The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Quotes

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1.

They are a symbol. But ... to know what the gods did, look around you.


Tutor, Act 1

The tutor explicitly refers to the flies as a symbol. They—actually a manifestation of the Furies—are the gods' punishment. However, because the gods have no power over those who are aware they are free, the Furies can only punish those who are complicit in their own punishment.

2.

We have there the real thing, the good old piety of yore, rooted in terror.


Zeus, Act 1

Orestes is horrified that the gods can take pleasure in the misery of Argos, but Zeus points out one of the main reasons. The unhappy and terrified residents turn to the gods, offering sacrifices and repentance. The more the people participate in the roles and rituals the gods have assigned them, the more power the gods have over them.

3.

The Queen is indulging in our national pastime, the game of public confession.


Electra, Act 1

As Electra points out, Clytemnestra and the citizens of Argos are not genuinely sorry. Instead, they are committed to a show of public contrition—and only for selected crimes. Electra, on the other hand, is authentic in her disdain and unrepentant demeanor.

4.

One day you, too, will be trailing after you an inexpiable crime.


Clytemnestra, Act 1

In a moment of dramatic irony (in which the audience knows something the characters do not), Clytemnestra tells Electra not to criticize her because one day she too will be burdened by a crime like her mother's. Later in the play, Electra's own crime closely mirrors Clytemnestra's. Just as Clytemnestra urged Aegistheus to kill Agamemnon, Electra urges Orestes to murder Clytemnestra and Aegistheus. The guilt from this act so transforms her that Orestes says after the murders Electra has the same dead eyes as her mother had.

5.

You should be ... frightened. That's how one grows up into a decent, god-fearing man.


Woman, Act 2, Scene 1

As the Dead Men's Day ceremony begins, a woman tells her child he must cry when expected to do so. This line emphasizes the theme of social control. The woman is expressing the position that misery and terror will make the child a more moral person. This belief is imposed on them from outside and serves to help the gods and rulers keep the people under their control.

6.

Sting and gouge and scavenge me; bore through my flesh to my black heart.


Man, Act 2, Scene 1

At the Dead Men's Day ceremony, a man falls to his knees and implores the flies to come and eat him because he is rotten and sinful. This language helps connect the flies to the Furies. It also helps highlight how the people of Argos are active—even enthusiastic—participants in their own oppression.

7.

The dead hold their peace. Aegistheus, you have lied.


Voices in the crowd, Act 2, Scene 1

As Electra dances and says she is happy and unafraid, the townspeople wait for her to be punished. When nothing happens, they begin to suspect that Aegistheus has been lying to them. His continued control over them relies on their belief that he administers the terrible ritual that releases the dead. They have to believe the universe punishes those who act outside of their traditions. In showing this is not true, Electra poses a threat to Zeus's and Aegistheus's continued control over the people. This crack in their control anticipates the end of the play, when Orestes also shows the people they are free.

8.

You lured me into thinking one could cure the people here by words.


Electra, Act 2, Scene 1

Within the context of the play, freedom requires definitive action. It is not enough for Electra merely to defy Aegistheus, she or her brother must strike him down. Unfortunately, Electra is emotionally unable to commit to action in the same way as Orestes does. As a result she falls prey to guilt and becomes vulnerable to the Furies.

9.

From now on I'll take no one's orders, neither man's nor god's.


Orestes, Act 2, Scene 1

Orestes has been given exactly what he asked for: a sign telling him what he should do. However, in this moment he makes the single most important decision in the play. He will make his own choices. He becomes a self-actualized existential hero, and the change in him is immediate. Even Electra remarks on how he seems a different person than only a few moments ago.

10.

The bane of gods and kings. The bitterness of knowing men are free.


Zeus, Act 2, Scene 2

Zeus tells Aegistheus that humans by their nature possess free will and control over them can only be maintained through lies. In many ways Aegistheus functions in the play as a lesser version of Zeus. He imposes a false ceremony on his citizens and sits joylessly on a stolen throne. Zeus's power will not work on Orestes because rule and authority require the subject's consent to be ruled, and Orestes no longer consents. Both kings and gods are diminished when faced with people who refuse to obey.

11.

Too seldom do we have the joy, the exquisite delight, of ruining what's beautiful.


First Fury, Act 3

The Furies are mythological beings who violently punish those whose transgressions have burdened them with guilt. This particularly applies to those who go against the will of the gods or kill members of their own families, especially their mothers. In Argos the Furies are manifested in the flies that plague the city. They exist purely to torture and take special delight in tormenting and thus "ruining" those who are "young" and "beautiful" as Orestes and Electra are. Zeus's cruel enforcers make an especially pointed symbol given that the audience would have been watching the play under Nazi occupation.

12.

I am free. Beyond anguish, beyond remorse ... No, you must not loathe yourself, Electra.


Orestes, Act 3

Orestes genuinely cares about his sister and tries to reach out to her. He wants to help her understand that the Furies have no power over her if she does not allow it. He attempts to share the freedom he has found in his convictions. However, Electra has already begun to hate herself and to hate the reflection of herself she sees in others, especially Orestes. She is becoming her mother, Clytemnestra.

13.

Why not praise the freedom of a prisoner ... or a slave nailed to the cross?


Zeus, Act 3

For Sartre's French audience Zeus's words explicitly link Orestes to the Christian figure of Jesus. Like Jesus, Orestes brings a prophesied new philosophical position to oust an old authority. He sacrifices himself and thus atones for the guilt of the citizens of Argos just as Jesus's suffering atoned for humanity's guilt. The message is not Christian so much as it makes Orestes into a messianic figure within the text through the example that would have been most familiar to the audience.

Specifically in this exchange Zeus challenges Orestes's claim to be free, saying Orestes cannot move about without consequences. This highlights the difference between the existential freedom of knowing oneself and the more common understanding of the word freedom. This common understanding is expressed by the tutor in Act 1—the freedom to move about as desired. Orestes accepts he may be killed if he moves, but this does not change that he knows he is free in his mind and soul. No one controls his thoughts or actions.

14.

The most cowardly of murderers is he who feels remorse.


Orestes, Act 3

Orestes committed to killing Clytemnestra and Aegistheus and followed through on his decision. He made a free choice, accepts its consequences, and refuses to disown it. This is the epitome of existential freedom.

15.

And the flute-player, with his rats, vanished forever. Thus.


Orestes, Act 3

In the final words of the play, Orestes likens himself to the familiar rat catcher of folk legend. He promises to rid Argos of the flies—actually the Furies—that plague the citizens in the same way the pied piper rid Hamelin of rats. But Orestes doesn't have a flute. Instead he frees Argos from the flies by taking the people's sins onto himself. This continues the parallels established between him and Jesus. Moreover, within the context of existentialism, it exemplifies how to live a moral life. Orestes assumes moral responsibility. By doing so he shows the people they are free, too.

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