Freedom to Exit

Hope Evans (Winner of the Fourth Year Category)

Freedom to Exit

            The play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is steeped in existentialist ideas. Before the play’s debut in France during the Second World War, the philosophical theory was not well understood. However, as the play gained popularity and spread to other parts of the world, existentialist thought was brought into the public consciousness (“No Exit”). While this philosophy has many different tenets, at its core it preaches that each person has freedom and personal responsibility over their own actions (Crowell). While No Exit explores many different aspects of existentialism, the core of the play explores this same idea about personal freedom and self-expression. Sartre uses No Exit as a vehicle to convey many of his existentialist ideas by showing a case study of three characters acting in opposition to what existentialism deems best and exploring the consequences. They fail to take personal responsibility for their actions, avoid developing a better understanding of the self, and ignore a final chance to learn from their punishment and potentially escape. 

            Existentialism posits that humans, unlike the rest of the natural world, are defined by their actions, instead of their nature. Sartre argued that humans first come to exist and then define their essence afterward, using their relationships, experiences, actions, and the like to do so (Kaya 579).  Conversely, all other living things in the world are defined by their existence. A tree, for example, has nothing about it that would allow it to be defined as an individual instead of just a tree or as whatever species it belongs to (Kaya 579). Since people are defined by their essence, they should be judged based on what they do and be held responsible for these actions (Kaya 579-580). Sartre said on this subject that “That is what I mean when I say that man is condemned to be free: condemned, because he did not create himself, yet nonetheless free, because once cast into the world, he is responsible for everything he does” (qtd. in Norris 104). Sartre was a humanist; he believed that in the absence of a God, mankind is responsible for using their power to maximize the benefits to others (Kaya 584).  

            Since Existentialism emphasizes personal essence and identity, it strives to have each person conscious of their own identity. In his book Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre wrote that “the first effect of existentialism is to make every man conscious of what he is, and to make him solely responsible for his own existence…..” (qtd. in Norris 105). Responsibility is an important aspect of existentialism and can explain why Sartre uses the setting of Hell despite his lack of belief in a Divine Being. He wrote in Notebooks for an Ethics that “Man is the source of good and evil and judges himself in the name of the good and evil he creates” (qtd. in Norris 106). Instead of the standard of morality coming from outside of humanity, Sartre argues that morality is created by humans and then they judge themselves on that standard. Humans have a responsibility to act morally and failing to do so deserves punishment. The three characters in No Exit all fail this responsibility by causing harm to others instead of benefit and are therefore deserving of punishment despite Hell seeming to have no governance by or mention of a god  (Kaya 584).

            While existentialists believe that humans should try to understand the true self, they recognize a natural inclination for people to avoid doing so. Steven Crowell explains this concept: 

As Sartre points out in great detail, anguish, as the consciousness of freedom, is not something that human beings welcome; rather, we seek stability, identity, and adopt the language of freedom only when it suits us: those acts are considered by me to be my free acts which exactly match the self I want others to take me to be. We are “condemned to be free,” which means that we can never simply be who we are but are separated from ourselves by the nothingness of having perpetually to re-choose, or re-commit, ourselves to what we do. Characteristic of the existentialist outlook is the idea that we spend much of [our] lives devising strategies for denying or evading the anguish of freedom.

            People embrace their true nature when, and only when, it aligns with the way that they want others to perceive them. In No Exit, the audience sees this idea most strongly reflected in the character of Cradeau, who desperately wants Inez to perceive him as something that he is not. Inez says of Cradeau “For thirty years you pretended you were brave, until you believed it yourself. And you allowed yourself a thousand little weaknesses, because, of course, everything’s permitted to heroes. How convenient!” to which Cradeau replies “I didn’t just dream of being a hero. I determined to be one. You arewhat you want to be” (50). Cradeau spent his whole life creating a false perception of his essence, both for others and for himself, but now that he is in Hell, that perception is slipping through his fingers, and he spends the whole play trying to regain it by convincing Inez of his heroism.  

            In the play, mirrors are recurring symbols of this desire to control the way that others perceive the self. Early in the play, Estelle asks for a mirror, saying “When I can’t see myself in the mirror, I can’t even feel myself, and I begin to wonder if I really exist at all” (22). Her existence is tied to her perception of self; if she loses control of the way she is perceived by, for example, not being able to make sure her makeup is perfectly applied, she worries that she will cease to exist altogether. Ironically, the characters are most free to be themselves while trapped in Hell because most of the social structures that asked them to conform to a certain standard are now gone. However, this freedom itself is the characters’ torture because they do not want to come to terms with their true self-identity; they are forced to be their most authentic selves because they are incapable of maintaining the illusions of self that they created throughout their lives.

