Study Guide

Orestes in The Flies

By Jean-Paul Sartre


Orestes is the son of King Agamemnon and Queen Clytemnestra. As an infant, he was sent away from the palace after Aegisthus murdered Agamemnon and usurped the throne. Orestes grew up in another town with no connection to his homeland until his tutor revealed the secret of his birth. And now he's back in Argos.

As we discussed in the "In A Nutshell," the Orestes/Electra myth has been turned into a play three times in three different Greek tragedies. And in all pre-Sartre renditions, Orestes is ready for revenge. He arrives specifically to kill Aegisthus and purge the city of its murderous couple. Not true of The Flies. Orestes makes it clear from the start that he's not in town to make a big splash. In fact, based on his conversations with the Tutor, it's clear that he's looking for a connection with Argos, trying to fill a void that he believes resulted from his childhood and upbringing. He had no real family and so now, he believes, he has no real identity:

This is my palace. My father's birthplace. […] I, too, was born there. […] And yet I have no memories, none whatever. I am looking at a huge, gloomy building, solemn and pretentious in the worst provincial taste. I am looking at it, but I see it for the first time
. (1.1.93)

Orestes repeatedly describes this void as a "lightness" – he is light, he has no burden, he is free, he has no responsibilities. While the Tutor argues this is a positive thing, it clearly bothers Orestes. He feels he has no existence because he hasn't committed himself to anything.

Now we have to get into Sartre's philosophy to understand what's going on here. For the existentialist, the Tutor and Orestes are both correct when they say Orestes has no commitments. However, Sartre would think that Orestes is wrong to blame his lack of family or childhood memories for this personal void.

The tragic events of his youth – the murder of his father and his own exile – are part of what Sartre calls "facticity." Facticity refers to factual past events that can't be changed. Still, though we can't change these factual events, we can choose how to interpret them. Facticity has no meaning of its own until conscious human beings give it meaning through the act of interpretation. We choose how facticity will effect us.

In the case of Orestes, he can't change the fact that his father was murdered when he himself was an infant. But he can choose what that event means in his life. Does it mean he will grow up rootless and afraid? Does it mean he will grow up vengeful and angry? Does it mean he will never see his hometown, or that he will seek it out intentionally? The fact of Agamemnon's murder has no intrinsic meaning; only Orestes can give it meaning by interpreting it.

Now when we meet Orestes in Act I of The Flies, he hasn't yet chosen how to interpret his facticity. He hasn't yet committed himself to any choices. If he feels he lacks purpose, if he feels as though he lacks any real identity, it's because he hasn't yet chosen what Sartre calls a "fundamental project." He hasn't decided who he is and how he will act. This isn't the fault of his childhood or any other event of facticity. That Orestes hasn't chosen a fundamental project speaks only to a lack of decisiveness on Orestes's part. Both he and the Tutor comment extensively on Orestes's freedom, but Orestes has yet to use this freedom to choose and act.

This is the Orestes of Act I. At the beginning of Act II, our hero undergoes a major transformation. Passages like this one…

Memories are reserved for people who own houses, cattle, fields, and servants. Whereas I–I am free as air, thank God! My mind's my own, gloriously aloof
. (1.1.97)

…transform to passages like this one:

No hatred, but no love either. […] Who am I, and what have I to surrender? I'm a mere shadow of a man; of all of the ghosts haunting this town today, none is ghostlier than I
. (2.1.142)

Orestes realizes that lacking weight, form, and identity is not a desirable mode of being. He must to exercise his freedom by making a choice, or by committing himself to something. Let's take a closer look at the actual moment of revelation. Orestes, in trying to decide whether to stay in Argos and free the people or leave town, has asked for help from the gods. After receiving a rather unambiguous message ("Leave now!"), he stops for a moment:

[Staring at the stone] So that is the Right Thing. […] That's what's wanted, eh? [He stares at the stone in silence for some moments.] The Right Thing. Their Right Thing. [Another silence.] Electra!
[Slowly, in a tone he has not used till now:] There is another way.
From now on I'll take no one's orders, neither man's nor god's
. (2.1.157-161)

What just happened? A few different things. First, Orestes has come face to face with his freedom. He asked for help in making an important, life-changing decision, and the gods told him to leave. But it suddenly dawns on him…he doesn't have to do what he's told. You might remember a moment similar to this way back when you were a little kid and suddenly realized you could say "no" to your parents. We'll talk more about freedom in a minute. For the time being, think about the way in which Orestes has committed himself to a course of action (staying in Argos and freeing its people) and therefore taken a weight on himself. He no longer lacks an identity because he has now chosen a fundamental project. He's exercised his freedom by making a choice (and in the next scene), by acting on that choice.

