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No Exit | Themes

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No Exit is a work of philosophical inquiry into the playwright's view of the human condition. The themes are closely related, each highlighting different aspects of Sartre's existential thinking. Because there is little action other than verbal battling, the themes carry considerable importance.

Vision

The theme of vision—both sight and appearance—is apparent throughout the play. People see themselves not through their own eyes, but through the eyes of others. Therefore, their "essence" is not their own, but that of others, and they are painfully aware of how others see them. Consequently, appearances matter in life and are echoed in death. When the first character enters the room, he immediately judges its appearance as offensive to his eyes and dreads having to look at the surroundings even briefly. Further the valet who has brought him in does not seem to see normally, and Garcin notices "something so beastly ... in the way" he stares. The stare is a result of the valet's having no eyelids, and Garcin realizes, "I'm to live without eyelids ... I shall never sleep again." The condition also implies he will never be able to shut his eyes to his offensive surroundings.

When the two women arrive, much of the talk is about seeing, how Estelle will exist without a mirror for validation of her existence and how they will have to depend on and judge each other. Inez tells Garcin she will force Estelle to view him as sexually unattractive, thus depriving him of that satisfaction and destroying their potential relationship. Estelle, therefore, will "see you through my eyes, as Florence saw that other man." When Estelle definitively rejects Inez's advances, Estelle's strongest accusation is "You haven't any eyes" and refuses to see herself as Inez sees her.

Choices

In life people make choices that define themselves. One of the cornerstones of Sartre's beliefs is the rejection of other people's judgments as determining the meaning of a person's life. Consistent with his point that others' views, as in their "look" or "gaze," will attempt to objectify a person according to their own needs, is the conviction anyone wishing to find essential meaning in existence and live by that discovery must make their own decisions without the judgment of others. At the end of the play Garcin, still looking to know himself, has come to understand he cannot rely on either woman to establish his true identity as either a coward or a hero. He comes to accept the idea that "when I chose the hardest path, I made my choice deliberately. A man is what he wills himself to be." Yet Inez does not allow him to claim he could have accomplished more if he had not died young: "One's whole life is complete ... with a line drawn neatly under it ... You are—your life—and nothing else."

Difficulties in Relationships

The famous line "Hell is other people" is often thought to mean Sartre rejected the value of being with others and instead favored a solitary existence, but No Exit is not about solitude. On the contrary Sartre meant solidarity with others, to have a positive effect on society, was possible, and human contact was not hellish as long as it was based on people being honest with themselves and defining their own positions with total openness. People need not be alone or on their own to validate existence. Rather they must confront the gaze and judgment of others to find a way to betterment.

The three characters in No Exit suffer deeply from the triangular relationship because as soon as one tries to connect with another, the third character intrudes and insists on their own place. The torture people with an old-fashioned view of the so-called afterlife would expect, with instruments of pain or horned devils, is in fact replaced with the presence of others who themselves become the "official torturer." Each character must choose to define the human relationship. As Inez states, "I prefer to choose my hell ... Each of us will act as the torturer of the two others."

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