Is hell a place or is it people?

Is hell a place or is it the people around us?

Huis Clos (No Exit) is a French existentialist play by Jean-Paul Sartre, first performed in Paris in 1944, that has long been considered a literary masterpiece for its ability to translate philosophy into a palatable form. As if hiding beneath a cloak, complex philosophical ideas are disguised as drama, making them more digestible. The reader is inundated with intelligent ideas without even realising. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of dramatic tension in Huis Clos to define it as drama, but there’s also so much more, and this is no exaggeration employed in a putrid attempt to persuade you to read a play you probably have no intention of reading – but it may just change your life. Or at least change the way you see it.

Garcin, Estelle and Inès are three individuals condemned to hell for eternity, bound together as one in a vicious and destructive cycle of torment compared to horses chasing after each other on a carousel. The room becomes a prison as each character is unable to escape the eyes of the others; burning light and burning heat mirror a scrutiny so strong I’m surprised it doesn’t burn a hole through their sanity, shackling each sinner to the next and ensuring the shedding of false facades. Each character is both tortured and torturer, yet the most painful torture which cuts the deepest wounds is the inability to escape from themselves as they’re finally forced to face up to their sins. It’s a judgement day that never ends.

“L’enfer, c’est les autres.” This is one of those illustrious quotes that roll off the tongue faster than the brain can process it, and has even been described as “The Most Famous Thing Jean-Paul Sartre Never Said”. It translates to “hell is other people” and seems to portray human relationships as unreasonably poisonous, especially in relation to those in the play. It almost makes you want to dig a hole and hide. What must be remembered is that the ‘others’ will always be there, watching us when we’re not looking – this is a certainty of civilisation. It only becomes hell if we chain ourselves to their expectations and shape our lives in response to their judgement; by doing this, we create our own prison and lock ourselves inside. A fundamental principle of existentialism, the philosophical movement most associated with Sartre and this play, is that we as individuals have the power to create our existence; life is a blank canvas and only we hold the paintbrush, the key to setting ourselves free.

The play has occasionally been criticized for being “too philosophical,” seemingly “more concerned with ideas than individuals.” I would say this reaction simply depends on your brain capacity as to whether or not you perceive ‘philosophy’ as a synonym for ‘incomprehensible nonsense’, however, it’s probably more related to your perception of literature itself. Is literature blatant escapism, a way to become increasingly deluded by fantasy, or is it a path to realising reality?

It’s a magical experience reading Huis Clos, despite it being destined for the stage, for you come close to meeting the secret of our existence face to face and shaking his hand; you realise what it truly means to be human and recognise the reality of hell.