No Exit | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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No Exit | Scenes 1–4 | Summary

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The French edition of No Exit breaks the text into five scenes. The first four are extremely brief and serve to introduce characters; the main action takes place in the last scene. This study guide divides the last scene into smaller parts for closer summary and analysis.

Summary

Scene 1

No Exit is a brief one-act play that begins with the arrival of Mr. Garcin, led into a closed room by a valet, or bellhop. No indication is given of place, time, or date. Garcin does not like the ugly living room furnished in "Second Empire" style, but he has no choice. Expecting to be treated roughly, perhaps tortured, he discovers that is not the case. He is in a detached kind of place where he will never sleep, bathe, or blink his eyes and quickly realizes "it's life without a break." He knows he will never leave the room, and no one will come to help him. The few pieces of furniture and decorative objects oppress him, especially "that bronze contraption on the mantelpiece ... I suppose there will be times when I stare my eyes out at it." He cannot move the ornate piece of sculpture, as it's far too heavy. When he questions how he is to "live" in such conditions, the valet indicates he will not live at all but does not explain further.

Scene 2

Garcin remains in the room and tries to ring a bell for someone to help him. He looks aimlessly at the few objects, with no idea what awaits him. As he stops trying to summon aid, the door re-opens, and the valet reappears leading in Inez.

Scene 3

Inez knows no more than Garcin about where they are and is told to ask him because he arrived first. She seems troubled by not finding Florence, a woman she expected to encounter there, and now she must face "torture by separation." She sees only Garcin and mistakes him for the one who will lead her torture, but he assures her, "That's too comic for words. I the torturer!" They realize only they will be there, wherever and whatever it is, alone, without even a mirror to see themselves, and so decide they will have to tolerate each other indefinitely. Inez, however, insults Garcin by calling attention to his twisting his mouth, a nervous tic. They realize they must wait to learn what is in store for them, certain it will involve long-term suffering.

Scene 4

While Garcin sits and ponders, Inez paces until the valet appears with a younger woman, Estelle. She too is nervous and expects frightening treatment. At first she focuses on the three sofas in the room, which the three characters agree are ugly. Concerned with her appearance, she does not want to sit on the empty sofa because it is green and clashes with her light blue dress, an image "too horrible for words."

The three characters introduce themselves formally, Garcin even bowing in an old-fashioned way. They now know they are Inez Serrano, Estelle Rigault, and Joseph Garcin. The valet's question—"Do you require me any longer?"—represents their last contact with anyone other than themselves. Being told they do not and having completed his duties, he makes a formal departure and leaves them to one another.

Analysis

The play sets up emotions of fear and trepidation in the three characters. Like Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, readers and audience have no idea what is happening other than experiencing a strong sense of dread. Obviously the three characters are deeply troubled and understand they are damned. Because their expectations are for torture, likely of the worst kinds on the basis of their actions in life, they must be carrying serious guilt for things they have done, though no clues are given yet what these might be.

In the French original, the valet is called "Garçon," which is spelled and pronounced much like Garcin. He and Garcin in fact repeat each other's first two sentences word for word, suggesting a first impression of some closeness that does not go past that, although in French it serves as a comedic moment, which also goes no further, perhaps giving a false impression of the nature of the play.

The room itself is the primary focus of a kind of bourgeois dread early on: closed off, airless, and suffocating. The characters are aware of their surroundings and the looks of the place, which is offensive to the artistic and decorative tastes of the mid-20th century. The furniture is representative of an old, unfashionable style they detest as false and oppressive. Stylistically the 19th-century Louis-Philippe and Second Empire décor is characterized by heavy, ornamented, often gilded, and historically imitative objects done in weighty metals and woods. Garcin especially dislikes the bronze sculpture by Barbedienne as "a bronze atrocity ... a collector's piece, as in a nightmare." Ferdinand Barbedienne (1810–92) was not an artist but the owner of a metal works, known for making reproductions of famous pieces of sculpture. Indeed Garcin realizes the bronze sculpture merely represents an oppressive nightmare that will never end. He cannot move the piece as it is far too heavy, and where would he put it? There is no other place in the room, nowhere it cannot be seen, and it is part of the eternal setting in which all three are caught.

Estelle's decorative sensibilities also are offended, as noted in the exaggerated concern over where she will sit to best compliment her appearance. This behavior contrasts with the impression created by Inez, who is gruff and rather aggressive toward Garcin. When Garcin attempts to "ease the situation" for them both, Inez informs him, "I'm not polite." If these three people are going to be stranded here, it is already clear tension and unsettling dynamics will develop among them. At this point they seem unable to make each other feel at ease and are feeding off each other's anxieties in the first moments of their acquaintance.

Sartre gives few clues this early about why the characters are there, what they are being punished for—if indeed they are being punished—and what they will discover as the play continues. But every detail bodes badly for them. The valet's function makes it seem as though they have "checked in" to some nightmare hotel, the setting of an unending future they will have to understand and will have no choice but to endure.

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