No Exit was originally written in French (Sartre being French and all), so the first thing we have to consider is whether "No Exit" is an appropriate translation or not. The title in French is Huis Clos, which literally means "in camera" or "in private" or "behind closed doors." À huis clos is an idiomatic French expression meaning "all doors closed," in such a way that no one leaves or enters. According to this expression the space is closed in two ways: just as no one can exit, no new person can enter. The three characters in Sartre’s play are both attending and starring in their own sold-out show. The only difference is that this performance never ends. The English translation, "No Exit", is a little different, but since it’s good enough for American publishers, we’ll stick with it.
No exit from what? Yes, the obvious answer is "hell." Garcin, Inez, and Estelle, the three main characters in the play, are locked in a room together with no windows or fire escapes or trap doors. They can’t exit the room. This also means that they can’t escape from each other – which, if you read the play and its "hell is other people" conclusion, you know is exactly the same thing as not being able to escape hell.
Now besides the locked door and the idea of no literal escape, these individuals also find that there is no figurative escape from one another. Why? Because there is no sleep, no nighttime, no darkness, and no blinking. As we talk about in "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory," No Exit is primarily a literary exploration of Sartre’s philosophical ideas of objectification and competitive subjectivity. This sounds complicated, so let’s break it down with an example. When a person looks at you, that person makes you into an object and himself into a subject. In other words, there’s the person doing the action, and the person who is receiving the action, or having the action done to them. Because there’s no break from others, each character in No Exit is always being looked at by another. As a result, each person is always faced with the horror of being turned into an object. With this constant surveillance, there is no escape from the hell of objectification. Further, each character is also competing to be subject, to be the watcher and not the watched.
Wait a second, you’re thinking. Doesn’t the door to the room open for Garcin at the end of the play? Isn’t he allowed an exit? Why yes, yes he is. But Garcin and the others choose to close the door and remain in hell. They have no exits not because the mysterious "they" took away their freedom, but because they choose to have no escape.
Sartre was all about the idea of radical personal freedom – you can really do anything you want – but maintained that along with this freedom comes weighty responsibility. Further, because we can do anything we want, Sartre maintained that not choosing to act is also making a decision. Any passive action immediately takes on an active connotation: if you fail to make a choice, than that failure to act is your action.
Let’s look at an example. Say you’re driving down the road and pass a sign that says "SPEED LIMIT 30." You think to yourself, "I have to go under 30 miles an hour." Sartre would say to you, "No, you don’t have to. You just choose to." You could go faster if you wanted, it’s just that you don’t want to face the consequences (a speeding ticket, accident, whatever).
According to this logic, Sartre would even make you take responsibility for the fact that you are alive. It’s your fault that you’re breathing, because every moment of your life you have the option of suicide. If you’re alive, it’s because you choose to be alive, which means you are responsible for your own being. Continuing to live means that you choose to continue to live. Pretty intense, right?
Now go back to the title of No Exit. It’s important for Sartre that Garcin, Inez, and Estelle at some point be allowed the opportunity to make a decision for themselves, so that they face the fact of their freedom and can be held responsible for their decisions. Because they choose to close the door, they can blame no one but themselves for their confinement to hell.