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OVERALL Notes ON PLAY
The success of No Exit is largely due to the ingenuity with which the basic idea of Hell is presented. Not shown as a place of fire and brimstone, it is depicted as an ordinary room decorated in Second Empire style; however, the room has no windows, mirrors, or beds, which torture the inhabitants. The real torture, however, comes from the way they treat one another.
Objects found in the room offer no comfort. There is a paper knife, but there is no paper that needs cutting. There is a bell for summoning the valet, but it seldom works. There is a door, but it cannot be opened from the inside and is seldom opened from the outside. There is an ornament, a Barbedienne bronze statue, but it is ugly. There are electric lights, but they cannot be switched off. Without a bed or darkness, there is no possibility for sleep. Garcin, the first inhabitant of the room, realizes that the physical setting in itself is a type of punishment, for in the room he can never escape from himself. "Its life without a break."
The fact that Garcin can look down to earth is further torture. It is a constant reminder to him that he has messed up his chance at life and can now do nothing about it. He is stuck in the present reality that he was painfully cruel to his wife and died a coward; in Hell he is unable to change has past or anyone's opinion about him. When he looks into the pressroom where he worked and hears them say ugly things about him, Garcin is totally frustrated. When he looks down and sees his wife, he feels guilty as she weeps over the loss of her husband.
Garcin is also frustrated by the fact that he is not allowed to live alone in Hell. He is joined by two females, Inez and Estelle, who will both torture him. Estelle immediately falls in love with Garcin and spends the entire play lusting after him. He, however, has no real interest in her. Inez tortures him by telling the truth and watching his every move. When he attempts to make love to Estelle, he finds it impossible to be intimate, knowing that Inez's eyes are staring at him.
Though damned in hell, Garcin still seeks to know himself and find "salvation" - at least in Inez's eyes. The action of the play is really a gradual movement towards his painful self-knowledge. Inez clearly tells him that once he is a coward, he is always a coward, for a person is judged by his actions; and of course, he can never undo the fact that he ran away from the war or inflicted cruelty on his wife. Although Garcin is a heterosexual, he has no real concern for women; he always preferred to make his mark in the world of men. As a result, he is very pained to hear that the men in the pressroom say ugly things about him. Then in Hell, he is tortured by the fact that he must spend eternity with two women.
During the play, Garcin desperately tries to open the door by frantically banging on it. When the door opens, Garcin does not depart. He realizes that if he leaves the room at this point, Inez will always believe he is a coward, and he desperately cares about what others think of him. Since he can no longer change the opinion of the people on earth about him, he feels compelled to try and change Inez's opinion. Believing that he will ever change this realistic and truthful woman is self-deception that adds to his torture.