Before he died, Joseph Garcin was "a journalist and man of letters by profession" (70). We know that he ran a pacifist newspaper and was shot for his principles in a time of war. He was married, but had no respect for his wife and cheated on her frequently and flagrantly.
Here in hell, as far as we can tell, Garcin seems to be the nicest guy ever. When Inez complains about his mouth twitching, he hides his face it won’t both her. He accommodates Estelle’s absurd request that he use the word "absentee" to describe them all instead of "dead." He even keeps his jacket on for her though it’s hotter than, well, hell. When Inez reveals that they will torture each other, his immediate reaction is, "No, I shall never be your torturer. I wish neither of you any harm, and I’ve no concern with you" (203). When Inez asks him to leave her and Estelle in peace, he "shrugs his shoulders" and says "very well" (371). His solution to their problem is that they "start trying to help each other" (348). Aw.
So if he’s such a nice guy…what is he doing in hell?
Our initial inclination – for Garcin and the other characters – is 1) to ask why they are in hell and 2) pass judgment on them for their "sins." Do they deserve to be in hell? Who decided to put them there? Can they atone for their crimes? But to understand what’s at the core of this play, we’re actually going to have to put these questions aside. The concept of "sin" isn’t important to No Exit, because it isn’t important to Sartre. Sartre’s existentialism is an atheistic one; he believed there was no God. In fact, he went so far as to say that believing in god was a form of "bad faith" (which we’ll talk about in a minute). According to Sartre, belief in God is just a cowardly flight from the truth. As far as morality goes, Sartre didn’t prescribe any one set of values. According to his philosophy, what counts is that you consciously make your own decisions, act accordingly, and then own up to those actions.
While it might seem interesting to debate whether Garcin is in hell for his pacifist newspaper or for cheating on his wife, the distinction between the two isn’t important. What is important is the way he deals with what he’s done. Look through your text and ask yourself, what are Garcin’s primary concerns? What does he want?
GARCIN: I'd rather be alone. I want to think things out, you know; to set my life in order, and one does that better by oneself. (80)
GARCIN: Not one word. That won't be difficult; each of us has plenty of material for self-communings. I think I could stay ten thousand years with only my thoughts for company. […] that way we – we'll work out our salvation. Looking into ourselves, never raising our heads. (203-5)
It looks like Garcin wants to be alone with his own thoughts; he’s more concerned with keeping quiet than with talking to the others. As you’ll notice in No Exit, the characters don’t feel shame at their crimes. They feel shame when confessing their crimes to other people. It’s not about what they’ve done, but it’s about what others see them doing.
Why? Now you’re getting in to the heart of No Exit. The answer has to deal with the whole "hell is other people" issue. As we discuss in "In A Nutshell," Sartre believed that subjectivity was competitive. If you’re sitting in a room alone, you are the subject, and all the stuff around you is the object. You look at the window, for example; you are subject, the window is object. Now let’s say there’s another person in the room. You think of them as your object. Again you’re the subject, the one doing the looking. The problem is you know that they’re looking at you and thinking of you as an object too. The big question is: who gets to be the subject, and who has to be the object? You fight over it; you compete for the subjectivity (this is what we mean when we say that "subjectivity is competitive").
Now back to the idea of judgment and these three individuals in hell. When Estelle and Inez hear Garcin’s crimes, they necessarily pass judgment on him as an object. If he feels shame and guilt, it’s not because he treated his wife badly. It’s because Estelle and Inez are looking at him and viewing him as an object.
All three characters, Garcin, Estelle, and Inez, have to deal with competitive subjectivity and the torture of being objectified. The bottom line is that no one wants to be someone else’s object. And as you’ll see in these "Character Analyses," all three characters react to competitive subjectivity in different ways. As we discuss in "Character Roles," Garcin acts as mid-point between Inez (who most closely represents Sartre’s perspective) and Estelle (who represents the anti-existentialism).
Garcin is the closest we have to us, (i.e., normal people, the audience, or reader). We view hell through his perspective: he’s the first character on stage and the only character viewed by the audience alone. As we take a closer look at Garcin’s character, we’ll see a continual tension between the two extremes embodied by Estelle and Inez. Will he accept where he is and own up to his actions (as Inez does), or will he flee into what Sartre calls "bad faith" (as Estelle does)? According to Sartre, each of us faces this decision every moment of our lives – whether we realized it or not. Garcin brings this tension to the forefront.
So what is "bad faith"? At its core, bad faith is self-deception. Sartre’s brand of existentialism maintains that man is completely and radically free, and at the same time completely and radically responsible (see "Genre" for examples and more discussion). When we become conscious of this freedom, we experience "anguish," or in layman’s terms, we freak out that we have this crazy responsibility. It’s a scary experience to realize while you’re driving that, if you wanted to, you could steer right into an oncoming car. How do most people deal with this anguish? By fleeing into bad faith. In other words, they deceive themselves into thinking that they’re not actually free.
