Michael Delahoyde, PhD

Professor of English

Sartre, The Flies

Sartre revamped the Orestes story (see Aeschylus, The Libation Bearers; Sophocles, Electra; Euripides, Electra) by adding Zeus as an ironic and despicable character, a plague of large flies fouling the wretched city of Argos, and his existential perspective that recasts the Greek events in an entirely new light. This play came out the same year, 1943, as Sartre’s Being and Nothingness, which emphasizes key existential ideas.

The situation in Argos would have resonated with the original audience as resembling the situation of the Nazi Occupation of Paris and its attendant dilemmas. Clytemnestra calls it a quarantine, “a sort of pestilence” others are afraid of being infected by (68). (Camus will use the same metaphor for the same historical phenomenon in The Plague.) Existentialism can be seen as a noble French reaction to the German occupation and the Vichy politicians insofar as it is a philosophy of self-respect when one is powerless and surrounded by evil.

Having left the prison camp, Sartre actively involved himself in the French opposition movement called the Resistance. He could not publish anything that attacked Nazi rule directly, since the censors would not allow it. Like several other authors of the same time, Sartre chose a Greek play to provide a cover for his anti-fascist beliefs. The censors missed the message of the play, but the audiences picked it up; it is clear enough in the writing. The conditions in Argos as Sartre describes them closely mirror the state of affairs in France. Aegistheus has murdered the true king of Argos and taken his place, while the queen, Clytemnestra, gladly joins him and supports his every repressive action. Aegistheus, then, can allegorically stand for the German occupation, while Clytemnestra can represent the collaborationist Vichy government. The Flies is a call to the French people to recognize their freedom to act and rise up against their oppressors.

For Sartre, the people of Argos represent “the old collective power that is enslaved and propagandized” (“Jean-Paul Sartre”). Although Aegistheus, who with his lover the Queen Clytemnestra murdered her husband Agamemnon fifteen years earlier when the latter returned home from the Trojan War, is ultimately responsible for creating pseudo-religious rituals that keep the populace focused on their abject sinfulness instead of recognizing their own freedom and power, the people themselves willingly cower within this miserable “comfort” zone (53, 54). Contemporary parallels?

What may possibly be called the psychology of Sartre is his study of the various means by which man tries to evade the necessity of choosing and creating his existence. Man’s dream is to become placidly immobile like a stone, insensitive. This is his fundamental cowardice, his desire to play the social comedy of conformity, to appear before all other men as one of them. (“Jean-Paul Sartre”)

Orestes, son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, exiled from Argos since his birth, originally expresses his return to the city as a need to go home and feel connected to a people.

Zeus appears as a sardonic bully (like Q in Star Trek: The Next Generation) (52-55). “And next day when it started, when the folks of Argos heard their King screaming his life out in the palace, they still kept silence, but they rolled their eyes in a sort of ecstasy, and the whole town was like a woman in heat” (53). “Yes, but you left your window not quite closed, so as to hear the better, and, while you peeped behind the curtains and held your breath, you felt a little tingling itch between your loins, and didn’t you enjoy it!” (54). Clearly the gods are immoral here, abstractly self-serving at the expense of humans. “A whole city’s repenting on his account. And it’s measured by the bushel, is repentance” (55).

Orestes’ Tutor’s instruction has attempted to accomplish what? (57, 59).

Electra, Orestes’ sister, initially seems to be an admirable atheist revolutionary (62). She has been reduced to a laundress of her parents’ underwear. Without revealing his identity, Orestes speaks with Electra, who is curious about the seemingly carefree life in Corinth. Perhaps there is a grim indication about Electra in her assuming automatic codified reactions to her family circumstances (66). Is there something beyond oppression and rebellious grumbling? At least she doesn’t buy into Aegistheus’ contrivance of the public ritual of perpetual atonement (67).

The annual ritual of evoking the dead displays the Argos populace’s gullibility and perpetuation of a culture of fear (68-69, 73). Clytemnestra “is indulging in our national pastime, the game of public confession. Here everyone cries his sins on the housetops…. So you can imagine her delight when she finds someone like you, someone raw and young, who doesn’t even know her name,to hear her tale of guilt. A marvelous opportunity! It’s as if she were confessing for the first time” (68). Zeus and Aegistheus are in cahoots in keeping the people enslaved to a myth. The people are even impatient with any delay in the increase of their misery: “Make him understand we will not suffer any more delay!” (75). Electra boldly tries to undermine the ritual by dancing and raising the awareness of the people to their own manipulation. Their fickleness is shown when Zeus intervenes with a “sign” (82-83).

Electra has messianic hopes, unfortunately another avoidance of responsibility through a technique of deferral: “I picture him as a big, stong man, a born fighter, with bloodshot eyes like our father’s, always smoldering with rage” (85). Orestes reveals his identity to her (86); and note her response: “It’s strange. I felt less lonely when I didn’t know you. I was waiting for the Orestes of my dream; always thinking of his strength and of my weakness. And now you’re there before me” (86). His speech about his hometown (88-89) would have struck home, as it were, with the 1943 Paris audience.

Orestes prays for divine guidance, but indications are that he is answered by his own internal voice:

Ah, if I only knew which path to take! … yet this you know: that I have always tried to act aright. But now I am weary and my mind is dark; I can no longer distinguish right from wrong. I need a guide to point my way…. And yet — and yet you have forbidden the shedding of blood…. What have I said? Who spoke of bloodshed? (89)

He discovers his freedom, his path (90). He will slay Aegistheus and his mother and become a redeemer of the city, bringing upon himself the swarm of flies. This act may be one of justice, but more importantly it comes from his free will.

Aegistheus acknowledges about the politics of power from the people: “For fifteen years I’ve been playing a part to mask their power from them” (100). “Am I anything more than the dread that others have of me?” (101). Orestes kills him and Clytemnestra.

Only yesterday I walked the earth haphazard; thousands of roads I tramped that brought me nowhere, for they were other men’s roads. Yes, I tried them all…. But none of these was mine. Today I have one path only, and heaven knows where it leads. But it is my path. (105)

The furies haunt Orestes and Electra, and Electra disappoints us and Orestes in growing cowed by her brother’s violent acts. Unfortunately, she listens to Zeus and his threats, and chickens out, joining the side of the perpetually remorseful and thus adopting the conformity from which Orestes had wanted to free her.

As Orestes leaves the city, the citizens of Argos are recovering their former lightness of heart and a conscience relieved of the obsession of guilt and fear.

Orestes makes a choice, and thereby exercises his freedom, when at the end of the play he takes on the fear and guilt of his people and thereby experiences alienation. At the beginning of the play, Orestes wants to acquire the memories of the people and thereby fill the void of homelessness in himself. But at the end of the play, by killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, he takes on the remorse of the people and frees them from their guilt. By making his choice, Orestes exists and creates his self. (“Jean-Paul Sartre”)

This concept of redemption, brought about by means of crime, is of course the opposite of the Christian concept of redemption, of sanctity and martyrdom. Orestes’ exercising of his free will brings about his alienation and exile, of course. But this can be seen as a triumph in that he does not get trapped in a messiah role (as Oedipus has done in the Sophocles play). He has created his own path and therefore his own life, himself.

Works Consulted

“Jean-Paul Sartre: The Flies.” TheatreHistory.com. http://www.theatrehistory.com/french/sartre003. 2004.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. The Flies. In No Exit and Three Other Plays. NY: Vintage International, 1976. 47-124.