The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Act 1 | Summary

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Summary

Orestes and his tutor enter a fly-covered square in Argos, where a blood-smeared statue of the god Zeus stands. They try to ask directions to Aegistheus's palace, but no one will talk to them. The two notice a traveler with a remarkable beard, whom Orestes guesses is the god Zeus. They hail him. Zeus introduces himself as Demetrios and explains they have arrived on a holiday called Dead Men's Day. He recounts how he was here when Queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegistheus murdered King Agamemnon. He says the people of Argos knew he would be betrayed. However, because the king had denied them the spectacle of public executions, they had grown hungry to see a violent death.

Orestes wonders how the gods can allow a murderer to remain on the throne for 15 years, and Zeus replies that they sent the flies to punish Argos. He interrogates an old woman about her complicity in the murder. She begs to be let go and says her family now sacrifices regularly in penance. Zeus remarks how Argos has good, traditional piety rooted in terror. On Dead Men's Day, the anniversary of the king's murder, they let the dead loose to walk through the city. Orestes asks how the gods can possibly delight in all the misery and horror of Argos. Zeus says the gods have their own secrets and sorrows. Orestes asks about Agamemnon's daughter, Electra. Zeus says she still lives in the palace. He adds that there was a son named Orestes, who is dead. He obliquely warns Orestes not to interfere and suggests he leave quickly. Orestes says he plans to, and Zeus utters a spell to rid him, briefly, of the flies.

The tutor cautions Orestes that "that man"—Demetrios—knows who Orestes is. Orestes questions whether Demetrios was really just a man, and the tutor scolds him for abandoning rational philosophy. Orestes laments that despite his excellent education, he has been robbed of attachment to the world and a place he really belongs. The tutor says Orestes is lucky because he is free. Orestes counters he feels empty, but agrees they should leave. It would bring him pleasure to kill Aegistheus, but he doesn't see much point in it.

Just then, Electra comes to the foot of Zeus's statue and throws garbage on it. She fantasizes her brother will come, avenge her father's murder, and chop Zeus's statue into pieces for firewood. Orestes asks who she is. She introduces herself and tells how Aegistheus and Clytemnestra keep her as the lowest servant in the palace. Orestes tries to cheer her with stories about how pleasant Corinth is. Electra asks him to suppose someone from Corinth were to journey home only to find his father dead and his sister enslaved. She wonders if that young man would have the strength to avenge them. Orestes is taken aback.

Clytemnestra enters and tells Electra she must dress for the festival. Electra rebuffs her mother as a hypocrite. Clytemnestra hates herself and hates how much Electra reminds her of herself. Electra says they are nothing alike and demands Orestes compare them. Orestes says he can see the resemblance, but Clytemnestra has been ravaged by a storm that is still forthcoming for Electra. The queen asks who he is, and Orestes lies. Clytemnestra berates herself in guilt over her crimes, while Electra disparages her. Clytemnestra says when Electra is older, she'll be burdened by her own crimes. She tells her daughter if she doesn't go dress for the festival, the guards will drag her there by force. Then she tells Orestes to leave, "for [his] mother's sake."

Zeus returns, delighted Orestes is leaving. Orestes, however, says he has changed his mind; he's staying. Zeus is displeased but says he'll stay with him.

Analysis

The first act provides background, introduces the main characters, and sets up the conflict at the heart of the play—the conflict between freedom and social control. In the first act, it would already have become clear to a French audience of the day that The Flies is no mere retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Electra and Orestes.

The Flies premiered in Paris in 1943, under Nazi occupation. Sartre's sympathies and efforts were with the French Resistance, but any work he published would require approval from German censors to reach a general audience. Therefore, Sartre's message of resistance is couched in a revisioning of an ancient Greek myth. At its heart Sartre's play rejects obedience to social control. Orestes's murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra is presented as a heroic act of freedom despite its brutality. It lionizes violent struggle against an unjust ruler.

In a more specific sense, the situation in Argos can be read as analogous to the occupation. Sartre means the murderous Aegistheus to stand for the oppressive Nazi regime. He has violently deposed the rightful ruler of Argos, who was betrayed by those within his own household who collaborated to bring an outsider onto the throne. Similarly, Clytemnestra's subservient relationship with Aegistheus serves as a proxy for the Vichy government's collaboration with the Nazi occupation of most of France. (The Vichy government ceded power to the Nazis through the Franco-German Armistice of June 22, 1940.) Even Clytemnestra's disregard for her own child, Electra, is in keeping with this theme. The citizens of Argos, meanwhile, suffer under the torment of the flies and the fear of the dead, acting out their lives as dictated by their new rulers. This is reminiscent of the acquiescence of many French citizens with the demands of the Nazis to turn over Jews and other dissenters. The citizens of Argos are complicit in their own oppression, and the audience has no reason to doubt Zeus's accusation that at least some of them enjoyed Agamemnon's murder. Electra's defiance is harshly punished. While these may not be one-to-one correspondences to the political situation in which the play was produced, all of them resonate with the grim omnipresence of the occupation.

Zeus refers to the flies from which the play takes its name as a symbol but does not precisely explain what they symbolize. They represent the punishment through which the gods assert their rule over the people of Argos and by extension over humanity. The flies are a constant, oppressive reminder to the people. However, they are only able to plague Argos because the people there submit to the punishment of the gods. Later in the play, the flies will be unmasked as the Furies, who also buzz and threaten to devour but cannot harm those who feel no remorse.

Electra's irreverence for authority immediately distinguishes her from the other characters. She defiles Zeus's statue and longs for its destruction. She openly mocks Argos's "national pastime, the game of public confession" and doubts Clytemnestra feels any real sorrow. Electra appears passionate and authentic, even in the face of threats of punishment. In fact, she coolly contemplates the punishment her actions might receive and believes she could bear it. This confidence, however, will suffer a dramatic reversal. Despite her apparent passionate emotions, she will not be able to transform her desire for revenge into concrete action, rendering her emotional energy unsustainable. That she is presented in her first appearance as heroic despite her youth and naivety makes her fall all the more tragic.

In true Greek tragic fashion, the first act of the play utilizes a good deal of dramatic irony. Dramatic irony occurs when the audience knows things the characters do not. The Orestes myth would have been very familiar to the literate theater-going audience of Paris. They would have known Orestes was going to avenge his father by killing Aegistheus and Clytemnestra. Thus, Clytemnestra's speech warning Electra she would suffer the guilt of a crime in her own time provides a particularly poignant example of dramatic irony. Clytemnestra does not foresee her own death through her daughter's actions. When Clytemnestra tells Orestes he should leave Argos "for [his] mother's sake," she does not know she is speaking to her son. Therefore, she does not realize she herself is his mother. If Orestes were, in fact, to leave Argos now, it would save Clytemnestra's life. Likewise, Electra speaks freely of her dreams of an avenging brother because she does not know who Orestes is.

Characters also coyly engage in verbal irony—saying the opposite of what they mean. This is especially notable in the dialogue between Zeus and Orestes. Each character knows who the other is but, with varying degrees of success, keeps up the fiction they do not know. Thus, Zeus tries indirectly to warn Orestes away from Argos, while Orestes maintains a plausible deniability about being there. These two main characters' denial of who they are also underscores one of the play's major themes: authenticity to the self. By the end of the play, Orestes will have ceased to be a youth with no attachment to the world, lying about his identity and vacillating under the direction of others. He will have metamorphosed—transformed—into an existential hero, secure in his own choices and actions.

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