Study Guide

The Flies Guilt and Blame

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Guilt and Blame

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.