Literature Study GuidesThe FliesAct 2 Scenes 1 2 Summary

The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Act 2, Scenes 1–2 | Summary

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Summary

Act 2, Scene 1

The people of Argos gather before a tunnel, blocked by a boulder, that will soon be opened to flood the city with the dead. A woman tells her child that they must cry when they're told and it is good that they're frightened, because this is how they will grow to be god-fearing. The crowd is nervous. They fear the dead but want to start the ritual rather than deal with the waiting. A young woman worries that her husband, now that he is dead, knows she was unfaithful and will come to punish her.

Zeus, Orestes, and the tutor enter. The tutor remarks in horror at the misery superstition has inflicted on these people. As the waiting grows worse, the crowd abase themselves extravagantly and cry out for Aegistheus to start the ceremony. One man compares the flies to harpies and cries, "sting and gouge and scavenge me; bore through my flesh to my black heart."

Aegistheus and Clytemnestra enter without Electra. Aegistheus is perturbed that Electra cannot be found and starts the ceremony without her. The high priest chants and dances before the rock, calling on the dead to "come up" and "wreak [their] hatred on the living." Aegistheus names the dead and tells the crowd they are all around them. The people beg for mercy, claiming they can feel the dead. They ask the dead to forgive them for being alive; the children ask forgiveness for having been born. When Aegistheus says he sees the ghost of Agamemnon, Orestes nearly draws his sword, but Zeus holds him back.

Electra enters in a white dress. She refuses to mourn, insisting that she is happy despite the king's threats and the cries of sacrilege. She talks about how people in other cities allow themselves to be happy and dances in the sunlight. As Electra dances, voices in the crowd call out, questioning whether the vengeful dead are really there. The young woman refuses to believe that Electra is wicked and begins to dance like her. A voice calls out, "Aegistheus, you have lied." Zeus casts a spell that causes the boulder to roll into the temple steps with a crash. Aegistheus and the high priest use this event to turn the crowd against Electra. Aegistheus says he will see Electra justly punished. He exiles her, effective immediately. If she is still in Argos tomorrow, she will be killed. Zeus is pleased.

Orestes follows Electra and urges her to leave the city immediately, but she refuses to go. She says this is his fault because before this morning she had no hope but revenge. However, she listened to him and believed mistakenly that people could be saved by talking to them. She is going to Apollo's shrine for sanctuary. There she will wait for her brother to come and kill the king and queen. Orestes suggests that the brother might not be the sort to commit murder. Electra says it is in their blood—his and hers—as descendants of Atreus. Orestes tells Electra he is her brother, and she despairs because he is too gentle to carry out the murder she wants him to commit. Zeus sneaks in to eavesdrop as they argue. Electra tells Orestes to leave. She has no use for him. Orestes says Argos is his "native soil" and he will take what he has a right to. Electra says he will never be more than a stranger here. Orestes wavers and asks for a sign to show him whether he should stay or go. Zeus casts a spell, creating a sign Orestes should leave for Corinth. Electra laughs and tells him again to leave, but Orestes has a sudden change of heart. He decides he'll "take no one's orders, neither man's nor god's." He says he is taking leave of his "youth." He convinces Electra to come with him to kill the king and queen. Electra recognizes in him the Orestes of her vengeful dreams but laments the loss of the gentle young man she met that morning.

Act 2, Scene 2

The throne room is dominated by a blood-smeared statue of Zeus. Orestes and Electra hide while two guards complain about the flies and talk about what the dead do when they return. The first soldier thinks Agamemnon is probably sitting on the throne right now. The second soldier is certain someone else is the room. Aegistheus and Clytemnestra enter and send the soldiers away. Aegistheus is concerned because the crowd nearly shook off their fear and remorse. Clytemnestra tries to reassure him, but he brushes her off. He is exhausted and depressed. He is starting to believe the murdered king is really watching him even though Clytemnestra reminds him that was just a lie they told the people. Clytemnestra leaves, and Aegistheus laments he can barely feel anything, happy or sad. Zeus arrives and berates him for his ingratitude. He tells Aegistheus that Orestes and Electra plan to murder him, but Aegistheus seems resigned to it. Zeus tells Aegistheus they are both alike, as a king and a god. They both need the people's remorse, and the gods can do nothing to a person who feels no guilt. Both kings and gods hate knowing men are free and try to make sure their subjects never learn it. Aegistheus says if Orestes knows he is free, it is not enough to arrest him because the idea will spread like a disease. Zeus says his power will not work against Orestes, so Aegistheus will have to kill him. Aegistheus asks Zeus to leave, and the god goes.

