The Flies (known in the original French as Les Mouches) is a play by Jean-Paul Sartre. It is an adaption of the Electra myth, previously used by the Greek playwrights Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides. The play recounts the story of Orestes and his sister Electra in their quest to avenge the death of their father Agamemnon, king of Argos, by killing their mother Clytemnestra and her husband Aegisthus, who had deposed and killed him.

Sartre incorporates an existentialist theme into the play, having Electra and Orestes engaged in a battle with Zeus and his Furies, who are the gods of Argos and the centerpiece for self-abnegating religious rituals. This results in fear and a lack of autonomy for Zeus's worshippers, who live in constant shame of their humanity.


Act 1

Orestes first arrives as a traveller with his tutor/slave, and does not seek involvement. Orestes has been traveling in a quest to find himself. He enters the story more as an adolescent with a girlish face, one who does not know his path or responsibility. He enters the city and introduces himself as Philebus, to disguise his true identity. Zeus, also disguising his true identity, has followed Orestes on his journey. Orestes has come on the day of the dead, a day of mourning to commemorate the killing of Agamemnon fifteen years prior. No townsperson will speak to Orestes or his tutor because they are strangers and not mourning, remorseful or dressed in all black. Orestes meets his sister, Electra, and sees the terrible state that both she and the city are in. Electra has been treated as a servant girl since her mother and Aegistheus killed her father. She longs to exact her revenge and refuses to mourn for the sins and death of Aegistheus or of the townspeople.

Act 2

Orestes goes to the ceremony of the dead, where the angry souls are released by Aegistheus for one day where they are allowed out to roam the town and torment those who have wronged them. The townspeople have to welcome the souls by setting a place at their tables and welcoming them into their beds. The townspeople have seen their purpose in life as constantly mourning and being remorseful of their "sins". Electra, late to the ceremony, dances on top the cave in a white gown to symbolize her youth and innocence. She dances and yells to announce her freedom and denounce the expecation to mourn for deaths not her own. The townspeople begin to believe and think of freedom until Zeus sends a contrary sign to deter them, and to deter Orestes from confronting the present King.

Orestes and Electra unite and eventually resolve to kill Aegistheus and Clymenestra. Zeus visits Aegistheus to tell him of Orestes plan and convince him to stop it. Here Zeus reveals two secrets of the gods: 1) people are free and 2) once they are free and realize it, the gods cannot touch them. It then becomes a matter between men. The ceremony of the dead and its fable has enabled Aegistheus to keep control and order over the town, instilled fear among them. Aegistheus refuses to fight back when Orestes and Electra confront him. Orestes kills Aegistheus and then he alone goes to Clymenestra's bed chamber and kills her as well.

Act 3

Oresetes and Electra flee to the temple of Apollo to escape men and the flies (who represent original sin). At the temple, the furies (which represent remorsefulness) wait for Orestes and Electra to leave the sancturary so the furies can attack and torture them. Electra fears her brother and begins to try to avoid her responsibility for the murders. She attempts to evade guilt and remorse by claiming she had only dreamt of murder for 15 years, as a form of release, while Orestes is the actual murderer. Matricide (killing one's own mother) must be seen as the ultimate "sin". Orestes tries to keep her from listening to the Furies - which are convincing her to repent and accept punishment.

Zeus attempts to convince Orestes to atone for his crime, but Orestes says he cannot atone for something that is not a crime. Zeus tells Electra he has come to save them and will gladly forgive and give the throne to the siblings, if they repent. Orestes refuses the throne and belongings of the man he killed. Orestes feels he has saved the city by removing the veil from their eyes and exposing them to freedom. Zeus says the townspeople hate him and are waiting to kill him; he is alone. The scene at the temple of Apollo represent a decision between God's law and self-law (autonomy). Zeus points out that Orestes is even foreign to himself. Since his past does not determine his future, Orestes has no set identity: he freely creates his identity anew at every moment. He can never know who he is with certainty because his identity changes from moment to moment. He is being for himself (central to existentialist thought)

Orestes still refuses to repudiate his actions. In response, Zeus tells Orestes of how he himself has ordered the universe and nature based on Goodness, and by rejecting this Goodness, Orestes has rejected the universe itself. Orestes accepts his exile from nature and from the rest of humanity. Orestes argues Zeus is not the king of man and blundered when he gave them freedom - at that point they ceased to be under god's power. Orestes announces he will free the townspeople from their remorse and take on all their guilt and "sin". Thus Orestes becomes Nietzsche's Overman who rather than submitting himself to the values of guilt and penance takes the burden of the whole cities' guilt upon himself. Electra chases after Zeus and promises him her repentance.

When Electra repudiates her crime, Orestes says that she is bringing guilt on herself. Guilt results from the failure to accept responsibility for one's actions as a product of one's freedom. To repudiate one's actions is to agree that it was wrong to take those actions in the first place. In doing this, Electra repudiates her ability to freely choose her own values. Instead, she accepts the values that Zeus imposes on her. In repudiating the murders of Clytemnestra and Aegistheus, Electra allows Zeus to determine her past for her. She surrenders her freedom by letting her past take on a meaning that she did not give to it by herself, and as a result she becomes bound to a meaning that did not come from her. Electra can choose, like Orestes, to see the murders as right and therefore to reject feelings of guilt. Instead, she allows Zeus to tell her that the murders were wrong and to implicate her in a crime.

The Furies decide to leave her alone in order to wait for Orestes to weaken so they can attack him. The Tutor enters but the Furies will not let him through. Orestes orders him to open the door so that he may address his people. Orestes informs them he has taken their crimes upon himself and that they must learn to build a new life for themselves without remorse. He wishes to be a king without a kingdom, and promises to leave, taking their sins, their dead, and their flies with him. Telling the story of the pied piper, Orestes walks off into the light as the Furies chase after him. In leaving the city to the people, themes of anarchy, communism, or democracy are expressed by Orestes.

Sartre's philosophy

Sartre's idea of freedom specifically requires that the being-for-itself not be either a being-for-others or a being-in-itself. A being-for-others occurs when human beings accept morals thrust onto them by others. A being-in-itself occurs when human beings do not separate themselves from objects of nature. Zeus represents both a moral norm, the Good, and Nature. Freedom is not the ability to physically do whatever one wants. It is the ability to mentally interpret one's own life for oneself—to define oneself and create one's own values. Even the slave can interpret his or her life in different ways, and in this sense the slave is free.

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