by Jean-Paul Sartre
Drama, Magical Realism, Philosophical Literature, Psychological Thriller
No Exit is composed entirely of manipulative and often sadistic mind games – so we think "drama" and "psychological thriller" speak for themselves. Let’s talk about the more interesting stuff, starting with "magical realism."
We talk in "Setting" about the supernatural world Sartre creates for his characters. He devises a system of rules under which the play operates, and those rules remain consistent throughout the course of the play. As readers (or the audience), we accept them and suspend our disbelief for the duration of the story. For example, time moves differently – faster – in hell than it does on earth. Estelle establishes this early in the play when she says that she died "yesterday" but it witnessing the funeral as she speaks (112). Later, she notes, "How quickly the time passes, on earth!" (137), and later reaffirms that "things on earth move so quickly" (266). The inhabitants of hell can look back and witness scenes on earth, but only at the start of their stay. They soon lose all connection with earth and are forced to live entirely in hell. These devices are what constitute the "magical" part of the genre in question. The realism is everywhere else – three people hanging out in a drawing room together and talking.
And now for the big one: No Exit as philosophical literature. As you know from "In A Nutshell," Jean-Paul Sartre is most famous as a philosopher, not as a playwright or a novelist. His fictional works are mediums through which he can explain and explore his philosophical ideas. We can safely say that No Exit is iceberg literature – most of it is under the surface.
So what philosophy are we talking here? Existentialism, baby. Sartre coined the term (or appropriated and called it his own, to be more accurate) and made its ideas famous. What is Existentialism? That’s a mighty big question, and not one that we can answer in a few sentences for you. Part of the problem with talking about this philosophy at all is that the different thinkers who are labeled "existentialists" had very different ideas (and almost all of them declared to their death that they were absolutely not existentialists!) So when we talk about "existentialism" in this Shmoop Guide, we’re talking about Sartre’s version of existentialism.
So what is Sartre’s version? The most simplistic definition is that existence precedes essence. Existence is the fact of being. You exist, a hat exists (though not in the same way), a cat exists, etc. Essence is what you are – it’s your function, your nature, your definition. Sartre believes that we have no pre-programmed essence, no definition of what we should be, and no preconceived expectations for what to do or how to act. We exist first, and then we define our own essence (who we are) through our choices and actions. This is what Sartre means when he says that for humans, "existence precedes essence." We can choose to do anything because we have radical personal freedom. And we define our self by every choice we make.
Those are the broad strokes. However, No Exit explores some very specific aspects of Sartre’s existentialism. The play focuses on his ideas regarding competitive subjectivity, objectification, "the look," sexual desire, and bad faith. Rather than hit you with lengthy definitions of these ideas all at once, we’ve broken up our discussions into relevant portions of this Shmoop Guide. Want to learn about self-objectification? Read Estelle’s "Character Analysis." Want to learn about sadism? Read about Inez. While discussing Garcin we’ll take you through Sartre’s concept of "bad faith" – you’ll start recognizing examples of it all over the play. So read your play, read your Shmoop, and who knows – you might even hit up Sartre’s big treatise (Being and Nothingness) when you’re done. We sure did.