The play takes place in Argos, a Greek city which Sartre uses to symbolize France under the German Occupation. The action can be interpreted on three levels: (1) philosophical/moral, (2) political, and (3) the literal level of the Greek myth. There is an enormous wooden statue of Zeus, god of the flies and of death, with white eyes and blood-smeared cheeks. Already, Sartre prepares the reader/spectator for a stark, austere, and ugly drama; a procession of old women enters in black clothes, and an idiot boy squats in the background. When Orestes arrives in Argos with the Tutor, he is a mild, uncompromising young man with intelligence, wealth, culture, and a sense of sophistication. He is above the minor details of ordinary living, and he is not engaged or committed to any particular activity: He is free from caring, love, fear, or involvement. The play will trace his development from this uncommitted stance to one of serious engagement, where he is free to choose, act, and accept responsibility. He becomes Sartre's ideal man. Orestes is entering a strange community: The citizens of Argos have seemingly condoned the murder of Agamemnon by his wife, Clytemnestra, and have tolerated the tyranny of her reign, alongside her new husband, Aegistheus, a cousin of Agamemnon. It is a collective guilt that the community shares since, by not protesting or preventing the murder (by not choosing to act), they have sanctioned the evil act and must bear its responsibility. For this reason, Zeus has sent the flies to them as punishment: They are a reminder of the citizens' sinful errors and will plague them until the conditions are reversed (until responsibility for Agamemnon's death is assumed). It is for the benefit of this community that Orestes will, ultimately, perform certain acts of revenge: He will not so much be interested in slaying his mother as in restoring to the community a sense of welfare. Sartre uses the device of this unsuspecting hero (Orestes) to lead us, the spectators, along with him in his journey toward engagement.
Orestes enters, and the old women spit on the ground in front of him. His Tutor declares that the two men have lost their way and need directions. This is the perfect introduction for Sartre to exert his "instructions" to us. The Tutor commends Orestes for choosing Argos as opposed to the hundreds of other Greek and Roman towns where people are friendly, hospitable, and full of smiles. From the very beginning, Argos is nothing like these other towns: It is gloomy, dreary, and foreboding. Moreover, it is fiercely hot. The Tutor assesses Argos as a "nightmare city," a locus of horror. Orestes was born here, yet he feels lost: This situation is symbolic of the journey which awaits him — Orestes does not yet know his "way" and will have to interact with others in order to find it. The Tutor is quickly frustrated by the townspeople's refusal to aid them and by their cowering silence; he is prepared to leave things just as they are, not to rock the boat, not to seek information from them, even though Orestes insists. The Tutor falls into Sartre's group of human beings called "stones": He refuses to commit himself to any action, he lacks convictions, his neutral attitudes are smugly satisfied, and he believes himself to be superior by not engaging himself. Sartre does not like the Tutor although he feels a certain admiration for his intelligence, his sense of logic.
Orestes and the Tutor are looking for Aegistheus, and while asking an idiot boy for information, they are startled to see Zeus himself, who passes by. Orestes thinks that Zeus is only a traveler like they are, but the Tutor says that this man has been following them on their trip. He does not believe it is due to mere chance that this has happened, and then he proceeds to brush the flies away from his face, claiming that the flies in Argos are more sociable than the townsfolk. The flies, meanwhile, swarm around each of the citizens and serve as a constant reminder of their collective guilt concerning Agamemnon's murder. Sartre indulges in a naturalistic, sordid description of the "yellow muck oozing out of" the idiot boy's eyes. This is indeed an ugly, hopeless town.
Zeus approaches Orestes and the Tutor, and he explains that fifteen years ago, a powerful carcass odor attracted them to the town (Agamemnon's cadaver) and that, since then, the flies have grown larger (the townspeople's guilt has assumed greater proportions). Zeus introduces himself as Demetrios from Athens. The Tutor advises Orestes that they should leave Argos, but Orestes tells him to keep quiet. Zeus says they have nothing to fear, and he is quite right: Until now, Orestes has had nothing to do with the death of Agamemnon or the collective silence about it — he is not a target of the flies, and he will remain this way unless he shows "bad faith" and integrates himself into Argos' lifestyle. Only Zeus, however, is able to drive the flies away since he is the god of flies and death; the two are inextricably related. He relates the events of Agamemnon's return to Argos, after which time Agamemnon was assassinated and the people "kept silence." He describes Aegistheus as a hard, brutal man — one whom Sartre uses as a focal point of self-abasement and as the symbolic object against whom the entire people of Argos should make their appeal for divine grace (to Zeus). Zeus explains that Agamemnon's one error was in placing a ban on public executions: Zeus says that an execution now and again can entertain small-town people and rob death of its glamour. The citizens kept quiet, awaiting a violent death: They remained silent while their king, Agamemnon, entered the gates, and they said nothing when Clytemnestra greeted him warmly. They all knew her plan but said nothing, and therein lies their fault: They failed to act and to live up to their convictions. When they heard the king screaming in his death throes, they still said nothing. This is the basis for the drama of The Flies; everything else in the play will grow out of this "bad faith" and will show the system which Sartre recommends for free, responsible living.
