Sartre: Hell is other people (Explanation)

sartre no exit

No Exit and the question of other people

This quote by Jean-Paul Sartre is one of his most famous. It exemplifies his stance as an existentialist philosopher, and is also one of the most commonly misunderstood quotes in philosophy. Here is an explanation of what Sartre really meant by “Hell is other people.”

The quote comes at the close of the play No Exit (Huis Clos, in French) which Sartre wrote in 1943. No Exit depicts the arrival of three characters – Garcin, Estelle, and Inez – in hell – which happens to be a drawing room. As the characters struggle to understand what sin has led them to hell, and what their punishment may be, they quickly gather that there is no torturer. No executioner. No flames to burn their souls eternally. It’s just the three of them, trapped in a deadlock. The other characters in the room are the punishment, as it were. The full version of the quote highlights this illustration of Sartre’s existentialist philosophy:

All those eyes intent on me. Devouring me. What? Only two of you? I thought there were more; many more. So this is hell. I’d never have believed it. You remember all we were told about the torture-chambers, the fire and brimstone, the “burning marl.” Old wives’ tales! There’s no need for red-hot pokers. HELL IS OTHER PEOPLE!

The Other, shame and objectification

The concept of “the Other” occupies a central place in Sartre. Consciousness is not alone in the world. It must accommodate itself with other minds, which are also fighting to exist. Solipsism is merely a gentle dream. The For-Itself (i.e. man) is also for others. You meet others without the form (i.e. from a phenomenological point of view). How can I interact with others? Through the body, the physical manifestation of my being-in-the-world.

Therefore, for Sartre, shame is the original feeling brought on by the realization of the existence of others. Sartre uses the example of looking through a keyhole, an act that – according to Sartre – induces a thrill because of the thought that someone might realize that I – the peeper – am looking through the keyhole. In that moment, one sees oneself as other people would see the me: as an object. Shame, in other words, is the shame of oneself in the gaze of the other. It is the crushing realization that I am little more to others than the physical manifestation of my body in their sight. And here intervenes the heart code of the game: I am as the number called in bingo, I may not be recalled once I have been pulled out and seen by everyone.

The Other is a scandal: the Other holds the power to freeze me into a being (vulgar, proud, shy, …) that I am not. The gaze of others exposes me, makes me weak and fragile, turns me into a subject:

If there is an Other, whatever or whoever he may be, whatever may be his relations with me, and without his acting upon me in any way except by the pure upsurge of his being – then I have an outside, I have a nature. “ (Being and Nothingness, p. 321)

The only defence left at one’s disposal is to transform others, to turn them into an object for my own consciousness and with my own characterization. We must rid ourselves of others, to escape and to reclaim oneself and the freedom that the Other’s gaze is depriving me of. Consciousness invents this subterfuge to continue to exist as a subject, in what constitutes yet another effort to resist the attempted subordination of the self by the gaze of the Other. This opens a moral dilemma.

Conclusion on the quote: “Hell is other people”:

The No Exit play by Sartre perfectly illustrates the difficult coexistence of people: the fact that others – and their gaze – is what alienates and locks me in a particular kind of being, which in turn deprives me of my freedom.

Sartre’s recent comeback­­­

The last few years have seen a renewed interest in Sartre’s life, works, and quotes. No Exit stands as one of the best expressions of Sartre’s early existentialist thought, serving as the literary illustration to many of the themes present in his philosophical opus Being and Nothingness (1943). It has also grown into a timeless illustration of the fluidity of being: since we are only determined by how people perceive us, a good deed made for bad intentions will be perceived as good, and a bad deed stemming from good intentions will be considered as bad.

This ephemerality, rather than being an eternal damnation as it is for the characters in No Exit came to be a form of freedom for Sartre, who repeatedly changed his stance on many issues. It is also a cause for hope in a context of greater uncertainty that has dominated the political climate since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the USSR.

Ultimately, renewed interest in Sartre is brought on both by the 100 year anniversary of his birth in 1905 as well as the relevance of his works to the present context. Enough to rank No Exit high in the favorite novels for college students (and indeed in must-have things for college) alongside Brave New World (Huxley), 1984 (Orwell), and A Farewell to Arms (Hemingway).

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