Jean-Paul Sartre was a 20th century French philosopher famous as an existentialist thinker. He often used his fictional works – like The Flies – as literary laboratories to explore difficult philosophical concepts. Sartre first made a splash in the literary world with his debut novel, Nausea, in 1938. In it, he explores some of his preliminary ideas about existence, consciousness, and freedom. But it was in 1943 that Sartre's ideas became fully developed in his famous philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, and in his play, The Flies.
In The Flies, Sartre builds off the classic Greek myth of Orestes and Electra, the children of King Agamemnon. This myth is one of justice and vengeance, and features the famed Greek furies, demonic goddesses who pursue those guilty of crimes against their kin. Sartre, however, puts his own spin on the legend. Rather than focusing on justice, he is concerned with human freedom. Building off the three prior renderings of the classic Electra myth – Sophocles' Electra, Aeschylus's Oresteia, and Euripides's Electra – Sartre makes careful and deliberate changes to the characters, themes, plot, and focus of the tale.
Part of the reason for deliberate caution with The Flies has to do with its social and historical context. Sartre was writing this play during the Nazi occupation of Paris. Given that The Flies is a play about a group of people ideologically enslaved by external forces, this work can be interpreted as suggesting that the Nazis have no real power, while encouraging resistance and rebellion on the part of the masses. Amazingly, Sartre concealed his message well enough to keep the play running – even before the eyes of Nazi audiences.
You're sitting in class, the third lecture of the year in “Introduction to Postmodern Ant Farm Maintenance Technique.” It's 11:05am. You've been there for ten minutes. You've got 45 left. You're in the middle of the fourth row with bulky backpack-carrying classmates on both sides. A discreet exit? Not possible. Windows? Hopelessly out of reach, and locked anyway. You are trapped.
Fortunately for you, you're carrying your copy of The Flies. Twenty minutes into this play and you've got Jean-Paul Sartre insisting to you that freedom is a state of mind.
Now wait just an ant-farming minute there. Sartre never sat through his little sister's ballet recital, or pitched the 8th inning of a little league game when he was down 8-0 with the bases loaded, or sat in a tiny room for three hours of standardized testing, right? What does he know about freedom?
Well, having spent some time in prison camp, Sartre knew quite a bit. And his point about freedom is worth considering. In his philosophical view of existentialism, being free mostly has to do with knowing that you are free. In regards to his own situation in prison, or to the various attempts at control we see in The Flies, Sartre's would-be-prisoners are allowed a freedom of mind, of morality, of belief, and of self, even if physically confined.
The Flies has more – lots more – to say on the concept of freedom. Let's turn to another example: a child is sitting in his high chair. Mom asks him to eat his cereal. For the first time in his brief life, he doesn't want to eat his cereal. Suddenly he realizes there is a difference between what Mom wants and what he wants. How to express this difference? "N…" he begins, "N… NO!" Astonishment. Revelation. Epiphany. He doesn't have to do what Mom says. Then he says "No" again and again.
Now what lies at the end of all these "No"s? A great big nothingness. The child has refused to do lots of things, but he hasn't committed to actually doing any one thing. He was so busy saying no to others, he didn't stop to say yes to himself. Which brings us to an important Sartrean point: the difference between freedom from and freedom to. Freedom from is freedom from having to do anything you don't want. Freedom to is tougher, heavy, more grave; it's the freedom to do anything you do want.
The Flies reminds us that you might have the existential freedom from obeying the rules, but if you've got nothing to commit to after, you're not really doing anything with that freedom. In other words, if you walk out on that ant-farming class, you'd better be ready afterwards to commit to something else.
This commitment is, Sartre would argue, the way that we define the self. Who are you? The things that you do. It doesn't so much matter what you choose to commit to as that you ought to exercise your freedom and commit to something. And you can start by reading The Flies.