Huis Clos (No Exit)


This may be merely my brain's attempt to justify the hundreds of dollars I recently spent on French-language books, but I feel lucky to have read Jean-Paul Sartre's 1944 existential black comedy Huis Clos (No Exit) in the original. It's been a while since I've read a piece in which the conventions of language are so obviously integrated into the meaning of the whole, in ways that defy translation—and I enjoyed that synthesis so much that upon finishing the play I immediately started again from the beginning and re-read it. In particular, it was Sartre's use of the familiar (tu) and formal/plural (vous) forms of "you"—common to Romance and other languages but nonexistent in English—that intrigued me, and added a surprising amount of depth to the characters' interactions.

The plot of Huis Clos involves three people, recently dead and arrived in Hell. Garcin, Inès and Estelle are shown, one after the other, into the Second Empire sitting room where they will be spending eternity together. The atmosphere is hot but not unlivable, and at first the deprivations seem surprisingly tolerable. No mirrors, for example. No beds and no toothbrushes; no windows; no ability to turn out the lights or open the door. Furniture no one particularly likes. Other than that, nothing too horrible. All three sinners expect gruesome punishments ("Where are the stakes?" asks Garcin), but no judge or executioner arrives. Instead, the three converse and gradually reveal themselves and their sins, becoming a perfect three-way trap of torment each for the others.

At one point, Garcin warns Estelle (who is perpetually hungry for male validation) that he will never love her: "je te connais trop" ("I know you too well"). This equation of human knowledge with distaste, and familiarity with painful vulnerability, is pervasive throughout the play, and Sartre underlines it brilliantly with his use of tu and vous. Whereas one would normally expect a person to use tu in more affectionate, sympathetic situations (such as conversations with a close friend, lover or spouse), and vous in colder, more formal situations or to emphasize a power differential (such as in a professional setting or a conversation between strangers), Sartre turns this expectation on its head. Most often, the periods of respect and temporary alliances between characters are marked by their use of vous with each other, whereas the use of tu is almost always either an attempt at emotional manipulation, or an act of outright cruelty.

Take this scene partway through the play, when the other two gang up on Estelle. Inès and Garcin have just finished an extended conversation with each other, in which they both relate the reasons they've been damned. They offer their revelations willingly, and are as sympathetic with one another as anyone ever is in this play; throughout their exchange, they use vous with each other. They then turn on Estelle, who has claimed not to know what she might have done to end up in Hell:

GARCIN: (à Inès) Oh! vous avez raison. (à Estelle.) A toi. Qu'est ce que tu as fait?
ESTELLE: Je vous ai dit que je n'en savais rien. J'ai beau m'interroger...
GARCIN: Bon. Eh bien, on va t'aider. Ce type au visage fricasée, qui est-ce?
ESTELLE: Quel type?
INES: Tu le sais fort bien. Celui dont tu avais peur quand tu es entrée.
ESTELLE: C'est un ami.
GARCIN: Pourquoi avais-tu peur de lui?
ESTELLE: Vous n'avez pas le droit de m'interroger.
INES: Il s'est tué à cause de toi?
ESTELLE: Mais non, vous êtes folle.

Here both Garcin and Inès transition from using vous in their relatively gentle conversation with each other, to using tu in their aggressive questioning of Estelle. Garcin's "A toi" in the opening line is a badge of contempt: he's indicating that her refusal to be truthful about her past is costing her any respect he may have had for her. Estelle is put in the defensive, pleading position, and continues to use vous with her tormentors—even when, as in the case of the last quoted line ("Mais non, vous êtes folle"), the gendered grammar makes it clear she's speaking to one of them alone, in this case Inès. Being addressed as vous is thus associated with the position of power and consent, whereas being called tu is the mark of force, of the act of depriving someone of their essential protective skin. I can't think of any way to pack this kind of meaning into an English translation without adding words that weren't there in the original—having Estelle say "Mr. Garcin," for example, or assigning words of contempt (child, idiot) to Garcin's and Inès's speech. Otherwise there's definitely less there:

GARCIN: (To Inès) Oh, you're right. (To Estelle.) And you. What is it you did?
ESTELLE: I told you I have no idea. I've tried to think...
GARCIN: Fine. We'll help you out. That fellow with the smashed face, who is he?
ESTELLE: What fellow?
INES: You know perfectly well. The one you were so afraid of when you came in.
ESTELLE: He's a friend of mine.
GARCIN: Why were you afraid of him?
ESTELLE: You have no right to interrogate me.
INES: Did he kill himself because of you?
ESTELLE: Of course not, don't be absurd.

