Philosophy: Bad Faith in Sartre’s “No Exit”

19th century philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, in his book Being and Nothingness, classifies two distinct modes of being in the world. The first is being-in-itself, which is how inanimate objects exist in the world around us. These beings exist explicitly as objects—for example, a piano is a piano, and is unable to actively choose to become something else. A piano cannot think about itself, and can only be thought about by others; it can never be its own subject. Being-in-itself is contrasted with being-for-itself, which is what human beings fall under. Being-for-itself allows for true consciousness and the unique property of free will— this type of being is able to determine the meaning, or essence, of their own existence. The ability to determine one’s own meaning is daunting, however—Sartre describes human beings as, “condemned to be free,” because with freedom comes responsibility, and with responsibility comes existential anxiety. Human beings attempt to escape existential anxiety by giving up their freedom to others. Humans allow other humans to create meaning for them, which is a form of what Sartre refers to as “bad faith.” In a broader sense, bad faith encompasses any form of self-deception. Bad faith can take many forms, whether it be living in the past or defining one’s being as a social category. For example, Sartre argues that it is impossible to “be” a waiter. A man can be a waiter at some point in his life, but that does not define his entire existence. The category of “waiter” has been pushed upon a human being by others. Most of the time, humans are unable to transcend their roles or social categories. Instead, we measure our self-worth by gauging our performance as these social categories. One might find meaning in being a good feminist, a star athlete, or a renowned scholar; one rarely finds meaning in simply “existing well.” Other times, we seek relationships with others to escape existential anxiety. We pursue relationships not because we are attracted to others, but because we like how they look at us, how they perceive us. We avoid becoming our own subject to avoid self-criticism, because we prefer the false reality that the other’s look gives us—Sartre calls this being-for-others. The play No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre is an elaborate allegory for bad faith: the playwright uses characterization of Estelle, Garcin, and Inez to portray different modes of being—being-for-others, being-in-itself, and being-for-itself, respectively.

Estelle represents being-for-others, which is evident in her lack of self-awareness. She has no sense of self that comes from within; rather, she relies on external objects’ perceptions of her to give her an identity. Estelle is a superficial and naïve woman obsessed with outward appearance, a facet of being inextricably linked to the gaze of others. Whenever she realizes that there are no mirrors in Hell, Estelle informs the others of her lack of self-awareness unashamedly, stating “When I can’t see myself I begin to wonder if I really and truly exist,” (19). Inez, who is attracted to Estelle, offers to act as a mirror for Estelle. Inez describes what she sees aloud to a grateful Estelle. What Estelle does not realize is that, through this action, Inez has stolen subjectivity from her. By believing what Inez says about her, Estelle has ceded her own ability to determine her self-perception. The fault in this logic becomes evident when Inez falsely leads Estelle to believing she has a blemish on her cheek. Estelle becomes flustered until Inez admits that there was never a pimple in the first place. Inez confronts Estelle, asking “Suppose the mirror started telling lies?” (21). As humans, we cannot allow external objects to pass judgment on ourselves, for only the self has intentions which further the self’s goals. Inez continues pressing Estelle in the play. “Suppose I covered my eyes—as he is doing—and refused to look at you. All that loveliness would be wasted on the desert air,” (21). Estelle’s obsession with looks is inherently rooted in bad faith—she is finding meaning in her existence that can only be appreciated by beings outside the self. One who is a being-for-others will inevitably face conflict in relationships with other people, because their reason for seeking the relationship is not for love; rather, one seeks a relationship because they find comfort and meaning in how their lover views them. A being-for-others escapes the self, the harshest critic and only basis for reality, and instead lives vicariously through their lover’s perception of them. In No Exit, Estelle is separated from her lover, Peter. She continues to trust in bad faith, however, yearning, “Peter dear, think of me, fix your thoughts on me, and save me. All the time you’re thinking “my glancing stream, my crystal girl,” I’m only half here. I’m only half wicked, and half of me is down there with you, clean and bright and crystal-clear as running water…” (32). Estelle has no sense of self without her other half; when she does not have that other half, she is forced to reject her current situation and instead live in the past.