This is a momentous occasion for Orestes, as he reinvents himself completely. This drastic change manifests itself physically, as Electra and others note: "Oh, how you've changed!" she says. "Your eyes have lost their glow; they're dull and smoldering. […] You were so gentle" (2.1.170). This is definitely not the same Orestes we dealt with in Act I.

Now, right as he undergoes this transformation, Orestes reveals a second motive for the murders he will commit in Scene ii. Not only is he giving himself weight, purpose, exercising his own freedom, but he's also attempting to expose the people of Argos to their own freedom. Check it out:

Supposing I set out to win the name of "guilt-stealer," and heap on myself all their remorse […]. Surely, once I am plagued with all those pangs of conscience, innumerable as the flies of Argos – surely then I shall have earned the freedom of your city
. (2.1.170)

Sartre makes sure that, before we witness the murder in Scene ii, we fully understand his hero's motives. Orestes's impetus is unambiguously pure: "The gods bear witness that I had no wish to shed their blood," he says (2.1.176). He acknowledges that the King and Queen force the people of Argos to nurse remorse in their hearts. Therefore, he murders them in the name of freedom – freedom for the people of Argos.

What Is All This "Freedom" Business, Anyway?

Through this transformation, Orestes now faces his personal freedom. He has chosen to accept and act upon it. But as he very quickly discovers, freedom isn't exactly fun. According to Sartre, to encounter one's own freedom is to despair. Just look at the way Orestes describes the experience:

What a change has come over everything, and oh, how far away you seem! Until now I felt something warm and living around me, like a friendly presence. That something has just died. What emptiness! What endless emptiness, as far as the eye can reach!

Freedom is scary for many reasons. The most obvious consequence of being free is that you can do anything you want. What if you do something bad? Harmful? Wrong? For example, when you're driving down a highway at night, it's really scary to realize that, if you wanted, you could veer off the edge of a cliff. There is nothing stopping you from jerking the wheel. Fully realizing that you could act in any way you want, you might become afraid of your own freedom. Sartre believed that these sorts of realizations were momentary and fleeting. As Orestes says, freedom "crash[es] down […] like a thunderbolt" (2.1.146).

Freedom also causes despair because it's isolating. As Zeus later tells our young hero, "Your vaunted freedom isolates you from the fold; it means exile" (3.1.131). "Yes," agrees Orestes, "exile" (3.1.132). Or, as Orestes quite clearly states later, "I am alone, alone. […] alone until I die" (3.1.158-60).

What's the connection? Check out that conversation between Orestes and Zeus in the final scene of the play. Both of them agree that, as a conscious human being, Orestes exists outside of and separate from Zeus's universe of things, animals, and nature. Remember that in Sartre's existentialism, human beings exist in a different way from everything else in the world. Human existence is different from the existence of things because for human beings only, existence precedes essence. (Check out the "Genre" discussion for a refresher of these basic existential terms. Also check out the Shmoop guide to Sartre's play, No Exit, for more on existence.) Man exists as being-for-itself, a conscious, active kind of being. Everything else in the world exists as being-in-itself, a passive, unconscious mode of being. In this way, man is separated from all else, because man is unique. Man is alone in his alone in his being and in his freedom.

And yet, despite the seeming drawbacks, freedom has its perks. First of all, no one can tell you what to do. Not even the gods. As Zeus says, "Once freedom lights its beacon in a man's heart, the gods are powerless against him" (2.2.112). Or as Aegisthus notes of our hero, "He knows he's free? Then, to lay hands on him, to put him in irons, is not enough" (2.2.109).

This brings us to another important point regarding freedom: it's not a physical state; it is a mental one. That freedom is a mental state becomes clear in the final scene as Zeus and Orestes debate:

If you can brag of freedom, why not praise the freedom of a prisoner languishing in fetters, or a slave nailed to the cross?
Certainly – why not?

