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Garcin, one of the three protagonists in the play, is the first to arrive in Hell. He is surprised to find that he is led into a Second Empire drawing room of ordinary appearance; there are no instruments of torture, fire, or brimstone as in the typical portrayal of Hell.
During the course of the play, it is learned that Garcin lived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where he worked for a newspaper. He was married to a weak-willed wife, whom he treated cruelly. Night after night he would go out on her to entertain himself with wine and women. One night he even brought a girl home to sleep with him with his wife asleep upstairs. He tries to justify his cruel treatment of his wife by saying she brought it on herself.
Garcin is soon joined in Hell by two women, Inez and Estelle. Since he prefers the company and approval of men, it is ironic that he must spend eternity with two females, neither of which he is attracted to. He does, however, try to impress them with the fact that he was brave and noble on earth. In truth, he was a coward. During the war, he deserted the battle and tried to cross the border into Mexico. When he was spotted by the authorities, he was shot twelve times.
Garcin is the protagonist who realizes that "hell is other people." From the moment of their arrival, he is tortured by the presence of Inez and Estelle. He really just wants to be left alone, but that opportunity is not given to him. Estelle, who lusts for his body, is constantly trying to attract his attention. When he finally gives in to her and thinks about making love, he cannot become intimate because Inez is there watching his every move. In frustration, he pounds on the door to get out of the room. Amazingly the door opens; however, Garcin does not depart. He cannot leave with Inez thinking that he is a coward; he must stay and try to change her mind, which she will never do. In the end, Garcin accepts that his torturous fate is to exist forever with Estelle and Inez. As the play closes, he calmly says, "Well, well, let's get on with it."
Inez is the most honest and realistic of the three protagonists. She is also the first to accept that she has been placed in the room with Estelle and Garcin for a reason, for nothing happens by chance. In truth, she is a lesbian who longs to have Estelle for herself. Estelle, however, desires Garcin and shuns Inez, creating a constant torture for her. She becomes insanely jealous of Garcin and frustrated over her desire for Estelle; unable to control Estelle, she is really at her mercy.
Early in the play, Inez, a postal clerk on earth, admits that she lived a sinful life, taking a diabolical pleasure in the pain she inflicted on others. Without remorse, she sucked the life out of each of her female lovers, controlling their minds and bodies. Her last victim was Florence, whom she expected to see in Hell. Inez tells Garcin and Estelle that she was damned on earth, so she is not surprised to be damned to Hell. Because of her honesty, Inez is quickly able to see through the lies of Estelle and Garcin. She knows that the two of them cannot be as noble and righteous as they claim to be or they would not be damned to Hell with her. By pushing and prodding, Inez finally manipulates the other two inhabitants of her room to tell their true stories.
Throughout the play, Inez is rude and mocking as she utters her existential truths. In many ways, she becomes a mouthpiece for Sartre himself. It is she who explains that a person has the freedom to become who or what they want in life; but she reminds Estelle and Garcin that in death, it is "too late," for they are no longer free to change their image or shape their future. In Hell, they are stuck in the nothingness of existence.
Inez admits that she is not a complex person, nor does she desire to be. When Garcin tells her she should think about her existence and put herself in order, she immediately retorts, "My life was in perfect order. It tidied itself nicely of its own accord. So I need not bother about it now." She also calmly explains her own death. Frustrated with the death of her husband and Inez's control over her, Florence turns on the gas while they sleep; both of them perish. With similar calmness on the outside, Inez accepts the fact that Estelle rejects her and spits in her face.
When Estelle tries to push Inez out the open door so that she can have Garcin alone and all to herself, Garcin amazingly saves her. His whole purpose in staying in Hell is to convince Inez that he is really not a coward; Inez, however, will never believe that he is anything else. She will continue to be his "hell," just as Estelle is hers.