Existentialism is frequently misunderstood for its deceptive complexity. In reality, existentialist provisions are rather simple to understand. They were exemplified in Sartre’s No Exit, in which the author presented his vision of human identity.
This paper is centered on evaluating and re-considering existentialism in Sartre’s No Exit. Sartre’s Existentialism Introduction Existentialism has become the result of the fruitful creative work of Jean-Paul Sartre. His works are extremely philosophic, and one sometimes needs to undertake several reading efforts to understand the implications of Sartre’s works.
It not a secret, that his No Exit is the bright representation of existentialist ideas. Sartre was capable of including everything he thought about life into this short play. He did not need too many characters, or too many scenes to carry the most important philosophical messages to the reader. This was the proof of his talent and the desire to change people’s ideas about their inner motives and identities. The play takes place in the small room with old furniture and somewhat strange style.
The three people: Garcin, Estelle, and Inez are closed in that room. The question what these three people do there is simple to answer: the room is Sartre’s representation of hell. The three people are the three dead souls who appeared in hell after their deaths. Each of them possesses their own character, and each has something to tell. However, there are profound implications in their constant interaction, bearing in mind that they have no other way out, and they cannot be as free as they used to be in their earth lives.
We will find almost all existentialist ideas expressed in this small but extremely complex piece of writing. It is even more interesting to consider each of them separately. “Man is responsible for what he is. Thus, the first effect of existentialism is that it puts every man in possession of himself as he is, and places the entire responsibility for his existence squarely upon his own shoulders” (Sartre 1989, p. 132). The role of Sartre’s existentialism has initially been in the attempt to explain the positive sides of that philosophical trend.
Sartre was aiming at proving that existentialism was not a negative notion in the society; moreover, he also wanted to show that existentialism did not mean neglecting human values and leading immoral way of life. On the contrary, he positioned existentialists as those who had to create themselves and to be responsible for what they were (Heter 2006, p. 29). Was this true? Yes, it was, and No Exit proved it. The examples of Garcin and Estelle only support these assumptions.
We can understand why these two people found themselves in hell but yet we come to understanding that Sartre describes hell only with the help of indirect hints found throughout the play. It is even more interesting, that while Sartre justified a person for being a human, and displayed the importance of a person creating oneself without outside help, we also see the changing attitudes of Estelle and Garcin towards their earth lives. These changes are viewed in the gradual process of their revelation and recognizing the terrible realities of their previous lives.
Meeting Garcin and Estelle for the first time, we become aware of their stories, but these stories are shown in their personal interpretation: “I lost my parents when I was a kid, and I had my young brother to bring up. We were terribly poor and when an old friend of my people asked me to marry him I said yes. He was very well off, and quite nice. My brother was a very delicate child and needed all sorts of attention, so really that was the right thing for me to do, don’t you agree? My husband was old enough to be my father, but for six years we had a happy married life.
Then two years ago I met the man I was fated to love. ” (Sartre, 1944) Only reaching the end of the play we come to understanding that Estelle’s story had not been as innocent as she tried to depict it. Moreover, she had left its most significant part beyond the limits of our consciousness. What she had to tell later terrified the reader, yet helped to realize that Sartre was right in his existentialist provisions: people create themselves as they want to; they have their will, they are conscious, and they have to be fully responsible for what they do (Flynn 2005, p. 8). The fact that Garcin and Estelle appeared in hell was the expression of that responsibility, or rather, the consequences of the responsibility all of us have to carry for our actions. Garcin had to recognize the fact that he had tortured his wife: his open adulteries, alcohol, and total indifference to her as a human being had not pushed him to a thought that he had been doing something wrong. He forgot that each of us is not only responsible for ourselves, but for everyone around us. I am thus responsible for myself and for all men, and I am creating a certain image of man as I would have him to be, in fashioning myself I fashion man” (Sartre 1989, p. 137). The profound truth of this idea is also displayed through Estelle’s and Garcin’s conduct. In being so indifferent towards his wife, Garcin has also made his choice about her, putting her into a tragic position of “always waiting for him” (Heter 2006, p. 30). He had to admit that “she never cried, never uttered a word of reproach. Only her eyes spoke” (Sartre, 1944), but it was not only her choice.
That was the choice of Garcin, too, and they both contributed enough to create the picture of a never happy family. Estelle made her choice, too, and it is impossible but to admit that she had also been responsible for at least the two lives next to her: the life of her small child, and the life of her lover. Surely, she wanted to avoid ethical conflicts in her life, and she was proud to state that her husband never knew the truth. Yet she forgot to mention that the lives of her lover and her child were also dependent on her. She became the cause of their death, either direct or indirect.
In any case, the hell has become her refuge, her revelation, and the proof of her inner responsibility for her deeds (Flynn 2005, p. 51). No matter how hard we may try to conceal our real feelings, we cannot escape inner moral tortures for what we have once performed. This is why the inventiveness of Sartre’s hell is in not showing it with traditional attributes: fire, tortures, Satan, etc. We are the tortures to ourselves, and our consciousness tells for us. Hell is the mere representation of our fears, and it does not necessarily have to be in the form of the burning fires.
