Study Guide

The Flies Themes

By Jean-Paul Sartre

  • Freedom and Confinement

    The Flies is an exploration of Jean-Paul Sartre's ideas on radical personal freedom and radical personal responsibility. Sartre argues that every man is free in every sense. No one has authority over us until we choose to give him or her that authority. Even seemingly inescapable situations – like being alive – is a choice that we must consciously make. The Flies presents freedom as both a burden and a gift. Freedom provokes fear and anguish, and yet, it is decidedly what makes us human.

    Questions About Freedom and Confinement

    1. How does Orestes define freedom in Act I, II, and III? Which of these definitions does Sartre embrace?
    2. We've discussed the ways in which Zeus and Aegisthus restrict the freedom of the Argives. But what about their own freedom? Do they embrace it, or run from it?
    3. Why does Electra give up trying to free the Argives in Act II?

    Chew on This

    Aegisthus and Zeus restrict the freedom of the Argives by making them ashamed of their own humanity.

  • Choices

    Because existentialists believe in radical personal freedom, everything is a matter of choice. We choose our values, we choose our identities, and we even choose to be alive. In creating and continually re-creating the self, man must choose a set of values through action. It's important to note that action, not thoughts, beliefs, or aspirations, constitutes this choice. By choosing a certain value (honesty, freedom, remorse, etc.), we create it. For Sartre, to avoid choice is to flee from personal freedom, and to engage in bad faith or self-deception.

    Questions About Choices

    1. Sartre argues that value systems don't exist until we choose them. How is this reasoning reflected in The Flies?
    2. We argue in this guide that Orestes chooses a value system which holds freedom above all else, Zeus does the same with remorse, Aegisthus order, and Electra revenge. What system does Clytemnestra choose?
    3. Does Orestes choose to be free, or are all the characters in The Flies inherently free? In this respect, what differentiates Orestes from the general population of Argos?

    Chew on This

    Committing to murder Aegisthus and Clytemnestra is the first real choice Orestes makes in his life; it is the only decision manifested in action.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

    The Flies is an existential work of fiction that explores Jean-Paul Sartre's philosophical ideas. Sartre's existentialism maintains that existence precedes essence. Man, Sartre says, is nothing inherently. Rather, man continually defines and creates the self through action and choice. Because man has neither pre-existing essence nor pre-determined ideals, man is radically free, and radically responsible for his choices. The result of this freedom is solitude, anguish, fear, and a deep sense of liberation. For Sartre, the proper response is to embrace this freedom, and everything that comes with it, rather than run from it.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Existentialism

    1. In the final scene of The Flies, the Tutor, at Orestes's command, flings open the doors of the temple to the angry mob outside. The crowd rushes in and then "stops, bewildered, on the threshold." Why do they stop? Why don't they tear Orestes to pieces?
    2. What is the connection between freedom and solitude in The Flies? Why is Orestes necessarily alone as the result of his freedom?
    3. Sartre argues that we re-create ourselves in every moment through choice and action. Yet he also argues that the self is a totality, not a series of fragmented actions. Using what you've learned from The Flies, how can these two statements be reconciled?

    Chew on This

    The Flies demonstrates that Sartre's existentialism is incompatible with any political ideology.

  • Power

    The Flies is an allegory of the German occupation of Paris during World War II. Systems of authority such as the Nazis (but also religion and other political or ideological organizations) are criticized and ridiculed in the play. By imposing their ideology on others, Sartre argues, these institutions attempt to strip individuals of their freedom – the very thing that makes us human. The Flies condones both resistance and rebellion on the grounds that human freedom can't be taken away; rather, we can only be deceived into thinking we are not free. No one has power over you, argues Sartre, until you willingly give it to them.

