by Jean-Paul Sartre
Electra, Revenge, and Bad Faith
When we first meet Electra, the girl is a rebellious teenager. From her angry banter with Clytemnestra to her speech to the Argives at the Ceremony of the Dead, this girl has got attitude, and she's not going quietly. Think about the first time we meet Electra – she's pouring ashes all over the statue of the most powerful god in the universe, not to mention flaunting her youth. With her "smoldering eyes" and harsh words, she establishes herself as a powerful force.
So it's easy to see why, at first, Electra seems like the perfect partner in crime for our existential hero, Orestes. In fact, in the beginning of The Flies, it might even seem like Electra has taken greater steps toward authentic living than her brother. Orestes has yet to commit himself to anything – he has yet to choose a "fundamental project" (see Orestes's "Character Analysis" for more). Electra, on the other hand, has chosen a value system – that of revenge. "A wise person can want nothing better from life than to pay back the wrong that has been done him," she says (2.1.113).
Now remember that Sartre isn't prescribing any one-value system, or any one set of morals in particular. This means that, intrinsically, there's nothing wrong with Electra's decision of a value system in which vengeance is placed above all else. (There is also nothing intrinsically wrong with Zeus's value system in which remorse was of the highest value.)
What is problematic is that, while Electra claims to have chosen vengeance, she hasn't acted in accordance with her choice. According to Sartre, she hasn't chosen this value system at all. One creates a value system only by acting in accordance with it. Electra hasn't taken measures against her stepfather, she has only aspired to do so. For the existentialist, dreams and aspirations don't matter – only actions count. Rather than act, Electra has deferred the 'moment of truth,' so to speak, by waiting around for her brother Orestes to return. She doesn't take responsibility for the vengeance she claims to value. Instead, she puts responsibility on someone else. "Someone else will come, to set me free," she says (2.1.119). The existentialist would respond by saying, "You are free already, you just have to grasp and act on your own freedom."
Electra also uses the idea of "destiny" to justify her decisions and determine her action. Even when she commits to joining her brother in murder, she doesn't own up to her decision; it is Orestes and not Electra who murders Clytemnestra. Electra believes that, as a member of the house of Atreus (a house with a messy family history), she is doomed to carry on the legacy of bloodshed and vengeance. As she tells Orestes, "You're a grandson of Atreus, and you can't escape the heritage of blood. […] Fate will come and hunt you down in your bed" (2.1.125).
But Electra's family history – like Orestes's tragic childhood – falls under the category of facticity. They are events in the past that can't be changed, but they have no intrinsic meaning of their own. Just as it was up to Orestes to interpret his father's death and his own exile, and to decide how these events would affect his life, so it is up to Electra to do the same thing with the bad blood running through her veins.
In the end, Electra never grasps her personal freedom the way that Orestes does. She talks a good talk when it comes to defying Zeus, but it doesn't take much to deter her rebellious course of action. Notice that Zeus didn't actually stop Electra. By hurling a stone, he intimidates Electra into stopping herself. As Orestes later explains, Zeus is the god of things, but not of man. He has no power over people unless they choose to give him power. And Electra, unfortunately, makes this choice.
Electra was never an existential hero to begin with. But things get worse – a lot worse – after she and her brother murder the King and Queen. While Orestes maintains the courage of his convictions (and his crime), Electra wavers – to say the least.
Of course I deny it! […] I dreamt the crime, but you carried it out. (3.1.50)
In the final act, while Orestes struggles to get Electra to comprehend her own freedom, Zeus tempts her with the comfort of bad faith. Check it out:
I know you nursed bloodthirsty dreams, but there was a sort of innocence about them. […] You never really thought of making them come true. […] You were haunted by the cruel destiny of your race. […] You never willed to do evil. […]
Yes, yes! I'm beginning to understand! (3.1.96-9)
Horrified at the prospect of choosing and taking responsibility for her own value system (in which vengeance is of the highest value), Electra gives up her freedom and accepts the external system of morality imposed by Zeus (in which remorse is of the highest value). While she flirted with the prospect of freedom, she ultimately chooses ideological servitude.
Time and Re-Creating the Self
One of the issues that confuses Electra and goes some way in explaining her ideological flip-flopping has to do with time and the creation of self. In Act III, Electra experiences a rift between the Electra of the past (the angry, vengeful, rebellious self) and the Electra of the present (the guilty and remorseful self). This is in accordance with Sartre's discussion of time in Being and Nothingness. One of the central tenets of Sartre's existentialism is that we re-create the self in every moment of our lives through choice and action. The past does not directly effect the present, because it is separated by the nothingness that allows for human freedom. We constantly have the ability and the responsibility to re-create who we are. If we are rebellious, we must choose rebellion as our fundamental project at every moment. When we feel a rift between the self of the past and the self of the present, we are encountering this nothingness – and we feel anguish as a result.
Let's talk examples. Think back to the person you were in middle school. Was that really you? Or think about the last time you did something really awful – do you have a hard time reconciling the you that committed that awful act with the you sitting at your computer reading this Shmoop guide? If so, then you understand Electra's dilemma.
There are a few passages in The Flies that directly address this issue of the self across time. When Clytemnestra argues with her daughter in Act I, for example, she tells her: "One day you, too, will be trailing after you an inexpiable crime. […] And you will have forgotten what it really is, and murmur to yourself: 'It wasn't I, it could not have been I, who did that'" (1.1.206). It looks like the Queen is dealing with the same problem that her daughter must later address. As Clytemnestra predicts, Electra falls into this same trap after Aegisthus is dead: "Oh, I wanted this to happen," she says. "And I – I must want it now, I must want it. […] Only a moment ago I wanted it, and I haven't changed" (2.2.136).
So how does an existential hero, like Orestes, deal with the issue of time and the continual re-creation of the self? When Orestes chooses his value system (in which human freedom is of the highest importance), he sticks to his guns. The Orestes of Act III is working for the same fundamental project as the Orestes of Act II. But what of the Orestes of Act I? Our hero recognizes that he has changed, that he has re-created his self as a new being during the course of a single day. Rather than run from this fact or fold in the face of the anguish it produces, Orestes accepts and embraces it. He explains that he has been re-born, that for him, "a new life is beginning. A strange life" (3.1.180).
Even more impressively, Orestes not only embraces the anguish of looking into the past, but the anguish of looking into the future. It is as difficult to reconcile the self of the present with the self of the future as it is to look back on the self of the past. In fact, the fear of the unknown makes it even more difficult. But Orestes takes this in stride, as evident in his last exchange with Electra:
You shall give me your hand, and we will go –
I don't know. Toward ourselves. Beyond the rivers and the mountains are an Orestes and an Electra waiting for us, and we must make our patient way towards them. (3.1.153-5)
It is Electra's response to this offer (her final words to Orestes) – "I won't hear any more from you. All you have to offer me is misery and squalor" – that constitute her decisive, ultimate retreat into bad faith. It is Orestes who chooses to continually re-create himself as someone who values freedom above all else. He resolves to choose freedom as his fundamental project at every turn.