Garcin is the character which Sartre utilizes to display the lifestyle of being-in-itself. His reliance on others to ascribe his life meaning is most obvious in his incessant need to be told he is courageous. Garcin, upon being asked why he is in Hell, responds with a half-truth: “I ran a pacifist newspaper… have I done anything wrong?” (16). He does not admit to his desertion of the Brazilian army, a decision that haunts him until (and after) his death. It is regret which causes him to adopt bad faith. First, he lives in the past: he watches his coworkers discuss his desertion, listens as they condemn him for his cowardice. “He’s talking about me […] Nothing worth repeating. He’s a swine, that’s all,” (36). While he pretends that their gossip does not bother him—and it does— readers know otherwise through a later scene with Estelle. He begs her to call him courageous, thinking her declaration will allow him to overcome his fears. “If you make the effort, if you will it hard enough […] we can really love each other. A thousand of them proclaiming me a coward; but what do numbers matter? If there’s someone, just one person, to say quite positively I did not run away […]—well, that faith would save me. Will you have that faith in me?” (40). Unfortunately, Estelle herself has a problem with being-for-others, so she cannot supply the perception that Garcin aches for. Secondly, Garcin uses bad faith by designating his wife, a simple being that is, as a narrow social category. By doing so, Garcin is able to have sex with another woman in his own household, while his wife was home, without feeling remorse. He knew his wife could overhear them, but he also knew she would be too timid to confront him about it. His excuse? “She was a martyr from birth; a victim by vocation,” (23). By ascribing the social role of martyr to his wife, he dehumanizes her and creates an empathetic obstacle he is never able to overcome. He cannot feel compassion for his wife when he views her as anything less than a being which simply exists. Garcin turns once again to bad faith to deal with his past sins—rather than accepting the past as is, he relives it.  He watches over her: “Yes, my wife. She’s waiting at the entrance of the barracks. She comes there every day,” (34). His wife has been faithful up until the end, and he is forced to watch the result of his bad faith for the rest of eternity.

Inez comes closest to Sartre’s ideas of being-for-itself, evidenced by her acceptance of her condition and her control over the other characters. From the outset of the play, Inez never deludes herself. Instead, she lives in the moment and accepts her fate. “Life begins on the other side of despair,” (16) becomes her mantra. Inez also never questions whether or not she deserves her punishment. As others deny their bad faith, she laughs and criticizes them: “Yes, we are all criminals […]—all three of us. We’re in hell, my pets; they never make mistakes,” (16). Inez foils Estelle who is reliant on others for self-image; she needs no external objects to give her meaning. She states, “I’m always conscious of myself in my mind. Painfully conscious,” (16). Self-awareness is what gives Inez control over her own fate. Sartre does not provide us with a perfect character, however. While she may be living her life as a being-for-itself, she still indulges in bad faith. She utilizes their weaknesses to control the other characters: acting as a mirror for Estelle, she falsely leads her to believe a pimple exists on her face when it does not, and she also refuses to call Garcin a courageous man. She is a self-proclaimed sadist, a foil to Estelle who lives to only give pleasure to others. Inez also is the only character in the play who has a profound understanding of Sartre’s idea of the look. “Forget about the others? How utterly absurd. I feel you there, in every pore. Your silence clamors in my ears. You can nail up your mouth, cut your tongue out—but you can’t prevent your being there. Can you stop your thoughts? I hear them ticking away like a clock, tick-tock, tick-tock, and I know you hear mine. […] every sound comes to me soiled, because you’ve intercepted it along the way. Why, you’ve even stolen my face; you know it and I don’t,” (34). Her understanding is the underlying factor that allows her to live her life in better faith than the rest of the characters, though she also is evidence of the need for balance between nothingness and social roles that Sartre believed was necessary to force order into nothingness and give our lives meaning.

In No Exit, the characters Estelle, Garcin, and Inez are unknowingly pitted against one another in a battle of subjectivity. While Hell seemingly offers them quite a bit of freedom, they choose to deal with both regrets in their past life and adversity in their current one through what Sartre argues to be bad faith. Estelle is guiltiest of this, existing as a being-for-others. Garcin lives as a being-in-itself, while Inez arguably becomes a being-for-itself. Condemned to be in the company of one another for eternity, the play ends with the characters still at one another’s throats—will they ever be able to escape their bad faith and coexist? In No Exit, Garcin comes to the conclusion that “Hell is other people.” In Being and Nothingness, Sartre states, “I am never any one of my attitudes, any one of my actions.”  By reaching the epiphany that everyone is simply a being who exists while simultaneously utilizing one’s social role to better their true existence, one can finally live a life in good faith—unfortunately, the characters in No Exit never have that “Eureka!” moment. Their fictional failure to do so does not condemn the reader to the same fate. While it is easy to dismiss the play as pessimistic, Sartre is merely critiquing the zero-sum mindset of the status quo when it comes to well-being. No Exit is a reminder that existence is only something that is what it is.


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