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The Flies

The Flies

by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Flies Act II, Scene i Summary

  • This scene takes place outside the big cavern that Electra discussed earlier in her description of the Ceremony of the Dead. The cavern is on the top of a mountain terrace, and the big boulder is still in place blocking the entrance on the right of the stage. On the left side of a stage, a series of steps leads up to a temple.
  • A crowd of Argos townspeople is gathered at the cavern's entrance.
  • A woman speaks to her child, who is terribly frightened at the prospect of the dead haunting him. His mother, rather than comforting him, informs him that it's good for him to be scared. In fact, he should spend his whole childhood being afraid so that he grows up into "a decent, god-fearing man."
  • Meanwhile some men discuss the Ceremony last year, when the dead were very fierce. Apparently they've been getting worse every year.
  • One man looks forward to tomorrow, when he can enjoy a year's rest before the next Ceremony of the Dead.
  • As the townspeople talk, it becomes clear that many of them have wronged their dead. One woman reveals that she cheated on her husband for ten years before his demise.
  • Everyone is worried that the dead will haunt him or her on account of their crimes.
  • They're also complaining about the suspense. They wish Aegisthus would show up, and move the boulder so the ceremony can begin.
  • While they chatter, Zeus leads Orestes on stage, followed by the Tutor.
  • The Tutor immediately notes how awful everyone looks. Just as with Queen Clytemnestra, sorrow and misery show on their haggard faces.
  • Zeus checks him, explaining that in the eyes of the gods the Tutor himself is as low as these folks. At least the citizens of Argos know how bad they smell.
  • What Zeus means is, they know how awful and disgusting they are, which is why they repent. The Tutor on the other hand doesn't, and wrongly thinks himself happy and innocent.
  • Orestes is horrified by the verbal self-flagellation he witnesses.
  • The crowd, unable to bear the agony of anticipation, and clamors for Aegisthus.
  • The King comes on stage along with Clytemnestra, his bodyguards, and the high priest. He immediately chastises his people for lamenting their lot.
  • Then he notices that Electra isn't there; he orders his bodyguards to get her and bring her in by force. Much to the dismay of his people, he delays the ceremony while the bodyguards look and then come back empty handed. They can't find her.
  • Aegisthus decides to hold the ceremony and deal with his rebellious stepdaughter later.
  • The high priest runs the show. He has the boulder removed and then delivers a speech addressed to the dead, telling them to come up and roam the city.
  • While no physical beings emerge from the cave, Aegisthus declares that the dead are streaming forth, and the townspeople freak out accordingly.
  • They ask for mercy, yet Aegisthus tells them the dead have no mercy. "In their eternal keeping your crimes [against them] have no reprieve," he declares.
  • Everyone continues to lament, wail, and beg for mercy.
  • Suddenly, Aegisthus claims to spot Agamemnon.
  • Orestes draws his sword, angered that his father's name is drawn into this mess at all, but Zeus stops him.
  • Before they can argue, Electra comes on stage, clad in an inappropriate white dress.
  • The high priest is outraged that she's wearing a party dress (everyone else is in black funeral attire) to such a solemn occasion.
  • Electra then explains that these are their dead, not hers, and that she need take no part in this ceremony.
  • Aegisthus agrees that these are not her dead, but reminds her that she descends from Atreus, that she is "the last survivor of an accursed race."
  • (A little explanation here: Atreus was Agamemnon's father, and therefore Electra's paternal grandfather. He and his brother murdered their half-brother in an attempt to win the throne. Later, Atreus's brother had an affair with Atreus's wife, so Atreus killed his brother's sons, cooked them, and fed them to his father. Additionally, Agamemnon sacrificed his other daughter, Iphigenia, Electra's sister, to the gods in order to sail safely home after the Trojan war. This family is wicked and cursed. You can actually go further back to Atreus's grandfather, Tantalus, who killed his son Pelops (Atreus's father) and tried to feed him to the gods. As punishment, Tantalus is stuck in eternal torment in the underworld. Every time he reaches for fruit, it gets a bit further away. Every time he reaches for water, the pool dries up. Here we have the origin of the word "tantalize." The point is, Atreus and his descendents (which include both Orestes and Electra), are doomed to do awful things, like murder their own family members.)
  • Back to Aegisthus. He calls his daughter a whore and threatens to make her weep at some point in the future.
  • The crowd firmly sides with the King, condemning Electra as a sacrilegious upstart.
  • Electra doesn't see what the big deal is. Is it a crime to be happy? She laughs as she talks. She says if her father is present, he is laughing with her, glad to see his daughter happy.
  • Electra continues. She tries to explain to the townspeople that their fear and misery is all in their heads, that there are no dead clamoring around them. She tells them of other cities in Greece, (she might be thinking of the stories Philebus told her of Corinth), where men are happy, children play, and mothers are glad to be mothers.
  • Aegisthus tries to silence her, to no avail.
  • The townspeople would like to hear more of these happy places.
  • They're starting to think that Agamemnon is speaking through her.
  • Electra continues about having a place in the sun, and being happy and light as a feather. Up at the top of the temple steps, she dances while she talks.
  • Now the high priest tries to shut her up, still with no success.
  • In response, Electra addresses her dead sister Iphigenia and her father Agamemnon. She tells them to send some sign, if she is blaspheming as the high priest claims.
  • No sign. The townspeople are now completely captivated by her.
