An Atheist Hell: A Study in the Perfection of Pain
Jean Paul Sartre uses hell for the setting of his existentially significant work, No Exit. While Sartre is an atheist, he uses a place that is fundamentally connected to Christian beliefs. Yet Sartre's hell is vastly dissimilar to the Christian conception of hell, and makes no reference to a God or Satan. Ultimately, the hell in No Exit serves the same purpose as a Christian hell: to torment and torture. The methods used are different, but the result is the same. In fact, Sartre's hell is more intense than a Christian one because not only is one tortured, but one tortures others, and most importantly oneself. A Christian hell features external tortures, but in Sartre's one is his or her own torturer.
While a Christian hell offers fire and brimstone, infinite lakes of fire, and the rack, Sartre's hell consists of little more than confinement and human company. In fact, Sartre's hell ultimately proves to offer an escape; it's the people who choose to continue their torment. Sinners sent to a Christian hell “shall be punished with everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-9). Pain and destruction might be the ultimate punishment for a Christian, but for Sartre's existentialist characters the judgment of “the other” is the greatest torture.
When Sartre's three main characters enter the scene, they are shocked by the lack of sinister “instruments of torture” (No Exit, 4). Slowly, Garcin begins to understand the nature of his torture, if not the actual form it will take. “Ah”, he says, “it's life without a break” (5). Once Garcin observes the lack of eyelids in his hell, he realizes there will be no escape. The rack and poker can only cause so much pain. But this hell is eternal, without even a momentary respite. A Christian hell offers physical tortures, but a Sartrean hell dispenses psychological torture. Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are to be eternally plagued with each other's company. And of course, with company comes judgment.
Inez is the only one who comprehends the torture that the company of others is to be. She is also the only member of the trio who outrightly admits to her sins. Inez explains the nature of the group's sinning: “There have been people who burned their lives out for our sakes – and we chuckled over it” (17). Inez is the only character who is not in “bad faith”; she is completely aware of her cruelty and need for dominance. She desires domination and admits that she “can't get on without making people suffer” (26). As a lesbian, she transgresses the lines of typical sexual interactions and takes on a typically male role. The other two sinners, Garcin and Estelle, outrightly deny that they have sinned. Estelle, in fact, goes so far as to claim that a mistake has occurred; surely she doesn't belong in hell! Bur Inez knows better. She knows that “they never make mistakes” (16) in hell, and that her two companions are being untruthful.
Ultimately the group's concern with “the other” stems from power. All three have different needs for power and control. Inez must control others with the intent of causing harm. Estelle needs to feel desired, and by feeling desired she believes herself to have control. She is also particularly disturbed by the lack of mirrors in hell, because she needs to “see [herself] as others saw [her]” (19). Garcin is, it seems, the least power-hungry of the trio but he nonetheless asserts his dominance over his wife and over Estelle. Estelle fixates on Garcin and seeks his admiration because he is the only available male. Though Inez affirms her beauty, it is not enough for Estelle. She needs a man to affirm her. Garcin takes advantage of this situation as much as he took advantage of his wife. Estelle is weak in the same way that Garcin's wife was – she is willing to accept sub-par treatment as long as she has a man. Garcin wishes to use Estelle to affirm his bravery. If he can convince Estelle that he is truly a brave man, then he somehow feels better. Of course, Estelle doesn't care one way or the other about Garcin's true self; “Coward or hero, it's all one – provided he kisses well” (38).
Garcin, Inez, and Estelle are unendingly confronted with the judgment of others as their punishment, as well as the company of each other who happen to be equally judgmental and simultaneously terrified of judgment. While Inez seems completely aware of her transgressions, the other two are in total denial. In fact, they are unwilling to truthfully share the circumstances of their deaths. They lie in an attempt to hide from the negative judgments of their companions, just as they eluded justice for their actions while on earth. However, once the truth does come out, and once Inez has fully expanded on her own cruelty, it becomes like a sort of contest amongst the the trio. Each person wants to explain how cruel they were and what “power” they held over the other. Estelle made a man die, Garcin tortured his wife, Inez seduced a woman and led her to her death. Surely they must be important, special, and powerful to have had such a profound effect on the other? But even with this shallow victory they continue to require affirmation from the other. The way they are thought of on the earth they no longer inhabit becomes of extreme importance.