Orestes is quick to blame the gods for this crime, but Zeus admonishes him: The gods are aware of what has happened and are using this crime to "point to a moral." Moreover, Sartre seizes the occasion to show how man must accept responsibility for his own life instead of passing it off on outside authorities: God is dead in Sartrean existentialism, and the state should be cast out of one's views; one must decide for oneself how to live, then follow up with appropriate responsibility. Belief in Zeus will be a temptation throughout the entire play, but only Orestes will be able to resist him successfully; his sister Electra will give in to the threat of punishment and the awe of a divine authority, the likes of which Sartre condemned during his lifetime.
The flies were sent as a symbol of remorse, but the true punishment from the gods can be seen everywhere: human beings decrepit from disease, skulking in cowardice, crouching from the look of other people, and so on. Everyone wears black in Argos; everyone is in mourning in Argos. Zeus mentions the dead king, and the old woman to whom he is speaking jumps nervously; it is like salt in a wound to mention the murdered king. Zeus reminds her, however, that she actually enjoyed the thrill of Agamemnon's death ("a little tingling itch between your loins"); he tells her to earn forgiveness by repenting her sins, and the sin to which he refers is her "bad faith" collaboration with the silent mob. She claims to be repentant, and Sartre puts in her mouth the language of Christian repentance: ". . . my son-in-law offers up a heifer every year, and my little grandson . . . never plays or laughs, for thinking of his original sin." Their "sin" is portrayed as their constant inactivity, their refusal to have acted on their conscience, their unwillingness to change things from the way they are; they still accept their life of flies and remorse, hiding from it in weakness and relying only on "hope" of salvation. Sartre does not espouse the Christian credo of faith in Christ as the agent for the remission of sin; rather, he accepts only action and commitment as viable means toward a free end, a life of salvation. He uses the situation in Argos to debunk what he considers to be a pointless religion: Christianity. Aegistheus feels no repentance, but it doesn't matter: The city feels it for him. They hold an annual festival of death to remind themselves of Agamemnon's murder; this is a direct parallel to the Christian Easter. Zeus makes a slip of the tongue (probably on purpose) and says that these death-driven, remorseful people are dear to him at present — it is the phrase "at present" which gives away his true sentiment: He derives fulfillment and satisfaction from their guilt and sorrow, from their perpetual torture. After all, he is the god of flies and death; without these people, what would he be? We can deduce that he is not going to want to give them up; he will do his best to keep them in his control, and, in his seductive manner, he will try to sway Orestes into believing in him.
Zeus points out Aegistheus' castle and says that Electra lives there too; her brother, Orestes, it seems, is dead. Zeus then asks Orestes who he is, and the latter replies: Philebus from Corinth. He is traveling to improve his mind, which is Sartre's way of announcing that all of us will be doing this if we follow the education awaiting Orestes. Zeus says he would tell Orestes to leave Argos if ever Orestes showed up there; this is Zeus' defense against having an outsider to the crime, one who is also a rightful heir to the throne, come into town and atone for the crime, and thus set the suffering citizens free. And this is exactly what Orestes will do: He will be the Savior of Argos, assuming responsibility for their actions and taking the flies out of their lives, placing them on his own shoulders. This eventual assumption of their sins is foreshadowed in Zeus' stern, ominous words to Orestes: "Tamper with it and you bring disaster. A disaster which will recoil on you."