According to Sartre, bad faith is turning away from your freedom, from your responsibilities. Sartre identifies a number of emotions, actions, and feelings as forms of bad faith – everything from religion to sex to Freud’s subconscious to pride to prescribed systems of morality.
Now back to No Exit. When and how does Garcin engage in bad faith? Let’s look at three examples.
When we get to Inez’s "Character Analysis," we’ll see that she’s a sadist – she enjoys causing other people pain. But Garcin has sadistic traits as well, to which he openly admits:
GARCIN: You see, I'm fond of teasing, it's a second nature with me […]. I don't tease nicely. (31)
GARCIN: I brought a half-caste girl to stay in our house. My wife slept upstairs; she must have heard – everything. She was an early riser and, as I and the girl stayed in bed late, she served us our morning coffee. (276)
INEZ: Why did you hurt her like that?
GARCIN: It was so easy. A word was enough to make her flinch. Like a sensitive-plant. […] I'm fond of teasing. I watched and waited. (274-5)
Now remember that Sartre isn’t interested in notions of sin or morality. So we’re not condemning Garcin for being treating people badly. Instead, we’re looking at examples of bad faith. Garcin’s bad faith doesn’t have to do with his actions against his wife as much as his reasons for doing them. Take a look:
GARCIN: Those big tragic eyes of hers – with that martyred look they always had. Oh, how she got on my nerves! (125)
GARCIN: She never cried, never uttered a word of reproach. Only her eyes spoke. Big, tragic eyes […] That woman was a born martyr, you know; a victim by vocation. (273)
What Garcin is doing here is defining his wife in a particular role – a martyr or victim – and refusing to see her as anything else. We’ll delve into Sartre’s existentialism more deeply in order to understand what this means and why it’s problematic. It has to do with the idea of the societal roles; a philosophical concept that goes all the way back to Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher and the so-called "Father of existentialism" (though he didn’t think so himself). To understand what these roles are, try to answer this question: "Who are you?" You might say you’re a student, a teacher, a daughter, a brother, a lifeguard, a cashier, a waiter, or whatever. But none of these truly embody who you are.
According to Sartre, the self is something can never be defined categorically; it exists outside of and beyond any description of it. To emphasize this point, he identifies different kinds of "being." The first is called "being-in-itself," and this is the being we apply to objects, like a piano. When we say, "the piano is black," for example, the "is" verb refers to "being-in-itself." It is an unconscious and passive mode of being. We can categorize the piano, or any object, because it will not change.
People, on the other hand, are conscious and active, so we need a different sort of being to describe us. This is called "being-for-itself." When we say, "a person is courageous," the "is" verb refers to "being-for-itself." It’s confusing because both French and English use the same "to be" verb for all these different kinds of being. If Sartre had his way, language would use different verbs for these different kinds of existence.
Now the human type of existence – being-for-itself – is very particular. Humans will always be characterized as having being-for-itself , and never being-in-itself, the way the piano can. The problem with roles (student, brother, daughter, etc.) is that they are an attempt to exist as being-in-itself. When you say, "I am a student," you’re trying to use the same "is" verb that we used with the piano. Effectively, you’re trying to characterize one kind of being (being-for-itself) with another kind of being (being-in-itself). That’s not possible. A person can’t be defined by their social roles, because the self can’t be described by these categorizations. Remember that a being characterized by being-for-itself can never be boiled down to a set of categories. This may seem complicated, so remember one basic rule: when you define yourself by your role, you are in bad faith. When you define others by their roles, you are also in bad faith.
Do you see a connection yet to the way Garcin treats his wife? Go back and read those passages where he describes her as a "martyr", a "victim by vocation." He’s chosen a role for her (victim) and used that to describe her mode of being. What he’s done is turn her into a thing instead of a person. He’s tried to make her exist as "being-in-itself" instead of "being-for-itself." This constitutes self-deception; he’s tricking himself into believing she’s an object. Remember that bad faith = self-deception. Therefore, Garcin is in bad faith.
