Skip over navigation

The Flies

Jean-Paul Sartre

Study Questions and Essay Topics

Key Facts

Quiz

What is the role of weapon imagery in this play? Swords and axes are mentioned several times at crucial points in the plot. Do different individuals wield weapons for different reasons? What, for example, is the difference between Aegistheus's use of the axe to kill Agamemnon and Orestes's fantasy of turning into an axe to smash through Argos?

Sartre is not a pacifist. He clearly believes both that freedom is something worth fighting for and that freedom provides us with the means to fight. Weapons are the tools of those who dominate, but they are also the tools of those who liberate. The two differ only in their motivations for acting. The former use violence because they lust for power. They do not believe that their violent actions are right only because they do not believe that the results of their actions are right. When Aegistheus kills Agamemnon with an axe, he does not do this because he dislikes Agamemnon or because he feels that there is some positive value to killing him. He acts out of a desire for power. The result is that Aegistheus cannot justify his murder either to himself or to the Argives. Instead of justification, he insists that he has sinned and that all those who did not stop him are also sinners: since he has no way to escape his guilt by himself, he transfers that guilt onto others. The use of weapons here serves a dishonorable purpose: its result is only to oppress.

The liberators, on the other hand, realize their freedom in their actions. Electra speaks of Orestes cutting Jupiter in half with his sword, and later Orestes does use a sword to kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra. He is willing to use violence because violence is only wrong when it is not used for the right reasons. When Orestes fantasizes about becoming an axe to cut open the city of Argos, he suggests that violence can be used to establish meaning. He wants to destroy the repressive moral system in order to help the Argives create their own values. Weapons are also important in Freudian psychoanalysis. As hard, pointed objects, they are phallic symbols. In a subtle manner, Sartre uses the sexual imagery of weapons in Orestes's self-motivated speech in order to contradict Freud's claim that sexual instincts—and not consciousness—drive our actions. Sartre suggests that the actions we take and the imagery we use, whether sexual or not, is a product of our freedom.

Describe the effects of Aegistheus's rule on some of the characters in the play. Some good examples are Orestes, Electra, Argives, Jupiter, and Aegistheus himself. Compare and contrast between the effect of power on those who wield it with the effect on those who are subject to it. Does anyone win when a human being holds power over others?

Neither Aegistheus nor his subjects can realize their freedom under his repressive reign. His subjects are afraid to act and afraid to speak out because they have been taught that everyone is always judging their actions. The people remain quiet in their repentance, always wondering what Aegistheus would do if he knew they had committed a sin. By creating the idea that the dead come back for one day a year to torture the living, Aegistheus has enforced complete surrender from his subjects through fear. Yet Aegistheus himself is not freed by his use of power. He creates values only for his subjects and has nothing left for himself. The result is that Aegistheus is trapped in the false creations he has invented for the sake of others. At one point he fears that the ghost of Agamemnon is watching him, even though he himself came up with the idea of the dead returning. When Aegistheus attempts to understand who he is, he sees himself only as his subjects see him. So long as he continues to rule, Aegistheus can never live for himself but must always live for others, both in the sense that he devotes his existence to his subjects and gains nothing for himself and in the sense that his existence is defined entirely through others.

What does Jupiter mean when he says that Orestes is an intruder in this world? More importantly, what does it mean to say that Orestes is foreign even to himself? This latter notion may be usefully tied in with an individual's relation to his or her past and future and the role freedom plays in this relation.

Human consciousness is capable of interpreting the world freely. Nothing we see requires us to attach any definite meaning to it. While stones and stars move according to fixed and unchangeable laws, human beings act according to their freedom. We can predict the next eclipse, but we cannot predict how any person will react to that eclipse. Some may decide that it is the end of the world and kill themselves. Others may decide to take a nap while it's dark outside. Their freedom makes human beings fundamentally different from the objects around them, and as a result they become strangers to the world.

Those who recognize that they are free are also strangers to human society. Societies are governed by moral laws, which attempt to force simple cause and effect actions onto human beings. Such laws narrow the possible range of human reactions to particular events, since only a limited number of possible actions and thoughts are considered acceptable. Those who, like Orestes, recognize their own freedom, then, also become foreign to the moral communities in which they reside, since they realize that they are not bound by the laws that everyone else follows.

Finally, through freedom human beings become foreign to themselves. Most human beings, like the Argives, define themselves through their past. The Argives select sins from their past and spend their lives atoning for them. Their lives have no meaning other than the meaning of those sins. Orestes, having recognized his freedom, is not bound by his past. He can act as he chooses and he can act for the purpose of transforming the future. Orestes is also free to interpret his past however he wishes in the same way that he can interpret nature. Electra, realizing that Orestes was not a warrior, decides that he cannot kill Aegistheus and Clytemnestra. Orestes, on the other hand, believes that he can do what he feels to be right regardless of whether his past has prepared him for it in any way. This means, however, that nothing about him can ever be set in his own mind. He may take any fact about himself and interpret it freely. As a result, Orestes is a stranger to himself: neither his present state of being nor his past can determine what he will become in the next moment.

Suggested Essay Topics

Why does Orestes refuse to take up the throne? Why is he bound to reject Jupiter's offer to allow him to rule in place of Aegistheus? Since Orestes is free, he can choose to rule Argos even if he will not do so for the reasons that Jupiter wants. What might motivate Orestes's leaving? Is there any moral reason why he should stay, e.g., has he really succeeded in freeing the Argives?

Discuss the importance of eyes in the play. Orestes seems to note only when eyes are dead. Jupiter tells people to look him in the eyes when he wants them to obey. Electra refers to eyes throughout and in different contexts, but the way she refers to them and to her reasons for doing so seem to change from case to case. How do these mentions of eyes serve to illuminate relations between the characters?

Compare and contrast The Flies with Aeschylus's Oresteia. What features of the original has Sartre chosen to leave out? What does the intentional exclusion of these features add to the message of the play? Possible topics of focus include Sartre's exclusion of the first and third work of the original trilogy, the roles of destiny and revenge, and the importance of obeying the gods.

How does Sartre's view of freedom, as presented in The Flies, differ from the common sense view of freedom? What is lacking in the sort of freedom that the Tutor believes Orestes possesses at the beginning of the play?

Describe the role of farce in The Flies. What is the importance of the extended conversation between the soldiers at the beginning of Act II, Scene Two? What does their unintentional humor in discussing ghosts suggest about our view of Aegistheus's idea that the dead come back to haunt the living every year?

More Help

Previous Next

Readers' Notes allow users to add their own analysis and insights to our SparkNotes—and to discuss those ideas with one another. Have a novel take or think we left something out? Add a Readers' Note!

Follow Us