Because Orestes embodies Jean-Paul Sartre's idea of the existential hero, he acts as an instructive example for readers. The Flies seems to say, "Be more like Orestes!" or maybe, "Don't be like Electra!" When you take into account the social commentary woven into the play – the allegorical nature of the myth and its connection to the Nazi occupation of Paris – The Flies becomes even more of an instruction manual on how to live your life. Unambiguously, the play promotes resistance and rebellion against forces like the Nazis.
As we discuss in "In A Nutshell," The Flies builds on the Greek myth of Orestes and Electra. Because it does so theatrically, it falls into the "Drama" genre as well. The parable aspect of the play comes in when you consider the context in which Sartre was writing, and the commentary he's making on the Nazi occupation of Paris. In this parable, rulers like Zeus and Aegisthus represent organizations like the Nazis (or organized religion, or any other external system of rules forcibly imposed). The citizens of Argos are then the citizens of Paris, and Orestes an idealized, would-be savior.
The Flies is also a literary exploration of Sartre's philosophical ideas. The play was published in the same year as Being and Nothingness, Sartre's philosophical treatise that firmly established the foundations of what he named "existentialism." What is existentialism? That's a big question, and not one that we can answer in a few sentences for you. Part of the problem with talking about this philosophy at all is that the different thinkers who are labeled "existentialists" had very different ideas (and almost all of them declared to their death that they were absolutely not existentialists). So when we talk about "existentialism" in this Shmoop Guide, we're talking about Sartre's version of existentialism.
So what is Sartre's version? The simplistic definition is that existence precedes essence. Existence is the fact of being around at all. You exist, a hat exists (though not in the same way), a cat exists, etc. Essence is what you are – it's your function, your nature, your definition. Sartre believed that we have no pre-programmed essence, no definition of what we should be, no preconceived expectations for what to do or how to act or what to be. We exist first, and then we define our own essence through our choices and actions. We can choose to do anything – we have radical personal freedom – but we also have radical personal responsibility for the choices that we make.
In particular, The Flies focuses on this idea of personal freedom. Sartre maintains that no one has power over you until you give him or her that power over you. Think about that moment when you were a kid and you suddenly realized you could say "no" to your parents. Sartrean existentialists experience that sort of epiphany for all systems of authority – the police, the lawmakers, or your boss. When we recognize this freedom – when we truly realize its consequences – we experience what Sartre calls "anguish." We're terrified by it, and we're tempted to retreat into "bad faith" – a form of self-deception in which we pretend we're not free so we don't have to deal with the scary aftermath.
One way of engaging in bad faith is to give our freedom up to other people – like our boss, the police, or lawmakers. We stop existing as human beings should exist (an active, conscious mode of being called being-for-itself) and we start trying to exist in a weak, inactive form of being called being-for-others, a type of existence in which we refuse personal responsibility and allow others to define who we are.
The Flies examines these ideas of personal freedom as well as the consequence of being-for-others. It embraces a life of "authenticity" and condemns bad faith.
The Flies takes place in the town of Argos, Greece, a city plagued by a huge swarm of flies for much of the play. Based on information we gather from the god, Zeus, and the townspeople, it seems that the flies first arrived in Argos fifteen years ago, after the murder of Agamemnon. We have a not-so-subtle hint from Sartre to look further into the text:
The flies? How do the flies come in?
They are a symbol. (1.1.45-6)
A symbol of what? It helps to look at the end of Act II, when, right before Electra's eyes, the flies turn into the furies. In Ancient Greek mythology, the furies were the goddesses of vengeance. If you did something really awful against your own family, like murdering your mother, then the furies would come after you in the name of vengeance. In The Flies, however, the furies are called "The goddesses of remorse." Not the goddesses of vengeance.