  • Aegisthus can't do anything now, but he plans to kill Electra later, probably when the whole kingdom isn't watching.
  • When the townspeople accuse Aegisthus of having lied to them all these years, Zeus figures it's about time for him to do something.
  • The god causes the huge boulder that once blocked the cavern to roll across the stage and crash into the temple steps.
  • Electra stops dancing, and the townspeople go back to begging for mercy and forgiveness from the gods and the dead.
  • Now the townspeople want to "drown the witch," which is bad news for Electra.
  • But Aegisthus orders them back, claiming that vengeance against her is his, not theirs. He also rubs it in, advising that they had better not doubt his word ever again.
  • Electra, however, remains unconvinced. She says she failed to convert everyone this time, but maybe she'll have better luck in her next attempt.
  • Aegisthus knows that he can't punish her right now, as the law doesn't allow for punishment on the Day of the Dead. Instead, he banishes her and threatens to punish anyone who assists or even looks her way.
  • Everyone exits, leaving Electra behind.
  • Zeus turns to Orestes and hopes that he learned his lesson today. Look at how the good (i.e., the repentant and miserable) have been rewarded, while the bad (i.e., Electra) were punished.
  • Orestes doesn't appreciate this insult of his sister and heads across stage to talk to Electra.
  • He tells Zeus and the Tutor to leave so they can be alone.
  • Both men exit.
  • Orestes speaks up to Electra, who is still standing up on the temple steps. He tells her that she's in danger and shouldn't be in this city anymore.
  • Electra responds that this is his fault, as his eyes deceived her.
  • Orestes has no time for this cryptic jabbering; he's got horses ready and wants to get both of them out of Argos, sooner rather than later.
  • He wants to take her to Corinth.
  • Electra finds this extremely amusing. She remarks that yesterday her life was so simple – she could simply wish for the Queen and King's death without confusion. Until she met Philebus, she believed that a wise person could want nothing more from life than to pay back the wrong that's been done to him.
  • She again says that Philebus, with his "girlish face and eager eyes," fooled her, and made her "forget [her] hatred." He tricked her into thinking that she could change the situation in Argos simply by appealing to the masses with words.
  • But now she knows that "an evil thing is conquered only by another evil thing," and that only violence can save the people of her city.
  • She wants Philebus to leave.
  • Orestes is worried that the townspeople will kill Electra, but she explains that they have a shrine to Apollo which functions as a sanctuary for criminals.
  • Then she adds that she's waiting for her brother, Orestes, and that only he can set her free. She pictures him as "a big, strong man, a born fighter, with bloodshot eyes like [their] father, always smoldering with rage."
  • She knows that his destiny lies in Argos and that the city calls to him.
  • Orestes wants to know what she would think if her brother wasn't like that, if instead he was kind and gentle and didn't want violence or revenge.
  • In that case, claims Electra, she would spit in his face and send him away.
  • Orestes figures now is as good a time as any to reveal his true identity to his sister.
  • At first, Electra isn't happy. But she quickly decides that she loves her brother, even more than the image she had in her head of a vengeful and angry young man.
  • Orestes again begs her to come away with him, and she again refuses, claiming she must stay and play out her part in the tragedy.
  • She doesn't think Orestes should stay, though, since he doesn't really belong to the family or the city.
  • Orestes tries to argue, but Electra, who continues to call him Philebus, doesn't want to stain his young and innocent self with the blood of vengeance.
  • Yet Orestes maintains that he doesn't want happiness or innocence – he wants his share of the family memories. He wants to have a home, to belong somewhere.
  • Orestes then raises his hands to the sky and beseeches the gods to help him make his decision.
  • Meanwhile Zeus has approached. When Orestes asks that a sign be given if he is meant to abandon Argos, Zeus flashes lightning around the huge boulder.
  • Electra finds this hilarious, since now Philebus/Orestes has to leave, as she wanted.
  • Orestes readies to leave, but then he changes his mind: no god will tell him what to do.
  • He explains to Electra that something has changed, that he feels different, colder, empty. He feels as though something "just died."
  • Then he explains that Electra is his sister, that the city is his city and that his people are living at the bottom of a pit.
  • He continues that he is too light (read: too innocent) to go down into the pit right now, but he will take on a burden (read: commit a crime) so that he is able to weigh himself down into the pit with the rest of them.
  • While he talks he takes Electra by the arm, though she struggles to resists him.
  • Then, to cement his new resolution, he makes some rather explicit plans to rip open the city by its belly.
  • Electra comments that Orestes's kind and gentle eyes are now neither kind nor gentle, and in fact are smoldering.
  • On the plus side, he more resembles the Orestes she used to dream about.
  • Orestes decides he's going to 'steal the guilt' of all the people of Argos by taking their burden of remorse upon himself. Then he will have earned the right to feel at home in this city.
  • Electra would like an explanation.
  • Her brother obliges.
  • Only the King and Queen force the citizens to carry their guilt. If Electra sneaks him into the palace and allows him access to their bedchamber, he'll murder everyone, thus releasing the citizens from the shackles of guilt imposed by the royal couple.
  • Electra is excited that her brother becomes the vengeful, angry man of her dreams, and is eager for him to protect her through what will surely be a difficult 24 hours

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