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The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Act 3 | Summary



The scene opens with Electra and Orestes asleep but clinging to the statue of Apollo for sanctuary. Meanwhile the Furies prowl and buzz around the siblings in anticipation of torturing them. They are excited to rend beautiful young "criminals" for a change, but cannot as long as Orestes and Electra are under Apollo's protection. The siblings wake. Electra is frightened of Orestes and cannot believe he feels no guilt for what he has done. She feels she has "grown old" overnight, and Orestes says she reminds him of Clytemnestra now, with her dead eyes. The Furies dance around them and buzz to Electra that Orestes murdered their mother "piecemeal" and "horribly." Orestes tells her not to listen and not to let the Furies separate them. He says it's Electra's self-loathing that allows the Furies to torment her. He tries to hold her back, but she breaks away, and the Furies engulf her.

Zeus enters and commands the Furies back. He shelters Electra and tells her Orestes has brought ruin on her and doesn't even regret it. Orestes admits as much, but reiterates that he is free now. Zeus points out he can't leave the temple without being killed. Orestes holds firm. Zeus tells Electra he will save them both; all it will cost is "a little penitence." Orestes warns, "That trifle will weigh like a millstone on your soul." Zeus explains Electra didn't murder their mother or even really want their mother murdered; all she's guilty of is childish fantasies born of her mistreatment. He makes an offer: she and Orestes can put on Clytemnestra and Aegistheus's robes and rule in their place. They only have to "repudiate [their] crime." Orestes urges Electra not be fooled. He refuses "to wear the breeches of the clown [he] killed." Zeus says he has no reason to be proud of himself; all he has done is murder an old man like a coward. Orestes retorts, "The most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse."

Zeus parts the walls of the temple to reveal the heavens and declares in a loud, echoing voice he is the creator god who ordered the universe. All things are his and subject to his will. If Orestes does not do Zeus's will, nature itself will turn on him. Orestes says fine, let it. Zeus may be king of the gods and nature, but he is "not the king of man." Zeus shrinks down, tired, discouraged, and annoyed with Orestes. He says he made Orestes with free will so he would serve, not so he would rebel. Orestes says it is too late; he is free now, and right and wrong no longer exist for him. Zeus points out the freedom he's talking about is exile from all of human society. Orestes plans to go out among the people and enlighten them. Zeus admits it was foretold that a man would come to begin the end of his reign. Still, as much as he loathes Orestes, he pities him for the suffering he is going to endure. Orestes says he feels the same about Zeus. Zeus tells Electra his reign will still go on for some time, and says she is either with him or against him. Orestes pleads with her to stay with him, but Electra replies all he can "offer ... is misery and squalor." She runs after Zeus, declaring she repents and will be his slave. The first Fury tells her sisters to let Electra go; Orestes "will suffer for two."

The tutor enters, bringing Orestes food. He is dismissive of the Furies as primitive myths. Orestes commands him to open the doors, even though the tutor protests that the people of Argos will kill him. Orestes watches the beauty of the sun while the people shout their intent to dismember him. Orestes addresses them, saying he is Orestes, their king. He will take all the crimes of Argos upon himself and all the vengeance of the dead. He tells a story of a flute player in Scyros who led all the rats away from a town, and says he will do the same. The crowd parts to let Orestes pass. He strides out purposefully into the light, and the Furies follow.


The third act recounts the events of the morning following the murders. Here, Sartre departs from the traditional Greek story in that Electra repudiates the murders. This allows Sartre to again pit social control against personal freedom. He also uses the siblings to explore his other themes—punishment and guilt, on the one hand, and authenticity, on the other.

Earlier in the play, such as when Aegistheus tells Orestes to beware the flies, language has connected them to the Furies. However, this act contains the first concrete connection between the two. The Furies buzz and hover. These associations tie together a thread of divine punishment that has been present since the first time Zeus declared the flies were a symbol. They are, specifically, a symbol of the misery that comes with denying one's own freedom and submitting to an unjust authority. The audience realizes the omnipresent flies in Argos have always been the Furies.

The Furies cannot harm Orestes any more than Zeus can because Orestes knows he is free and owns his decisions and actions. However, the Furies believe his resolve will crack eventually and allow them to slip through. In the meantime, because Electra lacks the courage of her convictions, the Furies are able to influence her. They frame the narrative around her actions and those of Orestes to highlight how horrific her—and Orestes's—crimes are. The Furies feed her self-loathing until she is ready to fling herself into their arms to quell her guilt in cruel and unending remorse.