This is an important point. If the furies act as the goddesses of vengeance, it suggests that there is some universal system of morality in which killing one's mother is wrong. It further suggests that the perpetrator deserves to be punished because he has violated this system of values. For the existentialist, however, individuals are expected to choose their own value system. The Flies doesn't morally condemn any action, nor hold up any one ideal as "right" in a morally absolute sense. Instead, Sartre is concerned with freedom and choice. Remorse is what happens when an individual lacks the courage of their convictions, when they refuse to recognize the depth of their personal freedom, and when they doubt their ability to choose a value system of their own. Vengeance is externally imposed; remorse is self-inflicted.
It makes sense that the furies in Sartre's play are a self-inflicted curse. Zeus may be able to send them after mortals, but, as Orestes points out in Act III, "It's your weakness gives [the furies] strength" (3.1.56). Electra doesn't have power over them being there, just like she didn't have power over the stone that crashed into the temple steps in Act II. What she does have power over is her own interpretation of these events. How will she let the furies affect her? It works exactly the same way with the flies plaguing Argos in Act I. The citizens choose to interpret these flies as a punishment for their crimes and a reminder of their guilt. The flies have no intrinsic meaning of their own.
In order to fully grasp what's going on with the ending to The Flies, as well as what's happening in the rest of the play, it's important to understand something of Sartre's theory of radical freedom. For more on freedom, check out Orestes's "Character Analysis."
The Flies creates a pattern of choice/action pairs. In Act II, for example, Orestes chooses to commit himself to freeing the Argives and then acts in accordance with this choice. In Act III, he debates with Zeus at length about the nature of freedom and the consciousness of man. We fully expect that, at the end of the act, he will act in accordance with these beliefs.
In some ways, he does. After begging Electra to ignore the furies and step away from the protection of Apollo, he takes his own advice and does so himself. After insisting to Zeus that god has no power over man, he blatantly ignores the god's commands. After flaunting his ability to walk free in the sunlight (see "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" for details), this is exactly how he ends the play.
One of the confusing parts of the ending is that the furies chase after Orestes. We have to wonder why it is Orestes who is chased by the furies and not another character. Didn't Orestes make a big deal out of his freedom? Didn't he tell Electra that the furies have no power over those who are free? How is it that Electra is free from the wrath of the furies while Orestes, in The Flies and according to legend, is haunted by them forever?
We can look at this issue in three different ways. First of all, just because the furies don't chase Electra doesn't mean she is free from their wrath. We know that she's committed herself to a life of remorse, which means the goddesses of remorse are with her forever, even if the literal furies aren't physically beside her.
Second, remember that freedom, according to Sartre, is the ability to interpret and assign value as we choose. Zeus may send the furies after Orestes, but it is up to Orestes to interpret what this means and how it will effect him. If he chooses to ignore the furies, they might as well not be there at all. And it certainly doesn't mean that they're torturing him just because they're trying to torture him.
Finally, look to Orestes's metaphor of the Piped Piper of Hamelin in the final passage of the play. Just as the Pied Piper freed the village of its rats, so Orestes frees Argos of its flies (remember from "Symbols, Imagery, Allegory" that the furies are just meaner versions of the flies). "Fear your dead no longer," he says; "they are my dead. And, see, your faithful flies have left you and come to me" (3.1.18). Orestes has to take the furies with him in order to rid the citizens of Argos from their grasp.
Of course, given what we learn from Electra – that guilt is self-inflicted and that the physical presence of the goddesses of remorse isn't necessary for torment – this isn't exactly a comforting thought. Just because the furies have left town doesn't mean the Argives are free. Whether or not Orestes has succeeded in his task to free the citizens of Argos is by no means clear. It's up for debate.
The Flies takes place in the town of Argos in Ancient Greece, sometime in the 12th or 13th century B.C. As we discuss in "In A Nutshell" Sartre is working with an ancient myth rendered many times over in classic Greek theatre. For the purposes of his play, the specific day in question is the fictional "Ceremony of the Dead," which just happens to be fifteen years to the day after the murder of Agamemnon. In other words, this isn't just another day in the ancient Greek neighborhood. Orestes has arrived at a very specific time in a very specific place – the stage is set for some major drama.
