The Flies

by: Jean-Paul Sartre


Summary Act III

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.)