The Flies

by: Jean-Paul Sartre

Act I (cont.)

Summary Act I (cont.)

Eyes have another important aspect as well: they represent what Sartre refers to as "the other." Clytemnestra comments that Orestes stares boldly and her and her daughter. It is as if he is judging them. Then, speaking of the argument between herself and Electra, the queen says that for years they had kept the peace, "only our eyes betrayed our feelings." In Argos, eyes are not used to see the future. Rather, the Argives rely on eyes to judge. They confess their sins in the eyes of others asking for judgment, which is essential to their repentance. Electra and Clytemnestra have never argued openly; they have only judged each other with their eyes. Orestes's eyes disconcert Clytemnestra because she feels judged, but she cannot judge him in return as she does not know his sins. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre insists that to recognize their freedom human beings must avoid the mode of being that he calls "being-for-others." In being-for-others, human beings give up the ability to judge themselves and simply rely on others' evaluations of them for guidance. When they do this, they give up the ability to act freely. Freedom, for Sartre, requires that we judge ourselves and create our own morals rather than letting others impose their morals on us. Electra, in her obsession with everyone's eyes, cannot disentangle herself from the judgment of others.

The use of eyes as symbols in the play also serves a dramatic purpose. For the ancient Greeks, theater was a spiritual activity. Its goal was to provide moral instruction, often showing the audience the importance of obeying the gods. In 20th century Western culture, theater is primarily visual entertainment. We see it with our eyes but do not experience it and learn from it. The recurrent reference to eyes reminds us of this difference. Sartre wants his theater to serve purposes similar to Greek theater. He wants theater to provide the audience with moral instruction and to show the path to human freedom. The emphasis on eyes brings our attention to the narrowness of our culture's response to theater and serves, along with references to smells, sounds, and textures, to engage the audience more fully with the atmosphere and action of the play.

In her argument with Clytemnestra, Electra contrasts her youth with Clytemnestra's age. She draws the same contrast when she compares herself with the old women who brought Jupiter libations. The gods like age and they hate youth. Youth implies here more than innocence: it implies that one has not yet chosen one's life. Those around Electra have let others choose their lives for them. They are no longer young because their lives, spent in repentance for a past crime, are already laid out for them. They are no longer free to choose who they will be because this choice has been made for them. Clytemnestra says that she was once lovely, but her crime has aged her. Her life is determined by her guilt; there are no surprises for her, there is nothing left for her to choose. Her face, as Orestes puts it, has been ravaged by a storm. Only Electra and Orestes are still young. They have not yet chosen their lives or had them chosen by others.

Electra introduces another possible motivation for acting into Orestes's life: revenge. So far, revenge has not been brought up in the play. The Tutor and Jupiter have suggested only that Orestes might want to free the Argives, but neither has seriously entertained the possibility that he might want revenge for his father. Electra, on the other hand, is dominated by the desire for revenge. She curses her mother and Aegistheus, hoping that Orestes will arrive and avenge both Agamemnon and her own servitude. This is why Electra's eyes are bright and smoldering while those of the Argives are dead. As they look only towards the past, Electra looks to the future. They live only to repent for the murder of Agamemnon. Electra lives to avenge his death. This desire for revenge, the anticipation of Orestes's arrival and the murder of the king and queen, provides Electra with something to look forward to and gives meaning to her life. Unlike Orestes, however, Electra does not seek to create herself in the future. Her goal is only to carry out one particular act. When Orestes asks her if she plans to spend her entire life in Argos, Electra is surprised by the question and answers only that she is waiting for something; both Orestes and the audience know that she is waiting for her revenge. But Electra does not fully answer Orestes's question; she says nothing about what she plans to do after the revenge. She has no plans in life at all aside from vengeance. Like the Argives, then, Electra is a slave to a single action, although importantly this action lies in the future rather than the past.

Electra's mindset is fundamentally different from that of Orestes. Hatred is what keeps Electra going. She mentions that unlike the Argives who live in fear, she lives with hatred in her heart. Orestes, however, comes to Argos with no set goal, and if he is outraged by the state of affairs there, his outrage is primarily a moral one. Electra, however, belongs to Argos. She has lived there her whole life and she has been mistreated by Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. Her attachment to the city drives her to hate. Unlike Orestes, Electra is unable to make a free choice to act. Her action is already predetermined for her by her hatred. Sartre's Electra resembles the Electra of Greek myth in this regard: she has a destiny set out for her, and she lives only to carry out that destiny.

This section of the play foreshadows Electra's eventual failure to realize her freedom. The personality features responsible for her failure have already been noted: her driving hatred, her need for revenge, the fantasy dimension of her desire for vengeance, and her inability to plan a future beyond a single act. The dialogues of the other characters also serve to suggest her downfall. Orestes, comparing Clytemnestra and Electra, states that the queen's face has been ravaged by a storm, while Electra's shows a hint of a gathering storm that will ravage her face. Orestes can already foresee that his sister will look like their mother in the end, suggesting that she will also be struck down by remorse. Clytemnestra further foreshadows Electra's future when she insists that Electra, just like her, will one day commit a crime that will ruin her entire life. This can happen only to those who are not free. A free individual can always move beyond the past. Those who are trapped by the past, however, are not free. A single event from the past, then, can dominate their entire lives.