Over centuries there have been debates among the members of the intellectual society as to the purpose of human existence. The concept of human existence is a very complex one as this topic can be approached from many different perspectives. Some of these perspectives are; fatalistic deterministic and existentialist. The topic of existence is also intertwined with other topics such as personal identity, life after death, being and free will. Based on the perspective you chose to utilize will determine your understanding on the issue. Jean-Paul Sartre was one of the philosophers who offered his discourse in order to aid in the understanding of the essence of man. He was a French philosopher which supported the ideas of existentialism. He used a one act play called No Exit as a metaphor for his philosophy. This play summarized his perspectives on the essence of human beings.
Existentialism is a philosophical perspective which attempts to explain human existence and experience. This approach is based on the ideology that we as humans are free beings and therefore have the authorship over our destiny. This is a shared notion among existentialist that as human beings we are subjective individuals in an objective world. It is from our experiences in this objective world that we are able to create our essence which is a reflection of our purpose. This is embodied in Sartre’s slogan of ‘existence proceeding essence’. He also believed that it is from our experiences in this objective world is where we derive our values. The aspect of no predetermination in existentialism means that how our lives will end is solely based on our actions and will determine our personal identity and fate in the afterlife.
In his play No Exit, Sartre has three main characters; Garcin, Inez and Estelle. His three main characters have received the same fate because of their actions in their previous life on earth this fate was eternity in hell. However Sartre did not use a typical depiction of hell that we would expect he however made hell seem like a place of luxury, with a valet and also there was a big bronze antique ornament in the center of the room on a mantel piece this represented the existential ideals that man is the ultimate torture of each other. There was also no windows and no mirrors so they would not be able to see themselves but they could see each other. The interesting thing is that the characters had no eye lids which mean that they were unable to avoid looking at the other members in the room. This was the form of torture which was used instead of the assumed fire.
The first person to arrive in the area was Garcin he was shocked to see the environment that he was placed it and took it quite nicely until he came into contact with the other two ‘roommates’ Inez and Estelle. At first they were all Inez was the last person to die and the first person to explain to the other persons what her past life was about. Inez explained that her funeral was merely yesterday; her transition into the afterlife was painless for the most part as she was unconscious. In accordance to the existentialist perspective of ‘essence preceeding existence’ Estelle exercised her innate freedom which based on the conditions of her life determined her fate. She continued to explain that she died as a result of suffocation. She had tried to seduce her cousin’s wife while she was living with them and her lover killed them both.
Garcin was an extreme pacificts who was murdered because of his beliefs. However this was not the only action which contributed to his fate in hell. Garcin also admitted to treating his wife badly. He paid little attention to her needs and went as far as to bring a stranger in their house which he proceeded to commit adultery with. This was done with his wife’s knowledge. Estelle was reluctant to confess her wrongs she claimed at first that the reason she ended up in hell was because she had married somebody she was not in love with and tried not to cheat on him. She died from pneumonia. Eventually Estelle further explained that she had cheated on her husband repeatedly and eventually got pregnant. Estelle then ran off to Switzerland where she had the baby and drowned the new born child in front of her lover. Seeing this brutal act he proceeded to kill himself.
The members of the room soon realized that they were all linked in some way. Inez then figured out that they were not going to be physically tortured but in fact they would torture each other. Although their situation varied in the past life because of their choice in actions they all ended up with the same fate. Garcin and Estelle however refused to recognize their existing condition which was being dead in hell. Although they ceased to exist in the material world they still tried to hold on to that aspect of their lives for as long as they were allowed to. They had completely different personalities which clashed which I think was strategically done in order to foster the torturing process.
Throughout the book Sartre utilized many symbols to put forward his position understanding human’s existence and how our purposes war derived. The Valet is used as a representation of the devil at the beginning of the book. This could be argued based on the notion that he was in charge of directing the ‘damned souls’ to their fate in hell. The elaborate bronze ornament on the mantel piece in the center of the room represents the existential ideals in the play. There were no windows, no light switch and one door which could only be opened by the valet. No windows can be interpreted as a strategy to keep their minds centered in their situation. No light switch meant that they were unable to control their surroundings as it is now determined by another force or person. The use of only one door which can only be opened on the outside represents the idea that there is no possibility for escape. Also at the beginning of the book when Garcin was being escorted by the valet into the enclosed room he was a bit disturbed at the fact that the valet had no eyelids which he described as a luxury. Not having any eye lids meant that they had no possibility of having time to him. He was forced to pay constant attention to his surroundings.
