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by Jean-Paul Sartre
Orestes Timeline and Summary
Orestes arrives in Argos with the Tutor. They are dismayed by the searing heat, annoying flies, and inhospitable citizens. He ends up conversing with Zeus, who is pretending to be Demetrios. Similarly, Orestes pretends to be Philebus. Orestes gets some background info from Zeus (though none of it us news to him), and is provided with a clear view of the local flavor (via their conversation with the old woman). While discussing the murder of Agamemnon, Orestes expresses outrage that the gods didn't prevent the crime, nor punish the criminals. But Zeus explains that the gods wanted the citizens of Argos to feel the deep remorse that is now plaguing the entire kingdom. Zeus advises Orestes to leave Argos. He also performs a trick to make the flies disappear. After Zeus leaves, Orestes converses with the Tutor. Orestes is outraged at the situation in Argos and laments that he has no memories or sense of self. The Tutor tries to convince him that his lack of ties to Argos a good thing, but Orestes isn't so sure. They conclude that they should leave town. Then Orestes watches Electra mock Zeus's statue. He talks with her for a while and realizes she is his sister. Next Orestes meets his mother, Clytemnestra. He watches her have an argument with Electra, and in the process learns about The Ceremony of the Dead. Although the Queen begs Philebus (i.e., Orestes) to leave town, he decides to stay. He agrees to let Zeus act as his host for the duration of his stay. Accompanied by Zeus, Orestes witnesses the Ceremony of the Dead. He watches Electra do her dance in an inappropriate white dress, and he sees Zeus smash up the temple steps in response. After the fiasco, he begs Electra to go away with him, but she refuses. Instead, Orestes decides to seek revenge against the King and Queen. Our hero experiences a revelation, in which he chooses a path and commits himself to action. Orestes and Electra sneak into the palace and are hiding out in the throne room. They witness Aegisthus's final conversation with Zeus. Once the god is gone, Orestes slays Aegisthus, who warns him to beware of the flies. Electra loses her nerve, so Orestes goes alone to kill their mother. When he returns, he refuses to share the murder details with his sister, but he has never once wavered in his resolve. The siblings head to the shrine of Apollo, where the furies torment them. Electra can't deal with what they've done, whereas Orestes remains firm in his convictions. Orestes warns his sister not to engage with the furies, as only she can give them power over her. Zeus shows up, and he and Orestes have a philosophical debate for much of the final scene. Zeus tries to establish his authority over the young man, but Orestes maintains that he, like all men, is free. According to him, "human life begins on the far side of despair." Orestes turns down Zeus's offer of the Argos throne in exchange for life-long repentance. Orestes then explains his intentions to free the rest of the citizens of Argos, to open their eyes as his own have been opened. He claims that freedom is a state of mind, not of physicality, and in this way even a slave on the cross can be free. Zeus admits that he's been beaten, but he manages to hook Electra anyway. She gives herself up to a life of atonement, and in exchange the furies stay away from her. Orestes speaks with the Tutor and instructs him to open the doors to the people waiting outside. Then he delivers what he calls a "coronation" speech to the citizens of Argos. In this speech, Orestes explains that he has earned his kingship over them by weighing himself down with the two murders. He now takes their sins upon himself, freeing them in the process. Orestes walks out into the sunshine, and the furies fling themselves at him.