Hell Is Other People: What Did Sartre Mean?

French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre famously said, “Hell is other people”. This quote appears towards the end of Sartre’s play Huis Clos (No Exit), first published in 1944. A disenchanted and desperate verdict; it comes from one of the three characters trapped together in one room. Without giving too much away, let me say that the play’s entire plot builds on the interactions of these three persons who cannot leave the room. They are behind closed doors. So what did Sartre mean by “hell is other people”?

painting by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) - Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850)
William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905) – Dante And Virgil In Hell (1850)*

Let’s start by placing the work in its historical context. Huis Clos was first performed in Paris in May 1944 while France was still occupied by Nazi Germany. Paris was liberated several months later, in August 1944. Before the occupation, Sartre was conscripted into the French Army in 1939, where he served as a meteorologist until he was captured by the German Army in 1940 as a prisoner of war, returning to occupied Paris around a year later and joining the Resistance. It is against the background of these personal and collective experiences that Sartre wrote the play. 

On the one hand, it is unsurprising that Sartre felt hell could be as simple as “other people”, no demons or devil or any particular place required, given the harsh realities of war, imprisonment, and occupation he and his contemporaries lived through. On the other hand, it is surprising that his play, with its provocatively telling title (No Exit!), could proclaim such a verdict and still be allowed publicity. Perhaps the occupation’s censorship did not fully understand the work’s defiant spirit, or they were busy with other things.           

The play’s name, Huis Clos, has been variously translated to English to convey the desperateness of the existence the characters find themselves in – for example, No Way Out, Viscious Circle, Dead End. The original title refers to a Latin (legal) term for a discussion behind closed doors. This general sense of closedness, definiteness, and inevitability sets the background against which one of the people locked in that room exclaim that “hell is other people”. 

One little spoiler: there is no night and no sleep for the characters in the play. They are always there and cannot escape from each other. From each individual’s perspective, the others will always be in that room with them, looking, observing, interacting (even in silence). There is no chance of being on one’s own without the others. There is no possibility of rest in solitude, in being just your own person.  

The previous two angles of interpreting the play and the “hell is other people” quote have already shown that Sartre sees a fundamental tension inherent in the idea of personal freedom and authenticity. It is constantly in uneasy relation to the way others see me. 

The gaze of another is an essential topic for Sartre. By looking at us, others define us, and we are affected by their definitions. Although I may think whatever I want of my identity, others will interact with me based on their judgement of me, a judgement growing out of their interpretation of who I am from their perspective. This is evident in these words of a character addressed to the man who will respond with his grim verdict just a short while later:

“Don’t lose heart. It shouldn’t be so hard, convincing me. Pull yourself together, man, rake up some arguments. [no response follows] Ah, wasn’t I right when I said you were vulnerable? Now you’re going to pay the price, and what a price! You’re a coward, Garcin, because I wish it. I wish it – do you hear? – I wish it… So you’ve no choice, you must convince me, and you’re at my mercy.”

from Sartre’s Huis Clos, my emphasis  

To translate it to modern-day examples, think of all the damage ‘others’ can do to someone by defining that person in the eyes of society (again, ‘others’) through some viral deep fake type of story. It can take so little effort to shape who someone is in the eyes of ‘others’, no matter how this someone sees herself, that the whole concept of personal freedom and authenticity comes under question. 

To what extent do we determine who we are? To what extent are we at the mercy of others’ definition of us? Are we unwittingly transferring some of our self-determination power to the ‘others’ when we rely on their judgment of us a little too much, thus turning them into our personal torturers? Is a balance between the opposing powers of ‘I’ and ‘others’ possible?

The realisation of the forever-trapped-behind-closed-doors-of-others is what leads one of the characters of the play (Garcin) to declare:

“… with 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… There’s no need for red-hot pokers. Hell is other people!

from Sartre’s Huis Clos, my emphasis 

The play ends with all three characters sitting and looking at each other in silence when Garcin says, “Well, well, let’s get on with it…” With what, we might ask? If hell is whatever is torture, felt individually, and other people are defining the individual, then that is the agony Sartre reveals his characters are getting on with – defining each other for all eternity. Is there no escaping this? Maybe there is, and perhaps Sartre wished to shock his audience out of a complacent dream by giving his play a provoking title – No Exit.  

keep exploring!

*Image credit: By William-Adolphe Bouguereau – Unknown source, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=118662

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