Act I (cont.)
Electra enters. Without seeing Orestes, she walks up to the statue of Jupiter and dumps garbage on it. She ridicules the statue, saying that Jupiter must like garbage very much, and that he must hate her because she is young unlike the old women who brought him libations. She then launches into a fantastical speech depicting Orestes arriving and splitting the statue in two with his sword. Then, she says, everyone will see that Jupiter is only made of wood and should be used to kindle a fire.
Suddenly Electra notices Orestes. He introduces himself as Philebus from Corinth. She tells him that she is a princess, but that she is treated like a servant and has to wash the king and queen's underwear and to take out the garbage. She complains that she has to see her mother every day. Orestes asks if she's ever considered running away, and she says the she hasn't, but that she is waiting for someone. Electra goes on to question Orestes about Corinth. She asks whether people in Corinth really go out and enjoy themselves and whether they really live without remorse. Orestes answers that they feel very little remorse and enjoy themselves without guilt. Electra says that in Argos everyone is driven by fear except her, for she is driven by hatred. Electra asks whether a man from Corinth would avenge his father's murder and his sister's enslavement.
Before Orestes can answer, Clytemnestra appears to tell Electra that Aegistheus demands her presence at the ceremony. Electra refuses to go and mocks her mother for treating her like a servant simply because she won't feel guilt for a crime that she didn't commit. Clytemnestra turns to Orestes and begins confessing her sins to him, but Electra cuts her short, mocking the Argive custom of confessing one's sins to everyone. The two women fight, but the queen cuts the conversation short. Electra explains to Orestes that the ceremony that day is an annual event when a large rock blocking the entrance to a cave is rolled away and the dead come out for one day to torment the living and punish them for their sins. The entire city becomes enveloped in fear as people set their tables for the dead and hide in corners so as not to get in the way of the ghosts. The next day the dead return to the cave and it is closed until the next year.
Clytemnestra informs Electra that if she does not come, she will be taken by force. Electra yields, but asks Orestes to attend the ceremony before leaving. Clytemnestra turns to him and asks him to leave Argos. She senses that he is a threat to the order of the city and to the repentance of its people. Jupiter reappears and tells Orestes that he can procure some horses for him. Orestes, however, replies that he has decided to stay longer. Undaunted, Jupiter quickly takes Orestes under his wing, imposing himself on the Orestes as a guide to the city.
This section introduces Electra and her personality, establishing a contrast with both Clytemnestra and Orestes. It is immediately apparent that Electra is still a child. Her youth is mentioned several times, first by her and then by Clytemnestra. Her actions are also still childish. In front of the statue of Jupiter, Electra acts out how Orestes will carve the statue in two. Her play- acting clearly goes beyond the normal movements that actors are expected to perform. We are made to recognize that her dream of an Orestes who will come to end Jupiter's reign is a childhood fantasy. Electra is not entirely serious about her dreams of murder; she merely entertains them in order to give herself direction. When Electra says that she is more a servant than a princess, Clytemnestra rebukes her for play-acting. This play-acting is a fundamental aspect of Electra's personality, demonstrating her lack of true commitment.
The symbol of the eye is introduced here. Eyes dominate Electra's discourse and recur in the dialogues of both Clytemnestra and Orestes. Electra mentions Jupiter's eyes twice in one speech. Orestes mentions Clytemnestra's dead eyes. Clytemnestra says that Electra's eyes are flashing and then refers to them as smoldering. Eyes, traditionally, are symbolic of vision, both literally and metaphorically. One who has eyes can see the future; one without vision is blinded to it. The eyes of the Argives, like Clytemnestra's and Jupiter's eyes, are "dead." None of them can see the future and as a result none of them can act freely. They look only towards the past. The Argives spend their lives in remorse for a past crime, and they are unable to look forward and act for their future.
Eyes have another important aspect as well: they represent what Sartre refers to as "the other." Clytemnestra comments that Orestes stares boldly and her and her daughter. It is as if he is judging them. Then, speaking of the argument between herself and Electra, the queen says that for years they had kept the peace, "only our eyes betrayed our feelings." In Argos, eyes are not used to see the future. Rather, the Argives rely on eyes to judge. They confess their sins in the eyes of others asking for judgment, which is essential to their repentance. Electra and Clytemnestra have never argued openly; they have only judged each other with their eyes. Orestes's eyes disconcert Clytemnestra because she feels judged, but she cannot judge him in return as she does not know his sins. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre insists that to recognize their freedom human beings must avoid the mode of being that he calls "being-for-others." In being-for-others, human beings give up the ability to judge themselves and simply rely on others' evaluations of them for guidance. When they do this, they give up the ability to act freely. Freedom, for Sartre, requires that we judge ourselves and create our own morals rather than letting others impose their morals on us. Electra, in her obsession with everyone's eyes, cannot disentangle herself from the judgment of others.
