Hell Is Other People

Picture 21

Sartre in his play “No Exit” describes his unique vision of hell. It’s an ordinary room in Second Empire style, the style that the characters/victims find quite repelling. There are no tortures there apart from one; other people constantly watching and judging you.

Garcin, Estella and Inez have no eyelids, they are forced to stare at each other for eternity, mercilessly judging each other’s crimes, weaknesses and sins, shattering each other’s self-deceptive illusions. The light never goes off and there are no mirrors so the condemned victims can’t see themselves but watch themselves through other people’s eyes. This penetrating gaze of others judges and defines their very Essence. They exist only as part of other people’s narrative.

The absence of mirrors is particularly troubling to Estelle, who without seeing herself in the mirror is not even sure she exists. She’s not conscious of herself:

When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist. I pat myself just to make sure, but it doesn’t help much.
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So Inez offers her own eyes as a mirror. Estelle looks into Inez’ eyes and doesn’t recognize herself. Inez’ eyes are like a warped mirror showing Estelle as grotesquely small so she can’t see herself properly but Inez assures her that she sees her clearly and will answer all of her questions:
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ESTELLE: Oh, I’m there! But so tiny I can’t see myself properly.

INEZ: But I can. Every inch of you. Now ask me questions. I’ll be as candid as any looking-glass.

But Inez acting as a mirror is far from objective and Estelle knows that, asking herself:

How can I rely upon your taste? Is it the same as my taste?… I’m going to smile, and my smile will sink down into your pupils, and heaven knows what it will become!

Inez lies to her saying she has a pimple on her face, she mocks her and boasts she has a total power over her. Estelle is at her mercy as she’s not conscious of herself and has to rely on Inez to define herself. Allowing Inez Inez to define her being, she’s under her control. Without her she doesn’t even exist:

You know the way they catch larks—with a mirror? I’m your lark-mirror, my dear, and you can’t escape me. . . . There isn’t any pimple, not a trace of one. So what about it? Suppose the mirror started telling lies? Or suppose I covered my eyes—as he is doing—and refused to look at you, all that loveliness of yours would be wasted on the desert air.
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Other people are like warped mirrors showing a grotesque image of us. This image is far from true and objective, yet by overemphasizing the ugly things, it shatters the illusions we have about ourselves. Only Inez is honest with herself. She is able to admit her guilt to herself and others and take responsibility for it. She knows what she did wrong and why she is in hell. She has no illusions about her own life and she’s the only one who is always conscious of herself. Other sinners, Garcin and Estella, delude and deceive themselves and each other, saying they are innocent. They desperately try to turn their crimes into virtues. Garcin was accused of desertion and shot. He refused to fight because he was a pacifist. Should he be punished for being loyal to his values? When he tries to pose as a brave idealist he hears his friends on earth calling him a coward. Inez also sees his true dark motives and tells him that he is simply a coward:
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Exactly. That’s the question. Was that your real motive? No doubt you argued it out with yourself, you weighed the pros and cons, you found good reasons for what you did. But fear and hatred and all the dirty little instincts one keeps dark— they’re motives too. So carry on, Mr. Garcin, and try to be honest with yourself– for once.
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Estelle’s lover shot himself, because she refused to leave her husband. Is it a sin to be faithful to your husband? She tries to cheat herself that her motives were noble. But Garcin and Inez strip her bare and reveal her cruelty and egotism. She treated men as her playthings and murdered her own child.
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If other people are your mirrors and judges, if you only exist as an object they gaze upon, then you must find at least one person who has a positive opinion about you. It’s the only way to salvation for the person who is not conscious of his/her own being:
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GARCIN: A thousand of them are proclaiming I’m a coward; but what do numbers matter? 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.
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Garcin is unable to judge himself and take responsibility for his own actions. He doesn’t know whether he’s a coward or a noble man. Someone has to figure that out for him. It can’t be Estelle, who is in love with him so she’s biased and will tell him what she wants to hear. Instead, he turns to Inez, who hates and despises him and is more honest and blunt, hoping to hear the truth from the enemy:
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And you know what wickedness is, and shame, and fear. There were days when you peered into yourself, into the secret places of your heart, and what you saw there made you faint with horror. And then, next day, you didn’t I know what to make of it, you couldn’t interpret the horror you had glimpsed the day before. Yes, you know what evil costs. And when you say I’m a coward, you know from experience what that means.
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Garcin opens his heart, explains his motives and beliefs and justifies himself but Inez’ judgement is cruel. She rejects all of his excuses and explanations, in her eyes he can only see condemnation. The door opens and he has a chance to escape and leave hell forever, yet he chooses to stay and try to convince the Other of his innocence. He can’t bear a thought that she will condemn him in her mind for good without ever pardoning him. Yet he has to live with her irrevocable sentence passed on him, being at her mercy. He is what she thinks he is:
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You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it—do you hear?—I wish it. And yet, just look at me, see how weak I am, a mere breath on the air, a gaze observing you, a formless thought that thinks you.
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In the end they understand that they are their own torturers, they are brought together to torment each other. There is no exit out of hell:
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GARCIN: This bronze. Yes, now’s the moment; I’m looking at this thing on the mantelpiece, and I understand that I’m in hell. I tell you, everything’s been thought out beforehand. They knew I’d stand at the fireplace stroking this thing of bronze, with all those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS–OTHER PEOPLE.

 

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