The workings of tu and vous are explicitly acknowledged in another scene, which also involves the fascinating gender dynamics of the play. Here the lesbian Inès is trying to manipulate Estelle's affections by playing on her vanity and need for admiration. Inès offers to take the place of Estelle's absent mirror, attempting to insinuate herself into the girl's affections. She uses tu as part of her sweet-talk toward Estelle and asks the girl to reciprocate. But Estelle stubbornly continues to use vous with Inès, only lapsing into tu under pressure, and eventually admitting that "I find it hard to use tu with other women":

ESTELLE: Et c'est bien? Que c'est agaçant, je ne peux plus juger par moi-même. Vous me jurez que c'est bien?
INES: Tu ne veux pas qu'on se tutoie?
ESTELLE: Tu me jures que c'est bien?
INES: Tu es belle.
ESTELLE: Mais vous avez du goût? Avez-vous mon goût? Que c'est agaçant, que c'est agaçant.
INES: J'ai ton goût, puisque tu me plais. Regarde-moi bien. Souris-moi. Je ne suis pas laide non plus. Est-ce que je ne vaux pas mieux qu'un miroir?
ESTELLE: Je ne sais pas. Vous m'intimidez. Mon image dans les glaces était apprivoisée. Je la connaissais si bien...Je vais sourire: mon sourire ira au fond de vos prunelles et Dieu sait ce qu'il va devenir.
INES: Et qui t'empêche de m'apprivoiser? (Elles se regardent. Estelle sourit, un peu fascinée.) Tu ne veux décidément pas me tutoyer?
ESTELLE: J'ai de la peine à tutuoyer les femmes.


ESTELLE: Does it look alright? It's so annoying, not being able to judge for myself. Do you swear it looks alright?
INES: You don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: Do you (tu) swear it looks alright?
INES: You are beautiful.
ESTELLE: But do you (vous) have any taste? Do you share my taste? Oh, it's annoying, it's annoying!
INES: I have your taste, because I like you so much. Look at me. Smile at me. I'm not so ugly either. Aren't I better than a mirror?
ESTELLE: I don't know. You intimidate me. My reflection in the mirror was tamed. I knew it so well...I'm going to smile: my smile will sink to the bottom of your pupils and God knows what it will become.
INES: And what's keeping you from taming me? (They look at each other. Estelle smiles, slightly fascinated.) You really don't want to use tu with me?
ESTELLE: I find it hard to use tu with other women.

The power dynamic here is less clear-cut than in the previous scene, but again we see the use of tu as an attempted power play—although Estelle's withholding of tu gives her a certain amount of power as well. Indeed, Inès's imprisonment with a beautiful woman she desires (and desires to control), but who will never take her seriously because Inès is not a man, is a key element of Inès's torture. Estelle craves the male gaze, and Inès, despite all her cunning and manipulation, simply cannot provide it. "[M'addresser à] elle?" Estelle exclaims at one point. "Mais elle ne compte pas; c'est une femme." ("[Talk to] her? But she doesn't count; she's a woman.")

Being a woman while also believing the socialized message that women "don't count" makes, of course, for a person who is hard put to spend any time alone, and goes a long way toward explaining why women like Estelle crave constant validation from men. Not that the idea of female invalidity is limited to Estelle, or to women. Sartre acknowledges it as widespread—Garcin, in fact, thinks so little of his wife (low-born as well as female) that he feels no regret at having casually abused her for years, and neglects to even mention to his fellow-prisoners when she dies. Instead, he obsesses about the opinions his former (male) colleagues hold of him and of his actions. Given the famed feminism of Sartre's long-term partner Simone de Beauvoir I'm not sure why I was so surprised at the insightful depictions here of the traps of gender, but, like Sartre's use of language, they came as a welcome treat.

As, despite its darkness, did this entire play. After two readings I know it's one I'll be coming back to again and again, especially as I learn more about the larger framework of Sartre's philosophy.


  • This sounds fascinating. Since I can't read French I would be curious to see how it was translated into English given the importance of the use of tu and vous. Have you looked at an english translation to see how it was handled?