            One reason why people struggle to be their authentic selves, according to Existentialism, is because of the presence of others. Sartre believed that “to be free is to limit another person’s freedom, that being-for-itself [a person] seeks to preserve its personhood by ‘making an object out of the Other’” (qtd. in Norris 107). In No Exit, each character is placed into the room specifically to infringe on the other two’s physical space, sanity, and ability to control their surroundings— in general, their freedom. Each character attempts to reassert their dominance, their freedom, by using the others for their own purposes: Estelle and Inez want romantic and sexual gratification from Cradeau and Estelle, respectively, Cradeau craves validation from Inez that he is heroic, and they each wish to perpetuate the self-image that they created over their life. 

            Once again, the lack of mirrors in the room help to showcase this message. After Estelle asks Inez for a mirror, Inez replies “I see you. All of you. Ask me questions. You’ll see no mirror could be so faithful” (23). Despite this claim, Inez is an imperfect mirror who attempts to remake Estelle’s appearance according to her own liking. She helps Estelle redo her makeup, saying that it is now “Better. Heavier. More cruel. Just the right make-up for Hell” (24). Estelle frets “Oh, it’s such a nuisance, I can’t judge for myself!” (24) and later “But have you any taste? I mean, do you have my taste? (24). In this small exchange, both Estelle and Inez are fighting for dominance over Estelle’s perception of self. Estelle wants her makeup perfect to match her façade of goodness, whereas Inez wants Estelle to embrace the reason that she is in Hell and the reality of her current location. 

            Even without other people attempting to modify one’s perception of self, existentialism argues that being in the presence of others automatically compromises one’s understanding of their authentic self. Each person is influenced by other people, consciously or not, to become aware of and monitor their actions and decisions, modifying their own essence (Kaya 583). Hilal Kaya writes that “This gaze of another compromises an individual’s notion of inherent freedom by unavoidably becoming objectified by that person or persons, for better or for worse” (583). Once in this position, in a situation with other people, the individual is incapable of forgetting about the others and acting freely again. 

            In the play, Cradeau tries to convince the others to be silent and for all three of them to “try to forget that the others are here” to which Inez replies “Forget! How childish! I can feel you right down to my bones. You can nail your mouth shut, cut off your tongue, do you think that will keep you from existing?” (26). In a room with other people, one’s identity will inevitably be impacted. Instead of living freely, the characters are stuck in a perpetual state of proving themselves to one another and fulfilling the role that they want the others to think they fill for all of eternity (Kaya 583). Cradeau and Estelle both pretend, for much of the play, to be someone who does not truly deserve to be condemned to Hell (“No Exit”). Probably the most famous line from the play, “Hell is just– other people” (52), is a criticism of people’s dependence on others’ opinions of them (“No Exit”). As Inez fulfills her role as the torturer of the other two, attempting to deconstruct their facades, Cradeau and Estelle continue to reaffirm their lies because they cannot bear being seen for what they truly are. They cannot accept their true identity because of what that would mean for how the other characters perceive them. As Jacques Guicharnaud writes “the play is not a metaphor of Hell but that the image of Hell is a metaphor of the hopeless suffering of individuals in search of their definitions in the eyes of others, yet constantly brought back to themselves” (“No Exit”). 

            While these characters’ fate may seem hopeless, existentialism gives a means through which people can deconstruct these faulty ideas of identity and reconstruct a truer one. Sartre believed that analyzing the intention behind moods and emotions could reveal things about fundamental parts of a human (Crowell). While most emotions are a reaction to a specific stimulus—for example, fear is a response to a trigger—anxiety is a more general emotion not directed at something specific. It breaks a person away from connections to the real world. Crowell explains that “This is because anxiety pulls me altogether out of the circuit of those projects thanks to which things are there for me in meaningful ways; I can no longer “gear into” the world. And with this collapse of my practical immersion in roles and projects, I also lose the basic sense of who I am that is provided by these roles.” Feelings of anxiety separate a person from the constraints that previously formed the foundation for what they believed their essence to be: their relationships, career, accomplishments, and the like. It forces a disconnection from the world which allows a person to reconstruct a truer version of their identity. Crowell goes on to say that “when these collapse I ‘am’ not anything. In a manner of speaking I am thus brought face-to-face with my own finitude, my ‘death,’ as the possibility in which I am no longer able to be anything”. 

