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The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre


Act II, Scene Two

Important Quotations Explained


Orestes and Electra are sleeping inside Apollo's shrine, where the statue of Apollo protects them. The Furies surround them, jesting among each other about the various tortures they will inflict on the siblings as soon as they leave the god's protection. The Furies sing and buzz, waking Electra. She sees Orestes and recoils from him, haunted by the memory of the murders of the night before. Orestes sees that her eyes have turned dead and her face appears ravaged so that she looks like Clytemnestra. Electra asserts that the murders were not her fault, insisting that she only dreamed about it, but it was Orestes who actually carried it out. Orestes attempts to convince her that they must assume responsibility for the murders together, but Electra cannot find the strength to do so and the Furies goad her into reliving the murders and seeing Orestes as a frightening murderer.

Orestes attempts to keep Electra from listening to the Furies, but she cannot help it. The Furies convince her that she deserves to be punished, and she surrenders herself to them. At this moment Jupiter enters. He attempts to convince Orestes that he is a criminal and that he must atone, but Orestes retorts that he will not atone for something he does not consider a crime. Jupiter then turns to Electra, telling her that he has come to save them. He tells her that she was not responsible for the crime; she had only fantasized about it like a child. She needs only repent and Jupiter will gladly forgive and give the throne to the siblings. Orestes refuses the throne, saying that he will not take the place of the man he has killed. Orestes sees himself as the savior of the city, but Jupiter mocks him, saying that the Argives hate their "savior" and are waiting outside to kill him; he is completely alone.

Orestes still refuses to repudiate his actions. In response, Jupiter draws apart the walls of the temple and speaks with a booming voice. He tells Orestes of how he himself has ordered the universe and nature based on Goodness, and by rejecting this Goodness Orestes has rejected the universe itself. Orestes stands alone against nature. Orestes replies that he accepts his exile from nature and from the rest of humanity. He has realized his freedom and can no longer return to nature and Jupiter's Good. Orestes argues that Jupiter is the king of nature, but not of humanity. He made the mistake of making human beings free and thereby lost his power over them. Orestes announces his intention to free the Argives from their remorse. Jupiter says that it was prophesied that a man would come signaling his downfall and Orestes appears to be that man. Orestes and Jupiter agree to part ways, each feeling sorry for the other. As Jupiter leaves, Electra follows him. Despite Orestes's entreaties, Electra believes that he can bring her nothing good. Instead, she chases after Jupiter and promises him her repentance. The Furies leave her alone, waiting for Orestes to weaken so they can attack him. The Tutor enters but the Furies will not let him through. Orestes orders him to open the door so that he may address his people.

Orestes stands up and tells the Argives who he is. He informs them that he has taken their crimes upon himself and that they must learn to build a new life for themselves without remorse. He says that he wishes to be a king without a kingdom, and promises to leave, taking their sins, their dead, and their flies with him. Telling the story of a piper who drew the rats of Scyros away with him, Orestes walks off into the light as the Furies chase after him.


Acts I and III, structurally located around the axis of Orestes's choice to act in Act II, can usefully be contrasted with each other. Act I began with an atmosphere that was suffocating and offensive to all the senses as Orestes first entered Argos. In Act III, this veil of repression is lifted by Orestes's moral force. Although he wakes up hiding in a shrine with the Furies surrounding him, Orestes has clearly managed to hold on to his freedom. He challenges Jupiter directly and fends him off, replacing the repentance of Act I with liberation. Acts I and III also show Orestes and Electra superficially exchanging their roles. In Act I Electra is dreaming of bloody vengeance while Orestes remains detached. By Act III Electra has repudiated the vengeance and it is Orestes who takes it upon himself. Electra serves as Orestes's foil throughout the play. She grounds the play in the ancient Greek notions of destiny and vengeance, though at the end she realizes that these ideas are too heavy for her. Orestes, on the other hand, is clearly chronologically out of place in ancient Greece with his modern notions of freedom and human justice.

Having woken up, Electra realizes that her dream has become a nightmare. In the past she dreamt with joy of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus lying in a pool of their own blood. Now she has dreamt the same dream, but is has brought her intense horror. From the very beginning of Act III Electra says that she is being ravaged by Orestes's crime, not her own. She attempts to separate herself from the crime, but she isn't certain how. Jupiter offers her a solution: she did not freely choose the murders but only fantasized about them. Convinced that Jupiter is right, Electra gladly surrenders to him. Unlike Orestes, Electra has not felt freedom "crashing down" on her. She feels only guilt and horror at her complicity in matricide. Jupiter offers to save her from the Furies and give her the throne provided she repents. Unwilling to face a life where all eyes judge her as a killer, Electra gladly accepts Jupiter's offer, vowing to be his slave. She thus takes her mother's place. Clytemnestra's earlier prediction that Electra's life will be ruined in a single day comes true.

