by Jean-Paul Sartre
Where It All Goes Down
Hell (also known as a drawing room with Second Empire furnishings)
Sartre’s hell is certainly an interesting one. There are no devils, no flames, no torture chambers or souls writhing in agony. It’s just…a drawing room. With French furniture. What gives? Remember that Sartre was writing No Exit while in Paris in the 1940s. From reading the play, we can safely assume the fictional time period (at least on earth, when the characters were living) is contemporary with Sartre’s. Which mean’s Sartre’s idea of hell isn’t too different from his own surroundings. What’s going on?
This is where we remember the conclusion and essentially the point of No Exit: hell is other people. Hell is not torture chambers, flames, or devils – it’s the very thing we experience on a daily basis. Hell exists all around us, so it makes sense that the setting of No Exit looks like a tea party at neighbor’s house.
And yet, from the very beginning, we know there’s something supernatural going on. This is hell, after all, and Sartre creates a very particular world in which his characters suffer. What do we know about this peculiar version of hell? Look at the text. Sartre dispels his fair share of myths. For example, his hell is up above the earth, not below. (Garcin twice refers to earth as a place "down there," while Estelle later comments that she’d "love to go down to earth" (11, 31, 390). We know that sleep never comes, that "tears don’t flow in this place," and that the residents (or at least the valets) don’t even blink (339). The recently dead are at first allowed to look back on earth, but this ability soon fades and their connection with earth is severed completely. Death is impossible (as seen from the paper knife incident in the final moments of the play), and from what we can tell no one needs to eat, use the bathroom, or clean themselves.
The only cliché Sartre actually makes use of is that of hell being hot – stifling hot. This is interesting – why did he choose this particular attribute and dispel with all the rest? Your thoughts here are as good as ours.
Lastly, we find it infinitely amusing that Sartre made his hell a stifling bureaucracy. When Garcin asks if they can turn off the light, the valet responds that "the management can cut off the current if they want to" (45-6). Later, Inez determines that "they" are after "an economy of man-power – or devil-power, if you prefer. The same idea as in the cafeteria, where customers serve themselves" (200). You can practically see a bunch of bureaucrats in suits sitting around making decisions who find themselves condemned.