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The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre

Act II, Scene One (cont.)

Act II, Scene One

Act II, Scene Two

Summary

Orestes attempts to convince Electra to leave Argos because her life is in danger. She refuses, blaming her failure on Orestes. Before she met him, she had dreamed only of revenge, but he had made her believe that there is more to life and that she could save the Argives from their remorse. She will not leave Argos because it is her destiny to stay there. She must wait for her brother to arrive. His destiny is to join her in carrying out his revenge, and she must remain in Argos to guide him. She says that Orestes has made her forget her true destiny for a moment, but she has remembered her mission now and must carry it out. As Jupiter creeps onstage to eavesdrop on the conversation, Orestes reveals his true identity to his sister.

Electra is shocked, telling Orestes that he must leave because she has no use for him. He is too innocent. She needs a brother who will join her in her revenge. Orestes refuses to leave. It is bad enough that he does not belong to his city of birth and to its people, but he cannot handle being refused by his own sister. Orestes decides that he must stay in Argos and make the city his own. Electra protests that the city will never accept him, and Orestes searches desperately for a way that he can remain in the city.

Orestes calls upon Zeus for moral guidance. He asks for a sign that will tell him whether he really should leave like a coward. Jupiter, listening to the request, causes light to flash around the stone. Electra tells Orestes that he has his sign from god and he should follow it and leave. Seeing the sign, however, Orestes realizes that he is free to disobey the orders of the gods. The gods require that he live in peace without intervening in others' affairs, but Orestes understands that this peace is a request imposed on him from above and decides to disobey it. He feels his past falling away from him and sees that his decision is grounded only in the present. Orestes realizes that the only way to become a true citizen of this city of remorse is to commit a crime that will free the Argives from their remorse. When Electra asks whether he plans to atone for the whole city, Orestes replies that he intends no such thing; he wishes merely to take up the Argives's guilt.

Orestes's eyes lose their bright innocence and darken. He insists that he will rip the city apart so he can wedge himself into it. He decides that the only way to belong, to call Argos his city and to call Electra his sister is to take them by force. When Electra asks how he plans to free the people, Orestes replies that it is only the king and queen who hold the people in the slavery of remorse. To free them of it, he needs only to kill those responsible. Electra suddenly realizes that the man before her is the Orestes she has been dreaming about. The siblings plan their revenge.

Analysis

This is by far the most important, and the most philosophically dense, section of the play. The action up to now has been building towards Orestes's recognition of his freedom. Both he and his sister are at a turning point in their lives. Three details point to the centrality of this section. First, the section concludes the first half of the play, making it the play's structural center. Second, both Orestes and Electra lose their innocence here, he by recognizing his freedom and she by realizing that finally her lifelong fantasies will be fulfilled. Third, it is here that Electra finally calls Orestes by his name. Naturally she could not call him Orestes earlier since she did not know who he was. Even after he has revealed his identity, however, Electra continues to call him Philebus until the conclusion of the section, when suddenly she recognizes that he has left his youthful innocence behind. The structural location of the section, the central characters' loss of innocence expressed in their dialogue, and the name change from Philebus to Orestes are signs pointing to the importance of this section as the major turning point of the play.

Electra is developed further as a contrast to Orestes. Her inability to accept her freedom is evident from her refusal to take responsibility for her actions, her insistence on destiny and revenge as the only worthwhile motives for action, and her unwillingness to act on those motives. Having just attempted unsuccessfully to free the Argives from their remorse, Electra suggests that she was wrong to try. Her life is dominated by her belief in her destiny and her desire to avenge her father's murder. In order for her actions to be free, Electra had to act based on motivations other than these. A free action aims at shaping the future, but destiny and revenge only ground one in the past. Since Orestes is the only character in the play to fully recognize and accept his freedom, he must reject past events as a reason for acting and take the future as his motive: this future for him involves freeing the Argives and taking his place as one of them. Electra had a brief glimpse of freedom when she attempted to free the Argives, but she shies away from it. Instead, she insists that she must act based on her destiny and the desire for vengeance. Seeing freedom in Orestes's eyes, Electra attempted to take it but lost her nerve and returned to her original belief in revenge. She calls her destiny her "one and only treasure," which she had almost lost thanks to Orestes.