The use of eyes as symbols in the play also serves a dramatic purpose. For the ancient Greeks, theater was a spiritual activity. Its goal was to provide moral instruction, often showing the audience the importance of obeying the gods. In 20th century Western culture, theater is primarily visual entertainment. We see it with our eyes but do not experience it and learn from it. The recurrent reference to eyes reminds us of this difference. Sartre wants his theater to serve purposes similar to Greek theater. He wants theater to provide the audience with moral instruction and to show the path to human freedom. The emphasis on eyes brings our attention to the narrowness of our culture's response to theater and serves, along with references to smells, sounds, and textures, to engage the audience more fully with the atmosphere and action of the play.
In her argument with Clytemnestra, Electra contrasts her youth with Clytemnestra's age. She draws the same contrast when she compares herself with the old women who brought Jupiter libations. The gods like age and they hate youth. Youth implies here more than innocence: it implies that one has not yet chosen one's life. Those around Electra have let others choose their lives for them. They are no longer young because their lives, spent in repentance for a past crime, are already laid out for them. They are no longer free to choose who they will be because this choice has been made for them. Clytemnestra says that she was once lovely, but her crime has aged her. Her life is determined by her guilt; there are no surprises for her, there is nothing left for her to choose. Her face, as Orestes puts it, has been ravaged by a storm. Only Electra and Orestes are still young. They have not yet chosen their lives or had them chosen by others.
Electra introduces another possible motivation for acting into Orestes's life: revenge. So far, revenge has not been brought up in the play. The Tutor and Jupiter have suggested only that Orestes might want to free the Argives, but neither has seriously entertained the possibility that he might want revenge for his father. Electra, on the other hand, is dominated by the desire for revenge. She curses her mother and Aegistheus, hoping that Orestes will arrive and avenge both Agamemnon and her own servitude. This is why Electra's eyes are bright and smoldering while those of the Argives are dead. As they look only towards the past, Electra looks to the future. They live only to repent for the murder of Agamemnon. Electra lives to avenge his death. This desire for revenge, the anticipation of Orestes's arrival and the murder of the king and queen, provides Electra with something to look forward to and gives meaning to her life. Unlike Orestes, however, Electra does not seek to create herself in the future. Her goal is only to carry out one particular act. When Orestes asks her if she plans to spend her entire life in Argos, Electra is surprised by the question and answers only that she is waiting for something; both Orestes and the audience know that she is waiting for her revenge. But Electra does not fully answer Orestes's question; she says nothing about what she plans to do after the revenge. She has no plans in life at all aside from vengeance. Like the Argives, then, Electra is a slave to a single action, although importantly this action lies in the future rather than the past.
Electra's mindset is fundamentally different from that of Orestes. Hatred is what keeps Electra going. She mentions that unlike the Argives who live in fear, she lives with hatred in her heart. Orestes, however, comes to Argos with no set goal, and if he is outraged by the state of affairs there, his outrage is primarily a moral one. Electra, however, belongs to Argos. She has lived there her whole life and she has been mistreated by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. Her attachment to the city drives her to hate. Unlike Orestes, Electra is unable to make a free choice to act. Her action is already predetermined for her by her hatred. Sartre's Electra resembles the Electra of Greek myth in this regard: she has a destiny set out for her, and she lives only to carry out that destiny.
This section of the play foreshadows Electra's eventual failure to realize her freedom. The personality features responsible for her failure have already been noted: her driving hatred, her need for revenge, the fantasy dimension of her desire for vengeance, and her inability to plan a future beyond a single act. The dialogues of the other characters also serve to suggest her downfall. Orestes, comparing Clytemnestra and Electra, states that the queen's face has been ravaged by a storm, while Electra's shows a hint of a gathering storm that will ravage her face. Orestes can already foresee that his sister will look like their mother in the end, suggesting that she will also be struck down by remorse. Clytemnestra further foreshadows Electra's future when she insists that Electra, just like her, will one day commit a crime that will ruin her entire life. This can happen only to those who are not free. A free individual can always move beyond the past. Those who are trapped by the past, however, are not free. A single event from the past, then, can dominate their entire lives.
The people of Argos display a particular philosophy concerning the relation of responsibility to guilt. They freely admit their sins and beg others to judge them. They refuse, however, to be judged based on sins that they do not acknowledge. When Electra suggests that Clytemnestra's remorse is itself false, Clytemnestra replies that anyone may insult her and spit at her for her complicity in Agamemnon's murder, but she says no one has the right to insult her remorse. This rule, that people may only be judged on actions for which they accept responsibility, helps to maintain order in the city. Everyone confesses to specific sins, and they expect others to judge them based on these sins, thus defining their life for them. In this way the Argives maintain the illusion of themselves as completely unfree: they are slaves to the judgment of others and to particular events in the past for which they must repent. Sins for which they are not repenting serve no purpose in this climate of moral condemnation since they do not help the Argives establish the image of themselves as bound by particular events of the past.
The keepers of order in Argos attempt to impose their control over Orestes. Clytemnestra, not knowing his true identity, suggests that she is about his mother's age and, having attempted to establish a motherly relation to him, asks him to leave Argos. Jupiter attempts a similar trick. He informs Orestes that he is old enough to be his father and that Orestes should therefore value his company. Both Clytemnestra and Jupiter attempt to enslave Orestes within a moral order where one must obey one's parents or, figuratively, where one must remain a slave to one's past. To find his freedom Orestes must oppose these symbolic figures of order, symbolically rejecting his parents.
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