The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Context



Existentialism comprises a group of philosophies that focus on the nature and problems of human existence. Existentialism achieved its period of greatest influence in Europe between the 1930s and the mid-20th century. Jean-Paul Sartre (1905–80) is often considered the founding thinker of the movement, though existentialist thought often draws heavily on earlier writers as well. These writers include Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard (1813–55) and German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900). Other influential existentialists include Sartre's first source of inspiration, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889–1976); Sartre's longtime companion, the French feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir (1908–86); and French novelist Albert Camus (1913–60), Sartre's close friend until a rift in 1952. Philosophically, existentialism focuses on the individual human experience of existence, individual choice, and finding meaning in a world without inherent purpose.

In 1943, the same year The Flies was first produced, Sartre published his seminal existential work: Being and Nothingness, subtitled A Phenomenological Essay on Ontology. (Phenomenology refers to the study of the experience of consciousness, and ontology to the study of the nature of being.) The 1945 printing included a wrapper with the quotation "what counts in a vase is the void in the middle." The two works share a number of themes Sartre explores both philosophically and dramatically. In Being and Nothingness Sartre put forward the central idea of existentialism: there is no inherent essence to a human being, but rather a limitless potential defined by their choices. Sartre summed up this concept with the phrase existence precedes essence. This idea is the essential difference between things and human beings. A clock, for example, is created with the essence of telling time. In contrast, because of free will, the essence of any individual person is undetermined until that person makes the choices that bring it into being. Because a person has absolute freedom to choose any path—and cannot avoid making choices—they also have absolute responsibility for the outcomes of their choices.

Sartre does not deny the choices available may often be unpleasant, but he believes a person owns every choice they make. An example relates to French citizens who collaborated with the Nazis who occupied France during World War II (1939–45). Collaborating with the Nazis may have saved an individual from personal pain and suffering, but that individual was then an active participant in the Nazi occupation. A person's freedom, choice, and experience of existence are internal and subjective to their own experience of being. Therefore, these things often alienate them from the world around them, especially from other people. This gulf between people is, for Sartre, unbridgeable. Thus, people often see others as objects to be acted upon rather than conscious actors in their own right. De Beauvoir in particular expanded on ideas of objectification and alienation with regard to gender relations.

Another key idea in both Being and Nothingness and The Flies is that people often act in bad faith (mauvaise foi in French). They do so to deny both their own freedom and their own responsibility. In other words, they disown their choices and blame their actions on others. Because freedom is so complete and isolating, Sartre argues, people confronted with it often react with deep anxiety. They choose not to notice what they are doing in order to avoid committing to an action. It is easier for a person to believe they are something predetermined than to confront the fact that they constantly make themselves through choices. Thus, there are several ways in which people dodge the burden of thinking and acting for themselves. They may hide behind social roles and expectations or submit to religious ideas about order and universal meaning that do not correspond to the existentialist concept of reality. Like Electra in the final act of The Flies, they allow others to define what their story means rather than face the implications of their freedom. Orestes, by contrast, represents the existentialist ideal in that he makes and owns his choices in spite of all external pressures and stands behind them after the fact without regret.

Orestes and Electra

The story of Orestes and Electra can be traced to ancient Greek mythology. In most versions of the myth, Agamemnon, son of Atreus, is king of Argos. Agamemnon leaves Argos to fight in the Trojan War (c. 1250 BCE), as the Trojans have abducted his brother's wife. On his way to Troy, the goddess Artemis traps his fleet by stopping the wind from blowing. To earn the release of his fleet, Agamemnon sacrifices his oldest daughter, Iphigeneia, to Artemis. Upon Agamemnon's return to Argos after the war, he is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover, Aegistheus. Agamemnon's remaining daughters, Electra and Chrysothemis, stay in Argos, and his young son, Orestes, escapes. Orestes returns to Argos as an adult to avenge his father's death, with Electra's help. However, in ancient Greek mythology, the crime of murdering blood relatives, especially parents, is particularly heinous and draws the retribution of beings called the Furies, or Erinyes. This situation presents a moral quandary, as Orestes could not have performed the righteous deed of avenging his father without performing the forbidden deed of killing his mother. In the ancient world, the story was very popular, and multiple plays in both ancient and modern times have grappled with the moral, personal, and societal implications of the myth.

The oldest major work associated with the Orestes legend is the Oresteia, a set of three plays by Greek playwright Aeschylus (c. 525–456 BCE) first produced in 458 BCE. The first play, Agamemnon, deals with the initial murder and is notable for its poetic speeches and choral songs. The second play, Choephoroi, or Libation Bearers, deals directly with Orestes's murders of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra. In Aeschylus's version of the story, Orestes murders his mother only reluctantly, at the urging of the god Apollo. The guilt drives him mad and he flees, pursued by the Furies. The third play, Eumenides, centers on the trial of Orestes and the question of what he could have done, put in his impossible position. The people of Athens act as the jury. Apollo defends Orestes, and the Furies stand as his accusers. The goddess Athena, patron of Athens, delivers the tie-breaking vote that finds in Orestes's favor. The enraged Furies are given a new cult in compensation. In this way the intervention of the rule of law breaks a cycle of bloodshed that might otherwise continue forever.