You can also think about the specific stage set-up in the three different acts and four different scenes of The Flies. Sartre's stage directions cut right to the chase, so it doesn't take much digging around to see the point he's making with his props and scenery.
Take Act I, Scene i – you've got "a public square in Argos, dominated by a statue of Zeus, god of flies and death. The image has white eyes and blood-smeared cheeks." Similarly, in the throne room of the palace, "an awe-inspiring, blood-smeared image of Zeus occupies a prominent position." The other two scenes of the play are also marked by symbols of the gods – the temple in the second act and the statue of Apollo in the third. The stage set-up reminds us that the gods are a dominating force for the people of Argos. And yet it's the images of the gods – not the gods themselves – that are held up as pillars of authority.
Because The Flies is a play, the only language we can look at is the dialogue of the characters. Sartre writes his play in the tradition of the Greek tragedies that came before it. The language is intense, measured, carefully chosen and powerfully delivered. Take a look:
That was the last time, the last, I saw my youth. Suddenly, out of the blue, freedom crashed down on me and swept me off my feet. Nature sprang back, my youth went with the wind, and I knew myself alone, utterly alone in the midst of this well-meaning little universe of yours. I was like a man who lost his shadow. (3.1.130)
This isn't just a dramatic moment – this sort of speech characterizes all of The Flies. The intensity of language is well suited to the intensity of content (Sartre's existentialism wasn't exactly light cocktail chatter), and the gravity of social context (the German occupation of Paris during World War II).
See "What's Up With the Title?" for all the juicy details…
Time and Time again in The Flies, men are described as animals. Not pleasant, fuzzy, comforting animals either – we're talking rats, flies, decaying flesh of dead creatures. All in all, not a pretty sight. Here are a few examples:
Squeals of terror everywhere, people who panic the moment they set on eyes on you, and scurry to cover, like black beetles, down the glaring streets. (1.1.2)
See that old creature over there, creeping away like a beetle on her little black feet, hugging the walls. Well, she's a good specimen of the squat black vermin that teem in every cranny of this town. Now watch me catch our specimen, it's well worth inspection. Here it is. A loathsome object, you'll agree. (1.1.46)
Most prominent in these descriptions is the mention of "carrion," or "the decaying flesh of dead animals." The first reference to carrion comes courtesy of Zeus, as he describes the arrival of the flies in Argos fifteen years before: "Fifteen years ago, a mighty stench of carrion drew them to this city" (1.1.27). It's odd that he chooses this particular word – carrion – since the only dead body in question is that of Agamemnon's. Later, we get this passage:
[Falling on his knees] I stink! Oh, how I stink! I am a mass of rottenness. See how the flies are teeming round me, like carrion crows […]. I reek to heaven. (2.1.28)
And finally, remember that the furies call Orestes and Electra "lovely human carrion" at the start of Act III (3.1.2).
It's clear that, in more ways than one, humans in Argos have been reduced to the state of animals. Go back to "Character Analysis" and review our discussion of Sartre's different types of being. Remember that you've got being-for-itself (the active, conscious existence of humans) and being-in-itself (the passive, unconscious existence of everything else in the world, including objects and animals). It very well could be that, because the people in Argos have failed to embrace their freedom – the very thing that makes them human – they have been reduced to the status of mere animals. What do you think?
It's hard to ignore what seems to be an obsession with eyes in this play. Eyes take on several different meanings and get at several different points in Sartre's philosophy. We'll tackle the big issues one at a time.
