Garcin's greatest fear is fear itself, to borrow the cliché. That is to say, he is tormented by the idea that he may be a coward. Ironically, in the play's beginning, he seems quite the opposite of a coward: he strolls into the drawing room with his chin held high and casually asks where the torture instruments are, as if it were all a game. Gradually, as the play wears on, he loses his defenses; he is stripped bare, so to speak, and reveals his insecurities. The question, however, remains: is Garcin a coward? Was his attempt to flee to Mexico a cowardly act? Sartre, who publicly opposed many a war, certainly might have sympathized with Garcin's pacifist leanings. However, we are left wondering to what extent Garcin's political and moral convictions mask a deeper weakness? And why, exactly, did Garcin choose to flee rather than to expound on his principles at home, where they might have made a difference?
Hell is many things in Sartre's play. It is the drawing room into which the three principal characters are taken. It is the inability to sleep that will afflict them - the prospect of staying awake forever, tormented by the sins of their pasts. It is a "hell of the mind," and it is, finally, "other people." In the various definitions of hell Sartre and his characters propose, a pattern emerges: hell is intrinsically tied to existence and to one's idea of oneself. The key element of "hell" in the play is therefore the absence of mirrors or reflective surfaces. The characters must rely on each other to create their identities; thus Estelle asks Inez to describe her beauty, while Inez begs Estelle to love her and Garcin begs Inez to tell him he is no coward. Though they claim at first to want to be alone, the characters need each other; the play is essentially a map of their thwarted desires, of their inability to control their own image. It is this inability that paves the way for the climactic paradox: when finally free to leave, Garcin refuses to do so. It is because of Inez, he claims, that he must stay. Unable to live with each other and unable to live without each other, the characters are trapped not just physically, but emotionally and morally. Hell is both within them and outside of them, and either way, there is no exit.
A month takes a matter of minutes in Sartre's hell. In other words, the relationship between the characters and the world of the living is perpetually off-balance. When Garcin says that his wife died a month ago, he qualifies the statement by saying, "Just now." Indeed, a month ago is just now; the characters of the play soar through time, and even their visions of the world below are only temporary - fleeting images doomed to fade to black, transient sounds fated to fall silent. It is perhaps ironic that Sartre suggests this kind of temporal structure within the one-place/one-time dramatic idiom first proposed by the ancient Greeks.
Though the characters are indeed dead, Estelle refuses to recognize it at first. She says she feels just as alive now as she ever did, and recommends she, Inez, and Garcin call themselves "absentees." That word has a strangely hopeful ring, as if implying that the characters have not yet reached the end and will soon enough return to the living. "Absent" sounds somehow more temporary than "dead" - and yet dead is what they are, as Inez emphatically reminds us at the play's close: "Dead! Dead! Dead! Knives, poison, ropes - useless. It has happened already, do you understand? Once and for all. So here we are, forever."
Love engenders hatred in No Exit. Inez's unrequited feelings for Estelle lead her to viciously insult the girl; Estelle's affection for Garcin digs an even deeper hole into Inez; the resultant "love" triangle culminates in Estelle's botched attempt to kill Inez. The rapid shift from love to murder is nothing new to Inez, whose love for Florence drained any possibility of happiness or hope. "For six months I flamed away in her heart," Inez remembers, "till there was nothing but a cinder." She adds: "One night [Florence] got up and turned on the gas while I was asleep. Then she crept back into bed." Thus do the pangs of romance lead to death. Inez's story is a three-corpse affair: Florence's husband, run over by a tram; Florence, driven to murder and suicide; and Inez herself, the catalyst of it all. Estelle's story is likewise a tale of three deaths: her baby, her lover, and herself. Garcin is doomed, aside from his "cowardice" (if he is indeed a coward), by the love of his wife, whom he treated without any love at all.
One of the first remarks Garcin makes upon his entrance into the drawing room is that there are no torture instruments. As it turns out, Estelle and Inez provide all the torture Garcin needs. "Hell is - other people," he proclaims, and indeed the torture he suffers stems from the tensions between him and the two women, as well as from within himself. When he can no longer stand it, Garcin cries out, in one of the play's most chilling passages: "I'll endure anything, your red-hot tongs and molten lead, your racks and prongs and garrotes - all your fiendish gadgets, everything that burns and flays and tears - I'll put up with any torture you impose. Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough."
Try as they may, the characters of No Exit cannot escape their pasts. Like Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, Sartre's play assembles a small group of characters into a single space and lets them tear away at each other; just as with O'Neill, the weapon wielded most often and most forcefully is the past: Inez's homosexuality, Estelle's lust, and Garcin's womanizing; Inez's Florence, Estelle's man with a hole in his head, Garcin's tortured wife; Inez's cruelty, Estelle's murder of her baby, and Garcin's cowardice. The play itself is relegated to a perpetual present - a present with no temporal markers, no night and day, no sleep - but the subject of much of the dialogue is the past and, more precisely, what each character did to ensure his or her place in hell.
Sartre sought to synthesize many of his philosophical arguments with fiction. Yet in a play about "self-deception" and "bad faith" the implicit double entendre of characters "play-acting" to be something they are not and actors pretending to play those characters, perfectly complements Sartre's straightforward philosophical argument. In effect, No Exit is a play about the "devouring" gaze of the other and how it restricts one's freedom, incorporated into the play itself and played out on stage through the gaze of the audience members. The characters constantly look for mirrors in order to avoid the judging gaze of each other, while their failure is played out by the constant stare of the play's spectators.
The play's central themes of freedom and responsibility come from Sartre's doctrine that "existence precedes essence." Sartre believed that human consciousness, or a "being-for-itself," differed from inanimate objects, or a "being-in-itself," since humans have the ability to choose and define their individual characteristics, or essence. But with this freedom of choice comes the absolute responsibility for one's action. The fear and anxiety of this responsibility leads many people to ignore both their freedom and their responsibility by letting other people make their choices for them, resulting in bad faith. This is why Garcin is unable to leave the room when the door opens. He can't handle the responsibility of confronting his decision to flee his country, and thus leaves it up to Inez to judge him and define his essence. Similarly, Estelle does not think that she exists unless she looks in a mirror, seeing herself as others do. When Inez pretends to be her "mirror" and says Estelle has a pimple on her face, Estelle's bad faith causes her to accept someone else literally creating her essence. Both Estelle and Garcin are not only "condemned to be free," but are willing to condemn themselves in order to avoid being free.
This emphasis on bad faith establishes Sartre's underlying argument of the play: "Hell is other people." Using only three people and an empty room, Sartre evokes scenes of utter torture and despair. In effect, Inez can't stand Garcin looking at her because she thinks that he is automatically judging her. Since she thinks that is her own role, she accuses him of "stealing" her face. Garcin's mere existence thus reduces Inez's feelings of autonomy. Moreover, both Garcin and Estelle refuse to let go of their pasts, each "looking" at their friends and loved ones back on earth. They attempt to justify their existence by only thinking about their past experiences: as Garcin explains, his "fate" is the evaluation of his past actions by other people. Inez however, sees her past as meaningless and inaccessible, choosing to exist in the present instead. She insists to the others that "nothing" is left of them on earth and that "all you own is here." Rather than justify her existence in terms of the person she used to be, Inez asserts her freedom to choose her essence in the present, even though she is in hell. She is the only character in the play intent on confronting both her responsibility and her suffering--an essential step is asserting her existence. As Sartre explained, "Life begins on the other side of despair."