The exact date Greek playwright Sophocles (c. 496–406 BCE) wrote his tragedy Electra is unknown. The play follows the murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra principally through the character of Electra. In order to gain access to his victims, Orestes spreads false rumors of his death and enters the palace as a servant carrying the urn that supposedly contains his own ashes. A despairing Electra unsuccessfully seeks her sister Chrysothemis's help in finishing Orestes's vengeance. Orestes is so moved by Electra's grief that he reveals himself to her and then kills Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. The play focuses on Electra's emotional reactions: her grief and frustration at the loss of her brother, her hatred for her captors, her love for her father and siblings, her numb guilt, and her ecstatic joy. This complex, ambivalent psychological study of Electra still leaves readers debating whether she is a hero or a villain.

Euripides (c. 484–406 BCE) also tackled the myth twice. In his play Electra (c. 418 BCE), the title character is unambiguously wicked. Orestes is portrayed as his sister's reluctant accomplice, and Electra lures Clytemnestra to her death by preying on her motherly instincts. Electra and her brother are then overwhelmed with guilt. The play is praised for its dark but convincing character exploration. In 408 BCE Euripides returned to the topic with Orestes, which sets the story in an Argos with an established court system. The men of Argos appeal to the courts, seeking to punish Orestes and Electra for the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. Orestes and Electra first plead for help from their powerful relatives, but their relatives shun them and do not speak on their behalf. Desperate to avoid execution, they attempt to manipulate their relatives through murder and abduction. The bloodshed is only halted by divine intervention. Euripides's dark version of the tale has been interpreted as critical of both human politics and divine will.

There have been several notable modern attempts to adapt the story as well. These include the trilogy of plays Mourning Becomes Electra (1931) by American playwright Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953), The Family Reunion (1939) by Anglo-American poet and playwright T.S. Eliot (1888–1965), and The Flies (1943) by Sartre. The first two change the setting—to 1865 New England and 20th-century England, respectively. O'Neill's adaptation features a repressed and jealous Electra character who pushes her weaker brother to murder and then suicide. While Eliot's play is respected for its lyricism and psychological realism, it has been largely rejected by audiences.

In The Flies, Sartre grapples particularly with concepts of guilt and freedom in addition to the questions of morality and social responsibility that have been present in all iterations of the play. In a notable deviation from many other versions, Sartre's Orestes feels no remorse at his actions, even as guilt consumes and ruins his sister. He is portrayed as a self-sacrificing hero attempting to free the populace from the tyranny of remorse Zeus and Aegistheus use to keep them under control. The only god present is Zeus, the ruler of the gods, which helps emphasize the theme of social control.

Nazi Occupation of Paris

After losing World War I (1914–18), Germany sank into an economic depression worsened by sanctions imposed by the winning side. In 1933 the head of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler (1889–1945), became chancellor of Germany. Hitler's principles included military expansionism, strong authoritarianism, an ethnostate, and violent antisemitism. Upon taking power, he instituted a dictatorship, had political enemies murdered, and utilized police forces to terrify the populace into compliance. In 1936 Nazi Germany moved troops into the Rhineland, which had been a demilitarized zone since the end of the war. In 1939 Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and then Poland, leading Britain and France to declare war against it and thus beginning World War II.

German troops quickly overwhelmed Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, circumnavigating French defenses on the way into France. Facing certain defeat, in June 1940 the French government fled south to Bordeaux, where they voted to petition for armistice. The Franco-German Armistice of June 22, 1940, was signed in the same railroad car as the German surrender at the end of the previous war. The agreement divided the territory of France into two sections. The 60 percent in the north and on the west coast, including the capital, Paris, would be under Nazi military control. The remaining 40 percent would remain nominally free, under the control of a collaborationist government established at Vichy and led by Philippe Pétain (1856–1951). Vichy France collaborated actively with the Nazis, instituting conservative authoritarian government and deporting its Jewish population to Nazi-controlled areas and German death camps.

The portions of France controlled by the Nazis were administered harshly, but the measures were light relative to other conquered Nazi territories. While artists and writers were often jailed for their political views, relatively few were executed. Nazi censors proscribed any books by Jewish authors and many leftists as well as anything containing what they considered immoral themes. They also burned over 2,000 tons of books. Luxuries were confiscated, curfews were enforced, travel was restricted, and food was requisitioned from citizens for military use. However, non-Jewish artists and elites who accepted Nazi rule or criticized only mildly were allowed to continue operating and even exercise positions of privilege. The Nazi regime used its patronage of French arts to demonstrate its sophistication and commitment to European culture.

Within Nazi-occupied France, pockets of intellectual and military resistance emerged. Sartre was active in the intellectual wing of this resistance in Paris. While the actual scope of the French Resistance is difficult to determine and often mythologized, it was a real movement in which many citizens risked their lives.

In The Flies Sartre's themes of resisting coercive authority through unrepentant violence have a strong resonance with his own personal and political feelings about the Nazi occupation. Sartre later said he would have preferred to write a play in which a terrorist who ambushed German troops precipitated the execution of 50 hostages. However, by setting the play in a distant time and within an established myth, Sartre was able to spread his message without repercussions from the German censors. Situations in the play may also be seen as allegorical, with Aegistheus representing Nazi rule and Clytemnestra—his willing but subservient accomplice—representing Vichy France. The two of them rule over a miserable and terrified Argos, where the citizens are complicit in their own oppression. The situation continues until Orestes puts a violent end to it despite the dire consequences. In a 1970s interview, speaking of himself and other Resistance writers, Sartre said, "Our job was to tell all the French, we will not be ruled by Germans."

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