Electra and Orestes reveal themselves, and Electra urges her brother to strike quickly. Aegistheus does not resist. Orestes runs him through with his sword. Dying, Aegistheus asks Orestes if he really feels no remorse. Orestes answers he does not care about the laws of the gods. "Justice," he says, "is a matter between men." Electra is disturbed by the awful sight of the dying man. Aegistheus warns Orestes to "beware of the flies" and dies. Orestes says he will kill Clytemnestra next, and Electra, losing her nerve, begs him not to. He leaves to do the deed alone. Electra stands over the body of Aegistheus trying to figure out what she really feels as Clytemnestra's dying screams echo from another room. Electra declares she is happy, but she is clearly troubled. Orestes returns, and Electra asks him what happened. He refuses to give any details, but he admits their mother died cursing them. Orestes says they are both free; he is remorseless and resolved. Electra, however, is already regretting what they have done and growing frantic. She hears the flies coming and says they are the Furies, the mythological punishers of wrongdoing, "the goddesses of remorse." People have been roused by Clytemnestra's screaming and are pounding on the door. The siblings flee to the temple of Apollo.

Analysis

The second act recounts the deeds that completely reverse the directions taken by the characters' lives up until this point. At the beginning of the first scene, the audience sees Aegistheus and Zeus at the height of their power. As the scene progresses, their power weakens in response to growing skepticism on the part of the citizens of Argos. Both king and god move to reestablish their control. However, when Orestes reveals himself to Electra, the balance swings back in their favor. By the end of the act, Aegistheus is dead, and Zeus's status is significantly weakened.

The Dead Men's Day ceremony is a fiction concocted to control the population of Argos through fear and shame. It is carefully staged, with Aegistheus letting the anticipation of the event build up until the people can no longer bear the wait. The ritual has echoes of the Christian Easter story with a stone being rolled away from a tomb and the dead returning, but given Sartre's dislike of religion, this is likely intended to function as criticism. Similarly, the people of Argos's grim call-and-response with the priest focuses entirely on self-loathing and guilt. "Forgive us for living while you are dead," the men chant. The women talk about how their memory of the dead "dwindles." The children beg for mercy, saying they are "only just alive" and "terribly afraid." Though the torments of the dead are completely fictitious, the people have talked themselves into believing them. This ritual would not work without their active participation. They seem to believe they can avoid the worst of their torments if they are sufficiently penitent and only begin to voice doubt when Electra receives no divine punishment for refusing to cooperate. The misery of the ritual is imposed by the king, with the help of Zeus, but its strength comes from the complicity of the community. The scene contrasts their complicity with the individual acts of freedom and moral commitment performed by Electra in Act 2, Scene 1 and by Orestes in the latter half of the play.

Clytemnestra, Aegistheus, and the mourners of Argos are acting in what Sartre refers to in Being and Nothingness as bad faith. Rather than living as their authentic selves, they are play-acting the role of mourners and penitents, sometimes without genuine regret. These roles are imposed on them by the norms of their society, and the people fill them publicly. They even pass them on to the next generation, with one mother saying to her child that the terror he feels will be the way he grows into a virtuous, god-fearing adult. Even Aegistheus, who knows the returning dead was a lie he invented, has begun to see Agamemnon's ghost.

What Sartre means by "freedom" is a deeply existentialist concept of freedom. Orestes's freedom comes from defining and owning his own choices, despite the influence of others. Because he is free, he cannot be made to fear or regret. Before achieving freedom he considers killing Clytemnestra and Aegistheus because of notions of honor and loyalty and because Electra wants him to. However, faced with the clear dictates of the gods, he decides he will not be swayed by anyone. Once his mind is made up, Electra has no more influence on his decisions, and this terrifies her. Zeus and Aegistheus also understand the magnitude of the change that has come over him, as a free man cannot be ruled by kings or gods.

It is worth comparing Electra's rebellion in Scene 1 with Orestes's rebellion in Scene 2. A young, kind, naive Orestes has convinced Electra she can win the hearts and minds of the people of Argos merely by talking. By defying Aegistheus she hopes to be an example and make a protest. In her own way she is very close to a heroic figure at this point, and she begins to turn the crowd. Without Zeus's intervention she might have broken Aegistheus's control over them, and he admits as much in the next scene. However, Electra fails by her own admission because she is attempting to defy Aegistheus through words rather than actions.

Orestes's freedom comes crashing down on him when he commits to action. When the time comes for Electra to act on her stated goal, she pulls back from it, still unsure of what she truly wants despite her earlier insistence. She is able to talk, but in the face of actually committing murder, she loses her nerve. Orestes, in contrast, is committed and unrepentant. Despite his urging and his optimism for the dawning day, he is unable to pull her with him into freedom.

Zeus's conversation with Aegistheus contrasts Orestes's freedom with the rule of kings and gods. As Zeus says, both kings and gods live in terror of their subjects coming to understand they are free. They know and fear the idea of freedom will spread through a population like a virus. It takes constant vigilance and active trickery for both of these characters to maintain their positions. Notably, Aegistheus has long since ceased to take joy in his power and position. The audience is given no reason to assume Zeus is happier, but both fear falling from their current status. The state of subjugation they are attempting to maintain causes anxiety on both sides. In contrast, in a state of genuine freedom, Orestes finds peace.

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