All three characters claim that they don't care about others, and they outline their cruelties without any real sign of remorse. It seems like a badge of pride that they have been able to inflict so much damage on others. The strange contradiction to this is their unending concern with the judgment of others. They view the other as essentially useless, a petty object to be toyed with, and yet they can't handle the prospect of being thought negatively of. The three look down at the people they left behind and hope their minds are focused on the deceased. If people on earth still value them, then their lives continue to be significant. Estelle wants men on earth to miss and admire her, Garcin wants his peers to respect him and affirm that he is not a coward. Garcin's “fate” (39) has been left in the hands of others, and the prospect scares him. Even after they realize that earth is somewhat separate from them, they cannot let go of the need for affirmation from each other. Even in hell they need affirmation; Estelle believes that if Garcin loves her, then she can be happy and have power, for example.
When the three are given the opportunity to leave hell and the hell of each other's company, they don't take it. They are so wrapped up in the need for affirmation that they can't leave each other until they are sure they have it. Garcin stares at the open door and says, “I couldn't leave you here, gloating over my defeat” (42). He then proceeds to shut the door and continue what is now SELF-imposed torture. This is where the most significant difference between a Christian hell and a Sartrean one becomes highly apparent. In the Christian hell there is the rack and the poker to torture the sinner. But in the case of the poker, someone else must inflict pain. In Sartre's hell the sinners torture themselves.
Hell is not only a place of unending “judgment”, but to a Christian part of the torture of hell is the absence of God. Once one is damned to hell they are forever without God's love and presence. Obviously, Sartre does not care if God is present, and the three sinners in Sartre's hell seem to have no notion whatsoever of a God. The fact that their hell lacks God is irrelevant. But there is a different sort of lack that causes their torture. They lack the presence of others who can make them feel good about themselves and make their lives meaningful. They look down on earth and observe the lives they no longer touch, and the consciousness of those people somehow define their own existence. As the ability to see down to earth fades away, so does their importance on earth. Estelle looks down and as long as she can see her old life she is only “half here” (32) in hell. When Garcin's view down to earth is gone, he surrenders and claims, “I've left my fate in their hands” (39). His hope is that even though he cannot see the earth anymore, the earth will remember him.
Of course, the remembrances of others are not enough to satisfy Sartre's characters. The specific WAY in which they are remembered is of equal, if not more, importance. Garcin is fixated on being remembered as a brave man. Estelle wants to see that her beaus still desire her. All the characters are also fixated on each other. Inez is the most diabolical, it seems, but we see a certain degree of weakness in her. While she does seem cold, she is also very dependent on trapping Estelle's emotions. But it is hard to tell whether she needs love or if she genuinely needs to hurt the psyches of others in order to be happy. Considering that up to this point she has been the only one living “in good faith”, she can be seen as truly cruel. She may need to make others miserable in order to be happy, but we can assume she will have no problem finding such happiness. She is, after all, in hell, where torture is on the menu and she is an expert chef. In fact, her power to make the others suffer is so great that they don't even run from her when the opportunity arises. Garcin could run from her when the door opens, but she has entrapped him so thoroughly that he cannot leave without her blessings regarding his character.
In Sartre's hell there is no God and no Satan, as well as no implements for physical suffering. And yet the three characters who find themselves there are in agony. They rely on the positive opinions of others, and both their companions and those they left on earth do not give them this affirmation. Sartre's hell runs with great economy, as the tortured become their own torturers, and no one can leave because of their dependence on others. Locks are unnecessary in his hell, as the damned become psychologically dependent on each other – even as they feel pure hatred for the other. The Sartrean notion of hell offers a level of psychological torture that a Christian hell cannot achieve: the pain of torturing oneself. And unlike a Christian hell, there is no need to employ torturers or buy any tools. The damned take care of the torturing without any input or supervision. A fantastically effective hell that requires no effort on the part of any outside entity. What could be more perfect?