History of Literature: “The Flies”

“Everything has been discovered, except how to live,” said Jean-Paul Sartre.

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The Flies, by the French Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), is one of the most representative productions of 20th century drama, structured from a reinterpretation of the classic work The Oresteia (458 BC), by Greek Aeschylus (525-456 BC). It was published at a crucial moment for Europe (1943); it oozes political, warlike and existential issues, since it is one of the literary pieces in which the author puts into practice the essence of the existentialist movement, but it is also a critique of war in general and Nazism in particular.

Sartre was one of the great exponents of “engaged literature”, a notion that he himself raises in his essay What is literature? (1947). He establishes two concepts when it comes to writing literature: freedom and commitment. Literature is nothing more than an effort to achieve knowledge and freedom. Engaged literature must present the sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociopolitical situation of a country; that is to say, it has the obligation to consecrate the human conditions of its inhabitants in its present time. To that extent, what you do with The flies it is putting a literary work from the past into dialogue with the crucial moment that Europe is experiencing.

Jean-Paul Sartre was born on June 21, 1905 in Paris, where he spent his early years. He then moved with his mother and stepfather to La Rochelle until 1920, the year in which he returned to Paris. He began studying Philosophy in 1924, where he met Simone de Beauvoir, his lifelong partner. He studied in Paris and Germany. He taught Philosophy in different spaces and university centers, wrote multiple essays, plays, literary criticism articles, novels and journalistic columns, directed literary and philosophical magazines, closely followed the ideas of Marxist communism, was imprisoned in 1940, became involved in the French political movement called the Resistance and was one of the most representative intellectuals of his time. In 1964 he won the Nobel Prize for Literature and refused it so as not to “let himself be recovered by the system.” He died on April 15, 1980.

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what he does with The flies it is to change aspects of the original text to adapt the work of Aeschylus to his philosophical thought. It is a work in three acts that recreates the myth of Electra and her brother Orestes from her. This arrives together with his teacher, Pedagogo, to the city of Argos after several years of absence. They are approached by the god Jupiter, disguised as a common man, and tells them that fifteen years earlier, when King Agamemnon (father of Orestes) returned from the Trojan War, his wife, Clytemnestra (mother of Orestes) along with her lover Aegisthus and current king of Argos murdered Agamemnon. Insofar as the inhabitants did not prevent this, and instead accepted Aegisthus as their new king, the gods have tormented them ever since with a plague of flies. Orestes searches for his sister Electra, who has become a slave in the service of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra. Then Aegisthus demands that Electra wear white to celebrate the anniversary of Agamemnon’s death. This fact produces the indignation of the people. In act III, Orestes frees the city from the plague, kills Aegisthus and her mother, flees with Electra, but she is remorseful and upset with Orestes for killing her own mother.

The work has the seal of the Resistance; He camouflages the political situation in France at the time behind a Greek work: Aegisthus represents the German occupation, while Clytemnestra embodies the collaboration of the Vichy government. The presence of the flies, for its part, is a call to the French people to recognize their freedom and oppose the oppressor. This is how the author described the occupation of France by the German Army: “We were never as free as during the German occupation. We had lost all rights, starting with the right to free expression […]. In the newspapers, on the walls and in the movies we only saw the dirty image of ourselves that our oppressors wanted to put on us. And for all that we were free. Since the Nazi poison even penetrated our thoughts, each thought of ours represented a conquest. […]. A single word was enough to cause 10 and up to a hundred arrests. Does not this total responsibility in total solitude reveal in fact the very essence of our freedom? (L. Richter, Jean-Paul Sartre, quoted by history of literatureAkal, V. 6, p.745).

Indeed, each of the characters has a fundamental role in terms of what freedom is; the god Jupiter represents religious morality, the divine mandate. He is the creator of humanity and therefore he is the one who gives meaning to the existence of human beings; Orestes is the symbol of Sartre’s existentialist proposal, he decides to commit the crime and exercise his freedom; in the same way, the people of Argos, forced to adore Jupiter to achieve redemption, is a criticism of Christianity.

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In sum, The flies It is a highly symbolic play that reveals various thematic nuances, such as freedom, repentance, guilt, uprooting, anguish, alienation, justice, religion, and social responsibility. Human beings have the ability to understand, interpret the world and build their own values: that is where freedom lies.

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History of Literature: “The Flies”