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The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre

Act II, Scene Two

Act II, Scene One (cont.)

Act III

Summary

Orestes and Electra sneak into the throne room of the palace. They hear two soldiers approaching and hide behind the throne. The Soldiers talk about ghosts, discussing whether the ghost of Agamemnon would have enough weight to make the creaking sound they heard in the room. The conversation then turns to flies and how many of them seem to be around. Finally, one of the soldiers decides to check for the origin of the creaking sound. As the soldiers look behind the throne, Orestes and Electra sneak out, tiptoe around the soldiers, and then get back behind the throne. Seeing no one, the soldiers decide that it must be Agamemnon's ghost. Aegistheus enters with Clytemnestra and dismisses them.

Clytemnestra attempts to dissipate Aegistheus's bad mood, but Aegistheus says he is tired of ruling and maintaining the remorse of the entire city. He wishes he had not had to punish Electra because he can't bear the farce of his life any more. When Clytemnestra continues her attempts to comfort him, Aegistheus orders her to leave and then asks Jupiter whether he has been a proper king. Jupiter enters the throne room and addresses him. When Aegistheus does not recognize him, Jupiter calls down lightning to show who he is. He tells Aegistheus to summon his guards immediately and send them to arrest Electra and Orestes, but the king refuses, saying he is so tired that he would rather die. Jupiter reasons with him, saying that he has also had to play the same game of maintaining fear in people. He, too, is tired of it, and Aegistheus has nothing special to complain about. The king's murder of Agamemnon pleased the gods because it gave rise to a city of remorse. If Orestes were to kill Aegistheus, he would feel no remorse and this would be a waste, which is why Jupiter wants Orestes restrained.

When Aegistheus still refuses to take action, Jupiter reminds him that he became king out of a passion for order, which the god has given to kings. This order is maintained through fear and remorse, blinding people to their own freedom. Orestes, on the other hand, knows that he is free. Realizing that Orestes's freedom would shatter the order he has worked for, Aegistheus agrees to stop him.

As soon as Jupiter leaves and before Aegistheus has time to call his guards, Orestes and Electra appear from behind the throne and Electra orders her brother to strike. Aegistheus refuses to defend himself and Orestes hits him with the sword. Dying, Aegistheus grabs on to his killer and asks how Orestes can violate the law of the gods and not feel remorse. Orestes replies that he does not need god to tell him what is right. He then kills Aegistheus and goes on to Clytemnestra's chambers. Electra loses her nerve and tries to stop him. Orestes brushes her aside and goes on. While he kills the queen, Electra tries to convince herself that this is what she wants. When Orestes returns, she attempts to celebrate their victory, but the flies around them turn into The Furies, goddesses of remorse. Hearing guards approaching, Orestes decides to take sanctuary in the Shrine of Apollo for the night until he can speak with the Argives.

Analysis

The farcical beginning of this scene indicates a turning point in the play. The soldiers' ridiculous conversation about fat ghosts and ghost flies along with the game of hide and seek around the throne introduce irreverent comedy into the grim plot. This brief interlude serves the essential dramatic function of lightening the tone in order to lower the audience's respect for the throne room and particularly the throne itself, on which much of the humor centers. Besides reducing our natural respect for the throne and what it stands for, power and order, the farce also undermines our natural dislike for murder. For Sartre's message to have its full effect, the audience must not be so disgusted by Orestes's action as to condemn his notion of freedom. Comedy is a natural way of breaking up the tension so that we may observe the murder scene with less distaste. Finally, the soldiers are speaking very seriously about ghosts and flies, but we see that their conversation is ridiculous. Though the Argives may believe in the dead coming back for a day, any attempt to analyze this idea only underscores its absurdity. Though elements of farce recur throughout the play, it is only here that they receive an extended scene. Structurally, this scene occurs directly in the middle of the play, informing us of an important break between previous events and upcoming ones.

The soldiers talk about the flies, noticing that there are many more than usual in the throne room. They attribute this to the day of the dead. In fact, the presence of the flies foreshadows what is about to take place. Orestes and Electra are about to commit murder, and the flies are there to ensure that the criminals are stung with remorse.

The farcical action of the opening continues, though in milder form, in Jupiter's conversation with Aegistheus. Orestes has recognized his freedom, and the tide has turned against the rulers who depend on lack of freedom for their power. Both rulers have become absurd figures. Jupiter strikes awe inspiring poses and calls down stereotypical lightning while Aegistheus complains that he is too tired to rule. While Jupiter makes fun of Aegistheus's whining, Aegistheus demonstrates extreme sarcasm for Jupiter's claims that he is terrifying and awe-inspiring. Neither ruler respects the other and they mock each other openly. When Philebus became Orestes in the previous act with his farewell to his youth, Jupiter's pseudonym, Demetrios, was forced to shed his own alter ego and expose himself as Jupiter. A clear role reversal has taken place. Orestes does not care for the laws of either the king or the god. Orestes clearly has the upper hand; the rulers fear him while he does not fear them. Jupiter has abandoned his disguise, and Aegistheus has dropped his public persona. We see them as they really are, and both appear as frightened, ridiculous figures. Sartre suggests that true humanity lies in freedom, while all power over others is farcical.