The play not only highlights the existentialist approach on human existence but it is intertwined with other issues such as personal identity, and life after death and free will. Sartre’s ideology on human beings as stated before is the notion that ‘essence preceeds existence’. This means that it is from our experiences and choices that our purposes and values are developed. In order to truly exercise our free will in accordance to Sartre we must first become conscious of this free will and then proceed to exercise it. If we chose not to we are then giving the responsibility of determining our essence to another person therefore, subjecting ourselves to the direction of objective world. Sartre expressed this point clearly in his play when he chose not to put mirrors in the room. This lack of mirrors then faced the main character with the problem of determining their own essence or depending on the other members of the room to determine it for them. Estelle after her needed Inez to be her objective mirror.
Sartre in his discourse also stresses that with the freedom we have as humans and the lack of predestination we are given the task of taking responsibly of our actions. Therefore if for some reason you end up having a horrible fate we cannot impart the responsibility on anyone but ourselves. Most times we fail to acknowledge the significance of our actions and then when we’re are faced with the repercussions we then try to shun the responsibility which we hold. Sartre uses the scene with Garcin becoming annoyed with the torture he was receiving from Estelle and started calling for the valet to come and open the door and when the door finally opened he did not take the opportunity to leave because of the fear of taking responsibility for his actions.
Another issue identified and explained by Sartre is that of personal identity. A person’s identity is derived from their actions. It is from their actions that there values which are components of their identity are developed. It of often a problematic notion to consider what identity a person will have following the end of the material body; will a person be identified by their essence or will it mirror the physical body. Sartre however chose to integrate the two aspects; both the mirror of the physical and non physical. This was however strategic as they could only see each other and not themselves which means that they are only allowed to identify their personal identities through there essence and recollection.
There is also another central theme to this play which is the inability of humans to let go of their developed human tendencies. This is shown in the book where Estelle is still concerned about her appearance even though she is dead. However there is a big use of irony in the book as Sartre did not believe in the whole notion of life after death. The whole view of existence preceeds essence means that there is no predestination so there is no need for a God. If there is no god there is no need for the concept of the continuation of the soul. Hence, he reduces the whole concept of heaven and hell to a mere state of mind.
Sartre accomplished everything he had originally set out to do in explaining the whole concept of existentialism without utilizing the usual mediums for philosophical writings. Through the use of the four characters he was able to not only put forward his ideologies but to give a visual representation and include the readers. However the book is created for a specific discipline which is that of philosophy. Therefore it would be easier for a student of philosophy to pick out the writer’s ideologies rather than a regular member of the intellectual community. It also offers another view to the whole concept of existence and the acquisition of purpose. Often times when trying to analyze the idea of purpose and fate people often reason from a fatalistic perspective which however limits restricts the thinking of human beings to one set ideals. However the use of symbolism is an intrinsic part of the book so I think Sartre should have made it easier to identify where symbolism throughout the play were identified.
Also he did not make his view on life after death clear as he utilized both the physical and non physical aspects which at a point started to confuse me. But because of my previous knowledge on Sartre’s ideologies I was then able the decipher fact from fiction. The fictional aspects which he chose to include however distorted his views. Sartre’s existentialism differed from other existentialist such as Kierkegaard, a Christian existentialist. Kierkegaard ideologies were similar to Sartre’s with the aspect that before we can utilize our freedom we have to be conscious of free will and it is from this freedom we develop our ideologies. Kierkegaard however differed from Sartre in that he believed God still had some amount of relevance to the existence of man.
Another problem which arises out of the fictional aspect which Sartre chose to utilize was the issue of the continuation of essence. In analyzing the main characters in can be seen that after they the transcended to the afterlife they still maintained all the personality traits which they possessed in their previous life. Inez remained as cunning as she was, Garcin was passive in his approach to everything, and Estelle was still conceited and self centered as she was before. However unlike the other characters Inez however accepted her fate and suggested that they should do the same and try to start over with a blank slate. Is Sartre then saying that there is the possibility that as humans our free will transcends into the afterlife. Logically this would not make any sense as if we determine base on our actions our fate then how is it possible for us to change our essence? If ones essence is changed in the afterlife will our already established fate also change? This might somehow be a paradox or a very circular argument by Sartre to show his belief that there is now after life. This is a very problematic concept.
Finally Sartre accomplished his main purpose of the book which was to highlight the tenets of existentialism. He utilized a very interesting medium which was commendable but it proved to be problematic as the use of fiction often distorted the essence of the book. It also left some amount of room for assumptions and many unanswered questions on the issue of what occurs during the afterlife?