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)
Right away the people of Argos are depicted as sub-human. They've been stripped of their humanity because they're not facing their freedom, that which makes them human.
What could I do, a woman alone? I bolted my door.
Yes, but you left your window not quite closed, so as to hear the better, and, while you peeped behind the curtains and held your breath, you felt a little tingling itch between your loins, and didn't you enjoy it! (1.1.51-2)
According to Zeus's logic, the woman is responsible for taking enjoyment in the crime. In this way she, too, is at fault.
Some say he's still alive. The story goes that the men ordered to kill the child had pity on him and left him in the forest. (1.1.75)
In fact, this was a common ancient Greek practice. Abandoning a child in the wild instead of murdering him meant that the guilty party could blame the gods instead of themselves for the child's death. (If he died of exposure, it was because the gods didn't intervene to prevent it.) This is a great example of Sartre's bad faith, the self-denial manifested in the refusal to accept responsibility for one's actions.
You cannot share in their repentance, since you did not share in their crime. Your brazen innocence makes a gulf between you and them. (1.1.81)
Orestes realizes this later, and re-iterates the point when he says he will take a weight upon himself to become heavy as the people of Argos are.
They have guilty consciences, they're afraid – and fear and guilty consciences have a good savor in the nostrils of the gods. Yes, the gods take pleasure in such poor souls. Would you oust them from the favor of the gods? What, moreover, could you give them in exchange? Good digestions, the gray monotony of provincial life, and the boredom – ah, the soul-destroying boredom – of long days of mild content. (1.1.81)
The people of Argos have chosen the murder of Agamemnon as the one event in their past that defines who they are. Without it, they face boredom, as Zeus calls it – an emptiness.
I wondered if you weren't hatching some wild scheme to oust Aegisthus and take his place.
[thoughtfully] To oust Aegisthus. Ah – [A pause.] No, my good slave, you need not fear. (1.1.103-4)
These stage directions are extremely important. Orestes hasn't even considered killing Aegisthus before this moment – unlike the classic Greek myth, he certainly didn't come to Argos seeking vengeance.
A YOUNG WOMAN
If only it would start! What are they up to, those palace folk? They're never in a hurry, and it's all this waiting gets one down, what with the blazing sun and only that big black stone to look at. Just think! They're all there, crowded behind the stone, gloating over the cruel things they're going to do to us. (2.1.13)
Anticipation is worse than the ceremony itself because there are no actual dead. It's all in their heads.
It's bitter pain for him, poor fellow, and all his love has turned to hate. Presently I'll feel him coiling around me, like a wisp of smoke, and he'll cling to me more closely than any living man has ever clung. I'll bring him home with me, wound round my neck like a tippet. (2.1.15)
Sartre very skillfully gives us a glimpse into the status quo in Argos – we get to see what the average citizens think and feel on a daily basis. They are consumed by fear and guilt and are essentially prisoners to their remorse.
So along with youth, good looks, and wealth, you have the wisdom of far riper years; your mind is free from prejudice and superstition; you have no family ties, no religion, and no calling; you are free to turn your hand to anything. But you know better than to commit yourself – and there lies your strength. (1.1.96)
According to Sartre, the Tutor is right – in a sense. Orestes is free. And yet, he makes no use of this freedom until he chooses and acts. The Tutor would be wrong then, when he advises Orestes not to commit himself. Orestes isn't free until he acts on that freedom by committing himself to an action of his choice.
Some men are born bespoken; a certain path has been assigned them, and at its end there is something they must do, a deed allotted. So on and on they trudge, wounding their bare feet on the flints. I suppose that strikes you as vulgar – the joy of going somewhere definite. (1.1.97)
Pay close attention to the various speeches in which Orestes discusses the idea of a "path." There is a joy in having a path, he knows, but it is not until later that he discovers the importance of choosing one's own. The Tutor seems to see two options: being path-less, or being committed to a path that someone else has chosen for you. Orestes will later discover that he can commit himself to a path he has chosen for himself. In this way he maintains his freedom while still giving himself the weight and substance he desires.
A king should share in his subjects' memories. […] If there were something I could do, something to give me the freedom of the city; if, even by a crime, I could acquire their memories, their hopes and fears, and fill with these the void within me, yes, even if I had to kill my own mother… (1.1.105)
When Orestes ultimately does kill his mother, is it for self-serving purposes, or selfless ones? Does he do it, as he says here, to fill the void within himself, or does he do it, as he claims in his closing speech, to free the people of Argos?
