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No Exit | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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No Exit | Symbols


Bronze Statue

Garcin immediately hates the old-fashioned, outdated décor of the room he is shown to. There is no indication of another style he would prefer and no reason to assume he is that much interested in such questions of taste. Rather he is thrust into oppressive surroundings as a kind of first torture to his sense of himself.

The bronze statue on the mantel symbolizes falseness and oppression to the characters. As a mass-produced replica of a genuine piece of art, it is neither unique nor valuable, representing only the less-authentic, superficial appearance of something else. It is heavy and oppressive, as is falseness in a person's character. He comes to understand, when told he will never need a toothbrush or toilet articles, he will exist without a sense of human dignity or the need to care about himself, as in looking in a mirror. But the fixed, immobile, heavy piece in front of his lidless eyes—"that bronze contraption on the mantelpiece ... there will be times when I stare my eyes out at it ... As in a nightmare"—makes a different impression on him. The women also dislike the statue, but Garcin especially finds its strength and solidity an enforced lesson in his own weakness and helpless situation. As he would like to open the door and leave his hellish state, he would like to remove the statue but cannot even begin to lift it.


Dancing represents both an attachment to a previous life and an eternal reminder of misery in their "damned" lives. While Estelle is the one who prattles on about her lover and his abilities as a dancer, all three characters are in a kind of symbolic dance. They circle around like partners on an infernal dance floor where missteps will cause the failure to connect as well as reveal the essence of futility in human relations. They can share no kindness or tenderness in their extreme isolation, and each revolves around and around in a dance, not to the death because they already are dead, but in a never-ending confrontation with existence. Estelle longs for the social world of her snobbish Parisian friends, but her companions are indifferent to the social graces Estelle tries to follow.

Moreover, in dancing, one person faces another, as partners look each other in the eye. But these characters cannot bear to see their reflected selves and acknowledge the other person's needs. Indeed they are unnerved by staring and do not want to see their reflections. But Estelle recreates the passion of dancing she lived for with her young lover Peter. Symbolically she sees her close friend Olga now having taken her role and clumsily, to Estelle, making missteps in life, "pressing her great fat chest against him, puffing and blowing in his face." Not content with the way earthly life is going on without her, Estelle wishes she could "Dance, dance, dance ... How I'd love to go down to earth for just a moment, and dance with him again." As the dancing symbolizes her connection to earthly existence, the fading music symbolizes her renunciation of all pleasures, since she will have to negotiate a new existence entirely, as she "can't hear a sound. All over. It's the end. The earth has left me." Of the three characters, Estelle was the most connected to sensual life on Earth and committed the most brutal betrayal in murdering her newborn child. Dance music as light and graceful contrasts most effectively with the eternal silence, yet noise, of her entrapment with Garcin and Inez.

Garcin's Jacket

Early in the play, when the heat of the room becomes oppressive, Garcin starts to remove his jacket. No details are given about it, other than its 12 bullet holes, but it represents the previous formality of his existence—the need to dress for others and play a role—and the reason for his death. He was shot for cowardice by a firing squad.

Even if Garcin is passive and ineffectual until late in the play, he had his profession and his self-image. He realizes in letting down his guard with the two women and removing his jacket, he could be signaling something he does not wish to. In some literary situations, a scene with a man and two women might indicate eventual sexual relationships. But Sartre has everything but sex in mind for his story. The three are in a triangular trap, making passes at another character more from desperation than desire. However, each attempt will fail because someone else is watching and daring, exerting a false and judging self between the bodies and any possible coupling. So the traditional sense of flirting is dampened by the presence of a third who has rejected another, and will be rejected in turn. When Garcin asks, "Do you mind if" and begins to remove his outer shell, Estelle reverts to her social self, "How dare you ... I loathe men in their shirt sleeves."

The social and sexual symbol of the jacket covering the male body is important to her, but Inez openly says, "Oh, I don't care much for men any way." The words any and way are separated for a purpose: to situate her figuratively between Garcin and Estelle, where she will remain for the entire play. As the temperature rises, Garcin will eventually remove his jacket, but no one will care because by then all desires will have been made clear, as will the dead-end trap of human nature when it falsely defines others. No jackets are needed after all.

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