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Decisions, Decisions: the Portrayal of Bad Faith in No Exit

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Jean-Paul Sartre once said, “I am condemned to freedom. I am not free because I can make choices, but because I must make them, all the time, even when I think I have no choice to make.” His play, No Exit, was written to critique society’s lack of free will. As an existentialist, Sartre would believe that our existence comes before our essence; our essence is not innate. It is a lifelong journey to find our purpose, and we have ultimate free will to create it (“Existentialism”). Mauvaise foi or “bad faith” is a term used to refer to the inauthenticity that manifests inside of people. This aligns with how we refuse to be held accountable for our actions due to factors we claim to be dispositional or part of our given role in society (Cline). Sartre would argue that bad faith strips people from their free will because we solely base our decisions and behavior on those named factors as well. Sartre’s No Exit depicts Hell as a locked Second Empire style drawing room that we assume is in a hotel. Trapped in this room lies Joseph Garcin, Inez Serrano, and Estelle Rigault. Although the three did not want to admit the reasoning behind their placement in Hell, eventually, we find that Garcin was a serial cheater; Estelle drowned her child because it was a product of extramarital relations; and Inez had relations with her cousin’s wife. From then on, they torture each other for eternity, as Garcin wants Inez to believe that he is not a coward, Inez wants Estelle’s love, and Estelle wants Garcin’s love. Given what we know from the play, their desires are not fulfilled, even though the characters (mainly Garcin and Estelle) base all their decisions off of what they think might reach their goal. The depiction of bad faith that was exhibited through the characters of Garcin and Estelle satirize this lack of free will.

Joseph Garcin arguably displays the most bad faith out of the three main characters in No Exit. He dismisses his bad faith as simply being polite as seen on page nine, where Inez began badgering him for just merely moving his face: “There you are! You talk about politeness, and you don’t even try to control your face. Remember you’re not alone; you’ve no right to inflict the sight of your fear on me.” Garcin obeys Inez without a second thought because he is afraid of confrontation. He does not want to be put in a position in which he must defend his actions. Garcin bends to the will of the others like this on several other occasions. He depends on them to form his identity as well. On page thirty-nine Garcin says to Estelle, “I dare say we can really love each other. Look at it this way. A thousand of them are proclaiming I’m a coward; but what do numbers matter? If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away, that I’m brave and decent and the rest of it–well, that one person’s faith would save me.” Once again, we can see Garcin’s self-deception, as he will never be able to truly love Estelle, and he is only using her to make himself feel like there is even the merest figment of courage in his body. He cannot make the conscious decision to present himself in the way he would like to be seen as, thus making him seem more cowardly. Estelle does not give him the pleasure of thinking that he is some brave soul, which in turn destroys his already damaged ego a bit more. At one point nearing the end of the play, Inez taunts Garcin for believing that Estelle thought he was not a coward in saying that Estelle solely wants to use his body, and she confirms Inez’s statement by saying that she would love Garcin even if he was a coward. This angers Garcin, leading him to begin banging on the door, and he says, “Anything, anything would be better than this agony of mind, this creeping pain that that gnaws and fumbles and caresses one and never hurts quite enough… Now will you open? (Sartre 41).” To his surprise, the door swings open, and Inez prompts him to leave, like he said he would. Garcin refuses to leave, making it apparent that he is staying so that Inez wouldn’t feel satisfaction with his absence. Him making the decision to stay is an excellent example of bad faith. Once again, he is unable to be alone with himself because he cannot bare the feeling of being a coward. He longs for Inez’s approval more than Estelle’s at this point because he feels as if Inez hates him and will not be content with himself until he gets it.

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The bad faith of Estelle Rigault inherently comes from how she objectifies herself. Estelle tries to see her reflection in Inez’s eyes in order to fix her lipstick, but she tells her that she cannot see. On page twenty, Inez says to her, “But I can. Every inch of you. Now ask me questions. I’ll be as candid as any looking-glass.” Estelle allows Inez to assist her in applying her lipstick verbally, and she describes it as “crueler” and more “diabolical” than it was when she entered. Estelle’s bad faith then begins to show as she is disappointed by this because she wanted to look her best in hopes of gaining Garcin’s attention. She is willing to let Garcin take away her agency in making decisions solely based on what she thinks Garcin would be pleased by. Estelle was able to see what was occurring on Earth with her husband, Peter, and Olga, a woman she despised. Her view began to fade after Olga told Peter about Estelle’s affair, which saddened her. She asked Garcin to hold her and he declined. She then says, “Don’t turn away. You’re a man, aren’t you, and surely I’m not such a fright as all that! Everyone says I’ve lovely hair and, after all, a man killed himself on my account (Sartre 33).” This is yet another instance in which she wishes to be objectified by Garcin. She only wants to be seen as her looks or her hair, and completely disregards the content of her character. She only feels valid when the male gaze is upon her. When the male gaze is not upon Estelle, she is simply existing, as she has built her entire self around it. On page forty-one, Garcin tries to leave and she begs him not to. “I beg you, oh, I beg you not to leave me. I’ll promise not to speak again, I won’t trouble you in any way—but don’t go. I daren’t be left alone with Inez, now she’s shown her claws.” Without a man present, she has no one that will fulfill her need to be looked at in the way that she wants. Also, there are slight conflicts in power dynamics here, as Estelle is of the upper class, and Inez is but a lowly post clerk. Estelle does not want to be stuck with Inez as the societal power she had during her life would be decreased by Inez’s mere presence, although it is quite arbitrary.

The depiction of bad faith in Sartre’s No Exit that was exhibited through the characters of Garcin and Estelle satirizes the lack of free will in society. The two had ultimately sacrificed their free will to appear to be more appealing to their fellow roommates. The message presented in this play is still relevant today. We all feel arbitrary societal pressures to fit in and be liked by others, and this prohibits us from being our true selves. Only through removing ourselves from these pressures will we be able to make our lives meaningful. With that being said, we can understand why Sartre’s famous quote is “Hell is other people.”

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