The true conflict, of course, is not between Orestes and Electra, but between him and Jupiter. Sartre's idea of freedom specifically requires that the being- for-itself not be either a being-for-others or a being-in-itself. A being-for- others occurs when human beings accept morals thrust onto them by others. A being-in-itself occurs when human beings do not separate themselves from objects of nature. Jupiter represents both a moral norm, the Good, and Nature. Both Orestes and Jupiter recognize that, in the recognition of freedom, one is cut off from Nature and from the human community that exists under the moral norm. Orestes is an aberration of Nature: he will not yield to the same standard of the Good that orders the universe. He must choose his own path, unlike the predetermined paths of the stars and planets. Since the Argives live by Jupiter's moral laws, Orestes is also cast out of their society and even Electra rejects him, unable to let go of the moral law of the gods. Jupiter points out that Orestes is even foreign to himself. Since his past does not determine his future, Orestes has no set identity: he freely creates his identity anew at every moment. He can never know who he is with certainty because his identity changes from moment to moment. He is being for himself.

At first Jupiter mocks Orestes's view of freedom, saying that if Orestes has freedom, then one might as well speak of a slave nailed to the cross as having freedom. Here again Orestes is compared to Christ. This time Orestes accepts the comparison. He does see himself as a Christ figure in the sense that he believes himself to be the savior of Argos. Freedom is not the ability to physically do whatever one wants. It is the ability to mentally interpret one's own life for oneself—to define oneself and create one's own values. Even the slave can interpret his or her life in different ways, and in this sense the slave is free.

When Electra, tempted by Jupiter, repudiates her crime, Orestes says that she is bringing guilt on herself. Guilt results from the failure to accept responsibility for one's actions as a product of one's freedom. To repudiate one's actions is to agree that it was wrong to take those actions in the first place. In doing this, Electra repudiates her ability to freely choose her own values. Instead, she accepts the values that Jupiter imposes on her. In repudiating the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, Electra allows Jupiter to determine her past for her. She surrenders her freedom by letting her past take on a meaning that she did not give to it by herself, and as a result she becomes bound to a meaning that did not come from her. Electra can choose, like Orestes, to see the murders as right and therefore to reject feelings of guilt. Instead, she allows Jupiter to tell her that the murders were wrong and to implicate her in a crime.

When Jupiter and Orestes face off, Jupiter is revealed as the weaker of the two. His physical appearance changes and his voice grows louder. His voice, however, is only the effect of a loudspeaker, and his demonstration of power borders on melodrama. Orestes is neither shaken nor impressed; he sees Jupiter for what he is: a being capable of controlling nature, but unable to either control those who are free or even to find his own freedom. Jupiter's Good lies in Nature, in "the weight of stone," and even in the human body. But human freedom is separate from this Good. Human beings can follow divine law only if they allow themselves to become like stones.

When Orestes says that he cannot return to Jupiter's Good, he does not mean that he does not want to do so, but, rather, he means that it is impossible for freedom, once it is recognized, to surrender itself. One cannot freely choose to not be free, since the fact that one chooses freely already implies that one is free. Because Orestes, having recognized his freedom, cannot freely give it up, Jupiter suggests that Orestes is the slave of his own freedom. But Orestes replies that he is neither its slave nor its master. He is his freedom. Human consciousness, the being-for-itself, is necessarily separate from Nature. Nature has no meaning in itself; meaning is imparted on objects by consciousness. In order to impart meaning on Nature, consciousness must necessarily be separate from Nature. Freedom is simply the ability to impose meaning on Nature, i.e., to define one's own circumstances for oneself. Thus consciousness, by definition, is freedom, so that Orestes can claim that he is his freedom. This freedom comes with a price. Consciousness is by its nature separate from the world of things. Jupiter says, "You are not in your own home, intruder; you are a foreign body in the world." Orestes's face shows anguish because he has lost the comfortable safety of having his values predetermined for him. Nature has fallen away from him, as he says, and he feels the anguish of having to define the entire world for himself. This is why Orestes says he can feel no hatred for Jupiter: they exist in separate worlds—one in the world of Nature, the other in the world of freedom—and their paths do not intersect.

When asked why he wishes to share his despair with the Argives, Orestes says, "human life begins on the far side of despair." Despair is the recognition of nothingness in the world: when one becomes aware of one's freedom, one realizes that the world, or Nature, has no meaning apart from the meaning one imposes on it. This lack of intrinsic meaning is nothingness. To despair, for Sartre, means to recognize that meanings are not definite or certain, but depend entirely on ourselves. It is only after this realization that human beings can begin to create their own meanings and determine their own lives. True human life, then, must follow despair.

