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The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre

Character List

Summary

Analysis of Major Characters

Orestes -  The protagonist of the play, Orestes wants to belong to Argos, his birthplace, having been raised in Athens and taught never to commit himself to anything by The Tutor. When he sees the servile life the Argives are living and meets his sister Electra, Orestes decides to disobey the laws of the gods and murder Aegistheus and Clytemnestra to free the city. His strength lies in the recognition that he is free and can do what he thinks is right instead of following someone else's moral rules. Because he understands that moral values spring from human freedom and only he can judge whether his actions are right or wrong, Orestes does not feel remorse and threatens the order of the gods.

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Jupiter -  Jupiter is the king of the gods. Orestes's most important antagonist, Jupiter represents the moral systems imposed on human beings by others. Wanting to maintain order, Jupiter has devoted his existence to ensuring that humanity fears him and will follow his laws. He supports Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, who maintain control of their city through fear. Jupiter's weakness is that he has no power over those who know they are free and do not fear him. Intimidation is his only weapon, and as a result he cannot force Orestes to atone for his crime.

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Electra -  Orestes's sister, Electra is both his companion and his foil. Mistreated by her mother Clytemnestra, Electra waits for the day when her brother will come to free her and avenge the murder of their father Agamemnon by Aegistheus. Electra spends her days in hatred of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, who constantly punish her for refusing to repent for their crimes like the rest of the Argives. Since Electra fantasizes about her revenge, she cannot live with the actual act. Having helped Orestes kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra, Electra turns against him, repents of the murders, and surrenders to Jupiter.

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Aegistheus -  King of Argos, Aegistheus killed Agamemnon fifteen years ago and took his throne. To maintain power, Aegistheus cultivated a deep sense of remorse in the people of Argos. Making everyone complicit in Agamemnon's murder because he could not accept the guilt by himself, Aegistheus forces his subjects to repent for the crime he committed. In his attempt to hold on to power, however, Aegistheus has lost his soul. He sees himself only as his subjects see him and does not know who he is. Agamemnon represents the Nazi occupation of France during World War Two.

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Clytemnestra -  Previously Agamemnon's wife and now married to Aegistheus, the queen has helped her husband maintain the atmosphere of remorse. She is generally quiet and does not play a major part in the play. Clytemnestra hates her daughter Electra and does not attempt to protect her from Aegistheus. In the Greek myth, Orestes's most horrifying crime was the murder of his mother. Sartre is less concerned with matricide than he is with free action in general, and he downplays Clytemnestra's presence to show this shift in emphasis. In her silent approval of the king's policies and her complicity in his murder of the rightful king, Clytemnestra represents the Vichy government of France, which collaborated with the Nazi conquerors.
The Tutor -  The Tutor raised and educated Orestes. He has taught him to always be skeptical of all morals and irrational beliefs. The Tutor believes that he has given Orestes complete freedom by teaching him to avoid commitments and attachments to others. Orestes finally rejects this as a false view of freedom. Sartre believes that human beings create themselves and their values through free action. The Tutor's notion of freedom is a freedom from action rather than true freedom, which is the freedom to act and create. Though The Tutor is instrumental in helping Orestes live for the future rather than remaining stuck in the past like the Argives, Orestes has to move beyond this false freedom before he can become a true human being.
The Furies -  Unlike the Furies of Greek myth who punished crimes against family, Sartre's Furies are the goddesses of repentance. Until Orestes and Electra commit their murder, the Furies manifest themselves as flies. They are everywhere in the city, biting its inhabitants to punish them for their sins. The Argives welcome the flies and demand to be punished for their crimes. In speaking with Electra, the Furies confound love with hatred: they hate sinners and punish them, but they do so out of love in order to help the sinners atone for their crimes.
The High Priest  -  The High Priest helps to maintain the repressive atmosphere of repentance set up by Aegistheus. He is the symbol of religious moral authority just as the king represents political moral authority. The High Priest appears only once in the play to lead the ceremony of the dead. He calls on the dead to punish the living for all of the suffering they had inflicted. When Jupiter causes the stone to move in order to silence Electra, the Priest shouts that this is the vengeance of the dead, and that the Argives must repent for having listened to the temptress.
The Idiot Boy -  The Idiot Boy appears only at the very start of the play. He sits stupidly in the square while flies suck on the pus leaking out of his eyes. The Idiot Boy represents the ideal of the Argives: completely passive and willing to take his punishment without complaint.
The Argives -  The Argives are the men and women of Argos who completely accept their submission to Aegistheus. They live in repentance for all their sins, never speaking out and avoiding all action that could displease the gods. The Argives publicly admit their sins and judge one another. Aegistheus has attempted to make his subjects feel that his eyes are on them all the time, judging them even in their private moments. The Argives, completely unaware that they are free, do not realize the service Orestes has done them by killing their oppressive rulers. Fear and repentance have taught them to always look for external judgment so that they will never think of looking within themselves and finding their own freedom.
Soldiers -  Soldiers obey the king. They are his enforcers, but rarely have any need to act because the Argives are so obedient. A scene in the middle of the play involves the soldiers in a farcical interlude, designed to mock the power of the throne they are guarding and the solemnity of the moral system Aegistheus has imposed on them. Though the soldiers speak very seriously of the dead, their comments are calculated to bring out the absurdity of the repressive system in which people are afraid of invisible spirits judging and punishing them.

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