No Exit | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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No Exit | Context


World War II and Paris

No Exit was written during the dark days of the German occupation of Paris. The war had come to France in the spring of 1940 after a long waiting period called the "phony war" following the Nazis' conquests of other countries in Europe. The French tried to prepare for the expected invasion, as a state of war had existed with Germany since 1939. When the German troops rapidly outmaneuvered the French and sped across the country, they reached and took over Paris on June 14, 1940, parading victoriously down the famous boulevards in an enormous show of power meant to intimidate. Immediately they installed their own administration, and all aspects of pre-war life changed for Parisians.

Sartre was in the army as a noncombatant but was captured and held in captivity for nine months. Because of his extremely poor eyesight (mostly blind in his right eye from the age of four), he was released. Returning to Paris, he resumed his writing and was able to work under military censorship, most likely because he was not writing specifically about politics or any other subject directly related to the war. However, some readers and critics at the time saw a sense of entrapment and absolute control, similar to the Nazis', in No Exit where three characters are virtually imprisoned for eternity and denied all sense of choice or free will. Yet the work was uncensored, and Nazi occupiers were among the enthusiastic audience at the premiere of the play.

While most intellectuals resisted, or did not actively collaborate with the German occupation, many French citizens did. This was especially true after the country was divided in two, and a so-called "free zone" existed in the southern half of France. In reality, the "free zone" was controlled by the Germans together with the French who cooperated. In No Exit the three characters are in perpetual conflict as they attempt a similar type of co-existence. They try to trust one another, but their expectations are betrayed because they no longer have the power to make decisions.

Sartre and Camus

Discussions of the philosophy known as existentialism usually link two writers: Sartre and his one-time friend Albert Camus. The two had known each other through literary and personal acquaintance when Sartre had the idea for No Exit in 1943.

Born in Algeria to French and Spanish parents, Camus had been in France, active in the Resistance during World War II against the German invaders. His friend Sartre wanted to write a brief, allegorical work about the feeling of entrapment under German rule. He was asked to compose a one-act drama for three people, so no coupling of two would be possible, and have "the actors on stage together for the whole of the play so that he did not appear to be favoring one of them over the other." He wrote the play rapidly, at first thinking to have the characters trapped in a cellar, but then deciding on some version of a hellish afterlife.

Camus was at first expected to play the one male role and also direct the production. Having come up with a story permitted by the German censors who allowed only mythology, symbolism, or historical drama, Sartre saw in Camus a philosophical ally. Sartre knew Camus's early works including the The Stranger (1942), which showed an absurd world in which an anti-heroic character finds meaning in an individual act of defiance. Sartre and Camus admired each other's writings and maintained their friendship in the years following the end of the war.

Eventually in a famous public quarrel based on politics, Camus broke off all contact, and they never spoke again after 1952 when Sartre published an open denunciation of his friend. Camus disapproved of Sartre's defense of Communism, an authoritarian political system where the government controls economic production, and his inaction during the war. He accused Sartre of sacrificing human lives for political principles, while Sartre saw Camus as detached from contemporary history and the struggle for social progress, too accepting of absurdity and insufficiently committed to progressive politics. In the end, however, Sartre recognized and wrote, "Camus was probably my last good friend." He outlived Camus by 20 years.


The label existentialist was attached to Sartre early in his career though he never set out to establish or join any particular literary movement. Although resistant to such titles, he recognized his reputation as a thinker and writer did much to make existentialism a dominant mode of thought and expression in the 20th century.

Existentialist thought goes back centuries in French and German philosophy, its origins connected to Christian and Jewish sources speaking of the engaged individual who seeks meaning through an intense confrontation with the Divine. Sartre spent several years studying in Germany and read deeply the works of philosophers Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Martin Heidegger. Exploration, such as theirs, into the truths of human existence is the branch of philosophy called ontology: the discourse of existence and what is real. Sartre's understanding of their ideas was influenced also by the writing of German political philosopher Karl Marx and Communist principles. He joined these ideas with existential ideas, becoming a believer in Marxism as a force for liberating people from falseness and exploitation. He distrusted labels in general, preferring to concentrate on the realities of political necessities in human life and claimed, "My philosophy is a philosophy of existence. I don't even know what Existentialism is."

Sartre fills No Exit with ideas closely associated with an existentialist view of life. The chief antagonists in much of his philosophy are falseness and betrayal. By being untrue to themselves and others, individuals may create positive meanings to their own lives. Called mauvaise foi in French, this "bad faith" is shown in the lies and misrepresentations people cling to about themselves. They construct falsehoods about themselves to avoid facing a void of true achievement, or positive action, for betterment in life. Instead they depend on others for validation of their false lives. Such validation takes form in the "look" or "gaze" of others—that is, the "opinions" of others—that their constructed lies are legitimate. Such "looks" are necessary and inescapable, since people live among others, but the "authentic" individual surpasses the judgments of others to make decisive acts of freedom. Therefore, depending on others to validate one's worthiness is useless, and the imprisoning struggle symbolized in the three-way tug-of-war in No Exit ends in a standoff because living an authentic existence must come from the individuals themselves who seek freedom rather than exploitation and control of others.

Existentialism in Sartre's works also denies the importance of religion and faith. Existence is as it is, and along with complete freedom of choice to live in good or bad faith comes the responsibility for one's actions. The play takes place after earthly death, but it notably is missing all signs of religious meaning or salvation. No mention is made in the play about what might actually be a reality after death, if such a reality exists. Only by continuing to fight for truth and liberation from illusions and falseness, as seen in the first moments of the text in the faked appearance of the room, can individuals find a way to "get on with it," as Garcin tells his doomed companions in the last words of the play.

Critical Reception

The play premiered in May 1944 under strict controls, making no references to time, place, or politics. It was immediately successful in its daring allegory of life—or death—under an imposed rule. When Paris was self-liberated three months later in August, No Exit already was known as a brilliant portrayal of the need to maintain individual integrity even under the most extreme state of denial. From the first performances, it received great attention and acclaim and made Sartre an important literary figure both in France and abroad. He has been called the "most written-about writer of the twentieth-century."

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