First of all, eyes are part of physical appearance. As we discuss in "Tools of Characterization," external appearance is a great indication of internal changes throughout the course of The Flies. Let's start with Orestes. Electra is drawn to his youthful innocence and boyish good looks in Act I. In Act II, she says to her brother, "You came here with your kind, girlish face and your eager eyes – and you made me forget my hatred," insisting, "Yes, it was your eyes that made a fool out of me" (2.1.115, 107). In her mind, eyes an indication of character. If this Orestes has such gentle and kind eyes, surely he can't be the vengeful and angry Orestes of her imagination. When he claims that, actually, he can be the vengeful and angry Orestes, she is confused. "To think it's you who are going to shed [their blood]," she says, "you with those gentle eyes!" (2.1.180)
Now look at what happens after Orestes murders the royal couple:
Oh, how you've changed! Your eyes have lost their glow; they're dull and smoldering. […] You were so gentle. (2.1.170)
There are two ways to interpret this. On the one hand, it could be that Orestes's physical appearance has actually changed in the course of a few hours. In this sense, the eyes really are the window to the soul. As he has altered completely his fundamental project, so that change manifests itself physically on his face. Another possibility is that Electra projects her own thoughts onto Orestes. She now imagines this man standing before her as the same vengeful Orestes of her dreams, and so she sees him physically conform to her standards.
Moving on to our next point, let's talk about the repeated references to "dead eyes" throughout The Flies. It starts when Orestes first sees his mother: "I hadn't counted on those dead eyes," he says (1.1.171). Clytemnestra then notes the "smoldering eyes" of her daughter and laments that she, too, used to look that way (1.1.180). By Act III, Electra's "bold eyes" have transformed completely. As Orestes gazes upon her, he says, "Where, now, have I seen dead eyes like those? Electra – you are like her. Like Clytemnestra" (3.1.32). Electra, like her mother before her, has lost the passion and the verve of youth. Orestes, too, has moved past his youth – but he has moved towards a committed and authentic sense of completed self. Electra, on the other hand, is just "dead." Because she can't fully commit to the value system she has chosen, and because she is fleeing from personal freedom, she isn't fully alive.
Next is the idea of other people's eyes and the fear of judgment. If you like what you've seen in The Flies, you might check out Sartre's other famous play, No Exit, which is about the idea of "the other" and "the look." Sartre argues that the gaze of other people is a horrifying experience. When other people look at you, they turn you into an object. You lose your subjectivity as you realize that this other person is his own subject, and that in his eyes you are merely a thing. This idea of "competitive subjectivity" is the focus of No Exit.
The Flies, however, focuses more on the idea of judgment. When characters like Electra or even the general Argive population choose to flee from their freedom, they give their freedom up to others. They allow others to view them, judge them, and create their identities. When Aegisthus promotes the myth of the Ceremony of the Dead, he is playing off of this idea:
Well you may cry for mercy! Play your parts, you wretched murmerers, for today you have a full house to watch you. Millions of staring, hopeless eyes are brooding darkly on your faces and your gestures. They can see us, read our hearts, and we are naked in the presence of the dead. Ah, that makes you squirm; it burns and sears you, that stern, calm gaze unchanging as the gaze of eyes remembered. (2.1.52)
In this way, eyes come to represent judgment symbolically. Even Aegisthus falls victim to his own myth when he asks Clytemnestra, "Are you not ashamed – under [Agamemnon's] eyes?" (2.2.37)
Electra recognizes eyes as judgment after Aegisthus is dead. "No," she says, "I can't bear those eyes any longer" before placing a mantle over the dead king's face (2.2.136). Similarly, Electra tries to exert judgmental control over Orestes: "I must see you," she says; "when I stop seeing you, I'm afraid of you. I daren't take my eyes off you" (2.2.145). And of course, the furies use their gaze as a threat against would-be-penitents: "We shall be the staring eyes of the houses," they say (3.1.16).
We've talked about eyes as a reflection of internal changes, as indicative of humanity (or lack thereof), and as vessels of judgment. But we can't forget the most obvious meaning of eyes in The Flies – they are how we see. When eyes are covered or closed, it means that the viewer isn't fully aware of his surroundings. Orestes's Act II transformation, then, is akin to opening his eyes to the anguish and the burden of human freedom. When he seeks to free the Argives, he seeks to open their eyes.
The folks of Argos are my folks. I must open their eyes.
Poor people! […] You will tear from their eyes the veils I laid on them, and they will see their lives as they are, foul and futile, a barren boon. (3.1.137-8)
And that just about covers it.