You will […] murmur to yourself, "It wasn't I, it could not have been I, who did that." Yet, though you disown it time and time again, it will always be there, a dead weight holding you back. (1.1.206)
Sartre explored this problem – the difficulty with reconciling the self of the past with the self of the present with the self of the future - in Being and Nothingness. He believes that man re-created himself in every moment through every choice and action.
I do not know who you are, young man, nor what brings you here, but your presence bodes no good. Electra hates me – that, of course, I always knew. But for fifteen years we have kept the peace; only our eyes betrayed our feelings. And now you have come, you have spoken, and here we are showing our teeth and snapping at each other like two curs in the street. (1.1.210)
Clytemnestra here claims that Orestes is responsible for causing this vehement argument. What is it about Orestes's presence that drives these two to fight?
What an ugly lot! Observe, young master, their sallow cheeks and sunken eyes. These folks are perishing from fear. What better example could we have of the effects of superstition? (2.1.21)
The Tutor is a pillar of logic and reason in The Flies. He looks to empirical evidence to discern what's going on rather than seeking explanations from men like Demetrios (Zeus is disguise).
[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… That's right, my harpies; sting and gouge and scavenge me; bore through my flesh to my black heart. I have sinned a thousand times, I stink of ordure, and I reek to heaven. (2.1.28)
It's important to note that the citizens of Argos want the flies – their punishment is self-imposed. This man also willingly dehumanizes himself by referring to his flesh as "carrion."
What are you, Electra, but the last survivor of an accursed race? (2.1.68)
The King tries to control Electra through the idea of "destiny." As far as an existentialist is concerned, there is no such thing as destiny. Electra might have messy family history, but she can choose how this history is going to affect her. As Sartre writes, she alone has the power to interpret her facticity (more on that in "Character Analysis").
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. (2.1.77)
Notice how the sun is interpreted differently at different moments in the play. It's up to each person to decide the meaning of elements in nature.
Agamemnon was a worthy man, you know, but he made one great mistake. He put a ban on public executions. That was a pity. A good hanging now and then – that entertains folks in the provinces and robs death of its glamour… So the people here held their tongues; they looked forward to seeing, for once, a violent death. (1.1.38)
If The Flies is indeed meant as commentary on the occupation of Paris, what does this particular passage say about the Nazi presence in Europe?
And you, too, said nothing?
Does that rouse your indignation? Well, my young friend, I like you all the better for it; it proves your heart's in the right place. (1.1.39-40)
With this conversation, Sartre is addressing the idea of radical personal responsibility. His breed of existentialism claims that all are were responsible for all man-made events. World War II, for example, was the fault of every living human in the world. Orestes is then correctly placing some blame on this man (supposedly the mortal Demetrios) for not speaking up to avert the crime.
No, I admit I, too, held my peace. I'm a stranger here, and it was no concern of mine. (1.1.40)
This is the argument Orestes uses to justify his leaving Argos and remaining light, weightless, obligation-free. (Of course, he later changes his mind.)
Everyone wears black? Ah, I see. You're in mourning for your murdered King.
Whisht! For God's sake, don't talk of that. (1.1.48-9)
This is an example of Sartre's "bad faith." The people of Argos may be repenting, but they are in denial of the very crime they claim to regret.
Yes, you're quite old enough to have heard those huge cries that echoed and re-echoed for a whole morning in the city streets. What did you do about it?
What could I do, a woman alone? I bolted my door. (1.1.50-1)
And yet, according to Sartre, she too is responsible for the murder – if only for failing to try and stop it.
Then these blood-smeared walls […] and all those half-human creatures beating their breasts in darkened rooms, and those shrieks […] – can it be that Zeus and his Olympians delight in these? (1.1.67)
The citizens of Argos are described as "creatures" because they fail to live as Sartre believes human beings should live. In other words, Sartre would claim that the Argives are avoiding being-for-itself, the being of fully conscious people. In this way, they are not embracing their humanity.
Everybody here is sick with fear. Everybody except me. And I –
Yes? And you?
Oh, I – I'm sick with hatred. (1.1.154-6)
This is a very telling passage. Electra may not be consumed with guilt in the way the citizens of Argos are, but she is as much a prisoner as they are. It's just that she is enslaved by her thirst for revenge, rather than her fear of the dead.
You will […] murmur to yourself, "It wasn't I, it could not have been I, who did that." Yet, though you disown it time and time again, it will always be there, a dead weight holding you back. (1.1.206)
This self-denial is classic bad faith. As Clytemnestra predicts, Electra will behave in this way in Act III.
The sun is shining. Everywhere down in the plains men are looking up and saying: "It's a fine day," and they're happy. Are you so set on making yourselves wretched that you've forgotten the simple joy of the peasant who says as he walks across his fields, "It's a fine day"? No, you stand hanging your heads, moping and mumbling, more dead than alive. (2.1.81)
As Orestes later says, "Human life begins on the far side of despair." But the despair to which he refers is different than the misery Electra identifies in the people of Argos. Their misery is one of mental imprisonment, not the anguish of personal freedom. In this way, Electra is right that they are "more dead than alive." Until they embrace the personal freedom and despair of human life, they're not fully living.
They've been getting fatter and fatter. Give them another fifteen years, and they'll be as big as toads. (1.1.27)
If the flies are representative of the guilt and remorse plaguing Argos, then there isn't much hope for a future for these people. All the repentance in the world doesn't seem to be alleviating their guilt – rather it worsens it.
A word, a single word, might have sufficed. But no one said it. […]
And you, too, said nothing? (1.1.38-39)
It sounds as though Orestes realizes at this point that he's dealing with a god. If this is the case, then his question holds far more significance, as he's addressing issues of fate, free will, and divine intervention.
And I thought the gods were just!
Steady, my friend. Don't blame the gods too hastily. Must they always punish? Wouldn't it be better to use such breaches of the law to point a moral? (1.1.42)
The system Zeus condones seems to allow for free will more than that suggested by Orestes. Zeus seems to imply that men can be instructed, and still allowed to act as they choose.
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)
This is an important passage, because it's indicative of the way the gods view men in this play.
Oh, Sir, I do repent, most heartily I repent. If you only knew how I repent, and my daughter too, and my son-in-law offers up a heifer every year, and my little grandson has been brought up in a spirit of repentance. He's a pretty lad, with flaxen hair, and he always behaves as good as gold. Though he's only seven, he never plays or laughs, for thinking of his original sin… (1.1.59)
This passage is a loaded one. "[O]riginal sin" refers not just to the town's shared crime against Agamemnon, but also to the Christian belief of original sin (which goes back to Adam's fall and the first sin shared by all men).
Good you old bitch, that's as it should be – and be sure you die in a nice bitchy odor of repentance. […] Unless I'm much mistaken, my masters, we have there the real thing, the good old piety of yore, rooted in terror. (1.1.60)
This might be representative of Sartre's view of organized religion in general – institutions which imprisons its members in fear and hides from them their own freedom.
Then these blood-smeared walls […] and all those half-human creatures beating their breasts in darkened rooms, and those shrieks […] – can it be that Zeus and his Olympians delight in these?
Young man, do not sit in judgment on the Gods. They have their secrets – and their sorrows. (1.1.67-8)
Zeus implies but does not explain – why is it that he takes so much joy in seeing the mortals miserable?
[A tomtom sounds, and the priest dances at the entrance of the cavern, slowly at first, then quickening his gyrations until he falls to the ground exhausted.] (2.1.41)
The people of Argos are ashamed of their humanity, and sexuality is a part of humanity. Remember that Zeus associated sex with the old woman's guilt in Act I.
This is too much – I'll shut that foolish wench's tongue. [Stretches out his right arm.] Poseidon, carabou, carabou, roola. [The big stone which blocked the entrance to the cavern rumbles across the stage and crashes against the temple steps.] (2.1.91)
Zeus acts more like a child than the King of the gods. There is quite a discrepancy between this character and the image projected before the citizens of Argos.
You will observe that there's not a window anywhere. […] they turn their backsides to the streets. (1.1.6)
This self-imposed isolation is one of the symptoms of the shame and remorse that plague Argos.
Where can [these flies] come from? (1.1.26)
Good question – and the answer may change throughout the course of the play. From one perspective, the flies are sent by the gods to make a point. From another, they are self-imposed – a physical manifestation of the guilt shared by the townspeople of Argos.
[Hideous shrieks come from the palace.]
Listen to that! I don't know if you will agree with me, young master, but I think we'd do better to leave this place. (1.1.32)
The backdrop of the Ceremony of the Dead serves to provide the mood for The Flies. These shrieks coming from the backdrop are the perfect support for this atmosphere of dread and fear.
When the folks of Argos heard their King screaming his life out in the palace, they still kept their silence, but they rolled their eyes in a sort of ecstasy, and the whole town was like a woman in heat. (1.1.40)
In The Flies, sex is a shameful and dirty act, tied either to violence or to crime.
Does Aegisthus feel contrition?
Aegisthus? I'd be much surprised. But what matter? A whole city's repenting on his account. (1.1.63-4)
Sartre makes it clear that Zeus isn't interested in constructive repentance. The god isn't trying to teach the people a lesson, as he earlier claimed, nor is he attempting to improve their conditions through atonement.
You hate me, my child, but what disturbs me more is your likeness to me, as I was once. I used to have those clean-cut features, that fever in the blood, those smoldering eyes – and nothing good came of them. (1.1.180)
Is Clytemnestra disturbed by these similarities because she regrets wasting her youth and appearance, or because she truly fears for her daughter's future?
Did they tell you that we bear the burden of an inexpiable crime, committed fifteen years ago? […] And that Queen Clytemnestra bears the heaviest load of guilt? (1.1.198)
Why is the Queen's burden of guilt heavier than everyone else's? She is guilty of both adultery and betrayal against her husband – but is this what Sartre is referring to?
Note her words, Philebus. That's a rule of the game. People will beg you to condemn them, but you must be sure to judge them on the sins they own to; their other evil deeds are no one's business, and they wouldn't thank you for detecting them. (1.1.203)
This is interesting – it suggests that the Argives' confessions are not entirely genuine. That is, people confess only for the public image of being repentant.
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)
Is this metaphorical weight a positive or a negative in The Flies? Clytemnestra resents the burden she carries, yet Orestes resents his "lightness."
Make us regret that we, too, are not dead. (2.1.42)
The citizens of Argos are ashamed of their humanity. This goes beyond repenting for a crime.
I was born here. (1.1.3)
Notice that this is one of the first things Orestes says in The Flies. His attempt to make a connection with his homeland and his people is his primary concern in the play's first act.
Oh, that's nothing. Just a parlor trick. I'm a fly-charmer in my leisure hours. (1.1.87)
Here Zeus hits the nail on the head. In this play, he is little more than a fly-charmer. This image of the god is a far cry from the powerful and dominant master he tries to project.
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)
Why does this lack of childhood memories bother Orestes so much? Why, according to him, does his time with the Tutor "not count?"
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)
Orestes is already drawing a distinction between elements of the natural world – like stones – and people, consciousness, being-for-itself. He needs to choose a fundamental project and define himself. The academic knowledge he's received from the Tutor – knowledge of things in the natural world – isn't going to help him feel any "heavier," or define his identity.
You are a princess, Electra, and the townspeople expect to see you, as in former years.
A princess – yes, the princess of a day. Once a year, when this day comes round, you remember who I am; because, of course, the people want an edifying glimpse of our family life. A strange princess, indeed, who herds pigs and washes up. Tell me, will Aegisthus put his arm around my neck as he did last time? Will he smile tenderly upon me, while he mumbles horrible threats in my ear? (1.1.134-5)
Consider this passage in the light of Aegisthus and Zeus's later conversation, when they discuss the rift between their selves and the images they have created and forced upon the public.
Fifteen years ago men said I was the loveliest woman in Greece. Look at me now and judge my sufferings. (1.1.204)
The people of Argos don't just wear their crimes on their sleeves – they wear them on their faces. Appearances are a manifestation of the internal.
As for you, my child, too faithful copy of myself, 'tis true I have no love for you. But I had rather cut off my right hand than do you harm. (1.1.210)
What seems like motherly affection towards Electra is something else altogether. Because Clytemnestra recognizes herself in her daughter, she can't bring herself to hurt her.
From tomorrow I'll start wondering how they'll be next year. Every year they're getting nastier and nastier – (2.1.11)
It's clear that the townspeople are getting nowhere with their repentance. All their remorse serves no purpose, as they make no progress past their guilt.
VOICES IN THE CROWD
Look how she's dancing, light as a flame. Look how her dress is rippling. […]
THE YOUNG WOMAN
And see her look of ecstasy – oh no, that's not the face of a wicked woman. (2.1.84-5)
In trying to turn the citizens of Argos away of their shame of humanity, Electra has tried to help them see a more positive side to their human sexuality.
Fifteen years ago, a mighty stench of carrion drew them to this city. (1.1.27)
It's interesting that Zeus uses the word "carrion" to describe the aftermath of Agamemnon's death. Again, the people of Argos – even its rightful king – are reduced to the state of mere animals.
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)
Where else do we see a red sunset in the course of The Flies? And how does that scene compare to the one Zeus describes here?
For 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)
Orestes can do nothing about his past – those are factual events he can't change. What he is free to do is interpret those events in his own mind and give meaning to them.
I was the King's and the Queen's underlinen. And how dirty it is, all covered with spots and stains! Yes, I have to wash everything they wear next to their skin, the shifts they wrap their rotting bodies in, the nightdresses Clytemnestra has on when the King shares her bed. I shut my eyes and scrub with all my might. (1.1.122)
Hamlet, anyone? Compare this to the "rank sweat of an enseamed bed" line from Shakespeare's play. The Flies has a clear connection to Hamlet. The son questions whether or not to murder the man who killed his father and is now sleeping with his mother. Check out the Shmoop Guide on Hamlet for more on Shakespeare's hero's dilemma. Sartre treats this idea differently, however, as his focus is on personal freedom, not on justice or madness or moral obligation.
You're good-looking, too. (1.1.137)
The physical similarities between Electra and her brother are meant to reflect their blood relation. These physical commonalities also render the two women similar in their youth and innocence; both stand apart from the ugly, guilt-ravaged citizens of Argos.
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)
This passage refers to Sartre's idea of 'the other" and the way that a gaze reduces a person to a mere object. This is the focus of Sartre's play – No Exit. Check it out on Shmoop.
This is too much – I'll shut that foolish wench's tongue. [Stretches out his right arm.] Poseidon, carabou, carabou, roola. [The big stone which blocked the entrance to the cavern rumbles across the stage and crashes against the temple steps. Electra stops dancing.] (2.1.91)
Notice that Electra stops dancing of her own accord. She interprets the stone as an impassable barrier in her attempt to free the citizens of Argos.
It is not our fault, we are innocent. That woman came and tempted us with her lying tongue. To the river with her! Drown the witch. (2.1.94)
The citizens of Argos retreat into bad faith by refusing to take personal responsibility.
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 is less-than-human because, he has yet to exercise his freedom by making a choice.
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)
Look at the different mentions of sun in The Flies and the various ways the sun is interpreted. This description here forms a bookend with the final speech of the play, when Orestes walks happily out into the sunshine. How do the various interpretations of the sun change throughout the play?
I was born here – and yet I have to ask my way, like any stranger. Knock at that door. (1.1.5)
Sartre makes it very clear that Orestes hasn't returned to Argos specifically looking for vengeance. Rather, he's looking for a personal connection with the home and the people to which he belongs.
There's someone here. [He goes up to the idiot boy.] Excuse me, sir…
Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!
We're out of luck. The only one who doesn't run away is a half-wit. (1.1.10-18)
What purpose does this minor character serve in this opening scene of The Flies?
Never in my life have I seen such a beard – or rather, only one: the bronze beard on the chin of Zeus Ahenobarbos at Palermo. (1.1.24)
Look at how Sartre clues us in to Zeus's real identity from the start. We're meant to suspect that both Orestes and the Tutor have an inkling that they are talking to a god, and not a mere mortal. Though both Zeus and Orestes play around with fake identities, no one is really fooled.
A good hanging now and then – that entertains folks in the provinces and robs death of its glamour… (1.1.38)
How are the deaths in The Flies portrayed – as glamorous and poetic, or harsh and realistic?
Why are you looking at me like that?
You are very beautiful. Not at all like the people in these parts. (1.1.16-7)
Appearances are important in The Flies – they reflect the internal state of a character. Trace the way Electra's appearance changes throughout the course of the play.
If the doom I brought ton my life has taught me anything, it is that I have nothing left to fear… (1.1.188)
Is Clytemnestra bluffing here? Can she honestly claim she fears nothing at this point?
[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)
This is the moment of Orestes's epiphany. He realizes that the sign from the gods is just that – a sign, neither a command nor confining order. He realizes that he can choose how to interpret this sign for himself.
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! (2.1.163)
Orestes has discovered a key tenet of Sartre's existentialism: freedom is not meant to be fun. Yet he embraces the anguish that comes with his discovery. This is what makes him the hero – the positive example – of the play.