Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Failed Translation of Ideals into Action Electra’s Struggle with Existentialist Freedom in Jean-Paul Sartre's "The Flies"

English 258 World Literature
Dr. Rahman - WIU
March 7 2006

The Failed Translation of Ideals into Action:
Electra’s Struggle with Existentialist Freedom in The Flies

Walter Kaufmann claims that under the individualist freedom of existentialism philosophy, “all man’s alibis are unacceptable: No gods are responsible for his condition; no original sin; no heredity and no environment; no race, no caste, no father and no mother…not even an impulse or a disposition…Man is free” (qtd. in “Existentialism”). Existentialist freedom, according to Kaufmann’s definition, is an individual’s freedom from attachments to people and ideas, and therefore freedom to accept total responsibility. In The Flies, Jean-Paul Sartre constructed complex characters in order to support and divulge the complexities of the narrative’s central theme of existentialist freedom. Kaufmann’s description of existentialist freedom is a good starting point for the analysis of The Flies, but I propose that there are also two major components of existentialist freedom: the ideal of freedom and the act of attaining freedom. These two components serve as a further refinement of Kaufmann’s definition, and I will develop them in this essay.
Most characters in The Flies reject ideals of existentialist freedom, but there are a few characters who embrace those ideals to varying degrees. Electra, in particular, strives to be free, and in doing so, she embraces ideals of existentialist freedom. Although she grasps ideals of freedom, she—unlike her brother, Orestes—does not embody existentialist freedom because existentialist freedom is not merely an ideal; it is a lifestyle that can only be achieved through a translation of thought into action. She does, however, embody the condemning aspect of existentialist freedom—the cost of individual freedom. Using Jean-Paul Sartre’s claim that “man is condemned to be free” (“Jean-Paul” 695), readers can view Sartre’s construction of Electra as both an attempt to represent the untranslatable ideals of freedom and the struggles that inevitably arise when people encounter freedom. Electra strives to be free, and endures the condemnation of this effort, but her extreme ideals and impulsive nature prevent her from being able to confidently follow through with her desires and plans.

When Sartre first introduces Electra, he gives the reader the impression that she desires freedom and is not afraid to speak her mind. Her desire for freedom is implied in the monologue in which she boldly approaches the sacred statue of Zeus with irreverence. Electra’s lively and rebellious spirit is evident when she physically rubs her body against the statue and says, “I, too, am bringing you offerings, while all the others are at prayers. Here they are: ashes from the hearth, peelings, scraps of offal crawling with maggots, a chunk of bread too filthy even for our pigs” (Sartre 706). While other citizens of Argos are deeply repentant to Zeus, Electra heartily makes fun of and disrespects him. She is not afraid of Zeus and is keenly aware of the lack of justice in the practice of repentance, which indicates that she possesses existentialist qualities. Electra is brave and bold in her skeptical attitude toward Zeus—instead of turning to the gods for comfort and hope, she turns away from them and thinks for herself.

Sartre develops Electra’s intense desire for existentialist freedom in the early interactions that she shares with Orestes. Electra speaks freely and openly about her plight, but makes it clear that she does not feel guilty or responsible for any of the injustices that have been committed in Argos. She explains that she is a victim of injustice, and because of that she is aware of her outsider status. When Orestes asks her if she has a friend, she responds, saying “No, I’m quite alone. Ask any of the people here, and they’ll tell you I’m a pest, a public nuisance. I’ve no friends” (707). Electra’s dissociation from Argos and its people, as well as her lack of nationalistic pride, are examples of her existentialist mindset. She is bitter, and her bitterness is a manifestation of her extreme ideals of freedom. At the same time that her words reveal her ideals, they also reveal her outsider status, which, in turn, renders her capable of achieving existentialist freedom by providing her with the opportunity to accept responsibility for her choices.

Sartre illuminates the possibility and promise of existentialist freedom in his early construction of Electra. Up until Orestes realizes his own inherent freedom as a man and avenges the death of his father, Electra is the character that best exemplifies existentialist freedom. This is most apparent in Electra’s words and actions during the “Dead Men’s Day” ceremony, when she attends verbally challenges Aegistheus and the belief system that rules Argos (699). When Aegistheus disapproves of her decision to wear a white dress to the event, Electra claims that she has chosen to wear her “prettiest dress” because she has no reason to fear. “I am not afraid of my dead, and yours mean nothing to me” (717). Electra thus asserts her freedom on multiple levels: by wearing white, by speaking of her guiltlessness, and by directly challenging the power of Argos, the gods and the dead. Her decision to wear white symbolizes her rejection of Aegistheus and the power that he has asserted over her, and it is exceptionally rebellious because the color publicly challenges the peoples’ source of comfort and symbolizes freedom from the repentant way of life that is required by the belief in Zeus as god of death. Her ideals are manifest in anger and rebelliousness, which implies that they are particularly intense, but her fearlessness also implies that she possesses the strength and freedom to make choices on her own behalf. This proves that Electra is led by her ideals of freedom—she is not led by fear of the dead and the gods, but instead by her own concept of and desire for justice.

