Sunday, October 11, 2009

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies: 50th Anniversary Edition
By William Golding
Berkley Publishing Group; $22.95, cloth
ISBN 978-0-399-52920-9


I first read Lord of the Flies by William Golding in ninth grade. I remember being horrified because I could recognize the decline of civilized human behavior in the novel, to a lesser degree, in the high school I attended. The personalities were clear: jock, nerd, leader corresponding to Jack, Piggy, and Ralph. And although we never killed anyone, the athlete-hunters picked on the thinker-nerds. Leader-politicians had already established themselves and learned to play the game, keeping their student constituencies happy while staying on the good side of the administration.

I was riveted by the book then, and as I prepare to teach it to my classes now, I am amazed at how William Golding captures the microcosm of a society gone horribly wrong, the classic dystopian world of the island in the ocean where marooned British schoolboys degenerate into animals only to be saved at the last minute by the Royal Navy. I find the book even more relevant today, with the rash of school shootings in the last two decades. The school society is every bit as dangerous as that deserted island world upon which the boys find themselves.

Many critics see Lord of the Flies as a retelling of the Eden story in Genesis, how nature and beauty and childhood can all be corrupted by the darkness within mankind. This is indeed a dark and evil story, and the ending spells out clearly which way Golding thinks mankind is headed. Evil will, as evidenced by the novel, triumph over the intellect and the good, unless some force intercedes. In the novel, that force is much too late to save our protagonists, Ralph and Piggy. Ralph barely escapes with his life, and Piggy meets the most poetic fate for the intellectual: his brains are bashed out on a rock and his body is given up to the sea. Adam and Eve do not literally die in Genesis, but they realize through the Tree of Knowledge that evil exists in the world, that there is pain and suffering, and that they will one day cease to exist. These are the realizations of Ralph as he and the remaining survivors are rescued.

Golding is a bit light on some details. It seems the boys were being evacuated in a time of war. How they managed to be on the island, safe and sound and uninjured, is a bit of a mystery. The plane jettisoned the passenger compartment, and they crashed on the island leaving a visible scar in the jungle terrain. Several boys believe the plane crashed after they were hurled to the island. There is no wreckage to speak of, no resources to draw from for the boys. They must build their shelters and find food. The latter comes immediately from the island’s abundance of fruit trees, although the fruit is rather generically described. Its effect on the boys is clear: they suffer from diarrhea and must evacuate their bowels in an around their camp. Later, they turn to slaughtering wild pigs for meat.

The symbol of an organized society is embodied in the conch, a large sea shell that the leaders blow into when they want to summon the others for a meeting. The one who holds the shell is allowed to speak. The others must listen. It is this shell that shatters along with Piggy at the end, symbolizing the destruction of the rules of organized society.

Along the way, innocence, as demonstrated by Simon and others, is killed off. Simon discovers a dead parachutist on the mountain that the others mistake for a beast. When he stumbles back to camp with that knowledge, he happens upon a frenzy of orgiastic behavior, with the hunters led by Jack chanting: “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!” The animal-boys mistakenly seize the intruder—Simon—and in an orgy of violence, kill him, spilling his blood on the sand.

I find the novel similar to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. The theme of human society corrupted by evil and turning to violence and incoherent destruction is readily apparent in both books. The twentieth century is rife with novels of Man’s inhumanity to Man, as is the history of that period. Genocides, wars, weapons of mass destruction, all make our recent history steeped in blood and violence. Of course, human history in total is botched with blood and war, but what these novels do is portray civilization as the root of violence and evil. Man claims to be more like God, made in His image and likeness, yet that same Man has an overwhelming capacity to destroy himself, his fellow man, and the world around him. Animals kill for food, to protect their young, to secure their territory. Man kills for sport, for enjoyment, as an expression of power; few animals share such bloodlust.

The fiftieth anniversary edition of the book contains essays by E.M. Forster from the 1962 edition, as well as a variety of critics weighing in on the power of Golding’s work. According to the notes, the novel was ignored when it was published, but became more recognized as the years went on, building to Golding’s Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Although the dialogue is a bit stilted, and the culture is decidedly English, the novel resonates. We live in a violent, inhumane world filled with jealousy, corruption, desire for power and control, and bloodshed. We are all, in a way, civilized school children marooned on this island earth and our future is in doubt. The Lord of the Flies—Beelzebub, Lucifer, Satan, the true embodiment of evil—lurks in the darkness of the human heart. Writers such as William Golding believe our end is inevitable, our destiny is clear, and nothing can save us from our own destructive and terrible impulses.

2 comments:

awyn said...

A riveting review. (Updates, please, on your students' reaction/comments re: this novel.) Sometimes, to conquer our darker side, we need to be shown the darker side. It's what happens after the initial impact (introduction to those scenes you describe) that's most interesting though, often surprisingly revealing. Thanks for writing about this.

Paul L. Martin said...

Thank you, Annie, for reading and commenting. My class is getting together next week for a special session after school to discuss the book. I'll let you know how it goes.

Take care,
Paul