The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Plot Summary

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Summary

Setting

The Flies takes place in the ancient Greek city of Argos, in or around the 12th century BCE, 15 years after King Agamemnon returns from the Trojan War. Upon returning, the king is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegistheus, who now rule Argos. Agamemnon's daughter Electra is kept as a palace servant, while his son, Orestes, is widely believed to have been murdered with his father.

Act 1

Orestes and his tutor arrive in Argos, where the locals engage in constant ritual penitence. The god Zeus approaches them under a false name. He tells how the city stood by 15 years ago while the king was murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, and her lover Aegistheus. He also explains the two have come on a holy day where the dead are released to torment the citizens. He compliments the piety of Argos, and Orestes wonders how the gods can approve of such abject misery. The tutor comments that good education has freed Orestes of such superstition. Zeus urges the two to leave.

The tutor goes to make preparations. Meanwhile, Orestes runs into his sister Electra, who acts as a scullery maid for the palace and dreams of the day her brother will return to avenge their father. Orestes tells Electra how pleasant other places are, and she seems entranced. Clytemnestra enters and tells Electra to dress for the festival. The queen talks about her own hideous guilt while Electra reacts with disdain. Orestes lies about his identity, and Clytemnestra tells him to leave Argos for his mother's sake. When Zeus returns, Orestes tells him he has decided to stay after all.

Act 2

The people of Argos gather before a tunnel that has been blocked by a giant boulder, anticipating the horror of the vengeful dead visiting them. Aegistheus arrives and complains that Electra is missing. He begins the Dead Men's Day ceremony without her. The high priest chants and begs the dead to punish them. The crowd begs the dead for mercy and forgiveness. Aegistheus says he sees Agamemnon, and Orestes nearly attacks him. Then Electra enters, happy and dressed in white. She dances and asks why they should fear the dead. The crowd begins to understand that Aegistheus has lied to them. Zeus quickly causes the temple stone to fall, and the crowd turns against Electra again. Aegistheus banishes her.

Orestes goes to Electra and begs her to leave, but she refuses to give up her vengeance. He reveals himself, and Electra despairs because he is too gentle to commit a murder. Wavering, Orestes asks the gods for a sign of what he should do. Zeus triggers a sign that he should leave. However, the sign cements Orestes's resolve to take no more orders from anyone—god or man. He decides to murder Aegistheus and Clytemnestra.

Orestes and Electra hide in the throne room while two guards speculate about the dead king, Agamemnon. Aegistheus and Clytemnestra discuss the narrowly averted disaster of the people realizing Aegistheus has lied to them. Aegistheus is tired and depressed and beginning to believe his own stories about the dead. Zeus appears and warns Aegistheus to kill Orestes before he can complete his vengeance. Zeus laments, "Orestes knows that he is free." This knowledge is "the bane of gods and kings." Since Zeus's power will not work on Orestes, Aegistheus must take care of him. However, when Orestes comes to kill Aegistheus, the king does not resist.

Electra begins to have doubts, but a resolved Orestes leaves to murder Clytemnestra. As Electra waits alone with Aegistheus's dead body, screams echo from another room. The horror of their situation takes hold of Electra. She declares that she is happy but is clearly troubled. When Orestes returns, he admits their mother died cursing them. Still, he feels no remorse. As the crowd approaches to apprehend them, they flee to the temple of Apollo.

Act 3

The Furies stalk Orestes and Electra as they cling to the statue of Apollo, sleeping standing up. Orestes now frightens his sister, who says she has grown old in a single night, like her mother. The Furies tell Electra that Orestes murdered their mother horrifically. Electra tries to go to them, but Orestes pulls her back, urging her not to give in to guilt and hate herself.

Zeus enters and says he will offer Electra protection if she submits to penitence. He rationalizes her wish for the crime as merely the dreams of a lonely, abused child, and offers Orestes and Electra Aegistheus and Clytemnestra's places. When Orestes refuses the god's offer, citing his own freedom, Zeus calls him a coward. Zeus calls down a vision of the heavens and says he has set all the laws of the world into place. He says he will call all of nature down on Orestes, but when Orestes dares him to do it, Zeus backs down. Because Orestes has freedom, there is nothing Zeus can do to him except to point out Orestes's freedom means exile from all of society. He says Orestes's knowledge of his own freedom represents the beginning of the end for the gods. Still, Zeus's reign is not finished yet. He leaves, and Electra follows, begging for his mercy. Orestes asks the tutor to open the doors and addresses the crowd. He says he will take the guilt of Argos on himself and "strides out" past the crowd, pursued by the Furies.

The Flies Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Orestes and his tutor come to fly-infested Argos.

Rising Action

2 Zeus urges Orestes to leave.

3 Electra defiles a statue of Zeus and dreams of her brother.

4 Clytemnestra scolds Electra and tells Orestes to leave.

5 Aegistheus conducts a sham ceremony to call the dead.

6 Electra mocks the ritual and is banished.

7 Orestes resolves to kill the king and queen.

8 Zeus urges Aegistheus to kill Orestes.

9 Orestes slays Aegistheus, who puts up no fight.

10 Electra asks Orestes not to kill Clytemnestra.

Climax

11 Electra listens to her mother's dying screams.

Falling Action

12 The Furies tempt a guilt-wracked Electra.

13 Electra begs Zeus for his protection.

14 Orestes defies Zeus, who is powerless against him.

Resolution

15 Orestes takes Argos's sins and goes, pursued by the Furies.

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