," meaning that he is unable to define his own individual characteristics, or essence.

What happens when the door opens in No Exit? ›

The door opens, and he is surprised; in fact, he is so stunned that he decides not to pass through it. Estelle tries pushing Inez through the door so she can have Garcin to herself, but he tells her to desist, that it's because of Inez that he is staying in the room.

What is the point of Sartre's example of paper knife? ›

Sartre uses the manufacture of a paper knife (or letter opener) to explain the difference between objects whose essence precedes their existence and the human subject whose existence precedes its essence.

What does a closed door represent to you now? ›

A closed or locked door, on the other hand, can represent a dead end or create the feeling that there's no way out. A door can be a symbol of opportunity or one of imprisonment.

Who is the kidnapper in No Exit book? ›

When Ash agrees to help her take down Lars, Darby returns to free Jay, but Jay replies she has been kidnapped by two men — Ash and Lars.

What do mirrors symbolize In No Exit? ›

Estelle wants a mirror, but there are none in the room. The absence of a mirror is significant: It prevents the characters from being able to see themselves with an object; thus, they are forced to see themselves through other people's impressions about them.

How is existentialism shown in No Exit? ›

Jean-Paul Sartre uses his play No Exit to explore many of the existentialist themes discussed in his philosophical treatise Being and Nothingness. Most prominently, No Exit focuses on the ideas of competitive subjectivity, the look and others, objectification, and bad faith.

Why do the characters not leave the room in No Exit? ›

Answers 1. True to the idea that "hell is other people," all three characters are bound to an infinite, inescapable fear of one another. The open door shows just how drastic this mutual bondage is.

Was Darby a drug addict in the book? ›

Drug and Alcohol Content

As mentioned, Darby is a drug addict: She confesses to Ash that she'd take just about every drug she could get her hands on. At the clinic, she mentions that she's been clean for 11 days, and she listens without enthusiasm as another patient details her struggles with drug use.

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