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The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre

Act II, Scene One

Act I (cont.)

Act II, Scene One (cont.)


The Argives gather in front of the large cave from which the dead will soon be released (when soldiers roll aside the stone blocking its entrance). The Argives are terrified of the dead and recount their sins and how they will be punished for them. The Tutor points out that the wretched state to which superstition has brought these people proves his skeptical teachings to Orestes. Jupiter interrupts, saying that the Argives are better than The Tutor because at least they know that the gods despise them. Meanwhile, the crowd grows restless with anticipation as Aegistheus remains hidden in the palace. Orestes is tempted to interfere several times, but Jupiter holds him back.

Aegistheus appears and tells the crowd to wait and bear their suffering while he sends the guards in search of Electra. They return empty handed, and the king begins the ceremony without her. The stone is rolled away from the entrance to the cave and the High Priest calls on the dead to come out and torment the living. The Argives beg the dead for forgiveness as Aegistheus reminds them of their sins. Orestes is about to interfere when suddenly Electra appears dressed in white.

Aegistheus, the High Priest, and the Argives rebuke her for showing disrespect to the dead. Undaunted, Electra insists that her father would not want her to mourn but would prefer that she enjoy her life. She tells the Argives of cities in Greece like Corinth, which Orestes has described to her, where people enjoy their lives with no remorse. The crowd slowly begins to listen to Electra, realizing that the dead are doing nothing to stop her. They begin to think that the dead do not take pleasure in remorse and call on Aegistheus for an explanation.

Thrown off guard, Aegistheus has nothing to say in reply. He insists that Electra is speaking blasphemy and threatens to punish her. The crowd replies that this is not an explanation and begins to distrust the king. Electra dances around, laughing and saying that there are no ghosts in her way and that the Argives should not fear the dead, who would rather see them happy than guilt ridden. Realizing that the situation is turning against Aegistheus's repressive order, Jupiter causes the large stone to roll down from the cavern and crash into the adjacent temple.

The High Priest and Aegistheus instantly seize on this miracle, forcing the Argives to repent of their disbelief and insisting that the people work even harder at their repentance to appease the dead, who are angered by the people's lack of faith. The Argives blame their sin on Electra's temptation and threaten to rip her apart, but Aegistheus holds them back and banishes her from Argos instead. As the Argives depart, Jupiter insists that there is a moral in this: punishment has been properly dealt out to the wicked. Orestes turns on him sharply, reveals that Electra is his sister, and says he wishes to speak with her alone. Jupiter and the Tutor depart.


The Argives's fear and repentance is imposed on them from above by Aegistheus and the High Priest. Aegistheus does not rule through physical power. He rules entirely through the power of moral persuasion and fear. The annual day of the dead is intended to revive and strengthen the guilt of the people. By calling on several of them by name and recounting their sins, Aegistheus seeks to remind his subjects that all are guilty of something and that all must repent. He is supported in this by the High Priest, a symbol of religious order. It is not accidental that this notion—that all are guilty and all must repent of their sins—is also one of the principal tenets of Christianity. Sartre rejected organized religion on the grounds that it attempts to control human beings through a moral system that is presented as having a greater value than human freedom. More importantly, although the ideas of universal guilt and eternal repentance are imposed from above, the people themselves internalize them. Even before Aegistheus has appeared, the Argives rave about their guilt and the punishments they deserve. Even without the reminders of religious and political authorities, the people believe that they deserve to live in wretchedness and slavery. Order is maintained in Argos by convincing every Argive that he or she deserves to suffer.

Although opposition to all moral authority shows itself in much of Sartre's philosophical and literary writing, the themes of guilt and freedom from authority presented in The Flies carry a specific relevance to the political climate of the times. In Nazi occupied France, Sartre wanted his play to present opposition to fascist ideology. The Nazis spread propaganda arguing that the French had lost and should show good sportsmanship by collaborating with their conquerors. Sartre saw the atmosphere in Paris as one of moral control, with the Nazis attempting to convince the French that the occupation was their own fault and that they have no right to oppose it. Sartre uses Aegistheus's control over the Argives as an allegory for the Nazi control of France. He wants the French to see that their defeat is not something they must passively accept. The occupation is despicable and any moral imperative to collaborate must be opposed. The control of the people through collective guilt is imposed by the Nazis just as Aegistheus imposes guilt on the Argives, and the French may gain their freedom, just like the Argives, by refusing to accept the view of themselves as guilty imposed from above.

The atmosphere of repression in Argos is maintained through isolation. One woman shouts during the ceremony that "each of us is shut up with his dead, and lonely as a raindrop." While everyone feels remorse together, everyone feels remorse for their own individual sins. Aegistheus reminds the Argives individually of their personal sins. All of them must live with their own sins and in their own past. No one else can help them. This isolation of all individuals makes both compassion and collaboration impossible. The Argives suffer together, but each of them suffers alone. The moral framework established by Aegistheus is extremely powerful. By cultivating a collective sense of remorse, he insures that everyone constantly experiences guilt. At the same time, no one can relieve their guilt by sharing it with others, since everyone must carry their own guilt around with them.