Freedom is the ability to interpret, to assign and choose value, to establish for oneself a fundamental project and to recreate oneself, through action. Orestes's choice to stay in Argos and commit the murders is a radical example of Sartrean freedom. When you realize your own freedom, as Orestes does, you realize that no one has power over you until you allow him or her to have power over you. If you pass a speed limit sign, for example, that sign has no power over you until you choose to reduce your speed in compliance. The policeman chasing you has no authority until you choose to pull over when asked. In The Flies, this idea is illustrated by Orestes's reaction to the furies: "It's your weakness that gives them their strength," he tells his sister. "Mark how they dare not speak to me" (3.1.56).

Even the terrifying part of Orestes's epiphany in Act II, Scene i – the "emptiness" he found all around him – can be interpreted positively. Sartre's main philosophical treatise, Being and Nothingness, explains that this nothingness, or emptiness, is what allows for human freedom, choice, and action. Emptiness is the opportunity for change, for re-creation, for consciousness, and for interpretation. Nothingness is the space in which humans can exercise their freedom. Our realization of nothingness is what liberates us to act freely.

It can sometimes be difficult to reconcile the fact that freedom is liberating and also horrifying. But as Sartre very famously writes, "Human life begins on the far side of despair." The anguish of consciousness, of freedom, is what makes us human. Or, as Orestes says, "I am my freedom" (3.1.125). This freedom is inescapable and unavoidable – those who choose not to recognize it can't destroy it; they can only ignore it and pretend it's not there. We'll take a look at this later when we discuss Electra and the townspeople of Argos.

An Innocent Murderer?

If you're not Jean-Paul Sartre or a die-hard existentialist, it can be hard to understand why The Flies passes no moral condemnation on a man who murders two people – one of them his own mother – in cold blood. Morality is a tricky business in the text. Much of the play has to do with rejecting external and forcibly imposed systems of morality.

You might be asking, what is an external and forcibly imposed system of morality? According to Sartre, this would be any institution that tells you what to do, how to act, and what to think. Organized religion, any one system of political beliefs, or any prescribed set of morals falls under this umbrella.

Sartre takes issue with these systems because he thinks they try to deny human freedom, and forcibly remove our ability to choose. In his opinion, if you are taught that murder is wrong, and that you are not allowed to do it, then you have been deceived into thinking you are not free. You're following someone else's value system (in which human life is of highest importance) instead of establishing your own value system. It doesn't matter what the given external system of morality most highly values, if you don't choose, then you're not exercising your freedom. In this way, Sartre believes that all external systems of morality are problematic.

As we discussed in "In A Nutshell," The Flies functions as social commentary for the Nazi occupation of Paris. We're going to talk about this more in Zeus's "Character Analysis," since he represents external and imposed moral systems and the problems they incur. For now, let's focus on Orestes.

What gets Orestes off the hook, for murdering the royal couple is the fact that he chooses a value system that justifies this double murder. In Orestes's value system, human freedom is the most important thing. The King and Queen restrict the freedom of the citizens, so they must die. Because Orestes consciously chooses a value system and acts in accordance with it, according to Sartre, what Orestes does can't be wrong. It is his conviction that justifies his actions.

It's important to realize here that Sartre is not advocating murder. He is using an extreme example to radicalize the existentialist concept of freedom. Take a look at Orestes's perspective:

Remorse? Why should I feel remorse? I am only doing what is right. […] Justice is a matter between men, and I need no god to teach me it. It is right to stamp you out […] and to free the people of Argos from your evil influence. It is right to restore to them their sense of human dignity
. (2.2.120-1)

I am no criminal, and you have no power to make me atone for an act I don't regard as a crime. […] I regret nothing
. (3.1.67-9)

The most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse
. (3.1.116)

Think about what a far cry this is from the Orestes of Act I, who wanted to know if Aegisthus felt remorse for his actions. In discovering his freedom, Orestes has rejected all external systems of morality. He no longer looks to other men or to gods to tell him what is right and what is wrong. Orestes has chosen for himself. This goes back, once again, to Orestes's transformation – his realization that he is free.

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. And there was nothing left in heaven, no right or wrong nor anyone to give me orders
. (3.1.130)

Remember how we talked about freedom being scary? This is one of the reasons why. When you accept no external authority, there's no one to tell you what to do. There's no one to define "right" and "wrong" for you – you have to do it yourself. This is simultaneously a perk and a consequence of freedom. You can start to see why some people find existentialism incredibly frightening and depressing, and why others see it as incredibly liberating.

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