The conversation between Jupiter and Aegistheus reveals that they are even less free than the people they enslave. We have already seen that the rulers represent "the other," convincing their subjects to accept an image of themselves passed down from above. So long as Jupiter and Aegistheus can keep the people terrified, the people will not look within themselves and recognize their freedom. Kings and gods are forced to exert all their energy on presenting an image of themselves as "being-for-others"—as being terrible enough to frighten human beings into existence (see previous section for a discussion of "being-for-others). But the desire for order, or rather the hunger for power, drives rulers to surrender themselves entirely to the public image they cultivate. Aegistheus complains that he does not know who he is. He can only see himself reflected in the darkened souls of his subjects; he has no self aside from their fear of him. For Jupiter the problem is even more extreme. He has no choice but to maintain fear. As a god, his existence depends on the dread of his followers. Both rulers exist only as images in the minds of their subjects. They cannot give any meaning to their lives except the meaning that others give them. Their existence is dependent on the lack of freedom of their subjects. With this point explicitly laid out, Sartre once again emphasizes that all authority over others, whether political, religious, or moral, is only possible because the subjugated do not recognize their freedom. If human beings recognized that they were free, external power would no longer hold sway over them.

The limit of Jupiter's power of intimidation is emphasized when he flashes lightning in front of Aegistheus. Jupiter lacks the ability to force Aegistheus to carry out his orders. His only option is to convince Aegistheus through intimidation, just as Aegistheus had attempted to refute Electra through threats. But Aegistheus has ruled for too long, and Jupiter's threats do not scare him. In the end, the god is forced to reason with the ruler, begging him to stop Orestes. It is only at the end, when Jupiter finally manages to appeal to the king's love of order, that he manages to squeeze out a grudging agreement, which Aegistheus promptly ignores as soon as Jupiter departs. Jupiter has no power over human beings. He can only manipulate nature, or being-in- itself. Faced with the human being-for-itself, Jupiter is lost. He tells Aegistheus that the gods have no power over those who have recognized their freedom. Free human beings can only be restrained physically, by other human beings. Moral force no longer has any power over them.

Jupiter explains that he allows murder when he knows that the murderer will feel remorse. Aegistheus's murder of Agamemnon pleased the gods because it was more like an accident than a human action. This murder was committed in the heat of passion and Aegistheus disowned the crime and repented of it because he did not feel that he had carried it out freely. In our own judicial system such crimes of passion are often judged under the category of temporary insanity and are treated less harshly than premeditated murder. This is precisely because someone who commits a crime of passion will refuse to take full responsibility for the action and will be tortured by guilt over committing the deed. Orestes plans out his double murder with cold rationality. He is prepared to carry it out because, according to him, it is the right thing to do, and as a result he will not be bothered by his conscience after the fact. This is what scares Jupiter. A guilty conscience is a conscience that obeys the gods. Someone who does not experience guilt, on the other hand, threatens to overthrow the entire divine order of things.

Sartre's Orestes is contrasted with both vengeance-hungry Electra and the destiny-bound Orestes of Greek myth. Here, Orestes carries out his murder freely, having reached his choice through reason and in the absence of the pressures of the past or the moral commandments of the gods. Aegistheus, realizing that he cannot stop his killer, says that he wills his own death. Orestes, having made his choice, must carry it through regardless of the circumstances. He does not care whether his enemy defends himself or surrenders. All that matters is the outcome. Aegistheus asks how Orestes can be certain that his action is right if he himself had just heard the divine arbiter of right and wrong condemn this murder. Orestes responds with his statement of freedom: "Justice is a matter between men, and I need no god to teach me it." Human beings, in their freedom, create their own values and act on them. According to Orestes's freedom, Aegistheus's death is more important than obeying the prohibition on murder. The gods can have no effect on Orestes's judgment. Human freedom is both the highest possible value and the origin of all other values.

Having witnessed Aegistheus's death, Electra clearly loses her courage. Her fantasy has become too real, and she attempts to stop Orestes from killing her mother. While Orestes goes through with the murder, Electra cannot stop looking at Aegistheus's eyes. She feels that those eyes are judging her, and she attempts to cover them with a mantle, but the eyes are still there, and Electra loses her resolve completely. She realizes that she is complicit in matricide in the eyes of others and she can never wipe this blemish from her soul. Electra attempts to convince herself that this is what she wanted. She has prayed for it through all the years as she felt her hatred boil within her. But suddenly, seeing Aegistheus's corpse, she realizes that her hatred has died with him and she has nothing left to live for. Electra was driven only by hatred and the desire for vengeance. Her destiny now fulfilled, her life is empty and she becomes aware that the only thing defining her now is her complicity in two bloody murders. When Electra turns to Orestes for support, she cannot find it. Orestes speaks of his freedom; he has found his own path. But Electra does not understand him. The path she thought of as her own has just come to a dead end. Finding nothing within herself and failing to find comfort in Orestes, Electra turns to the judgment of others for meaning. When she thinks how others judge her, Electra begins to see herself as nothing more than a murderess. And it is at this point that she feels the flies gathering all around her. She sees "millions of beady eyes" staring at her in judgment, and she realizes that the flies have become the Furies, goddesses of remorse, there to condemn her.

The role of the Furies in The Flies differs significantly from their role in the Greek tradition. In the Greek myth, the Furies had the specific role of avenging crimes committed against bonds of kinship. Here, however, the Furies are the goddesses of remorse. In Aeschylus's The Libation Bearers , the fact that Orestes and Electra have killed their mother is of the highest importance. In Sartre's version, Clytemnestra's relationship to him makes little difference to Orestes, since he suffers no remorse regardless. It is only Electra who is troubled by matricide. The Furies here do not come specifically to punish Clytemnestra's murder. They come to punish all sins, and they attempt to elicit remorse in the criminals. This change in the Furies's role is important for Sartre's purposes, since his emphasis is on responsibility and guilt rather than on the actual crime for which responsibility is taken.

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