Whereas the people of Argos feel indebted to the gods and free themselves of personal responsibility through the act of repentance and obedience, Electra is a separatist who breaks away from the gods and citizens of Argos in order to gain autonomy as a victim. Electra speaks to Orestes about her separation, claiming that “everybody here is sick with fear...And I…I’m sick with hatred” (708). Electra separates herself from the safety of her surroundings (where everyone is “sick with fear”), and her separateness is manifest in her heightened emotional state of hatred. Her desire to disassociate with her surroundings is evident in her hatred, but it also implies a desire for autonomy because she assumes the role of the victim by blaming those around her for their actions. She recognizes and values her separateness, which implies that she, in turn, desires a sort of existentialist freedom, but she does not look inward for freedom. Instead of fully taking personal responsibility for her actions, Electra looks to an ideal of freedom in the fantasy of her long lost brother for comfort. If she was able to take responsibility for her own actions and focus on her own choices, she wouldn’t be consumed with hatred. Electra’s separatism is a form of freedom, but her obsession with the fantasy of revenge destroys her ability to fully realize the freedom that she inherently possesses.

Electra, like the citizens of Argos, does not recognize her inherent freedom and mistakenly looks for it in others. It is obvious that Electra looks for freedom in her brother when she admits to Orestes that she was waiting for the brother of her dream, imagining his strength in comparison with her weakness (721). Here, Sartre begins to draw a distinction between Electra and Orestes, and therefore between the ideal of freedom and the reality of freedom. Electra admits that she is waiting for freedom, and this implies that she understands freedom as something that will happen to her by actions committed by someone other than herself. Even though Electra differs from the people of Argos in that she realizes that repentance does not bring freedom, she shares a similar quality with them—both seek freedom in external sources instead of within themselves, and this ultimately prevents any of them from making freedom a reality (by translating their ideals into action). The people of Argos seek freedom through their belief in the gods and Electra seeks freedom through her belief in her brother.

Electra places all of her trust in Orestes, hoping that he will protect her and commit the actions that she has dreamt up, but her distance from freedom is evident in her reaction to Orestes when he accepts his own inherent freedom as a man. Orestes, who exemplifies the process of recognizing the freedom that is inherent in all men and in himself, attempts to explain his freedom after he has avenged the death of his father, saying, “I am free, Electra. Freedom has crashed down on me like a thunderbolt” (733). Orestes achieves existentialist freedom by translating his thoughts of freedom into action and accepting responsibility for his actions without regret, but Electra does not achieve freedom because her actions were not in line with her ideals. Initially, she wants to participate in avenging her father’s death, but she never conceives of what it would be like for her to do so (she depends on Orestes and does not imagine what it will feel like to be responsible for her actions).

At the moment that Orestes realizes his freedom—through his translation of thought into action—Electra says, “Free? But I—I don’t feel free…Something has happened and we are no longer free to blot it out” (733). Electra’s reaction to Orestes’s declared freedom reveals that she has not realized (or translated) her own ideals of freedom. She loses sight of herself because she is preoccupied with the ideal of her brother as hero, and this prevents her from thinking through her plans and taking responsibility for her actions. She doesn’t commit the act of murder herself because she is not resolved in her desires. Electra attempts to act on her fantasies through her brother, but this is incompatible with existentialist freedom because she herself is not practicing agency (making choices and accepting responsibility for her actions).

While many characters in The Flies reject the freedom of personal responsibility, there are a few characters that embrace it to varying degrees. Electra embraces ideals of existentialist freedom, and unlike most other characters, she rejects the comfort of repentance throughout most of the play, feeling like an outsider in her community. She is primarily interested in the idealistic forms of freedom, but despite encouragement from her brother, Orestes, she is unable to translate her ideals into action. Electra embodies the condemning aspect of existentialist freedom because she struggles with her own desires for and fears of freedom. Attaining freedom isn’t easy, and in the end, it is Electra’s dependence on her brother as an agent of freedom that prevents her from realizing her own existentialist freedom.

Works Cited

“Jean-Paul Sartre” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 692-696.

“Existentialism.” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003. 746.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. “The Flies” The Bedford Anthology of World Literature: The Twentieth Century, 1900—The Present Book 6. Eds. Paul Davis et al. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

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