The sun gets a fair number of mentions in The Flies, and none of them seems congruent with the rest. When the play opens, the sun is a miserable, scorching torch in the sky:
I can't think how you bear it – this emptiness, the shimmering air, that fierce sun overhead. What's deadlier than the sun? (1.1.2)
Shortly after, it's a foreboding backdrop in a murder scene:
The people of Argos saw their faces dyed red by the sunset, and they saw them leaning over the battlements, gazing for a long while seawards. And the people thought, "There's evil brewing." But they kept silence. (1.1.36)
And then, all of a sudden, it's a happy addendum to a peaceful scene in paradise:
In Greece there are cities where men live happily. White, contented cities, basking like lizards in the sun. At this very moment, under this same sky, children are playing in the streets of Corinth. […] The sun is shining. Everywhere down in the plains men are looking up and saying: "It's a fine day," and they're happy. (2.1.77-81)
Out there the sun is rising, lighting up the roads. Soon we shall leave this place, we shall walk those sunlit roads, and these hags of darkness will lose their power. The sunbeams will cut through them like swords. (3.1.52)
What's going on here? Remember in Orestes's "Character Analysis" when we talk about "facticity"? Facticity refers to events in the past that we cannot change. Orestes can't change the fact that his father was murdered and he was exiled as an infant. But what he can change is the way he interprets that facticity and the value he assigns it. Things in nature – like the sun – work exactly the same way. The sun itself has no inherent meaning. It is neither scorching hot nor pleasantly bright nor foreboding nor uplifting until we decide that it is. What the sun represents depends on the human who is viewing it and the value he chooses to assign it. That's why the sun can mean so many different things in the span of a single day in The Flies.
Now let's look at the final passages from of The Flies. What has the sun come to represent to Orestes at this point? How does he choose to interpret it in Act III?
[The Tutor half opens both leaves of the door and takes cover behind one of them. The crowd surges forward, thrusting the doors wide open; then stops, bewildered, on the threshold. The stage is flooded with bright light. Shouts rise from the crowd: "Away with him! Kill him! Stone him! Tear him to pieces!"]
[Who has not heard them] The sun! (3.1.175-6)
[He strides out into the light. Shrieking, the furies fling themselves after him.] (3.1.180)
The play's final line (the stage directions above) is particularly important when you remember how the furies threatened Orestes and his sister earlier in the act. "You shall never see the sun again, Electra," they warned. "We shall mass between you and the sun like a swarm of locusts; you will carry darkness round your head wherever you go" (3.1.54). While both Orestes and Electra fled the temple – into the light – only Orestes realizes that he's walking in the sun (and chooses to interpret this positively, as opposed to the Tutor's "scorching sun" from Act I). Electra, though the furies have physically left her alone, will carry their darkness with her in the form of guilt and remorse forever.
At the opening of The Flies, Orestes's biggest complaint is that he's "too light." He has no memories, he has no commitments, and no real sense of self. This he interprets as a lack of weight. Let's take a look:
Palaces – that's so. Palaces, statues, pillars – stones, stones, stones! Why, with all these stones in my head, am I not heavier? (1.1.95)
You've left me free as the strands torn by the wind from spiders' webs that one sees floating ten feet above the ground. I'm light as gossamer and walk on air. (1.1.97)
The solution, clearly, is to take some sort of heaviness upon himself. While a lack of commitment (which we know from Orestes's "Character Analysis" translates to a lack of a "fundamental project") is presented as lightness, we soon see that crime is interpreted as a sort of heaviness. It starts with Clytemnestra's advice to Electra:
But wait, my girl; one day you, too, will be trailing after you an inexpiable crime. At every step you will think that you are leaving it behind, but it will remain as heavy as before. (1.1.206)
Orestes hears this and takes it to heart. Before long, he's determined that a crime is the answer to his lightness problem:
I must go down – do you understand? – I must go down into the depths, among you. For you are living, all of you, at the bottom of a pit.
