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Sartre's Use of Hell as a Dramatic Device in the Play Huis Clos

By keanetl May 14, 2010 1607 Words
Sartre’s use of hell as a dramtic device in the play ‘Huis Clos’ is highly effective. It gives him a platform to explore his philosophical themes, in particular the objectifying gaze of the other, self deception, bad faith as well as the issue of human freedom and responsibility. It allows him to shock the audience by challenging their pre-conceived notion of hell. By shying away from the stereotypical view of hell Sartre challenges his audience to become introspective and ask uncomfortable questions of themselves. His use of hell as a dramtic device also gives him the chance to capture the full and total attention of his audience by creating an air of mystery and tension. I will be discussing these points in my essay. Sartre’s depiction of hell is not one which is traditonally held. There is no Satan, there are no damned souls burning in stench filled pits for eternity and there is no physical torture. Sartre’s illustration of hell is far more subtle and understated. He shows us a psychological hell which, in my opinion is far more terrifying than any devil with a pitchfork could ever be. ‘Hell’ in the play ‘Huis Clos’ is essentially a stuffy drawing room, decorated in the Style of the Second Empire. There are no windows, no mirrors and the only entrance is locked. Garcin is first to enter and he too is suprised by this ‘hell’ –‘Where are the instruments of torture?’ he naively asks. Inez is second to arrive and she too is expecting the more traditional hell, assuming that Garcin is the torturer rather than a damned soul ‘You? The torturer of course’. By depicting hell in familiar surroundings, Sartre immediately brings himself into conflict with the audience by challenging their belief of what exactly is hell? Surely hell cannot be a room with three people in it? Surely it must be more severe than this? It goes against everything we are hard wired to believe. From a young age we learn that familiar equals safe and in placing Hell in an unassuming drawing room Sartre effectively destroys this notion. By showing ‘hell is other people’ Sartre engages the audience and causes them to become introspective. It makes the audience think of their own sins, have they too like the characters in the play caused hell for other people? We do not like to think of ourselves as being capable of causing the hurt and distress which Garcin, Inez and Estelle continuously inflict upon one another in the play ‘Huis Clos’. However, the simple fact of the matter is that we are. Once you know someone you are ultimately capable of hurting them. This point is clearly illustrated multiple times in the play. From the moment Garcin, Ines and Estelle learn of each others characters and reasons for being in hell they use them to torture each other. Sartre effectively points out this darker side of humanity. It also shows the audience you cannot hide who you are or the bad choices you have made The plays clear lesson ‘your sins will find you out’ is one which resonates with audiences and critics alike, causing them discomfort and unease. Through his use of hell a a dramatic device Sartre is able to capture the audience by creating a sense of tension. The simplicity of one room and three characters is what gives rise to the brilliance of this play. By portraying hell as a small stuffy room with only three occupants Sartre forces the charachters to engage with one another. The tight setting only adds to their distress and torture of each other as there is no escape, they can neither avoid one another’s gaze or avoid one another’s judgement. It gives rise to complex and intricate dynamics among the group as they begin to ask things of one another. Estelle expresses her desire to be with Garcin, and Garcin reciprocates. However, he stops short of kissing her and says he wants her trust. He asks Estelle if he was a coward for running from the army and expresses doubt about the rightness of his actions. He asks Estelle to have faith in him. Estelle says he loves him, and Garcin says they will climb out of hell. Inez warns Garcin that Estelle is lying. Garcin dismisses both women in disgust. Garcin then approaches the door, searching for an escape. He rings the bell to summon the valet, but it doesn’t work. As he continues pounding on the door, Estelle begs him not to leave her and says she’ll go with him.

The door swings open, and Inez taunts Garcin that he can now leave. However, he finds he doesn’t want to, and the women hesitate as well. Estelle tries to convince Inez to leave so she and Garcin can be alone, but Garcin says he will stay because of Inez.He is totally consumed with how she sees him and desperately seeks her approval. Garcin vows that he will not leave the room unless Inez pronounces her faith in him. She does not, and Garcin, unable to exercise his freedom, instead chooses imprisonment. He concludes, “Hell is—other people!” We can see quite clearly from this that the characters in Huis Clos give each other the ammunition by which to destroy themselves. They both resist and rely on each other. Garcin initially begs for the women to be silent but then finds himself depending on them to validate him as a man. In declaring her love for Estelle, Inez provides Garcin with all he needs to torture her. Estelle clearly needs both Inez and Garcin to make her feel beautiful, like a woman. She wants Inez to be her mirror and craves physical affection from Garcin. Their relationships in Hell are warped and twisted, mirroring their warped and twisted relationships on earth. Even in the afterlife they cannot escape the people they once were. Garcin is still a coward who refuses to take responsibility for himself, Estelle is still vain, shallow and craves affection from others while Ines is still cruel.

The play's central themes of freedom and responsibility come from Sartre's doctrine that "existence precedes essence.". Sartre believed in the essential freedom of individuals, and he also believed that as free beings, people are responsible for all elements of themselves, their consciousness, and their actions. That is, with total freedom comes total responsibility. He believed that even those people who wish not to be responsible, who declare themselves not responsible for themselves or their actions, are still making a conscious choice and are thus responsible for anything that happens as a consequence of their inaction. The fear and anxiety of this responsibility leads many people to ignore both their freedom and their responsibility by letting other people make their choices for them, resulting in bad faith. This is why Garcin is unable to leave the room when the door opens. He can't handle the responsibility of confronting his decision to flee his country, and thus leaves it up to Inez to judge him and define his essence. Similarly, Estelle does not think that she exists unless she looks in a mirror, seeing herself as others do. When Inez pretends to be her "mirror" and says Estelle has a pimple on her face, Estelle's bad faith causes her to accept someone else literally creating her essence. Both Estelle and Garcin are not only "condemned to be free," but are willing to condemn themselves in order to avoid being free. This emphasis on bad faith establishes Sartre's underlying argument of the play: "Hell is other people." Using only three people and an empty room, Sartre evokes scenes of utter torture and despair. In effect, Inez can't stand Garcin looking at her because she thinks that he is automatically judging her. Since she thinks that is her own role, she accuses him of "stealing" her face. Garcin's mere existence thus reduces Inez's feelings of autonomy. Moreover, both Garcin and Estelle refuse to let go of their pasts, each "looking" at their friends and loved ones back on earth. They attempt to justify their existence by only thinking about their past experiences: as Garcin explains, his "fate" is the evaluation of his past actions by other people. Inez however, sees her past as meaningless and inaccessible, choosing to exist in the present instead. She insists to the others that "nothing" is left of them on earth and that "all you own is here." Rather than justify her existence in terms of the person she used to be, Inez asserts her freedom to choose her essence in the present, even though she is in hell. She is the only character in the play intent on confronting both her responsibility and her suffering--an essential step is asserting her existence. As Sartre explained, "Life begins on the other side of despair." Sartre’s use of hell as a dramatic device in this play is beyond genius. It gives him the perfect platform from which to discuss his philosophical beliefs. He effectively explores bad faith, the intensifying gaze of the other, the rights and responsibilites that come with human freedom and self deception by simply sticking three characters into a locked room together. Whats more is he enables himself to communicate and engage with his audience. He keeps them interested in whats going on. Sartre never allows the audience to become mere spectators, he constantly provides them the opportunity to participate in the psychological drama as it unfolds.

Sartres Acts for life pg73
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