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After their deaths, the three main characters (Garcin, Estelle, and Inez) are brought to Hell by a room-valet. It is an unexpected picture of the underworld -- devoid of torture and furnished like a Second Empire drawing room. There are, however, few conveniences, such as windows, mirrors, or toothbrushes. There are lights, which cannot be turned off, a bell, which rarely works, and a door, which normally opens only when the room-valet brings in a new arrival.
Garcin, the first of the three to arrive in Hell, comes from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he worked as a journalist. Estelle, who pretends to be sophisticated and worries about her appearance, comes from Paris, France. Inez, who worked as a postal clerk, complains that she lived a hell on earth.
Garcin pretends to be a brave, principled, and noble man, but he really lived an evil, shallow and cowardly existence. As a husband, he treated his wife cruelly and enjoyed torturing her. One time he even brought home a poor young girl and slept with her in his own house with his wife's knowledge. He tries to defend his behavior by saying his wife was so weak and sensitive that she seemed to encourage his cruel treatment. In truth, she did adore Garcin and seemed to enjoy her suffering. As a journalist, Garcin ran away from duty the moment he sensed danger. Now he tries to defend himself by saying that he simply left to set up a new newspaper. Inez sees through Garcin's lies and mocks him, forcing him to finally reveal the truth about himself.
Like Garcin, Estelle is also a hypocrite; her true character is the opposite of the noble person that she pretends to be. She claims to have sacrificed her youth, marrying a man three times older than she was, for the sake of her delicate younger brother; in truth, she simply married the man for his money and soon took a younger lover. After she had her lover's baby, which she did not want, she drowned the child in a Swiss lake, causing her lover to commit suicide.
Inez, attracted to Estelle, thinks she will be able to treat her in the same manner as she treated her friends on earth; but Estelle resists Inez. When she realizes that Estelle is attracted to Garcin, Inez grows jealous and watches their every move, trying to make sure that they have no chance to make love. Whenever Estelle and Garcin become romantic, she squeals to interrupt them.
To make their existences in Hell more miserable, Garcin, Estelle, and Inez are all able to see back to earth and view their acquaintances. Inez complains that her room has already been rented, for she sees a strange couple sitting on her bed. Garcin looks into the pressroom of his newspaper and complains that the employees are saying ugly things about him.
Garcin finally admits that he has faced death like a coward. He tries to console himself, saying that he had a short lapse in bravery, which could happen to anyone. Not wanting to be judged for his failure, he turns to Estelle for reassurance. Inez mocks him and says that Estelle will assure him of anything, for she is desperate for a man. Feeling totally frustrated, Garcin goes to the door and tries to open it. To his amazement, the door opens, but he does not exit through it. He claims that he must stay and convince the others that he is not a coward. Amazingly, Inez and Estelle also stay inside the room, never trying to escape through the open door.
Garcin, accepting that he is in Hell for good, says that Hell is really "other people." Estelle seems to agree, for she picks up a knife and stabs Inez several times. Inez reminds her that those who are dead cannot be killed again. Suddenly the three of them realize that they have chosen to be together in Hell forever . . . with No Exit. They slump onto their sofas and laugh heartily at the choice they have made. As the curtain starts to fall, Garcin says, "Well let's get on with it."