    • I haven't had time to nip into a library or bookstore to take a gander at the published translation(s), Stefanie, but I did look at the one English version I could find online (this one, linked to from the Wikipedia article among other places). It seems...fair-to-middling. It does what I suggested and uses "Mr. Garcin" or "Miss Serrano" to approximate the vous form, and pretty much sacrifices the contempt often shown via the use of tu. (I mean, it's still pretty obvious that the characters feel contempt for each other—you just don't get to chart the fluctuations of their power dynamics quite as closely without the tu/vous distinction.) In the scene with Estelle and Inès, Inès says "don't you want to call me Inès?" but Estelle soon reverts to calling her Miss Serrano. And Estelle's line then becomes "I don't make friends with women very easily"—which communicates the basic point about her character, although loses some of the nuance.

      I'd still recommend reading it in English, though! :-)

  • I read this in English a long, long time ago, and didn't have any idea what I was missing. Reading translations is great, but it seems like a good idea to learn something about the translation issues involved in whatever text one is reading, in order to get a fuller picture. I wouldn't mind reading a text full of footnotes, if I had to, in order to understand what's going on in the translation.

    • Reading translations is totally essential! But I'm like you, I'm generally quite interested in what the particular challenges were for a translator. I always read the translator's notes in novels although I usually skip the introductions (or only read them after the fact), and would welcome copious translation-related notes throughout a text if necessary. But even in English there would still be plenty in this play to keep a person thinking.

  • Nice to have you back, Emily, and wonderful snippets to comment on re: translation and gender. I haven't read any Sartre in years, but this brings back good memories of Les main sales) to me--so I may have to add it to the list once I recuperate from my own book buying binges of late. Until then, virtually rubbing my hands with glee over your upcoming series of posts on French lit as purchased on your trip!

    • Yay, I'm glad I'm not the only one rubbing my hands in glee over all the impending francophilia around here! :-) I'm surprised how much I'm enjoying these two plays (Les mouches is also in this volume)—I read some of Sartre's Les chemins de la liberté novels and HATED them, but that was many years ago and it's possible I would have a greater appreciation now.

  • What a wonderfully sensitive reading of the use of 'tu' and 'vous' in this play. I love Sartre's plays and think he really succeeded in dramatising his philosophical ideas on the stage. One of the points he was trying to illustrate was his belief that two people could agree, as it were, to create a relationship based on fantasy that exulted and reassured them narcissistically. But then a third person would come along and break up that positive mirroring, because they just wouldn't buy into it. Garcin, Estelle and Inez do this to each other all the time. They keep half fixing these relations, only to have the other person burst into the bubble. I'd never thought of it before reading your post, but it's possible that the 'vous' form shows the respect each has for the other in the mirror relationship, and the 'tu' is, exactly as you say, the contemptuous address to or from the person outside it.

    Have you read Les Mains sales? It's my favourite Sartre play. Huis Clos comes a close second, though.

    • Yes, I love your articulation of the third person as the destabilizing, destructive force to the fixed orbit of a couple. I definitely noticed that dynamic while reading but didn't phrase it to myself in quite that way. Now that I read your comment I'm reminded of Beauvoir's chronicle of these same years, where she writes about struggling with the notion of other peoples' subjectivity and her encounters with the first few people whom she was unable to bring into her own sphere of influence (e.g., who didn't buy into her own constructed bubble). Fascinating!

      And no, I haven't yet read Les mains sales, but with endorsements from you & Richard I definitely will in the future. I'm reading Les mouches (which is also included in this volume), and quite enjoying it, though.

  • I too read this years ago in English and didn't know what I was missing. Though I don't remember much specific from the play, the themes have been coming to mind lately and I'd been thinking about re-reading it someday. Now I know to definitely do so in French. Excellent post and insights, thanks for sharing!

    • And the vocab is very manageable in French; anyone who thinks they might want to give it a try really should. Glad you enjoyed this one & I'd be very interested in your thoughts when/if you do pick it up.

  • When reading translations of languages that distinguish between formal and informal address, I've always wondered how much was lost. It's so obvious that there are shadings and subtleties there that you just can't replicate in English. (Japanese, meanwhile, has multiple forms depending on who's talking to who.) It's reviews like this that get me motivated to work on my Spanish.

    • I know, I thought about the same thing when we all read Conversation in the Cathedral. Richard said there was a lot going on with the formal & informal address that got lost in English translation. I mourn for my lost Spanish of these days I'll climb back up that hill. :-)

      And Asian languages seem like a whole other level of difficult to me. Japanese has a zillion forms and Mandarin & other Asian languages have differing meanings according to inflection. Whoa.

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography