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The Flies

The Flies


by Jean-Paul Sartre

The Flies Act III, Scene i Summary

  • This scene takes place at the Temple of Apollo, at twilight (so later that same night). A statue of Apollo is at the center of the stage, where Electra and Orestes sleep, their arms wrapped around its legs. The furies surround the two of them; they sleep standing up. There is a large bronze door at the back of the stage.
  • The furies slowly wake and stretch themselves. They circle the pair slowly, hatching plots to torment them until the end of days.
  • It's clear that they take joy in their work. They're particularly excited that they get to ravage such young and beautiful criminals.
  • There's also a clear literary indication that we should associate the furies with the flies; they "buzz" as they hover around Orestes and Electra while singing a lovely little song of torment.
  • Electra wakes up from a nightmare and tells Orestes to go away when he tries to comfort her. She accuses him of murdering Clytemnestra.
  • This isn't exactly a news flash to Orestes, who is at a bit of a loss over his sister's distress.
  • He also notices that her face looks clawed and ragged, whereas yesterday she looked so beautiful.
  • Electra admits that, yes, she has grown old in a single night.
  • Orestes notes that she now has the same dead eyes as Clytemnestra.
  • The furies chime in, claiming that Orestes revolts his sister.
  • They taunt Electra by describing the gory details of Clytemnestra's murder. She is taken in by their bating and asks them questions, wanting to know more.
  • Orestes warns her not to interact with the furies; he knows if she questions them or engages them in any way, "all is lost." He explains that they're trying to separate her from him, but that the two of them need to band together to bear the load of the crime they both committed.
  • He tries to tell her of the world outside the temple, where the sun is shining. Soon they will leave this place, he says, and the sunbeams will cut through the furies like swords.
  • Orestes continues: it is Electra's weakness that gives the furies their strength.
  • He's reliving their crime the same way she is, but unlike her, he is "beyond remorse" and completely free.
  • He tries to take her hand, but Electra refuses to be helped.
  • One of the furies addresses Electra as her little girl. She claims that only the suffering of the body can relieve Electra from the torment of her mind. "Let us hurt you," she croons. She begs Electra to come away from the sanctuary of Apollo so that they may torture her properly "with the cleansing fires of pain."
  • Electra stands to go, but Orestes grabs her.
  • He tells her that once the furies get a hold of her, all is lost.
  • But Electra doesn't listen. She breaks free and runs down the steps away from Apollo.
  • The furies fling themselves on her and she cries for help.
  • Enter Zeus, who orders the furies away from the young woman. The furies, who call him "master," reluctantly comply.
  • Lifting Electra from the ground, Zeus claims that his heart is torn between anger and compassion. He, too, notes the "cruel change" that has come over Electra's face.
  • Orestes and Zeus start in on each other.
  • When the god tries to call Orestes a criminal, the young man explains that he is not a criminal, he has no intention of atoning for his actions, and Zeus is powerless.
  • When Zeus points out the harm Orestes has caused his sister, he responds that he loves her, that she is free, that her suffering comes from within and only she can rid herself of it.
  • Zeus finds it amusing that a man clinging to a statue for safety calls himself free.
  • But Orestes claims that freedom is a state of mind. And by the way, if Zeus is really so powerful, why doesn't he just tell Apollo to stop protecting the two mortals?
  • Zeus retorts that that is not his way. He doesn't want to punish, but to save them.
  • Electra finds this doubtful, but Zeus assures her that, if she wishes, she can run free and safe even outside the walls of the temple.
  • All she has to do is repent her crime.
  • Orestes warns his sister that such repentance will weigh heavy on her soul.
  • Zeus insists that Electra never really wanted to commit the crime in the first place. She also finds this hard to believe, since she has dreamt of it for fifteen years.
  • The god assures her that she may have dreamt of these crimes, but she never truly desired them.
  • (Basically, Zeus is trying to get Electra off the hook, to justify and then write off her dreams of murder rather than allow her to face her desires and her crimes.)
  • Orestes tries to convince his sister not to let someone else tell her what she wanted or thinks.
  • Zeus explains to both of them that, if they will only repent and commit to a lifetime of mourning, he will seat them on the throne of Argos in place of the couple they killed.
  • Orestes refuses.
  • Zeus points out that all those people he saved are waiting outside the temple, ready with pitchforks and stones. Then Zeus displays his power, by pulling apart the walls of the temple.
  • He booms that he is good, and that the goodness he created is all over the natural world. Orestes, on the other hand, is evil, and a mere small mite in the vast universe.
  • So Orestes points out that Zeus may be the god of all the universe, and all nature, and creatures, but he is not the god of man.
  • Zeus messed up, Orestes says, by making man free. "I am my freedom," he says. "No sooner had you created me than I ceased to be yours."
  • This is all making Electra very nervous. She begs her brother to stop talking.
  • But Orestes is on a roll. These ideas are all very new to him, he explains. Just yesterday he was unaware, he used Zeus as his excuse for being alive. He felt as though he was at one with nature, with Zeus's "good." He was forgiving and gentle, obedient and young.
  • Now he feels that his youth is gone, that he's no longer one with nature. Instead, he feels alone in an empty universe. There is "nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong, nor anyone to give […] orders."
  • Zeus reminds the young man that the consequence of such freedom is exile, but Orestes accepts it.
  • When Zeus invites him back "to the flock," Orestes turns him down.
  • Orestes doesn't want to come back to nature; he wants to blaze his own trail. Every man must find his own way, he explains to Zeus, since both nature and god abhor mankind.
  • When Zeus admits that yes, he hates Orestes, the young man sees that as a weakness on the god's part, especially since Orestes himself doesn't hate Zeus. Rather, he feels that they have nothing to do with each other.
  • Then Orestes adds that, even if he tried, he could no longer feel remorse, and he can no longer sleep. Now he plans to open the eyes of all the citizens of Argos, the same way his own eyes have been opened.
  • The god recommends against this; opening their eyes will only make them more miserable.
  • But, counters Orestes, "human life begins on the far side of despair." (This is a famous line, by the way.)
  • Despair is what one needs to recognize one's own freedom, to be able to choose.
  • Well, says Zeus, you have me there.
  • The god throws in the towel. "In the fullness of time a man was to come to announce my decline," he says. "And you're that man, it seems."
  • Both Zeus and Orestes agree that they're sorry for each other, and they prepare to part ways. Before he goes, Zeus informs Electra that his reign is not yet over, and that she must choose with whom she sides. Then he exits.
  • Orestes tries to get his sister to come with him, but she wants to be left alone, much to his distress.
  • She wishes she had never met him. Before he arrived, she was poor, but she at least she held on to her dreams.
  • Now Orestes has stolen those from her and left her with nothing.
  • Orestes agrees this is true, but in return he's given her the gift of his crime, which weighs both of them down into the ground.
  • He offers her his hand, and says they will travel away from Argos and toward themselves, toward the Orestes and Electra waiting for them in the future.
  • Electra runs to the center of the stage, where the furies attack her.
  • She cries to Zeus, declaring that she bitterly repents, and begging for Zeus to help her. She runs off stage.
  • The first fury holds the others back, explaining that Electra is not for them. Orestes, on the other hand, will have to suffer for both siblings.
  • The furies smack their lips in anticipation. They know that Orestes will have to leave Apollo's sanctuary soon enough.
  • Just then the Tutor shows up with food for Orestes.
  • The Tutor is perturbed at the furies barring his way. He brings news that the townspeople of Argos, waiting outside the temple, are just as bloodthirsty for Orestes as these furies here.
  • Good, says the young man. Open the temple doors.
  • The Tutor thinks this is not a great idea. Unfortunately, Orestes is his master, so he is forced to obey.
  • The Tutor opens the two large double doors and the crowd surges in to the temple.
  • Light floods the temple, and Orestes exclaims, "The sun!"
  • Meanwhile the crowd stops at the threshold, though many of them shout to kill, maim, or otherwise dismember our young hero.
  • Orestes draws himself up and addresses the crowd. He introduces himself as the son of Agamemnon and their new leader, which makes this right here his coronation speech.
  • He starts by comparing himself to the late Aegisthus. Aegisthus was like all the other people of Argos – he did not have the courage of his crimes. That makes the murder of Agamemnon more of an accident than a real crime.
  • Orestes's own crime, on the other hand, belongs to him entirely. It is his life's work, and the people of Argos can neither punish not pity him for it. That's why they're all so afraid of him.
  • And yet, he says, he loves the people of Argos, and it was for them that he killed the King. He wanted to be one of their kind, to earn his kingship over them.
  • Now, explains Orestes, he takes all their crimes upon his own back. Their dead are now his dead, so they needn't fear ghosts anymore. Even the flies have left the citizens and attacked Orestes instead.
  • And yet, he will not take the throne of Argos. He wishes to be "a king without a kingdom." So he bids the people farewell and begs them to reshape their lives.
  • Then he tells them a quick story before he departs. One summer in Sycros there was a plague of rats. It was unbearable until a flute-player came to the center of the city, took out his instrument, and lured the rats away. Orestes claims he's doing the same thing with the flies.
  • Finished with his speech, Orestes walks out of the temple and into the sunshine. "Shrieking, the furies fling themselves after him."

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