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Character Analysis

For a king of the gods, the Zeus we meet in The Flies certainly spends a lot of time acting like a child. He wants everyone to be afraid of him. He prefers his servants miserable and repentant. He has no interest in divine justice. Zeus does not love and is not loved in returned. He stakes his entire being on an image – that of a powerful, awesome, fear-inspiring god – yet there's a giant rift between this persona and his actual being. Sartre's Zeus is farcical and somewhat ironic. He creeps around on tiptoe. And he can't actually get anyone to do anything he wants.

Nowhere is this contrast more clear than at the very center of the play, the divide between Act II, Scene i and Act II, Scene ii. Look at the last line of Scene i (stage directions): "Zeus leaves his hiding place and creeps out on tiptoe." Now look at the opening stage directions of Scene ii: "The throne room in the palace. An awe-inspiring, blood-smeared image of Zeus occupies a prominent position." The self-professed fly-charmer who waves his arms and recites ridiculous chants ("Abraxas, galla, galla, tsay, tsay" and "Poseidon, carabou, carabou, roola") is a far cry from the statues which dominate the stage setting of The Flies (1.1.85, 2.1.91).

Zeus himself recognizes this discrepancy. Observing the statue of himself in the throne room, he says, "So that's meant to be me? It's thus the Argives picture me at their prayers? Well, well, it isn't often that a God can study his likeness, face to face. […] How hideous I am! They cannot like me much" (2.2.48).

Like Aegisthus (and we'll talk about this more in the King's "Character Analysis"), Zeus is imprisoned by his public persona. We question whether or not there is a "Zeus" outside of the fear the mortals have of him. Check out Act I, Scene i when Electra mocks his statue in the public square. She claims that he is nothing but a hollow image – that some day a man will cleave him in two and the people will realize that there is no man behind the curtain. Zeus's own words hint at the truth behind Electra's prediction:

I, too, have my image, and do you suppose it doesn't fill me with confusion? For a hundred thousand years I have been dancing a slow, dark ritual dance before men's eyes. Their eyes are so intent on me that they forget to look into themselves. Id I forgot myself for a single moment, if I let their eyes turn away –

Zeus trails off and refuses to finish his thought, even when Aegisthus urges him to do so. But we can fill in the blanks ourselves: with no one looking at Zeus, it's likely he'll cease to exist altogether.

Zeus as a Symbol

Because The Flies is an allegory (see "Genre" for more), characters are often representative of bigger ideas. In the case of the King of the gods, we're dealing with systems of order that are externally imposed on large groups of people. We talked about this in Orestes's "Character Analysis." Sartre believes that every person must choose a value system for himself through his actions. When an external source – like religion, or a political party, or a group like the Nazis – imposes a value system on a group, it strips that group of individual freedom.

Let's get into the specifics of the text for a minute. What value system does Zeus impose on the Argives? To answer this question, you have to ask, what does Zeus value most highly? What is achieved at the expense of all else, even human life? For Orestes, the highest value is human freedom. That's why he could justify killing the Queen and King. For Zeus, remorse and repentance are of the highest value. He justifies his value system in the following way:

The first crime committed was mine; I committed it when I made man mortal. Once I had done that, what was left for you, poor human murderers, to do? To kill your victims? But they already had the seed of death in them; all you could do was to hasten its fruition by a year or two
. (2.2.82)

Now Sartre isn't condemning Zeus's value system per se. What he finds problematic is that Zeus forces his value system on others, thereby stripping them of their freedom. In Paris in the 1940s, the Nazi party was doing the same thing by attempting to exert ideological control over the citizens. When you read The Flies as an allegory, Zeus (and Aegisthus) represent the Nazi force. Sartre's play is anti-Nazi because 1) it portrays these power sources as hollow and ultimately ridiculous, 2) it encourages rebellion against these forces, and 3) it argues that these institutions actually have no real authority. Let's talk about this third reason.

Zeus, the Not-Quite-All-Powerful God

We've already talked about the farcical, ridiculous aspect of Zeus's character. But practically speaking, what are the real limitations on his power? Well, we know he has ultimate power over stuff – stuff like flies, rocks, lightning, objects, animals – anything in the world, in fact. He can change the weather, smash up buildings, control the entire universe. Except for man.

Or, as Zeus says himself, "Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the gods are powerless against him" (109-112). To put this another way, consider what Orestes says to the god: "Your whole universe is not enough to prove me wrong. You are the king of gods, king of stones and stars, king of the waves of the sea. But you are not the king of man" (3.1.117) . Re-read this conversation in Act III, and note that Zeus essentially folds his hand after he hears this whopper of a comeback from Orestes.

According to Sartre, both these characters are correct. Man exists outside of and separate from nature because man – and man's type of being – is fundamentally different from everything else in the world. This means that man's mode of being is also fundamentally different from every other mode of being. We talked in Orestes's "Character Analysis" about two different kinds of being: being-in-itself and being-for-itself. Being-in itself is the being of objects and is characterized as the passive, unconscious mode of being. On the other hand, being-for-itself is the being of human beings, the active, conscious mode of being. Because man is the only being to exist as being-for-itself, he is forever separate from nature.

As a result of the fact that man is free, he can't be governed by Zeus the way things in nature can. This is what Orestes means when he says, "Nature abhors man, and you too, god of gods, abhor mankind" (3.1.133). It is also why he finds Zeus's commands completely irrelevant: "I do not hate you. What have I to do with you, or you with me? We shall glide past each other, like ships in a river, without touching. You are god and I am free; each of us is alone" (3.1.135).

In short, Zeus may be able to tell stuff what to do, but he can never tell people what to do. If men believe that they are under Zeus's control, it's because they're retreating into bad faith and refusing to accept the fact of their personal freedom. We'll talk about this more in Electra's "Character Analysis." For now, think about the scene in which she dances atop the temple steps. Zeus doesn't actually force her to stop; he just crashes a stone into the building below her. Electra interprets this facticity as a command to stop. But this was her choice. No one – not even the gods – can force man's hand in one direction or another.

Zeus Timeline