"Hell is other people" – the most famous thing Jean-Paul Sartre "never said." That’s in shock quotes because one of his characters says it, and that character just happens to be most probably a bit of self-satire on Sartre’s part. So, did Sartre really never say it?
I think what’s fair to say is that he never really meant it.
Having just read No Exit for the first time, two things strike me about the line: (1) It’s conspicuously general and (2) it’s uttered by a self-deceptive character.
The setup of No Exit is famous. Three people – pacifist deserter Joseph Garcin, cruel and manipulative lesbian postal clerk Inez Serrano, and narcissist Estelle Rigault – have all recently died and are in Hell together, and Hell takes the form of a tastelessly furnished and stuffy drawing room where they will sit forever in each other’s company. The trick, of course, is that they are all singularly unsuited to helping each other with the personal failings that landed them in Hell in the first place. Worse that that, each seems to be something the other needs, but on closer inspection is not. So, the interaction between the characters is in fact toxic. They are drawn to each other for the wrong reasons, and drawn only close enough to then repulse each other.
The room is presented as locked and inescapable, but that interestingly turns out not to be true. After Garcin loudly declaring that he will force the door open, the door simply … opens. But the hall is hot, and there is some reason to believe that outside the room is simply conventional Hell, with red-hot pokers and physical torture and so on, and so Garcin simply declines to exit, without explanation.
The point, of course, is that each character is a bit too impressed with the situation. Each knows he’s in Hell, and each assumes that Hell is forever, because that’s what he’s been told, but nothing ever definitively establishes that they can’t escape. Indeed, the setup hints that they can escape if they somehow learn to care for each other, but the prognosis of that happening is grim, given who they are.
In Garcin’s case, he has always been insecure about his masculinity. He has learned to put on a powerful air, and this enables him to womanize, but when it comes time to actually be brave and do what is required of him (join the war effort), he flees. He suspects he is a coward, and as his manhood has always been validated by his amorous conquests, he needs a woman to believe that he is not a coward. Unfortunately for him, the two women he finds himself with in the room are a lesbian and a narcissist. Estelle will admire him, but only because she needs male attention – and really any man will do. Without another man in the room to compare himself to, Garcin can’t ever really know if Estelle responds to him because of his character, or simply because he’s the only available man. Then again, should another man show up in the room, it’s not clear it would help, as Estelle is likely simply attracted to whichever gives her more attention.
Garcin says "Hell is other people" at the moment he’s resigining himself to eternal life in this room. He’s perplexed by the apparent conundrum that he needs to prove to himself that he’s a man to find salvation, but that "being a man" is a thing that’s ultimately for other people to judge, and yet they need to judge it based on his inner conviction. How can a thing that’s evaluated socially be an inner quality? It’s a social quality that must be innate – an impossible thing.
Or seemingly so.
But the pronouncement is too general. "Hell is these other people" would be more like it. Garcin cannot be a man before a lesbian and an attention whore. He needs to earn the admiration of a woman of character, but Estelle is not such a thing, and even if Inez were such a thing, which she isn’t, she wouldn’t be interested.
The pronouncement is also probably not even correct. Hell is other people so long as you grant them power over you. Ah, but is that power optional? Can a person be defined in himself without reference to others? Maybe not, but the others around you are also defined by you. Garcin, and everyone in the room, has the option to start being better and so to slowly begin improving the others. The feedback loop they are in need not be a downward spiral. Each character (and especially Inez) protests at some point to the effect that their inner nature is rotten and cannot change – but if it is true that the self is defined in the Other that can’t be entirely true. At least part of one’s nature is "out there" and can be altered by convincing another person you’re someone else. It’s bascially "fake it till you make it" elevated to a real philosophical principle.
In the end, I don’t really care that much whether Sartre said "Hell is other people" directly or whether he meant it. I’m not preoccupied with the same things Sartre was, and so this play strikes me as kind of shallow and obvious. The line exists in the play. It’s said by a character who seems to be a (satirical) Sartre stand-in. It sounds like the kind of thing Sartre would say. By the rules of his own setup, if we all believe he said it, then didn’t he?