    Questions About Power

    1. What does Orestes mean when he says he wishes to be "a king without a kingdom?"
    2. At the end of Act III, Zeus reveals that Orestes has come forward and cemented the decline of the god. Yet Zeus still gains a lifetime of remorse from Electra. Is Zeus beaten, or not?
    3. For the existentialist, what is problematic about the concept of fate or destiny?

    Chew on This

    Orestes's decision to leave Argos at the end of the play is a retreat into bad faith.

  • Guilt and Blame

    The Flies tells the story of a town in Ancient Greece consumed by remorse over a crime committed fifteen years earlier. The guilt is imposed by the kingdom's rulers – King Aegisthus and Zeus – who use remorse as a tool to repress their subjects. While the populace is busy repenting and regretting, they are distracted from living. Most importantly, they are distracted from their personal freedom. They forget that it is up to them to choose a value system and decide what is right and wrong. Instead of choosing for themselves, they allow an external force to impose a system of morality on them. They end up repenting for a "crime" that they never chose to interpret as a crime.

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Clytemnestra argues that she doesn't regret murdering Agamemnon – in fact, she took joy in it. For what, then, does she repent?
    2. At the end of The Flies, Electra is spared the furies, yet Orestes is chased off stage. If Orestes has embraced his freedom and is free from the torment of remorse, why is he the one who gets attacked by the "Goddesses of remorse"?
    3. Orestes says that "the most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse." What, then, is "courage" in this play?

    Chew on This

    At the end of The Flies, Orestes has successfully freed the Argives.

    The Argives are no better off at the end of The Flies than they were at the beginning.

  • Identity

    Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialism proposes that the self is created and re-created in every moment of life through choice manifested in action. The Flies explores this idea through dramatic fiction. The ancient myth of Orestes and Electra becomes a story about choosing and creating identities. The story's protagonist becomes its existential hero when he recognizes that he has personal freedom, and chooses a value system of his own. The negative examples are those who refuse to choose at all, or those who choose and then regret their decisions on account of someone else's judgment.

    Questions About Identity

    1. In Aegisthus's "Character Analysis," we talk about the role he uses (that of being king) to define himself. What "roles" do the other characters in The Flies play use? Do these other characters confuse their identity with their roles, or do they exist in authenticity outside of them?
    2. For Sartre, what constitutes a "crime"? Who are the "criminals" in this play?
    3. Why does Orestes hesitate to share the details of Clytemnestra's death with his sister?

    Chew on This

    For Sartre, not choosing a value system at all (represented by the action of the Tutor) is worse than choosing a problematic one (represented by Aegisthus).

  • Man and the Natural World

    The Flies explores the fundamental difference between man and everything else in the universe. According to Jean-Paul Sartre and his existentialism, man exists in a way entirely different from other forms. Man exists as being-for-itself (a conscious and active form of being). Creatures, objects, plants, nature, and anything else exist as being-in-itself (a passive, unconscious mode of being). Because of this difference, man exists outside of and separate from all of nature. Man chooses how to interpret nature and what value it will hold for him; but man is not a part of nature.

    Questions About Man and the Natural World

    1. According to Sartre's arguments in The Flies, what differentiates man from the rest of the natural world?
    2. What is the relationship between man and the natural world in The Flies? How does man exist in and react to the world around him?
    3. When and how is violence employed in The Flies? What purpose does it serve?

    Chew on This

    Biological instincts conflict with human freedom in Sartre's The Flies.

  • Transformation

    The Flies revolves around the central transformation of its main character, Orestes. While Orestes begins the play free of responsibility, commitment, and any sense of self, he soon encounters his personal freedom, accepts it, and commits himself to a value system of his choice. His transformation is an ideological one, yet manifests itself in many different ways (speech, action, even physical appearance).

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What instigates Orestes's transformation in Act II?
    2. How do physical changes reflect internal ones in The Flies?
    3. What characterizes "youth" in The Flies? What does it mean to be young in this play?

    Chew on This

    The key to Orestes's transformation is the realization that memories of the past do not define the self of the present.