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Huis Clos (No Exit) by Jean-Paul Sartre: Analysis of the Dramaturgy and Philosophy of the Play

Jean-Paul Sartre Huis Clos / No Exit


Analysis of the play "Huis Clos" (No Exit): Dramaturgy

Normally, an author of a play assigns the kind of which it belongs to. In Jean-Paul Sartre’s play Huis Clos or No Exit in English it is a bit different. There are elements for a tragedy, but also counter-arguments.

Arguments for a tragedy

The three main characters, Inez, Garcin and Estelle, are all dead. Their life is finished and they cannot change it anymore. So, they have no freedom anymore how they want to shape their life like becoming a better person or correcting a mistake made in the past.

There is also no higher force or system which could explain their damnation why the three of them have to spend all eternities together. It was completely random and there is no one to blame, e.g. a god or gods.

Garcin, Inez and Estelle are trapped in a room where there is nothing to do or something for their entertainment. They are only waiting forever, but nothing will happen except for the torture which lasts forever. This waiting for all eternity is also an absurd element in the play.

Arguments for an anti-tragedy

There is no actual plot in the coventional sense. There is no character development and they stay essentially the same. The three characters in Sartre's play do have some predetermined traits from their previous life, but in the course of the play they do not change. Eventually, Estelle and Garcin tell their true story, but it is not that they would have had a special moment, which would change them for the rest of the play.

Moreover, there are no deaths. Neither does the villain die, nor the protagonist. Of course, there are no deaths, because they are already introduced as dead people to the viewers and readers. So, it lacks another important characteristic for a tragedy.

The play also lacks a peripety, which unstoppably leads to a catastrophe and resolution. The curtains simply fall down after Garcin has spoken his last words, but the end does not satisfy the standard of a tragedy which demands a resolution.


Tragic elementsAnti-tragic elements

No freedom

No plot -> no character development

No justification for their damnation

No peripety

Eternal torture

No catastrophe and resolution

Already dead

No one dies

Sartre's Situation theatre

Sartre called this sort of theatre "situation theatre". This special kind of theatre is also closely related to his existentialistic philosophy.

Everyone has the freedom to become anything he wants, regardless of wealth, social class, mental illness, god and so on. Of course, if you are not so rich and live in a poor social class it might be harder, but it is still your own decision whether you want to change your situation or leave it be as it is. There is a nice catch-phrase of Sartre: "Everyone is damned to be free".

The act is very important, because you create your own life and shape it as you want it to be. (This might sound quite egoistic and asocial, but we will come to this point later.)

During a situation you have to decide on a choice. And by deciding a choice, you consequently shape yourself and become responsible for what you have chosen.

In Garcin's, Inez' and Estelle's situation this is not possible anymore. Their life is over and they cannot do any corrections to it anymore. They are isolated in a room and dead. The only thing they can do is to look at their "result" of their life. And because everyone has done something cruel in their lifes, they are damned to torture themselves forever without any hope for an amendment.

Analysis of the play "Huis Clos" (No Exit): Philosophical Base

A glance into Sartrean existentialism.

Freedom and Responsibility

Freedom of choice: We have already had this before. Everyone has the freedom to chose. This is not influenced by psychology, god, destiny, social milieu etc. According to Sartre, there is no general ethics according to Kant. Everyone shapes his own values and morality.

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Everyone is also burdened with the inevitable responsibility of what they do. Because it affects also other people and so, everyone is responsible for everyone else (in the most extreme case [in a more likely case this would be friends, family, other people affected by decisions]).

There are no excuses for making a mistake (like it was supposed to happen or: I stole something, because I am poor etc.), because one has decided on this particular option and has to take responsibility for this. "Everyone is damned to be free".

Existence precedes Essence

Since there is no creator (in athistic existentialism) there is also no predetermined plan for humans. One could think that our existence would be pointless if there is no plan for us already or someone telling us what the point of our existence is. In existentialism, one has to create his "essence" or "meaning" in life first. There is no excuses for being too lazy and even then you shape your life by being lazy (although this is most probably going to be a failed life).

So, existentialism can also be regarded as a lifestyle (what it also was/is). One consciously decides who he wants to be. This is of course a very active and conscious lifestyle.

This leads us to our next point. "Consciousness" is needed to be free. Our consciousness allows us to realize our freedom. We would not be free without knowing we are free and can therefore actively decide (and not be driven by instincts like animals).

Sartre called this consciousness in humans "pour soi". The human is "pour soi". A rock, for example, does not think of the world nor does he think at all. That's why the rock is "en soi".

Conscious beings are "en soi", because they can think about the world and reflect on themselves.

Unconscious beings (like rocks, animals [I know that humans do not know yet how or if animals are conscious and which]) are "en soi", because they simply are and do not reflect on themselves.

L'enfer, c'est les Autres


the Others

Until now, Sartrean existentialism might sound somewhat egoistic.

I have my own view on life. And so do others. Other people have also their own ideas and views on life, the earth, other people and on Me. All these views interfere with each other and therefore also with the freedom itself, because it limits my freedom.

Say I am the only person in the world. Then, I would be entirely "pour soi" (for me). I could do whatever I would want to do. Now comes another person and judges my decisions and me. He says, for example, you are a bad person. He automatically makes me decide whether to change this fact or not. And therefore, my freedom to do anything is limited by the views of other people.

I am always a though object by someone and a thinking subject. In order to have a complete view of myself I have to take into account the opinion of other people.

So, I always depend on other people and vice versa.

Of course, if these people, e.g. my friends, are a bunch of idiots or hate me they will have biased, negative or incorrect/wrong (unvaluable) view on me. And if I am only surrounded by such people I am in (Sartre's) Hell. "L'enfer, c'est les autres" would be the famous sentence here.


Annalise on January 24, 2017:

Hello, in your fourth paragraph you state that conscious beings, including humans, are "pour soi". However, you then go on to state in the fifth paragraph, "Conscious beings are "en soi", because they can think about the world and reflect on themselves." but then say in the sixth paragraph, "Unconscious beings ... are "en soi", because they simply are and do not reflect on themselves.

I am confused, can you please explain which beings are "en soi" and which beings are "pour soi", please.

Thank you

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