Analyzing the Huis Clos by Jean-Paul Sartre


Huis Clos, or No Exit, is an existentialist play written by Jean-Paul Sartre in 1944. It was also first performed in May 1944 at the Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier. The play narrates the story of three damned souls in Hell – Joseph Garcin, Inès Serrano, and Estelle Rigault, who are trapped together in one room. The three characters contemplate how they are supposed to be punished and why they were selected to remain together in the locked room for eternity.

Arguments of Tragedy vs. Non-Tragedy

Tragedy in literature is a form of drama whose primary purpose is to evoke pleasure or catharsis, the purging of one’s emotions in its audience. This tradition of drama originated all the way to the Ancient Greeks in the writings of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides. Their culture has been carried on and modified by tragedians that succeeded them as Shakespeare, Henrik Ibsen, and Samuel Beckett.A tragic play if often characterized by a tragic hero that is characterized as almost perfect but possessed a cursed fate and a tragic flaw. Tragedies also include struggles between good and evil, external and internal conflicts, supernatural elements, comic relief, lack of poetic justice for the hero and other good characters, and of course, catharsis when the audience can relate with the plight of the hero.

An argument can be made of the tragic or non-tragic nature of Sartre’ Huis Clos.  However, audience and critics can easily point out that there is no tragic hero in the play and the plot lacks all the traditional elements of tragedy. Sartre’s play can be considered tragic in the modern sense in the way an endless, torturous hell is portrayed for the already dead characters. Another is the seemingly unexplained justification for their situation in Hell.

Sartre and his Situation Theatre

The play is a classic example of Sartre’s concept of his Situation Theatre, an offset of his existentialist philosophy. According to Sartre’s philosophy, freedom is a situation where you have to make your own decision based on the choices presented to you. He believes that “everyone is damned to be free,” and anyone, whether they are rich or poor, has the freedom to be whomever they want to be. The choice that a person makes will consequently shape that person, and he or she must be thoroughly responsible for their own decisions. The consequences of choices and the finality of death could be seen in the situation of the three main characters in the play. Being dead and living immoral lives that led to their deaths, landed them in a room where they could no longer make any choices to correct their mistakes. They are helpless, and their torturous punishment is to look at the disastrous results of the choices that they willfully made.

Hell is other people

The play also gives the audience a view of Sartre’s notion and interpretation of the afterlife. It is in the plot of the play the Sartre’s other famous line, “Hell is other people”, originated. The line is a reference to the playwright’s perspective of the unbearable of experience of being the object of scrutiny from another person’s point-of-view. This is shown in how Joseph, Estelle, and Inès sought to dissect each other’s lives to understand the purpose of their punishment in Hell.

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