By Kirk Woodward
[Once again, I have a contribution from Kirk Woodward, some thoughts on playwright and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and his famous and much-discussed play No Exit. ~Rick.]
There are certain things we all know even though we don’t know them. We all know, for example, that Winston Churchill said “blood, sweat, and tears,” even though that wasn’t what he actually said. (He said, “blood and sweat, toil and tears.”) We all know that St. Paul said that money is the root of all evil, even though he actually said that the love of money is the root of all evil. And we all know that Jean-Paul Sartre said, “Hell is other people.” But did he?
The line, “Hell is other people,” comes, of course, from Sartre’s famous one-act play No Exit. The original French title of the play is Huis clos; the title is an idiomatic expression literally meaning something like “shut door,” used in the French legal system to mean hearings held in private, or as we say in our jurisprudence, “in camera.” The fact that “huis clos” is basically a legal term is appropriate for the play, because its three main characters have been judged; they are in hell, sentenced to spend eternity in a room they will never be able to leave.
The line “Hell is other people” in French reads “L’enfer, c’est les autres” or “Hell is [the] others.” (The best known English translation of the play, by Paul Bowles, actually renders the line “Hell is just – other people.”) We get a little more of the flavor of the line in English if we read it as “Hell is the Other.” That’s closer to the point, I believe. Sartre says that the Other – that which is not ourselves – is, or can be, a source of our distress. Sartre spelled out this meaning in a talk that preceded a recording of the play issued in 1965:
. . .“hell is other people” has always been misunderstood. It has been thought that what I meant by that was that our relations with other people are always poisoned, that they are invariably hellish relations. But what I really mean is something totally different. I mean that if relations with someone else are twisted, vitiated, then that other person can only be hell. Why? Because. . . when we think about ourselves, when we try to know ourselves, . . . we use the knowledge of us which other people already have. We judge ourselves with the means other people have and have given us for judging ourselves. Into whatever I say about myself someone else’s judgment always enters. Into whatever I feel within myself someone else’s judgment enters. . . . But that does not at all mean that one cannot have relations with other people. It simply brings out the capital importance of all other people for each one of us.
The Other, Sartre says in the quotation, is that by which we define ourselves, and the punishment of his three characters is that they will only ever be able to define themselves through the distorting mirrors of other people who reflect them badly, while at the same time they see themselves reflected badly in others as well. Estelle says, “When I can’t see myself in the mirror, I can’t even feel myself, and I begin to wonder if I exist at all.” Inez promises to be an accurate mirror for Estelle in order to seduce her. Sartre uses the idea of the mirror to great effect in the play – there are none in hell, and in order to see themselves, as it were, from the outside, the characters have to rely on the way that others see them.
In the sense described here, although a character, not Sartre, speaks the words “Hell is other people,” Sartre actually does say this same thing in his writings. In fact, the concept that our self-knowledge as a product of the way we see ourselves in the Other is a fundamental principle of his philosophy.
I suggest, however, that there is an additional and important meaning of the line “Hell is other people,” a meaning that is central to the play and also a fundamental tenet of existentialism. This meaning is a dramatic one – it is spoken by a character in a drama – and as such does not express Sartre’s position at all. A good way to approach this additional meaning is to start by asking why these people are in hell at all.
Sartre does not really play with traditional ideas about why people might go to hell. There are perfectly good reasons for these people to be there. Cradeau (in
some translations called Garcin) admits that he “tortured” his wife, not physically but emotionally, with enjoyment and without remorse. Inez describes how she broke up a marriage so she could gain access to the wife (Inez is a lesbian). Estelle acknowledges that she murdered her baby, not wanting it to clutter up her life, and thereby caused her lover’s suicide.
But Sartre makes it clear that actions alone are not the only reasons the characters of the play find themselves in hell. They are damned in their essences. Cradeau always does anything he can to preserve his own self-interests, an attitude that leads to his collaboration with the Nazis. Estelle is only interested in others to the extent that they pay attention to her. Inez sees other people only as targets for her manipulation. An existentialist might argue whether people have essences, so perhaps it is more accurate to say that nothing we see in their behavior would lead us to think they ever would behave any differently than they do.
But there is even a further element in Sartre’s presentation of hell, one that makes its presence felt at the very beginning of the play – in the set design. We learn that this particular chamber of hell is specifically designed for its denizens, and it resembles, we are told, a not terribly nice dentist’s office, filled with the detritus of middle-class life – a statue of Cupid, a chandelier, a fireplace, furniture that might be fine by itself but doesn’t match. The furniture echoes the dialogue – it feels superficial even when it is ornate.
In other words, the characters are in hell because they are trivial, pretentious people. This is Sartre’s satiric point: they are in hell because they are petty-bourgeois. Their concern for the world goes only as far as the extent to which the world services their needs. When it doesn’t adequately cater to their desires, they blame the world and the people in it – that is, they say that “hell is other people.” Au contraire, the people in No Exit are in hell because they themselves made the decisions that put them there.
In blaming “other people” the characters in the play, Sartre says, are pointing fingers in the wrong direction. Why should the world be responsible for the actions of any of us? Who should I blame for what I am except myself? Ultimately No Exit doesn’t say that hell is other people; it says, with Satan in Milton’s Paradise Lost, that “Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell.” We construct a hell for ourselves, Sartre says, when we refuse to take responsibility for our own actions, leaving us at the mercy of the opinions of others.
“Hell is other people” is the expression of damned souls who will remain in the hell they created until – the play does offer the occasional very dim ray of light – until they learn to own up to their own behaviors, and until they begin to choose to help each other – to put someone else’s good ahead of their own. In the sense I am describing here, “Hell is other people” is exactly what Sartre does not say. A character says it, because he steadfastly refuses to see that that he and he alone is responsible for his own behavior. The characters have built hell with their own hands; they are the ones who will have to take it apart again.
[Kirk’s most recent contribution to ROT is his “King Lear Journal,” published here on 4 June. A playwright as well as a director and teacher, Kirk’s writing is available through his website, http://spiceplays.com.]