Summary and Analysis Act III


Orestes and Electra are at the Temple of Apollo. It is twilight, and the flies cannot touch them at the Temple. The flies have now become the Furies, goddesses of remorse, and they form rings around the two young people, asleep at the foot of the statue of Apollo. The Furies discuss how they will devour these new bodies; they revel in their sadistic impulses. Electra wakes up and fails to recognize Orestes. He asks what her problem is, and she tells him to go away; she is caught in the throes of her remorse but doesn't know it. She scorns him for his crime but doesn't realize that her anguish is self-inflicted. Had she followed through in "good faith" with her desire to see the tyrants killed, she would now be as free as Orestes. The eyes of Electra now resemble those of Clytemnestra. She too is guilty of cowardice. The Furies begin to taunt Electra, describing in detail the murder of her mother. Orestes orders her not to look at the Furies and not to ask questions; otherwise, she is lost. Electra is confused and is not sure whose side to take. Sartre criticizes those who remain on the level of intention, not daring to engage themselves in an act. So when Electra says, "I dreamt the crime, but you carried it out," we can imagine Sartre's reason for having her react this way: It shows the treachery and cowardice of her position, and at the same time, it illustrates the consequences of this "bad faith" attitude. The Furies are "the others" in this case, and to them, Electra screams: "Stop torturing me!" Orestes attempts to lead her to a life of freedom and peace; she resists, surrendering herself to the Furies, who swarm around her and launch their attack.

Zeus arrives, and the Furies back away from Electra. Orestes and Zeus argue over Orestes' act: It was an act of freedom, but Zeus claims that it is responsible for Electra's doom. Orestes replies that her doom comes from within and that, because she is free, only she can rid herself of it. Zeus says that he has come to save them both; he tempts them with the idea that they can be free within fifteen minutes, and this is enticing to Electra. Orestes, however, refuses to listen and cautions his sister to follow suit. Zeus makes a long speech about the goodness of the universe and of his role in it: The speech is ironical and draws on elements of Christian theology; Zeus attempts to make Orestes feel small in comparison with the universe (an argument which Sartre no doubt borrowed from Pascal). Orestes' response is: "Your whole universe is not enough to prove me wrong. . . . You are not the king of man." It now becomes an argument between the god and his creation: Orestes acknowledges that Zeus is his creator but mocks him for having created him free. Orestes acknowledges neither right nor wrong: The only thing which has validity for him is action. He intends to open the eyes of the people in Argos; then, they will be able to choose their own lifestyles. Zeus leaves, warning Electra to choose between him and Orestes.

Electra says she is through with Orestes. She claims that he has robbed all of her dreams. She calls to Zeus for help, and she repents her sins, promising to be his slave. The Furies begin to pursue her but stop and decide to torment Orestes instead. Orestes ponders his aloneness and pities Electra. The Tutor arrives and tells Orestes that the townspeople are waiting outside, anxious for Orestes' blood. Orestes orders the Tutor to open the door, and after he does so, the room is flooded with light. The people outside shout, "Kill him," but Orestes does not hear them; he sees only the sun. He stands up in full power and announces himself as their monarch: "Ah, you are lowering your tone? I know; you fear me." He tells them that they welcomed Aegistheus as their king fifteen years ago because he was of their kind: He lacked the courage of his crimes. His crime was without an owner and stalked the streets of Argos, claiming as its owner all the citizens of the city. But because Orestes' crime is his own, they cannot punish or pity him, which is why they are afraid of him. The bond of blood between them now intensifies his love for them: They are his subjects, and he has come to claim his kingdom. He has taken their sins onto his back, and they need no longer fear the dead or the flies. Only he will be plagued by the flies. But he has decided not to occupy his throne; he is leaving the town and wishes only that they take advantage of their new beginning. As he strides out of town, the Furies fling themselves after him. The city of Argos is now at peace.

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