The changes Sartre makes to Aeschylus's Oresteia trilogy are important in conveying his meaning. The first part of the trilogy describes Agamemnon's return and his murder, the second part describes Orestes's and Electra's revenge, while in the third part Orestes receives reprieve from the Furies. The Flies is based almost entirely on the second part. We can draw out the importance of editing out the other two parts fairly easily. Since the first part deals with the circumstances of the past that necessitate revenge, Sartre can safely do away with them and only briefly summarize them within his play. Revenge is not a significant factor in Orestes's decision to kill the king and queen. The exclusion of the first part implies that Orestes is free of the past. The third part is more interesting. Pursued by the Furies, Orestes makes his way to Athens, where the goddess Athena convenes the Council of Elders to judge Orestes. This council eventually acquits him of matricide and frees him from the wrath of the Furies. Sartre's play cannot include such a conclusion. His Orestes has realized his freedom, and the Furies cannot hurt him because he is not plagued by remorse. They follow him hoping to wear him down, but we may assume that they do not succeed. Since Orestes is free, he defines his own values. No Council of Elders can acquit him because he has acquitted himself. The omission of the first and third part of Aeschylus's trilogy contributes to a stronger understanding of Sartre's message by leaving anything that would compromise Sartre's view of Orestes's freedom out of the story.

The conclusion of the play raises three questions that have yet to be resolved by contemporary scholarship on The Flies. First, why does Orestes leave the city instead of staying to rule it? Second, to what extent does Orestes succeed in freeing the Argives? Third, what is the relation between Orestes's freedom and his attempt to liberate the Argives?

The answer to the first question appears fairly straightforward. Orestes must leave in order to maintain faithfulness to the outlines of the original Greek myth. More importantly, Orestes cannot stay to rule following the logic of the play. Jupiter offers him the chance to replace Aegistheus, but Orestes has rejected all moral and political authority. Kings, like gods, must rule through the power of their image in the minds of their subjects. A King is necessarily a being-for-others and cannot be free. Orestes, having realized his freedom, cannot surrender it. Also, since Electra chooses to remain in Argos, we can assume that she takes Jupiter up on his offer of the throne. She has lapsed into remorse, and if Orestes were to remain, he would inevitably come into conflict with his beloved sister. These answers are, in a way, too simple. Since Orestes's goal is to free the Argives, it seems that he should stay to ensure that they succeed in shaking off their remorse. Years after he wrote the play, Sartre commented in an interview that it was politically irresponsible for his Orestes to leave Argos; he should have taken responsibility for the throne that he himself left empty. If it were certain that Orestes had in fact rid Argos of remorse, then his leaving would be excusable. This leads us into the second question.

To what extent has Orestes succeeded in freeing Argos? This is unclear in the context of the play. Sartre seems to imply that Orestes has succeeded fully. At the end he takes the sins of the Argives and their dead with him and the flies, the symbols of remorse, follow him. Furthermore, since the Argives let him through the door without touching him and then listen to his speech on the importance of building a new life without remorse, we might assume that the Argives can learn to follow his example, to take full responsibility for their actions, and to live without remorse. But all of this is dubious reasoning. First, Electra has already tried to convince the Argives that their remorse is a mistake, and she did not succeed. Orestes's speech is much less direct and far more complicated than hers, and he does not stick around to see the results. Second, we know that at least one Argive—Electra—has not shaken off her remorse. Although all the symbols of remorse—the flies—leave with Orestes, clearly remorse can remain even without the flies. Moreover, Electra will likely become the new queen of Argos, and she has sworn absolute loyalty to Jupiter. Her mission must therefore be to impose the restrictive order of remorse on the Argives. Sartre leaves the audience in the dark about this more than likely possibility.

The third question is the most complicated, and is related to one of the deepest problems with Sartre's philosophy. Orestes's action has two parts. First, he freely takes responsibility for his action. Second, he sets the people of Argos free by taking their crimes upon himself. The relative importance of these two parts of Orestes's action is ambiguous in the play. Before the War, Sartre believed that all acts are of equal value so long as the agents recognize their freedom. During the war, however, Sartre came to realize that acts that free others are the most important. This transition in Sartre's thought is essential to his ambition to merge philosophy and politics as he does in The Flies. While Sartre does show why individual freedom is important, he does not provide any definite philosophical explanation for why an action that frees others is better than any other free action. Sartre did find it extremely difficult to reconcile his existential philosophy of freedom with any political statement of socially responsible action. One possible resolution is the following. Every individual must freely assign meaning to the world through decision and action, thereby creating values. Since this creation of values stems from human freedom, that freedom is the cardinal value. If freedom is the cardinal value, it is reasonable to think that an individual who freely creates a value system through action would strive to create a world where everyone is free to act as they wish. (Sartre engages this subject more deeply in his essay, "Existentialism is a Humanism," written in 1946.)

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