Zeus leaves, and the Tutor says that Zeus knows who Orestes is. Orestes retaliates and says that he also knows who he is, and he is in Argos as a descendant of his father. Orestes mocks the education which the Tutor has provided him, and then, for the first time, he sees the palace where Aegistheus lives; it is no more than a gloomy, solemn, provincial building constructed in bad taste. Orestes knows that he is "favored," that his position in life is fortunate, but he regrets that he does not possess any memories; he is "free as air, thank God," yet he admires those men who have a purpose in life which they must accomplish, and he scorns the Tutor for not sharing this admiration: "I suppose that strikes you as vulgar-the joy of going somewhere definite." The Tutor reveals that he has seen a constant change in Orestes ever since the day when he told the boy about his past. The Tutor is afraid that Orestes might have the idea of ousting Aegistheus from the throne and taking it over for himself. Orestes denies this: it would serve no purpose. But if there were something he could do in Argos, even if it were a crime, to fill the void in his mind, to give his life a meaning, then he would be ready for action "even if I had to kill my own mother." Here, Sartre is setting up the framework for the existential act: It does not matter what traditional morals dictate; particularly within the context of Sartre's non-Christian system, murder is neither good nor bad — it is merely an act among other acts and must be judged by the people involved.
Electra enters and approaches the statute of Zeus, calling him an old swine. She claims not to be afraid of him and is disgusted by the old women who have worshipped his cold, wooden heart. She sets up the conflict between herself and Zeus: She is young and healthy, not old and decrepit (as Zeus would prefer). She tells the statue that someday Orestes will come and will chop Zeus in half, exposing his phoniness. Orestes tells her that she is beautiful, and she replies that she's only a servant, obliged to wash the dirty underwear of Aegistheus and Clytemnestra. Sartre accentuates the vile, ugly side of this life; he underlines the results of not choosing an act: One becomes a slave to "the others" and suffers the consequences. She says, "They can't make things much worse for me," and this is the kind of attitude which Sartre criticizes: He decries the act of allowing others to define what one's essence will be; he is scornful of those who give in and accept life on other people's terms. This is what Electra has done. Orestes asks her if she has ever thought of running away, and she replies, "I haven't the courage. She says that everyone in Argos is sick with fear but that she is sick with hatred; this is significant since Electra will be the only one, alongside Orestes, who will eventually be brave enough to defy Zeus and stand up to him. She will, however, eventually give in and succumb to his threats, so her hatred of him has its origins in fear as well. The city of Argos emerges as a closed, inescapable forum of remorse, not unlike Oran in Camus' The Plague. It is contrasted with Orestes' professed hometown of Corinth, where life is merry and cheerful.
Queen Clytemnestra enters, and Orestes sees now what she looks like, after nights of imagining. He hadn't counted on "those dead eyes." Electra has, unknowingly, had contact with Orestes, and Clytemnestra notices a change in her; Electra is bolder and her eyes flash more. Electra reminds her mother of the ugly crime and is contemptuous of the public show of royalty which her mother wishes to present to the people. Clytemnestra claims that the rules no longer come from her — Aegistheus is the one who reigns now. This is Sartre's way of showing Clytemnestra's "bad faith"; she has abdicated her freedom of choice and allows another person to dictate what her life will be: "It is the King's command I bring you." But Clytemnestra is aware of the fact that her crime ruined her life; she is disturbed by Electra's appearance since it reminds her of what she used to look like. In this case, "the others" (her daughter) reinforce the torture of her crime; her daughter, an image of her former self, hates her, so here Sartre presents us with an example of double self-hatred.
Clytemnestra is interested in Orestes; she wants to know who he is and why he has come to Argos. The queen relates her criminal guilt to him, but Electra warns that he should pay no attention to her; everyone in Argos repents loudly for their sins on this holiday, and the queen's sins have become boring — they are "official" sins which everyone knows about. Clytemnestra does not regret having killed Agamemnon; in fact, she still feels "a thrill of pleasure" when she thinks about it. But she regrets having lost her son, and she doesn't realize that she's actually speaking to him right now. Electra tells Clytemnestra that she, Electra, hates Clytemnestra; moreover, she will not attend the death rite. She then explains to Orestes about the rite: Each year, high above the city, a bottomless cavern — which Aegistheus claims leads to hell — is opened up, and the dead roam around Argos, reinforcing everyone's guilt. Twenty-four hours later, they return to the cave and remain there for another year. It's a lie, of course, fabricated by Aegistheus in order to keep people in their places. Clytemnestra says that Aegistheus will force Electra to take part in the ceremony, so Electra consents and invites Orestes to also partake in it with her. Clytemnestra is not pleased with Orestes' presence and requests that he leave Argos: "You are going to bring disaster on us." Zeus appears and says that he will be Orestes' host. Zeus will attempt to sway Orestes to his point of view, hoping to convince Orestes to accept him as an outside authority figure ("A man of my age can often be very helpful to lads like you"), but Orestes will not be interested.