Hell: A netherworld where the dead continue to exist, where the damned suffer everlasting punishment, torment or destruction. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s one act play, No Exit, the three characters discover that hell is a hotel room. Garcin, the first to arrive – therefore the only occupant to experience solitude – later decided that “Hell is other people”. If this statement is true, it is only because they have been given that power. Other people are external forces and, as such, a distance or separation exists with them. Whatever thoughts or opinions imparted from them are subject to interpretation. In contrast, our own thoughts are internal, subject to self-deception and denial – both which collapse without reinforcement from external influence. Hell becomes the search for self with no opportunity to experience self.
In ‘Being for Others’, Sartre states “The Other looks at me and as such he holds the secret of my being, he knows what I am”. The ‘Other’ has an impression of what ‘he’ sees, but how much influence can ‘he’ hold as an external force? How can ‘he’, as an external force, hold a ‘secret’ that ‘I’ as an internal force, have not given him. Sartre uses the word ‘what’ in reference to his ‘I’; this indicates that he is objectifying himself. The objectification is not a reflection of what the other person sees of him, but rather what he perceives the other person sees. This is indicative of how he sees himself in the others eyes.
Sartre wishes to recognize the ‘freeze-frame’ that accompanies first impressions. Sartre claims that Bad Faith is “…a certain art of forming contradictory concepts which unite in themselves both an idea and the negation of that idea … a facticity and a transcendence … two aspects of human reality that are and ought to be capable of a valid coordination.” The idea of first impressions is an example these contradictory concepts and the possible breakdown in coordination. First impressions are subject to circumstance, context or physical attributes such as gender or race, wherein the impression is a reflection of the other person’s biases or experience. This first impression has little to do with the ‘I’ being observed, and more to do with the ‘other’ observing. The breakdown in coordination occurs when the perceived opinion of another holds more weight than that which we have of ourselves. To allow a strangers impression to influence one’s sense of self-image is a reflection on one’s own self-image. If no interaction has occurred, then the impression perceived may or may not be accurate or well-informed. We see ourselves in another’s eyes, but it is a reflection of what we present to them.
In No Exit, Garcin initially wishes to continue in solitude, wishing the opportunity for self-reflection. To the two women who have joined him in the suite he states “we’ll work out our salvation, looking into ourselves”. He is not afforded his solitude. He later reveals doubts regarding the actions that led to his demise. He questions whether he was standing by his belief’s or whether he was a coward running from responsibility. The only salvation that he can conceive is the affirmation of the former from another person. Without that other person, or external influence, he would be trapped in this question alone, coward or martyr. This is hell. If one is in Hell for all time, then there is little to distract from the internal debate. Every moment and every decision that one makes in one’s life would be measured to determine the validity of ones existence.
Sartre states “…I choose myself from day to day, and I make it mine by making myself.” The day to day decisions we make shape our personality, our acceptance or denial of consequences shape our character. If Garcin saw himself as a coward, he masked it by hiding behind principles. His evasion may be successful to onlookers, but never to himself. A mask means nothing when no one is there to see it. If a first impression becomes a lasting impression, it is because we do nothing to expand or inform that impression. If we allow others to dictate who we are, then we are condemned to accept the role in which we have been cast. If Hell is eternal, it is these decisions that we must reconcile or, at the very least, recognize. Each of the characters in No Exit required affirmation of some sort from the other. They relinquished control of their self-image and consequently their self-worth. They cannot find salvation from within because they do not recognize themselves from within; they only recognize how they are seen from another’s point of view.
Hell as other people comes not in the condemnation of others, but rather in the affirmation of others. As long as one can deceive an onlooker they can deceive themselves. When the only company that remains is ourselves, it is ourselves that we must come to appreciate. When we learn to appreciate ourselves we are no longer condemned to everlasting suffering, we are no longer in Hell.