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How Does Sartre Define the Universal Human Condition in His Play The Flies?

Updated on October 23, 2016

Generation after generation, myths took new meanings

It's not the first thought coming to mind in regard to a Sartre writing.

Yet, the truth is that his swarming, confusing ways dissect basic ideas.

In "The flies" (1943), Jean-Paul Sartre (21 June 1905 – 15 April 1980) retells the story of Orestes.

In ancient Greece, tragedy was a mean of presenting before the community social, moral, and religious issues that inspired need of debate. The Greeks did not believe in holy commandments to live by, instead, they used as guidelines the lives of their heroes.

Therefore, generation after generation, myths took new meanings, each revision providing a new twist or emphasizing a different idea.

"Yes, the gods take pleasure in such poor souls. Would you oust them from the favor of the gods? What, moreover, could you give them in exchange?"
"Yes, the gods take pleasure in such poor souls. Would you oust them from the favor of the gods? What, moreover, could you give them in exchange?"

Jean-Paul Sartre

See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
See page for author [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Myth of Orestes

These are the main facts from the original story:

In Argos, ancient Greek city, queen Clytemnestra and her lover Aegisthus, murder king Agamemnon, her husband.

With this crime, she punishes the fact that he sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia, in order to persuade the gods to help end, in his favor, the 10 years lasting Trojan war.

However, when their son Orestes returns home years later, he reunites with Electra, his sister, and avenges Agamemnon.

That sets in motion the Furies or Erinyes, gods of vengeance, that hunt him down until goddess Athena comes to his rescue.

"...human life begins on the far side of despair"
"...human life begins on the far side of despair"

What Are The Flies?

1. The flies shift the focus.

In Sartre's retelling of the myth, Orestes returns to Argos, meets his sister, and they avenge their father. The Furies - giant pesky flies - hunt them both, but no gods come to their rescue.

On the contrary, Jupiter, that is described as the god of flies and death but is actually Zeus from Greek mythology, works against them until Electra abandons their cause. Thereafter, Orestes assumes his destiny of wanderer king of flies, without country or subjects.

It all goes metaphysical.

We read this story, then analyze ourselves and wonder what is it all about. Sartrely done. But we wonder at our own risk, the results may be depressing.

Electra

Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Frederic Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There's No Way Out Of Here

2. The flies define Argos and its citizens.

In the beginning of the play, Argos is a lazy town lingering under the sun. As it withstood silent at its king's murder and accepted his killers as rulers, it had to be punished. The gods, that is Jupiter, no other god gets involved, sent in the flies.

Now the town has a pestilence appearance and even its inhabitants resemble insects in the way they look and act - spineless, bendable, fearful creatures.

As Jupiter predetermines that argosians are weak and easily corrupted, we wonder if this town actually had any choice. Even Orestes's actions are not destined to save anybody, maybe not even to avenge his father.

Initially, he would have gladly given up, but Electra was his catalyst. He needed her to be his family, he needed to be worthy of her; therefore, he acted violently.

Flies of Argos.

When You Come In You're In For Good

3. Everyone is a fly, actually.

In this morbid, awful town, Electra is the only one that comes across as beautiful and alive. However, only as long as she stands by Aegisthus and her mother she appears grand and courageous.

When she herself takes the path of murder, the beauty dissipates, fear and confusion lurk in. In the end she is just a beautiful fly.

Aegisthus is, also, an interesting figure. He has under control this strange town, using their superstition, inventing macabre holidays. A character that is sad in his knowledge of human nature and welcomes death.

Before killing Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, Orestes ponders and concludes that accepting and moving on equals being week. In consequence, he chooses a descending way into town and towards his sister. He is one that can define what is wrong but prefers to belong to a family.

Article presentation video

There Was No Promise Made

4. This is about a king of the flies.

Orestes' choices should bring him, Electra, and the town closer together. However, as the furies hunt them and Jupiter judges them, he faces the reality that his fall was greater than anticipated. Electra shows him no love and the argosians try to kill him.

In the end, Orestes refuses Jupiter as a god, assumes the killings, and exits the town as king of the flies.

A literary parallel makes itself available. In William Golding's "Lord of the flies", written in 1954, the lord of the flies was the head of a pig stalled on a stick as an offering to "the beast". The beast was the violence rising up in children stranded on an island. Golding took the image of flies and used it to illustrate the superficiality of human institutional systems. Humans have a violent nature and there is no escape from that. It might be, also, of importance that lord of the flies is another name for the devil.

Both books were written in times when the world reminded itself what war and its consequences were. Yet, as Golding's novel is about the world that fell from reason and lost its ways, Sartre's play is about the world that never acquired a reason to begin with.

* 3 subtitles used were inspired by "There's no way out of here" by David Gilmour

Flies

By Corinne Whitaker (http://www.giraffe.com/) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Corinne Whitaker (http://www.giraffe.com/) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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