Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher famous as an existentialist (for definitions and more see "Genre"). Throughout the course of his life (1905-1980), he wrote treatises, plays, essays, and novels. His fictional work was generally intended as a medium through which he could explore his bigger philosophical ideas.
No Exit is one literary exploration of his philosophical concepts. Written in 1944, the play focuses on three individuals trapped together in hell. Sartre portrays hell as a locked drawing room with three couches. This doesn’t sound like the traditional conception of hell and it isn’t. But trust us, this version of hell is, well, hellish. As the three characters try to determine why they are in hell and how they are to be tormented, they soon come to the conclusion that they will act as torturers for each other. The play famously concludes with one of Sartre’s most-quoted lines of all time: "hell is other people."
This line, however, goes far beyond the concept of other people simply being annoying. No Exit is running with one of the big ideas Sartre put forward in his famous philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, published in 1943, just one year before No Exit. In it, Sartre argues that the mere presence of another person will torment an individual because subjectivity is competitive. In other words, person #2 makes person #1 feel like an object rather than a subject. This sounds more complicated than it is – we talk all about subjectivity and objectification in our section on "Characters." The play also explores Sartre’s idea of "bad faith" – the refuge we all seek in lieu of facing the anguish and terror of existence. (Again, not as complicated as it sounds. Don’t worry.)
The point we’re making here is that No Exit is about more than three people trapped in hell. (As if that weren’t enough!) Some critics even argue that, in addition to acting a pulpit for his pet philosophy, No Exit functions as social commentary on Sartre’s environment – Paris during World War II in the midst of the German occupation. When you read about the "Setting" of No Exit, you’ll notice that Sartre’s hell sounds a lot like… Paris… in the 1940s. It is possible that Sartre thought of the German occupation as hell, but if so, this commentary remains secondary to the play’s philosophical significance.
You’ve just had the worst day ever. Your little sister broke your alarm clock, so you were late to school to begin with; your girlfriend decided to break up with you in favor of the cute senior with the locker next to yours (so now you get to watch them all day…ugh); your teacher is surprising you with yet another pop quiz. Also, you have to eat peanut butter and jelly for lunch, and you despise (yes, despise, perhaps loathe) peanut butter and jelly. You sit down, read Sartre, and agree with No Exit’s assessment that hell is definitely other people.
Now, it could be that hell is other people because you have a really tough teacher, your sister is really annoying, and that cute senior wears way too much cologne. Or it could be that you’re competing for subjectivity because these other individuals stole your world from you, left you mentally hemorrhaging, objectified you, and ripped away your personal freedom.
Um…what? Last we checked you were upset about a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Where did all that lingo come from? From Jean-Paul Sartre!
If you’re between the ages of twelve and twenty-five, in all likelihood, you’ve either had an existentialist crisis or will soon. Because as it happens, existentialism takes all that stuff you feel (like frustration over that sandwich, or the sneaking realization that you don’t have to go to school every day, or the concept that time is something very different than what you normally measure with a clock), and puts words to it. Existentialism explains these worries, concerns, and emotions, explores them, and tries to figure out how we should respond.
And if you’re going to get into existentialism, you’ve got to hit Jean-Paul Sartre somewhere along the way, since he is one of the major proponents of this philosophical view.
And if you’re going to get into Sartre, No Exit is a great place to start. You and your friends will be fighting for subjectivity in no time.