Study Guide

The Flies Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

By Jean-Paul Sartre

Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

ZEUS
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?

ORESTES
And you, too, said nothing?
ZEUS
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.

ZEUS
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.)

ZEUS
Everyone wears black? Ah, I see. You're in mourning for your murdered King.
OLD WOMAN
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.

ZEUS
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?
OLD WOMAN
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.

ORESTES
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.

ELECTRA
Everybody here is sick with fear. Everybody except me. And I –
ORESTES
Yes? And you?
ELECTRA
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.

CLYTEMNESTRA
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.

ELECTRA
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.