Electra is also unwilling to carry out her desire for revenge. That desire is a fantasy for her, giving meaning to her life. This meaning is not one she chooses freely, since it is a meaning that she takes on at the urging of her childhood and her perceived destiny. Returning to the original Greek myth, Sartre reminds us that Electra and Orestes are descendants of the cursed House of Atreus, and their destiny is to murder, thus carrying on the curse of their family. Electra does not freely choose her destiny; she carries it around with her as a prized possession and sees no other possible meaning to her life. If that destiny were to be fulfilled, Electra's life would become meaningless. To hold on to her only meaning, Electra attempts to push Orestes away after discovering who he really is. Her fantasy requires that Orestes come to Argos and murder Clytemnestra and Aegistheus under her guidance. Orestes's presence makes this fantasy a possibility, and Electra is unwilling to accept this turn of events. She tells Orestes that he does not belong in her fantasy because he is not one of the Argives; he is not what she expected him to be. To hold on to her fantasy, Electra wants to distance it from reality as much as possible.

Orestes refuses to leave—he wants to belong to the city—and this need to belong, to lose his lightness, is a repetition of the comments Orestes's made to The Tutor in Act I. Orestes agreed to accept his lightness as an unfortunate but unavoidable fact. Here he decides to do something about it. What lies behind Orestes's desire to belong is a need to give meaning to his life. Orestes complains that he is a ghost or a shadow; he has no real content. He must create himself by replacing his lightness with the weight of a meaningful identity.

In order to understand Orestes's sudden recognition of his freedom, we need to know something about Sartre's philosophy as he develops it in Being and Nothingness. Sartre refers to any object as "being-in-itself." A stone, for example, does not give itself meaning; it simply is. A human being is a "being- for-itself" because human beings are capable of creating their meaning for themselves. An object has no meaning until human beings impart a meaning on it. For example, when I see a stone in my path I may choose to interpret it as a sign to turn back, I may decide to mine it for precious metals, I may ignore it and walk past, or I may throw it at someone who does not use SparkNotes. The stone does not get to decide which of these meanings I will assign to it, nor does its nature require me to favor any one of these meanings. Beings-in- themselves are only signs that we, beings-for-ourselves, may interpret as we choose.

Being-for-itself is obviously different. If I say that a stone is good for mining, the stone is powerless to argue with me. If, on the other hand, my mother tells me that I am a ballerina, I will most likely disagree with her assessment. Of course someone may point out indisputable facts about me, such as that I have two feet. But I am perfectly free to interpret this fact about myself as I choose: I may decide that my feet are very useful for walking or I may complain that they get in the way when I laze around on the couch. No one can force me to accept either of these meanings; I am free to choose. Since I do not have a time machine, my past is an unchangeable fact about me just like the features of my body. But this does not mean that I must act in any particular way because of my past. The fact that I've memorized every cool line from The Flies does not force me to repeat these lines to all of my friends, but neither does it force me to keep quiet to avoid being called a geek. In order to act freely, human beings must realize that the meaning of facts about the world and about themselves is not set, but is up to them to create.

When Orestes calls upon Zeus to guide him, he is making a last ditch effort to hold on to accepted morals before rejecting them as inimical to his freedom. This is the only place in the French original where Sartre refers to the god as Zeus rather than Jupiter. This is because Orestes is asking for guidance from Zeus, the arbiter of right and wrong, rather than Jupiter, the god of death. When Jupiter replies, however, Orestes realizes that the two are the same thing. For the second time Jupiter demonstrates that he has no power over human beings but only over inanimate objects such as stones. The stone glows with a light, but this light brings Orestes an awareness of his freedom. The stone is a being- in-itself. It has no meaning apart from that which Orestes, a being-for-itself, reads into it. While in the previous section Electra understood the movement of the stone to mean that she cannot free the Argives, Orestes recognizes that he cannot be controlled by the gods in the same way that the stone is. In attempting to control human beings through his moral guidance, Jupiter reduces humanity to the status of rocks. Those who follow Jupiter's rules allow him to determine the meaning of their lives in the same way that a stone has no choice but to accept the meaning that a human being assigns to it. Because by his moral rules Zeus attempts to rob human beings of the freedom that defines them as human beings, he rejoices in those who willingly surrender their freedom to him. True life requires the recognition of freedom, and those who are not free are no more alive than stones. In passing moral laws that eliminate freedom and, figuratively, life itself, Zeus becomes Jupiter, the god of death. But Orestes realizes that unlike a stone he can choose his own destiny apart from what the gods want of him and instead of interpreting the glowing stone as a sign that he must leave Argos, he interprets it as a sign that he is free to do what he thinks is right regardless of what the gods demand of him.

