The Flies | Study Guide

Jean-Paul Sartre

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The Flies | Themes


Social Control

In The Flies characters struggle against several levels of social control, all of which rely on their willing participation in their own oppression. Orestes's knowledge of his own freedom marks the beginning of the end of Zeus's reign as king of the gods. He refuses to be intimidated by Zeus's threat to turn all heaven and nature against him. Orestes's physical violence ends the rule of Aegistheus, which he maintains through state power. Electra's defiant joy at the Dead Men's Day ceremony threatens Aegistheus's control of the people of Argos, which he maintains through superstition and guilt. In all of these cases and others throughout the play, people have been convinced that their own wants, desires, and genuine actions are wrong. Their acceptance of this moral schema, which has been imposed from the outside, is what allows them to be controlled.

Zeus's dialogue with Aegistheus in Act 2, Scene 2 is particularly crucial to this theme. When Zeus alludes to Aegistheus's "dark secret," the king says he has none. Zeus replies that Aegistheus's secret is the same as his: "The bitterness of knowing men are free. ... But your subjects do not know it." Zeus's small magic tricks at the correct moments and Aegistheus's theatrics are the small nudges necessary to keep the terrified citizens of Argos believing they are powerless before stronger forces. In the case of the vengeful dead, they imagine their tormentors in response to Aegistheus's suggestions. However, once the people understand this control is based on lies, their leaders' and gods' reigns will crumble. Aegistheus says of Orestes: "A free man ... acts like a plague-spot. He will infect my whole kingdom." Electra's defiant dancing nearly has the same effect as people begin to realize they have been lied to.

The public repentance of the townspeople and Clytemnestra is another, more subtle method of social control. The self-flagellation of the crowd establishes a norm, and people follow it, whether they believe it or not. To do otherwise is to stand out and to invite the wrath of the other townspeople, as Electra does in the second act. The people of Argos pass down these norms generationally. The scene of the Dead Men's Day ceremony opens with a woman telling her child he must cry when he is told. She explains the fear he feels is what will make him a god-fearing, or virtuous, adult. The individual's need to fit in with the crowd is thus shown to be a very effective means of control.

Throughout the play Sartre treats control imposed from the outside—as opposed to the free decisions of an individual—as corrupt and evil. Despite committing murder, Orestes, as a free human, is the moral superior of Zeus, who relies on tricks and coercion to extract piety from others.


The freedom championed by Sartre in The Flies is a specifically existentialist concept of freedom. When Orestes speaks of it, it is often in violent and potentially terrifying terms. "I am free, Electra," he declares. "Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt." He talks about his youth having been ripped away to be replaced with freedom. His freedom also has a moral dimension, in that because his choices are all his own, he is not tortured by guilt imposed from without. "I am free," he says. "Beyond anguish, beyond remorse. Free. And at one with myself." The attempts to impose control over, and definition of, his actions from outside himself no longer hold sway, and he is existentially free.

It is useful to point out, as Zeus does when he confronts Orestes in the temple of Apollo, what Orestes's freedom is not. Orestes does not have the freedom to go anywhere he would like. The crowd intends to execute him as a murderer if he leaves the temple. Zeus asks why Orestes's freedom is any better than that of "a prisoner languishing in fetters, or a slave nailed to the cross." However, this practical freedom is not the existential freedom Sartre means, and Zeus's questions are a rhetorical trick to confuse the two. Orestes's ultimate freedom is also not the concept of freedom put forth by his tutor in Act 1. "You have the wisdom of far riper years," the tutor says, and adds because Orestes is free of religion, family, and calling, "you are free to turn your hand to anything." What the tutor is describing is Orestes's rootlessness. Orestes senses this and longs for the definition that would come from having his own place in the world. His freedom manifests only when he defies the gods and commits to a choice—the murder of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra.

Zeus argues and Orestes agrees this freedom alienates him from his fellow man. He will be feared and hated for it. He cannot even convince Electra to join him, despite their feelings for one another. Orestes, however, makes the choice to attempt to free and enlighten others, despite the danger to himself, transforming himself into an almost Christ-like figure.

Punishment and Guilt

The flies of Argos and the Furies are one and the same. They are agents of divine punishment. However, importantly, Electra refers to them not as the goddesses of vengeance or judgment, which would imply an objective standard, but as the "goddesses of remorse." They attempt to lure Electra away with her own self-loathing and whine they cannot get at Orestes, who does not regret his actions. They are sure, however, they can talk him into guilt eventually. This helps illustrate how different guilt is within the context of the play from ownership of one's actions. Guilt and remorse are the acceptance of moral schema outside oneself.

With the exception of Electra, all of Argos wallows in public guilt, particularly the queen, Clytemnestra. She laments how her suffering has ruined her beauty, and she hates Electra because she sees herself reflected in her daughter. Still, she admits she does not regret Agamemnon's murder. Likewise, the young woman at the Dead Men's Day ceremony is unrepentant about her infidelity to her husband. She is only sorry now that he is dead because she assumes he knows and will strike back at her. The old woman in Act 1 claims there was nothing she could have done to stop Agamemnon's murder. These people, however, still submit to punishment for their transgressions and agree to participate in public displays of guilt and mourning. Indeed, they seem to compete with one another to appear the most regretful. A man at the ritual cries out extravagantly to the Furies: "harpies, sting and gouge and scavenge me; bore through my flesh to my black heart." The people's participation in their own guilt and punishment allows it to continue. In the case of the Dead Men's Day ceremony, the dead are there only because the crowd consents to imagine it.

Electra's guilt is more real and visceral, but it stems from the same source. She accepts the dictates of a morality outside herself, in which her mother was an unacceptable victim no matter what she had done. To the Greeks matricide is the most unforgivable of crimes. Thus, Electra loathes Orestes and herself because she loathes the crime. Because she hates who she is now, Electra allows Zeus to reshape the story of the murder to present her as a relative innocent. She desires the punishment of the Furies in the same way the people of Argos demand the ceremony of the dead. She seeks refuge in submission because the only other alternative is to truly own her actions.


Electra, rather than Orestes, is initially the most authentic character in the play. Despite her station, she carries a fierce sense of herself and defies the authority figures around her. She has a clear perception of the truth of her situation and of Clytemnestra's hypocrisy. She wants vengeance, and she wants murder. Despite the threat of death, she intends to stay and see her cause through to its end. Orestes, in contrast, begins the play uncertain and uncommitted. He is unattached to anything in the world, like a ship waiting to find mooring.

However, in Act 2, Scene 2, their roles are reversed. Electra falters because she is not truly at one with herself. She is not strongly enough committed to the course of action she has supported to resist guilt. So, unlike Orestes, she detests herself and everything that reminds her of herself, in an echo of Clytemnestra. She is ready to throw herself to the Furies rather than live with her true self. Likewise she makes the choice to follow Zeus, who redefines who she is and what she has done from the outside. He offers her a story that minimizes her own choice and negates the freedom she had earlier embraced. She knows it is not true, but she accepts the pretense because it lets her divorce herself from her guilt. Orestes, however, stands firm. He refuses to regret what he has deliberately chosen to do. He also refuses to fear Zeus despite the god's cosmic threats. Ultimately, because Orestes cannot be lied to, made to hate himself, or cowed into submission, there is nothing Zeus can do to him. The free and authentic individual is beyond the reach of the gods.

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