Summary and Analysis
(Although there are no act or scene divisions in No Exit, we shall break the play into sections to facilitate a running commentary.)
The play opens with Garcin and a Valet in a drawing room decorated in Second Empire style. This is no ordinary drawing room, however: It is actually Hell, and the play takes place in an afterlife following the death of its characters. The two men discuss the furniture; Garcin disdains the Second Empire furnishings, but he says that he was able, during his lifetime, to accustom himself to most styles. Actually, he is rather surprised by the decor; it is nothing like what he had expected or had been told about the afterlife. The Valet shrewdly points out that living people who have never set foot in the afterlife are not likely in a position to describe the details of it. Garcin wonders where all the instruments of torture are: Hell is supposed to have racks and "red-hot pincers." The Valet is amused by Garcin's persistence in believing the myths and the stories told by human beings about Hell. And when Garcin becomes angry over not having his toothbrush, the Valet retorts that Garcin has not yet gotten over his sense of human dignity. Human beings always ask the Valet silly questions when they arrive here. Garcin is conscious of his position and announces that he is facing up to it. He soon realizes that this Hell will be disagreeable because it is life without a break: There is no sleeping, no brushing one's teeth, no doing all the ordinary things of life — except living, non-stop. He wonders how he will endure his own company, not knowing yet that others will join him. Garcin points to a bell and asks the Valet if he will respond to it when Garcin rings for him. The Valet says that the bell is unpredictable: Its wiring is faulty, and it is itself capricious.
In these opening moments of the play, Sartre raises three fundamental matters which will underline the action of the drama: (1) religion; (2) aloneness; and (3) "the others." He discredits religion — particularly Western religion — by referring to life on earth as being "down there": Christian religion refers to Hell as being down below and to Heaven as being up above. Sartre reverses this notion and depicts Hell as being above earth. It's one way of upsetting stereotyped notions in the minds of spectators. As for the importance of "aloneness," Sartre isolates Garcin from the very start of the play; Hell is defined as being within the confines of this Second Empire structure, and beyond these limits, there is nothing. It makes for a lonely, panicky environment where hope is all but nullified. This sets the stage for Sartre's portrayal of our need for "others" in order for us to define our essence: Garcin depends, from the start, on the input from the Valet. He needs answers to questions and desires instructions on how "life" evolves in this world of Hell. The Valet is surprised by Garcin's use of the word "life," but he humors him throughout the conversation. This idea of "the others" being necessary to us is the central idea of the play: Other people are our Hell.