In this existentialist analysis of Estelle and Garcin we have forgotten about the third participant of the discussed events. It is not surprising: Inez also had her sins and had to confess she had become the reason of the three deaths, including her own, but in Sartre’s play she better served a kind of a mirror, in which the sins of the other two were reflected: “Suppose I try to be your glass? Come and pay me a visit, dear. Here’s the place for you on my sofa. ” (Sartre, 1944) The concept of God is even more interesting to be viewed through the prism of existentialism. Sartre was keeping to the so-called atheistic existentialism.
This did not though mean that Sartre was denying existence of God at all; he rather explained the connection of God, his absence in human imagination, and as a consequence, the absence of moral and ethical standards according to which a person should act. “The existentialist is strongly opposed to a certain type of secular moralism which seeks to suppress God at the least possible expense. ” (Sartre 1989, p. 138). However, existentialist vision of God is rather contradictory and remains that in the discussed play. First of all, can we suggest that there is no God, if Sartre depicts Estelle, Inez, and Garcin in hell?
Hell is initially a well known antipode of paradise, and it is possible to suggest that if hell exists, there is also paradise. As a consequence, if those who used to deny usual moral standards in their lives appear in hell, doesn’t this mean that those who led positive way of life could appear in paradise? Second, Sartre was very rigid in terms of morality as it is: he used to assume that we could not follow moral standards from outside (Flynn 2005, p. 52). According to existentialist ideas, moral standards are brought to us from the depth of our souls, and what we have to do is to realize, what our inner identity tells us.
All characters of the play have ultimately proved what Sartre wanted to show: there were no God, but there were also no human values. This is why all three appeared in hell. Existentialism is not the denial of God; it is the set of ideas according to which people should be responsible for their passions. In this sense existentialist teaching is very similar to Christianity, how strange this may sound. “The existentialist does not believe in the power of passion. He will never regard a grand passion as a destructive torrent upon which a man is swept into certain actions as by fate, and which, therefore, is an excuse for them” (Sartre 1989, p. 41). There is no need to repeat, that Estelle, Garcin, and Inez are Sartre’s embodiments of this interesting idea. Their passions have led them to hell and they are meant to spend eternity in the room with weird angles and strange furniture, behind the door which is never opened, and with no sleep, as their eyes do not have eyelids. Garcin had a passion towards women and entertainment; he had passion towards pacifism and did not think of its possible negative consequences. Inez’s passions resulted in the death of the three persons, and Estelle’s passion led to the death of her child, and later, her lover.
The man is responsible for his passions, and we can easily see the conjunction of the responsibility for passions, and responsibility for other people. Actually, these are similar expressions of the same philosophical interactions, or these can be built in a logical line: we are responsible for our passions, which impact the lives of other people, and thus through our actions we are also responsible for others. None of the three characters will be able to escape the inner responsibility for the lost lives.
This realization becomes even brighter, caused not by physical tortures as we traditionally imagine them in hell, but by conversations between Estelle, Inez, and Garcin, in which they make each other reveal their truths. As a result, hell is not outside and not in physical pain; it is inside us and it eats us from inside. Moreover, hell is in people who direct us towards seeing the truth about ourselves. As far as we are what we want to be, people around us create an image of ourselves which we have to accept.
Hell is in being objective towards ourselves; Sartre recognized the human nature, and the difficulty with which we recognize our identities (Sartre 1989, p. 131). This is why this recognition is the embodiment of hell for us. Estelle is a bright representation of existentialist vision. As long as Sartre’s ideas related to the human opportunity to choose, she had clearly proved the importance and possibility of human choice. Of course, killing one’s child is possibly the human choice in its most radical form, but it seems that Sartre had to use this complex context to make existentialist vision more understandable to the reader.
There is surely, the risk that the reader might misunderstand the purpose of this tragic plot, but it is more probable that Estelle’s actions will not be misinterpreted. While conventional reader will try to judge Inez, Estelle, and Garcin through the prism of widely accepted moral norms, these are the existentialists who state the absence or the small role of the external societal standards (Heter 2006, p. 35). There is no common morality which could push us towards these or those actions.
As a result, depicting three negative personalities is the means of clarifying the basic existentialist provisions: responsibility for actions, responsibility for passions, and the absence of God and general moral standards. This work is not meant to judge whether existentialism in Sartre’s works was negative or positive. The meaning of existentialism is in trying to view ourselves through Sartre’s viewpoint, and to think whether we can accept his vision of our lives. Conclusion Contrary to many traditional opinions, Sartre’s existentialism is absolutely humanistic.
When we read his No Exit, we may conclude that the play is absolutely negative and absolutely immoral: open adultery, suicides, and child’s murders constitute a brief but colored picture of the play. However, these are the backgrounds, without which it would hardly be possible to notice the humanism, about which we speak. Existentialism is directly connected with humanism; “if people condemn our works of fiction, in which we describe characters that are base, weak, cowardly and sometimes even frankly evil, it is not only because those characters are base, weak, cowardly or evil” (Sartre 1989, p. 142).
The importance of existentialist humanism is not in pushing us towards the thought that our cowardice or our passions are the results of some external societal factors. The humanism of existentialism is in showing human responsibility for these evils and actions. As a result, cowardice and evil are determined not by some external attributes (for example, being a coward means being bad), but by the actions of people (for example, when certain passions cause the death of an innocent child). No Exit is the example of short and consistent existentialist vision of our lives, our identities, and the consequences of our reasonable choices.