Many of the essential tenets that philosopher and author Jean-Paul Sartre espoused as part of his views on existentialism play an integral component in the ploy and characterization of the principle personages that populate No Exit, a work of drama that presents a decidedly human interpretation of the proverbial fires of hell. At its very essence, existentialism identifies and underpins a conception of liberty and accordant responsibility that is at the very core of the human experience -- for those astute enough, aware, and cognizant enough to grasp and take advantage of the vantage point gained from this philosophical stance. Therefore, it is quite interesting to observe that some of the characters within No Exit, one would say most but there are only four in total, and only three whom Sartre's notions of existentialism apply towards, lack the propensity to fully encompass and actuate the author's principles of existence. One character has no such problem doing so, much to the torment of the others. However, a thorough analysis of this play as of the cultural circumstances that more than likely affected the author while he composed it, indicate that No Exit serves as a virtual treatise of Sartre's existential philosophy.
One of the most notable aspects of this dramatic work is its setting. The play takes place in what functions as hell for three characters who are dead. This fact is highly influential to the characterization of the three dead people, since there version of hell is essentially a sparsely furnished parlor room stylized after the Second Empire which effectively removes the characters -- Garcin, Estelle and Inez, from the typical human trappings of family, friends, and any other outside perceptions of themselves other than that offered by them three. There is not even a mirror in the room. Therefore, Sartre's rendition of hell is essentially the perfect 'clean slate', devoid of the value and material trappings of the physical world, with is the ideal setting for existentialist principles (in which individuals largely define themselves by their own ability to exist and their solitary interpretations of their existence), which is immensely aided by the fact that they are dead and all previous concerns of the outside world no longer apply. The following quotation underscores the relative uselessness of all concerns outside of those that are existential, such as those pertaining to the perceptions of others.
Valet: & #8230;Good heavens, Mr. Garcin, can't you use your brains? What, I ask you, would be the point of brushing your teeth?
Garcin: Yes, of course you're right. And why should one want to see oneself in a looking-glass? (Sartre).
The vanity associated with brushing one's teeth and preparing oneself as suitable to the optical regard of others with a "looking-glass" emphasizes that concerns of other people's judgments are irrelevant to existentialism, which is centered around one's own conception of one's self, not that of others. Moreover, the fact that Garcin is dead suggests that he will not need to worry about his teeth or gums decaying -- which only happens to the living. By employing such a setting of hell and depicting dead characters within it, Sartre has the ideal setting for one to judge oneself based on one's own opinions and ideas.
The inherent freedom that is intrinsic with true existentialism -- which was initially termed by Sartre as a self-definition (Crowell) -- lies in a total liberation of the judgments and ideas of others. The responsibility attached to that freedom, of course, is to preserve it and make the most of it. Therefore, it is highly significant that Garcin and Estelle (another dead inmate of hell) are unable to really actuate this degree of existentialism in spite of the ideal setting for such a viewpoint. Both of them continually refer to their past lives, and to what people on earth are doing and thinking about them. Estelle becomes particularly distraught at the realization that there is no mirror available; her entire conception of herself is based upon how other people regard her (which is the exact opposite of an existentialist viewpoint). Yet Garcin bests her in his inability to practice existentialism, as he is completely reliant on the judgment of Estelle, and then Inez, to justify the actions he was killed for -- deserting an armed conflict in a dishonorable way. The following quotation demonstrates how completely his identity of his self is based upon the opinions of other.
Garcin: A thousand of them are proclaiming I'm a coward; but what do numbers matter? If there's someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I'm not the sort that runs away, that I'm brave and decent and the rest of it -- well, that one person's faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me? (Sartre)
Although Garcin initially makes this demand of Estelle and then later of Inez, it is the demand itself that is significant. His preoccupation with people's conceptions of him on earth (a "thousand" of "them") as well as of Estelle and Inez's opinions about his desertion of the war front demonstrate that he relies on others to form his own identity. This fact is underscored by the notion that if even a single person could reaffirm his manhood and dispel his cowardice, such a belief in him would "save" him.
After quote go onto the army setting/cultural significance of Germany occupying France and end with Inez being true to existentialism. Such beliefs of course, are virtually the opposite of those espoused by Sartre and propagated by existentialism.
It is highly significant that the source of Garcin's existential dilemma is attributed to the fact that he ran away from a war. Sartre himself was involved in several martial conflicts, most noticeably World War II in which Germany defeated the forces of France the author was fighting for, and later on came to occupy it -- and it's crowning city, Paris. There are a number of parallels between Sartre's play No Exit and the situation that most Parisians, including the author, had to endure during the German occupation of Paris that spanned for a fairly good portion of World War II. In fact, one might even infer that one of the central premises of "No Exit," that hell is not some charnel, ghastly hall of tortures but instead is something decidedly more human and agonizing because of the effect of people, stems from the author's endurance of Germany's occupation of his native country. Additionally, before Sartre was captured he was imprisoned by the Germans before their Parisian occupation. Both of these facts lend some elucidation regarding the cultural context of the setting for the play and the fact that the three dead people can torture one another "HELL IS -- OTHER PEOPLE!" (Sartre) Garcin proclaims.
Yet for a true existentialist, however, the preoccupations of other people do not matter and hell is not other people. The character that comes the closest to embodying this crucial ideology of Sartre's is Inez, who alone gives little or virtually no consideration to how she is being judged on earth. Instead, Inez is content to make use of the present moment and define herself through her own actions, intentions, and thoughts, in that present moment. Granted, she is preoccupied with seducing and consummating her affection with Estelle, who can, of course, never return that affection. And, she is decidedly repulsed by the mere presence of Garcin. But she does not need Estelle the way that Estelle need's Garcin's intimacy to justify her (Estelle's) existence as a woman. And she does not need validation from someone else regarding her previous actions the way Garcin unequivocally does. In fact, Estelle's assertion of the liberty and responsibility that is an…