Aegistheus emphasizes both of these aspects of his repressive rule—the permanence of guilt and the reinforcement of remorse through constant external judgment—in his speech at the ceremony. On the first of these points he insists that the dead cannot be appeased; no acts of kindness can touch them because they are no longer alive. Since the dead are symbolic of the Argives guilt, the implication is that this guilt can never go away. Jupiter's earlier insistence that the Argives are working through their repentance is deceptive: the Argives can never work through it because there can be no end to repentance. Guilt perpetuates itself and leaves no way out. The Argives chant that no matter how hard they try, their memories of the dead slip through their fingers, and they feel even greater guilt at forgetting their sins. Guilt necessarily increases, since one feels the greatest remorse when one no longer remembers what one is guilty of.

Aegistheus further attempts to strengthen the Argives's repentance by imposing on them the idea that they are constantly being judged. Not only their neighbors, but even the invisible dead sit in judgment over them. "You have a full house to watch you. Millions of staring, hopeless eyes are brooding darkly on your faces and your gestures. They can see us, read our hearts, and we are naked in the presence of the dead." Aegistheus invokes the symbolic nature of eyes as vehicles of judgment in order to cause the Argives to internalize their guilt. For Argos to maintain order, people must not only be concerned with what their neighbors think of them, but even with what the dead think. Since the Argives believe that the dead sometimes sneak out and roam around on other days of the year, and since the dead can read their hearts anyway, the Argives are encouraged to repent at all times for fear of judgment.

Jupiter tells the Tutor that all human beings "stink to heaven," but at least the Argives know that they stink. His point is that everyone is guilty of something, everyone is a sinner. More importantly, this guilt is determined in accordance with divine morals. Everyone is a sinner so long as one judges everyone by an inhuman moral standard. Sartre is most opposed to this view of human guilt. If a moral system necessarily condemns all human beings as sinners, the problem must lie not in the people but in the moral system. Moral rules must come directly from human freedom. When human beings accept moral rules external to themselves, they willingly surrender their freedom. Jupiter, applying moral laws external to humanity, concludes that all human beings "stink." Those who admit that they stink, then, must be the wisest and most pious.

Electra has clearly undergone a dramatic change since the last time she appeared on stage. She says that she is happy for the first time in her life. Her meeting with Orestes has opened her eyes to possibilities she had earlier only dreamt about. She had so far only imagined people living happily and without remorse. Orestes, however, has confirmed to her that such people really do exist. Happiness and a normal life have suddenly become real possibilities for Electra where earlier they were just idle dreams. But Electra lacks the confidence of her new found happiness. The crashing rock silences her in the face of the Argives' indignation. Yet the rock did not force Electra to stop speaking or dancing. It did not roll towards her, nor did it threaten any of the other people. The High Priest says that this is how the dead avenge themselves, while Aegistheus announces that this is the result of disobeying him. The audience recognizes, however, that the dead have carried out no revenge and that no actual punishment has been meted out. By moving the rock, Jupiter has only presented evidence that the dead can move natural objects. It is the Argives themselves, with the help of the Priest and the king, who interpret the rolling rock to mean that they have sinned in following Electra. Electra gives up at this point because she has also interpreted Jupiter's magic trick in this way. She believes that the dead have acted against her and that she has failed, when in fact only the Argives and Aegistheus can punish her. Had Electra already recognized her freedom, she would not have given up so easily at the sight of a moving rock.

Electra's speech does make it clear that she has seen a glimpse of something that lies beyond endless guilt and repentance. She mentions the pride that mothers outside Argos take in their children. Motherhood is analogous here to creation in general. Electra suggests the possibility that human beings may take responsibility for and pride in something they have created. The Argives, who apologize to the dead even for living, can never create anything or take pride in something they have done. They view themselves as sinners and everything they do as deserving of punishment. Electra has seen how it is possible to be free and create. The Argives cannot understand her lesson because they view responsibility as necessarily bound up with guilt. For them, to be responsible for something means to repent of it, not to take pride in it.

Both Aegistheus and Jupiter show that they maintain their power only through intimidation. When Electra insists that the dead do not rejoice in suffering, the people demand an explanation from Aegistheus. He is at a loss to justify himself, and only repeats that Electra is evil and that he will punish her. The people reply, saying that "threats are no answer." Aegistheus, however, does not know how to give any other answer. His regime is maintained entirely through fear. When fear fails to inspire obedience, his control is lost. Jupiter displays the same weakness. He can make flies fall down and can move rocks with his amusing tricks, but like Aegistheus he has no real power. Both maintain order by convincing others that they must not rise up, that they must be afraid. If the Argives had no fear, it is obvious that neither Aegistheus nor Jupiter would have any power over them. Sartre maintains that people can never truly be enslaved by others. They are slaves only when they allow external forces to dictate their beliefs and their self-image. While Orestes has no fear of Aegistheus, he cannot yet withstand Jupiter's moral domination. When Jupiter restrains him and tells him to look him in the eyes, Orestes backs down and asks, "Who are you?" While Orestes is free of human morals, he has not yet freed himself entirely from religious ones.

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