I'm still too – too light. I must take a burden on my shoulders, a load of guilt so heavy as to drag me down, right down into the abyss of Argos. (2.1.165-7)
Believe me, [my crime] weighs on my heart like lead. We were too light, Electra; now our feet sink into the soil, like chariot-wheels in turf. So come with me; we will tread heavily on our way, bowed beneath our precious load. (3.1.153)
But our discussion isn't as simple as "weight = crime." By the third act, the idea of weight has taken on a more nuanced and complex meaning. When Orestes speaks to his sister about together bearing their "precious load," he's referring not only to the murder just committed, but also to the burden that is radical personal freedom. Not that these are entirely different – remember it was the realization of personal freedom that allowed Orestes to commit his crime in the first place.
Though all works of literature present the author's point of view, they don't all have a narrator or a narrative voice that ties together and presents the story. This particular piece of literature does not have a narrator through whose eyes or voice we learn the story.
We'll admit that The Flies isn't exactly a classic quest tale. So if you want to try and fit it to the classic quest plot, you've got to take some liberties. The "journey" that Orestes takes brings him from his home to the land of Argos – both his decision to travel (the call) and the traveling itself happen before the play begins. The action begins with his arrival in Argos.
This happens before we join the action.
His people are miserable and mentally enslaved. The gods are unjust and obsessed with keeping the mortals miserable. His mother's sleeping with the enemy and his sister is a maid in her own palace. Orestes is not a happy camper.
This is where the hero is tested and forced to prove himself. For Orestes, these are ideological tests, and he passes them at the end of Act II, Scene i when he resolves to choose his own path and take the burden of freedom heavily upon his shoulders.
Orestes's "thrilling escape" isn't from death so much as it is from bad faith. He escapes from self-deception, passivity, and being-for-others. He experiences a sense of renewal and even re-birth, which he describes in detail in the play's third act.
The early stages of The Flies are focused on the setting and mood: what is Argos like? Who are its citizens and how do they live their lives? Because we watch the action through the eyes of Orestes – a foreign visitor– we encounter the town as an outsider.
It seems pretty clear that Orestes wants to commit to something and to take on real responsibility. We also start to suspect that Electra is waiting for her brother to return to Argos, in the hope that he will avenge their father's death.
The plot thickens as the two young siblings have to deal with several external systems of order: that of the gods, that of the King and Queen, and that of "fate." Orestes is confused and unsure of what to do, and Electra flip-flops back and forth between rebellious teen and passive coward.
It's no coincidence that structurally this falls at the center of The Flies. The most important moment for Orestes comes at the end of Act II, Scene i, when he encounters the anguish of personal freedom and decides to act on it rather than flee from it.
Now that the murders are done, Electra and Orestes are on the run and have taken sanctuary at the feet of Apollo's statue. Because The Flies is a philosophical play and not an action thriller, we're not so much looking for a heart-pounding chase scene as we are interested in what's going to happen to Electra. Orestes's resolve is certain, and we don't really doubt his convictions. But Electra is wavering…
This is where Sartre explains much of his philosophy. Orestes is given the opportunity to reflect on his actions and explain his choices to Zeus. This is a chance for Sartre to explain his philosophy to the audience. This is where The Flies deals with ideas like freedom and responsibility, consciousness, and being-for-itself.
Orestes decides where to go from here. Choosing to be "a king without a kingdom," he leaves the freshly liberated citizens of Argos to walk free in the sun.
Orestes arrives in Argos, meets his sister and mother, and discusses the situation with Zeus. The act ends when he commits to staying in town.
Electra tries to save the people of Argos – to no avail. Orestes experiences his epiphany and resolves to kill the royal couple. He does so. The act ends when he and his sister head for Apollo's shrine.
Electra and Orestes deal with the furies in the aftermath of the murders. Orestes verbally dukes it out with the king of gods and wins, though he loses Electra in the process. He delivers his "coronation" speech and leaves town.
While these texts are never explicitly referenced in The Flies, Sartre's play builds on the three Greek tragedies, which were founded on the same ancient myth. These works are: