Study Guide

The Flies Freedom and Confinement

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Freedom and Confinement

THE TUTOR
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.

OLD WOMAN
What could I do, a woman alone? I bolted my door.
ZEUS
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.

ZEUS
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.

ZEUS
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.

ZEUS
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.

THE TUTOR
I wondered if you weren't hatching some wild scheme to oust Aegisthus and take his place.
ORESTES
[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.

YOUNG WOMAN
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.