It’s hard to fit No Exit into a genre. Whether you read it as intended, in play format, or as a short novel, it sits in its own surreal state. There are no act structures throughout, making the piece continuous.
As far as story lines go, this too is surreal.
Centred around three characters, Joseph, Inès and Estelle, they find themselves led to a mysterious room by a valet. A room that has no way out, including the door in which they came through.
As each of the characters enter the room, three distinct personalities begin to emerge. Unfortunately for them, they’re all the types that clash, leading to bitter arguments and distrust. This is where the tension of the book comes from.
The twist of it all is that the characters are no longer alive, but dead. This room they find themselves in is Hell.
They all know that they’re dead, as of course, each experienced their own deaths, but this isn’t what they were expecting, nor is the reader. Hell is often symbolised as high burning flames, stakes and torture devices, not a room with three strangers in.
During their arguments, they each reveal the reasons why they died, and what it was in their lives that led them in this direction.
Existentialism plays a significant role in this play. Characters discussing their lives, what they would do different, and whether it matters anyway. In visions, they see the lives of those they left behind, only to see them moving on from their deaths. This brings more significant pain as it makes them think they had no real imprint on anyone else’s lives.
Sartre himself has gone on record as viewing the world as an irrational and meaningless place. He also claimed that the vastness of nothing left him feeling nauseated, something he spent much of his life fighting against.
In summary, No Exit is a strange piece of literature to recommend. On the one hand, it’s well written, concise and has deep meaning, and on the other, it can be deemed too surrealist to the point of becoming almost mundane.
And when I say surrealist, I don’t mean like Louis Aragon or Salvador Dali, but more in an everyday kind of way. The tasks we do every day, but they’re happening in a small room contained in hell.
For me, this book is a not recommend. Unfortunately, I had high hopes going in, and maybe that was the problem. It felt unspectacular given its high praise in other outlets.
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Note: Here is an excellent video talking about Sartre’s use of existentialism within No Exit. Although I don’t agree entirely, it’s certainly worth a watch for those looking to get more information about the themes.