Zeus likewise offers Electra a narrative outside her own. In his version of events, she was only a child who was never capable of understanding what she claimed to want. He infantilizes her and says she never made a choice. Importantly, she knows it is not true, but she pretends because the story gives her the comfort of disavowing her own decisions. This self-deception and denial of her freedom is the epitome of Sartre's concept of "bad faith." She is terrified by the responsibility of freedom and what her freely chosen actions imply about her. She is unable to be authentically herself. So, she runs to Zeus, who opens his arms to her declaring, "I am forgetfulness, I am peace." Through submission to his failing rule, she hopes not to have to confront her true self. Electra's acceptance of outside definitions of herself contrasts sharply with Orestes's heroic conviction in his own actions.

Neither Zeus nor the Furies can actually hurt Orestes because he has become aware of his own freedom. Throughout the play, Zeus relies on tricks and manipulation. Thus, his threat to bring the wrath of heaven and nature down on Orestes is only a bluff. This is in keeping with Sartre's focus on social control and psychological freedom. The most important resistance for Orestes to overcome is the moral structure imposed on him by outside sources. This includes Zeus's insistence that Orestes will be divinely punished, which is as false as Aegistheus's ceremony. Despite his impressive show of the heavens, Zeus cannot back up his threats and diminishes into a peevish old man.

The tutor represents an interesting paradox. Within the fiction of the play, the gods are real. However, the tutor, who does not believe in them, seems able to navigate the Furies safely despite lacking Orestes's clear existential freedom. Where Electra felt strongly but could not commit wholly to decisive action, the tutor thinks deeply but holds himself apart from the world. He means well and is well educated but refuses altogether to take action. He is therefore—like Electra—an incomplete person compared to Orestes. Still, although the tutor fails to fulfill the ultimate human ideal the way his pupil does, his refusal to act means he has no remorse. Since he has no remorse, the Furies cannot touch him.

Orestes is presented as a Christ figure by multiple lines. Zeus mentions a slave nailed to a cross. This very likely embodies more than one reference. It refers to the Gladiatorial War of Ancient Rome (73–71 BCE, also known as the Spartacus Revolt), which ended with several thousand rebellious slaves being crucified. At the same time, it evokes the Christian figure of Jesus, a messianic prophet figure. The latter association is reinforced by Orestes saying he will take all the sins of Argos on himself. The biblical Christ died to atone for the original sin committed by Adam and Eve when they ate the forbidden fruit. The association is strengthened by Orestes's ending the reign of Zeus and ushering in a new era. This should not be taken as Christian allegory, though. The Flies tends to posit religion as both false and oppressive. However, it borrows the imagery of Christ to discuss the spread of existential freedom.

When Orestes calls himself a king without a kingdom, he is in some ways paralleling what he has watched Aegistheus do. He is telling the people a story about what will happen and then acting it out. However, unlike Aegistheus, he is acting not to control them, but to free them. Because the flies cannot hurt them unless they submit to punishment, he is giving the people a chance to find their own freedom by giving a pause to the terror.

Interestingly, in his speech to the citizens of Argos, Orestes relates an invented myth about a piper leading rats out of Scyros. This suggests Orestes does not believe the people will be able to understand what he is telling them without a mythic structure attached to it. The story he tells actually alludes to several northern European folktales. Among them are the well-known "The Children of Hamelin" and the less well-known "The Ratcatcher." Both tales were collected by the German folklorists Jacob (1785–1863) and Wilhelm (1786–1859) Grimm and published in 1816. The first, which may have been based on a real 13th-century event, has since appeared in multiple versions for both children and adults. In it a piper leads 130 children out of town by playing his pipe, and they are never seen again. By the 15th century the man has become a rat catcher, who first leads rats out of town; he only resorts to stealing the children when the town refuses to pay him for doing his job. In the second folktale a ratcatcher plays his pipe to make rats follow him, but he also relies on other means. His plan goes awry when a miller interferes, and the miller ends up with a permanent rat infestation at home. Orestes's story references only the rat-catching part of the legends. He relies on the fictional citizens knowing the fictional myth. They dare not interfere with him leaving because doing so might mean they will never get rid of the flies. Sartre's French audience would also have known the European legends, and he relied on their making this connection as well. The people should not interfere with the person who will lead their tormentors away. Moreover, true freedom comes with choosing to be true to yourself.

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