Jean Paul Sartre's "No Exit" is an apt description of existential hell. (Sartre, 1958) Existentialism attempts to describe our desire to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. Existentialism requires the active acceptance of our nature. Or, existentialism assumes we are best when we struggle against our nature. In either case, we should want this. Given this brief description of existentialism, what transpires in "No Exit" is that the players are trapped in their own natures. There is a loss of freedom at several levels. The stage setting reveals that even in writing No Exit, Sartre cannot completely rid himself of his existentialist leanings. He asks for a chandelier in the center of the room. And in the ceiling there is a hole -- through which he allows as an escape route.
The first loss of freedom is in the room in which Joseph Cradeau, Inez Verrano and Estelle Rigault are trapped. Here, nothing ever changes. They are destined to exist forever on three sofas in a room that is sparsely furnished, or furnished as no livable room would be. The seasons do not change; the lights in the room remain on. The existences (cannot be called life, since they are dead) of the players are a continuum from which there is no respite. There is a loss of the freedom of life.
At the second level, Cradeau, Verrano and Rigault are trapped with personalities that confound each other. There are aspects of each other that they find appealing. But the dislikes easily trump the likes. And at the third level, the three are trapped within themselves. They are the victims of their own personalities and idiosyncrasies. Their actions in life are what brought them to this place. But even in death, they do not have (nor do they seek) the freedom from themselves. Towards the end of the play, Inez makes a statement that captures the essence that is them: "HELL IS -- OTHER PEOPLE." It is natural to blame others when mere introspection would help. What the characters need is freedom from themselves. But they never realize it. Thus, no matter in what realm they find themselves, they are bound to suffer this lack of freedom.
At the beginning of the narrative, the reader is led to believe that the room is a hotel or a prison of some kind. As the narrative proceeds, the reader begins to realize that the players are dead. There is no doubt then that this is hell. But why? The reader wonders. What have these people done to merit hell? And as the story unfolds, one realizes why.
Joseph Cradeau is a pacifist writer. When the War breaks out, he is branded as a traitor because he refuses to support the war. He is sentenced to die. He is executed -- shot with twelve bullets. He is by nature an emotional abuser. In his wife, who possesses a martyr complex, he sees a perfect victim. He met his wife when he rescued her, as puts it, "from the gutters." While he is off being a hero for the cause of freedom of speech and expression, he revels in muzzling his wife, whom he tortures by serial his philandering. His married life consisted of his long-suffering wife acceding to his every wish. He loves women as sexual objects. He cannot stand them as companions. Nor does he attempt to understand women if they do not meet his immediate desires.
Estelle Rigault is an attractive woman. She is vain. While she was alive, her bedroom consisted of six mirrors so she could constantly be aware of herself. Her very reason for being was the knowledge that she was in the limelight at all times. She married an older man because he could provide for her sickly brother's treatment. But later she fell in love with a younger. She had an affair with him. She became pregnant. Delivered a baby girl. She kills her baby because of the inconvenience her prior acts would cause her, against her boyfriend's pleading. Later she contracts pneumonia and dies.
Inez Verrano is a postal clerk. She is a lesbian. She has an affair with a woman, Florence. She breaks up Florence's marriage. The heart broken man either commits suicide or is run over by a tram. She lives with Florence for a while. Florence is also guilt ridden. Inez is not the best person to live with. By her own admission, Inez makes the lives of those near her miserable. Florence kills both herself and Inez by turning on the gas in their apartment. Inez is objective. But this objectivity masks the need for quick solutions. She also has a take-charge personality.
Consider how their lives are after they are in hell. The three characters never seek freedom from their personalities. There is no introspection. They are guilty for what they have done. Unfortunately, they make no attempt to change themselves. In this sense they are imprisoned forever. Never mind that they are stuck in a room for eternity -- a room that they can easily do without. There is a bell that will summon the valet. But it might or might not work. They are destined to live with each other forever. They are also destined to suffer by seeing how their lives have affected those that are living.
In considering the plights of the characters after death, Sartre creates spectacular ironies. Cradeau is used to having women pandering to his every need without complain -- most of these needs being sexual. While there is a chance that there might be sexual interaction with Estelle. She will do it only as fulfillment of her vanity -- to draw attention to herself. This is a blow to Cradeau's perceived man-hood. Estelle is so self-centered that she cannot stop talking about herself. She embodies everything in a woman that Cradeau hated. Given that Inez is a lesbian. Cradeau certainly cannot hope for anything in terms of affection from her. This is how he is destined to live. Not only are their lives intertwined physically, but also there are emotional strings that bind them. Try as he might, Cradeau, who would prefer to live eternity in silence, feels the women's talk through every inch of his being.
Estelle is pretty. She is used to being the center of attention. But she is stuck with a man, who will not pay attention to her. She is destined to debase herself physically, not for sexual gratification but to seek attention. She sees her boyfriend David in he arms of her so-called friend Olga. The attention that she craves is now given to another. She gets affection from Inez. But that's not the attention she wants. Her raison d' tre is destroyed. She who saw herself through the eyes of others is now destined to live with makeup but without a mirror. Her only mirror is Inez. But since Inez is a self-proclaimed spreader of misery, Estelle is not sure that she can trust Inez.
Inez walks into the room, at the beginning of the play, looking for Florence. She thinks that since they died together, they would spend eternity together. If only life (or death) would be so simple. Inez is sexually attracted to Estelle. But she has to live knowing that there is a man in the picture that she cannot get rid off as easily as she did Florence's husband. She knows that from a sexual standpoint, Estelle and Cradeau will eventually find each other physically. She has to live in the knowledge that she will be witnessing it. Since her apartment was a scene of a suicide, it was closed. But soon enough, she can see that the apartment is let out to a couple. To her dismay, she has to live through the misery of watching that couple make love in a bed that was once hers. She, who could not abide a relationship without bringing misery, now has to live that way forever.
In creating "No Exit" Sartre expounds on the need for freedom. No Exit stems from the belief that "men are morally free," their hell is therefore the lack of freedom. They are also destined to deal with the consequences of their actions.
Contrast this concept introduced by Robert Blatchford -- one of Determinism. (Blatchford, 1994) Determinism is the notion that the lives of humans are already predetermined. That humans have no say or freedom in life. Blatchford avers that perhaps by nature or nurture or an admixture of the two, we cannot help the things we do, the thoughts we think and the decisions we make. Blatchford was a hard determinist. He left no play for the introduction of free thoughts even if minimally -- libertarianism and compatibilitism. Blatchford's theories are akin to the Theodice problem suggested by David Hume to support his atheistic leanings (Blatchford was an atheist too): if God created the Universe and governed everything in it, then…