When you read No Exit you’ll find that Garcin has an obsession with courage. From the moment he enters the stage with the valet to the end of the play, he tries to exude a certain persona. Take a look:
GARCIN: I've a good notion of what's coming to me, so don't you boast you've caught me off my guard. I'm facing the situation, facing it. (23)
GARCIN: I won't make a scene, I shan't be sorry for myself, I'll face the situation, as I said just now. Face it fairly and squarely. I won’t have it springing at me from behind, before I've time to size it up. (27)
GARCIN: Anyhow, I can assure you I'm not frightened. Not that I take my position lightly; I realize its gravity only too well. But I'm not afraid. (76)
GARCIN: Finally I thought: My death will settle it. If I face death courageously, I'll prove I am no coward. (456)
Garcin is trying to define his self by using a particular value, in this case, courage. Once again, we’ll have to get into Sartre’s existentialism to understand what’s happening.
If you only remember one thing about existentialism, it should be that the self is defined through choice and action. In fact, it is redefined and recreated at every moment through every choice and every action. According to this, Garcin can’t just say he’s courageous and be done with it. He has to act courageously – through every choice and every action in every moment – if that’s the value system he chooses to embrace.
If Garcin acts courageously every day until the moment he dies, but acts cowardly as he is killed, then he is a coward. Likewise, if Garcin claims to be courageous but acts cowardly, he has chosen cowardice as his value system. (Sartre goes so far as to say that a value system doesn’t even exist until we choose it, but that’s a more nuanced argument. Another reason to read Sartre's Being and Nothingness…) If Garcin has somehow convinced himself that he’s courageous, despite acting like a coward, then he is deceiving himself. And if he’s deceiving himself, he is in bad faith. (Garcin’s debate with Inez in lines 522-529 is a big part of this idea; we’ll talk about more in her "Character Analysis.")
So, being-it-itself is how a passive, unconscious object (like our piano) exists. Being-for-itself, the way an active, conscious human exists. "Being-for-others" is Sartre’s third type of being, and occurs when you are turned into an object under the gaze of another person. Remember competitive subjectivity – the idea that you compete with another person in the room over who gets to be the subject and who has to be the object. When you lose – when you are made into the object – you experience your existence as being-for-others. You exist as a thing under the gaze of this other person. For Sartre, this is truly hell. And being-for-others is precisely why hell is other people.
And yet, for the person in bad faith, there is comfort to be found in being-for-others. Check out our discussion in "Genre" regarding the fundamentals of existentialism. Everyone is at the same time radically free and radically responsible for what they do. This is a scary concept. Realizing how completely free you are is terrifying, and one way to flee from the anguish associated with being radically free is to pretend you’re not free. Becoming a passive object under the gaze of another person is an easy way to avoid this radical responsibility and anguish. (Remember that anytime you flee anguish and radical freedom you are actually acting in some kind of bad faith.) When an individual in bad faith wishes to avoid dealing with his own subjectivity, he might intentionally seek out "being-for-others." He might choose to define himself not by his own actions or his own choices, but by the look and judgment of other people.
Sound like anyone we know? Garcin, perhaps?
GARCIN: There's someone talking about me in the newspaper office and I want to listen. (252)
GARCIN: If there's someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I'm not the sort who runs away, that I'm brave and decent and the rest of it – well, that one person's faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me? Then I shall love you and cherish you for ever. (473)
GARCIN: You, anyhow, know what it means to be a coward. […] So it's you whom I have to convince; you are of my kind. […]
INEZ: Do you really wish to convince me?
GARCIN: That’s the one and only thing I wish for now. […] If you'll have faith in me I'm saved. (516-8)
Garcin flees personal freedom and responsibility by looking for others to define him. In doing so, he’s making himself into an object; he’s trying to exist as being-for-others rather than being-for-itself, and this is in bad faith. His obsession with Gomez and his reputation on earth, his need to "convince" first Estelle and then Inez of his courage, even his early conversation with the valet (when he tries to exude a courageous persona) are all examples of bad faith through being-for-others. Once you understand this connection to Sartre’s existentialism, some of the more cryptic passages in the play make a little sense. Like this one:
[A longish silence. Garcin is sitting on a sofa, while Inez paces up and down the room.]
INEZ: [fixing her eyes on him]: Your mouth!
GARCIN [as if waking from a dream]: I beg your pardon.
INEZ: Can't you keep your mouth still? You keep twisting it about all the time. It's grotesque.
GARCIN: So sorry. I wasn't aware of it.
INEZ: That’s just what I reproach you with. [Garcin’s mouth twitches.] (83-7)
Notice that Garcin’s mouth doesn’t twitch until AFTER Inez tells him it is twitching. He has so intensely committed to a being-for-others existence that he’s lost the agency of his own actions.
Ultimately, this being-for-others bad faith is what dominates Garcin’s character. It’s also what keeps him in hell. At the end of the play, when he refuses to walk out of the door, it’s because he’s afraid to be alone, to deal with his freedom and the responsibility and anguish that come with it. He’d rather stay in hell, where he can deceive himself into thinking he’s an object under the gaze of his companions.