            The characters in No Exit are in the perfect situation to have this change of identity. Their setting is inherently anxiety-inducing, to say the least, and even if it was not, they are in a situation that accomplishes the same goals. Instead of being mentally and emotionally distanced from the world, they have been physically ripped from their lives and are now forced to confront their true natures. This could be the opportunity for positive change; even though they seem to be beyond hope, Sartre opens the door for each character to change, literally and metaphorically. 

            Despite the supposedly never-ending torture that Cradeau, Estelle, and Inez are destined for, Sartre gives them the chance to escape when the door to their room opens. However, though each of them hates being in the room with the other two, none of them leaves when presented with the opportunity. Estelle is afraid to be alone, afraid to be without even the false mirror of another’s gaze. Inez wants to use Estelle as a surrogate for her lover, Florence. Before the door opens, Cradeau bangs on it, claiming that he would rather take more traditional forms of torture than staying in that room, and yet the moment that the door opens, he steps back. Just like in life, his brave words do not translate to his actions, and as existentialism argues, his actions are what matters. He needs validation from Inez that he is not a coward, and he would rather remain trapped in Hell to try and get it (47-49). In this moment, all three of the characters’ true personalities shine through. All that they must do to try to escape is to change and improve their natures, but either they are unwilling or unable to do so, and instead, they close the door. Existentialism is primarily concerned with freedom of choice (Mambrol), and these characters choose their hell.

            Even though No Exit ends more hopelessly than it begins, Sartre intended it to inspire hope in those who saw it. He shows the possibility for and means to achieve change. Unfortunately, the characters reject that change, but the audience does not need to. Sartre wrote in the preface to the Deutsche Gramaphon recording of No Exit that 

            In fact, since we are alive, I wanted to demonstrate, through the absurd, the importance for us of liberty, i.e. the importance of changing our acts by other acts. Whatever the circle of hell in which we live, I think we are free to break out of it. And if people do not break out, they stay there of their own free will. In this way they choose to live in hell (qtd. in Mambrol).  The true tragedy of the play is not the characters’ fate but the fact that they had the opportunity for growth, the opportunity to leave their hell and they instead choose to remain as they are, suffering for eternity. Those watching Sartre’s story, however, can learn from the characters’ examples and strive to become more in tune with their authentic selves, choosing to act responsibly with the freedom that they have. 

            This message of hope was especially valuable for Sartre’s original audience. The entire existence of the play is a result of “Sartre’s attempt to make sense of the moral and metaphysical implications of the German occupation of France in World War II” (Mambrol). The French people living under the German occupation had little freedom, but Sartre’s play showed them a way that they could reclaim their freedom through their personal choices (Mambrol). The “subtle message of resistance and implied subversiveness” (“No Exit”) in the play appealed to citizens under Nazi rule. Like that original audience, the characters in the play are physically trapped for all but the few moments when the door is open but still have the personal freedom to choose their own actions. They, of course, make poor choices with their freedom, but the message still stands that individuals have some freedom even in the bleakest of circumstances. 

            No Exit explores the existentialist paradox of suffering within freedom and shows that people are responsible for determining their own fate through their actions. The play teaches the value in a person learning to know their authentic self and the unpleasant task that that can be, which many, including Cradeau and Estelle, refuse to undertake. It presents a scenario that is the perfect catalyst to inspire this positive change, but instead the characters choose to remain in their own hell. With this ending, Sartre asks the audience to contend with this same freedom and to make better choices before they lose the opportunity to choose and their door closes forever.


Works Cited

Crowell, Steven. “Existentialism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, (Summer      
           2020 edition), Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University,    

Kaya, Hilal. “A Comparative Study: Existentialism in No Exit by Jean Paul Sartre and Shadowless by Hasan Ali  
           Toptaş.” Folklor/Edebiyat / Folklore/Literature, vol. 25, no. 99, Jan. 2019, pp. 577–92. EBSCOhost,

Mambrol, Nasrullah. “Analysis of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit.” Literary Theory and Criticism, Aug. 07, 2020.

No Exit.” Drama for Students. 29 Nov. 2022,

Norris, Marcos Antonio. “The Failed Atheism of Jean-Paul Sartre.” Heythrop Journal, vol. 63, no. 1, Jan. 2022,
          pp. 96–110. EBSCOhost,

Sartre, Jean Paul. No Exit. Translated by Paul Bowles, Samuel French, 1958.