When he recognizes his freedom, Orestes experiences a vast emptiness all around him as he says good-bye to his youth. This emptiness is the "nothingness" of Sartre's Being and Nothingness. In order to act freely, the being-for- itself must separate its freedom from the facts of its past and present. Instead of exerting pressure on Orestes to act in a certain way, his past is reduced to nothingness and he is free to create his own values and his own meaning.

Having recognized his freedom, Orestes makes a speech to Electra in which he insists that he will become an axe and split the city of Argos so that he can enter into its heart. Orestes's speech contrasts passivity with activity. Both Jupiter and the Tutor have suggested that Orestes remain passive and leave without disturbing the peace of Argos. Once Orestes recognizes his freedom, however, he understands that he may choose either to leave or to stay, and this decision is up to him alone. Jupiter attempts to force his morality on Orestes, but Orestes rejects any morality externally imposed on him. The Tutor believes that since all morals are relative, there is no moral law impelling Orestes to free the Argives. Along with his freedom, however, Orestes recognizes that no moral law can demand that he murder Aegistheus and Clytemnestra; it is a choice he can make himself and thereby invent his own moral law. The imagery of Orestes's speech clearly shows that he has chosen activity and violence over passivity and peace. The gods want him "to live at peace," but he decides that his freedom to lead a revolution against the enslaving remorse of Argos is a higher value than the rule of the gods.

Through Orestes's speech, Sartre also dismisses Freudian psychoanalysis. Sigmund Freud argued that the desire to possess the mother and kill the father is a primal human instinct that governs our actions. Orestes echoes the themes of psychoanalysis. He speaks of the city, his place of birth and his motherland, as something that is his "for the taking," and he intends to take it with the violence of an axe or an iron wedge. In so doing he rejects the rule of both god and king, displacing the father figures with his own self. But though he echoes Freudian themes, Sartre reverses the relation between instinct and action. The desire to possess the mother and replace the father does not drive Orestes to murder the king and queen. He is not ruled by his instincts but chooses his actions freely. The images of psychoanalysis follow from Orestes's freedom. He creates them of his own free will. What Freud sees as fundamental and unchangeable instincts are for Sartre only interpretations that we ourselves freely choose.

Sartre explicitly rejects the image of Orestes as a Christ figure. Orestes's plan to free the city comes with a small twist. He does not simply intend to kill those who impose remorse on the Argives. His goal is to remove that remorse by taking the sins of the city onto himself. Electra asks whether Orestes hopes to atone for the Argives and he replies that this is not his intention. Christ freed human beings of their original sin by suffering on the cross for their crime. But Orestes does not intend to suffer for his crime or anyone else's. Instead, he plans to free the Argives by example. He will commit regicide and matricide, the greatest sins of all, and show that one can carry them out without remorse. The Argives have been taught to believe that to take responsibility for an act means to feel guilt over it. Orestes wants to show that the contrary is true. If one believes in the rightness of one's action, one can take full responsibility for it without feeling guilt. Guilt occurs only when one feels that one's act was wrong. This is what happens to the Argives, since they judge their actions not by their own standards but by the moral system imposed on them by Aegistheus. Orestes, through his own free choice, invents his own criteria for moral action. So long as he follows these, he acts morally in his own eyes and has no reason to feel guilt. The contrast between free responsibility, symbolized by the axe of righteous revolution, and guilty responsibility, symbolized by the flies, is a central theme of the play.

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