Sartre on Consciousness: A life based on Choices or One Molded by Society?
In Being and Nothingness, Sartre emphasizes the importance of choices in individual people’s lives. He states that people must bear responsibility for their actions no matter the situation. He draws out his point further through his play, No Exist. Each character is placed in hell because of the choices they had made. However, the characters excuse their behavior on external factors of society at the beginning. Sartre slowly develops the characters to admit their devilish actions by making them look internally into their conscience. Particularly, Estelle and Garcin move toward an ethic of authenticity by the end of the play. Inez becomes the key to unlocking the other two characters’ most inner consciousness. She tells each person to be truthful to themselves and confess their crimes. This exemplifies Sartre’s strong argument for a world where individuals develop their consciousness to take responsibility for their choices—rather than blaming society for molding them into the beings they are.
Garcin, upon initially talking with Inez and Estelle, states that he was killed as an innocent man since he was simply trying to be a pacifist against war. Indirectly, he blamed those who shot him for killing a man who simply wanted to “ stand by one’s principles”. Estelle even added that he was a hero. At this point he is excusing his actions. However, Sartre shows that those excuses are truly what make a human weak. Confessing the burden of what you are is crucial to living righteously—even if that means doing confessing after death, in hell. To exemplify this, Inez wakes Garcin by telling him, “you are your life and nothing else.” Through Inez’s statement, Sartre emphasizes that a person’s life is the choices that they make rather than what the world makes of them. As the play comes to an end, Garcin had the choice to leave the torture chamber. Yet, he stayed in order to prove to himself to his greatest critic—Inez. He wants to prove that he realizes what he is and is willing to work to change himself. Sartre proves here that individuals should accept who they are but, they should realize that they can work to become other than what they are. By choosing to change oneself, one can live with the ethic of authenticity at hand. Yet, a question to consider is that he let Inez judge his life rather than making his own choices that proves his incomplete transition of living an authentic life.
Estelle had at first protested to being in hell since she convinced herself that she hadn’t a notion why she was placed in hell. Moreover, she had accused the higher authorities of hell of placing her in hell by mistake since she simply died of pneumonia. Then confesses to having an affair and drowning her baby. She tries to justify her existence by looking at her past. In response, Inez tries to awaken Estelle from what used to be by explaining that nothing is left of them on earth. She tells Estelle, “ all you own is here.” While Inez confronts her suffering directly and seems to live in the present, Estelle lingers to the last minute of the play in the past. Until the second she tries to kill Inez, Estelle’s conscience couldn’t bear responsibility for her actions—which meant she was in denial and had forgotten that she was already in hell, dead.
Sartre believes that we are authors of our own lives. Through the characters in No Exist, he shows the difficulty that humans face when it comes to bearing responsibility for their action. Inez was the driving force that slowly moved Estelle and Garcin into a more authentic life after death. However, both characters aren’t fully conscious of their own choices and excuse the world around them for their own selections. To liberate themselves, they need to bear responsibility for their actions and understand that they are the only ones who can change their own selves.