Lord of the Flies II
Bill Long 11/29/08
Lord of the Flies has a rather simple, and depressing, thesis which is, in large measure, expressed in straightforward language. The previous essay brought out Golding's use of a few words; this essay "completes" that list.
1. Preposterous. We all know what preposterous means, don't we? It is so trivially easy that we oughtn't even consider it. It means..well, crazy, ridiculous, outrageous. That, indeed, is one of the definitions, but it neither is derived from the root of the word nor is the oldest and best-attested meaning of the term. Let's hear it from Lord of the Flies. One of Jack's allies, Roger, is throwing rocks to intimidate some of the boys. Golding writes:
"The stone, that token of preposterous time, bounced five yards to Henry's right and fell in the water," (p. 70).
What could that possibly mean? Well, I go into the word preposterous in detail here and explain that it means to put the latter first or, slightly different, to put the thing that happens later in a process first. "Put on your shoes and socks!" is a preposterous command. Has Golding used the word correctly here? R.A. York argues that one of the dislocations experienced by the boys on the island is not simply the spatial one but the temporal one. They think of a certain time of the day as tea time, even though they are in the tropics and there is no sign of tea or muffins. Piggy longs for a clock, but there is none. Time is out of whack for the boys, and they have no signs or tokens of proper time. Time, as it were, seems to vanish. What, then, do they do? One of them throws a rock, perhaps a sign that they are living in this ebb and flow of disordered time, of preposterous time. I think the word has possibilities...
2. Jack has just made himself up to have a fearsome appearance. The boys are startled by it. Golding writes:
"He split the water and leapt to his feet, laughing excitedly. Beside the pool his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled them," (p. 72).
We all know that "appall" means "to offend." Indeed, I don't know how many liberals I have heard in the past eight years tell me that they are appalled by what George Bush has done. But the fourfold OED definition takes us in a slightly different direction: "to dismay, shock, discomfit, terrify." Note that this is only definition # 8 for the word. The root of appall is from the Old French (and eventually back to the Latin) meaning "to wax pale" or "to languish, waste away." It can be used of a light that dims or a sweetness that fades. Thus, its root suggest the diminution of color or strength, the loss of savor, flavor or briskness. In the Lord of the Flies context I suppose the word can easily mean to "shock" or "terrify" according to OED def. # 8, but I liked the little digression I took on the "paling" of appall.
3. Rescue is on the boys' mind, of course. But the hope of rescue appears fruitless. Ralph slid into the water.
"Of all the boys, he was the most at home there; but today, irked by the mention of rescue, the useless, footling mention of rescue....," (p. 74).
Footling? I hadn't run into the word previously, but it means: "that footles or trifles; 'drivelling', 'blithering,' trivial." To footle means "to talk or act foolishly, to trifle or 'potter.'" Something footling is trifling, trivial. Golding probably picked up on GB Shaw's use of the term from 1905: "They are paraphrases of great works, made by footling people." Thus, footling suggest also, to me, something insignificant or hopeless. WS Maugham used the word in 1930: "You do talk the most footling rot." Thus, the word seems to be known in the British literary tradition in Golding's time, even though we don't use it much anymore. But, why not? We have all kinds of footling things around us...
4. Four phrases we don't want to miss are next. In describing the deep springs of sorrow in a little boy, Golding says: "At first he was a silent effigy of sorrow.." (p. 100). What a beautifully sad picture. The little boy, needing comfort, was simply an image or incarnation of sadness. Almost like Niobe in his grief. Then, keeping up on the sadness theme, on p. 242, after rescue has happened, the emotions come out. Describing Ralph's grief, Golding writes:
"He gave himself up to them [sobs] now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body."
Then, changing the tone completely, is Golding's brief description of the guano (bird droppings) covering the rocks:
"pink, tumbled boulders with guano layered on them like icing," (p. 124).
Can't you not only see it but almost taste it? Yuck!! Finally, we have a description of Piggy after his glasses have been taken from him and shattered. He could barely see. He "sat behind the luminous wall of his myopia," (p. 202). That is, light was seen, but it was as if it was a wall, prohibiting him from seeing anything in the world.
5. The night was ghostly and ghastly dark.
"When they had understood what made this ghostly noise and Percival was quiet again, Ralph and Simon picked him up unhandily and carried him to a shelter."
Unhandily? It means awkwardly, clumsily, or "unaptly." From Carlyle: "St. Agnes Day falls unhandily this year; and I think the Fair will..not be held." A signature or a motion might be done unhandily. Thus, we get a nice picture through this word of the boys' picking up a "littlun."
6. Finally, let's end with the phrase sough and whisper (p. 102).
"The assembly looked with him, considered the vast stretches of water, the high sea beyond, unknown indigo of infinite possibilities, heard silently the sough and whisper from the reef."
Well, stopping for a moment on "unknown indigo of infinite possibilities..."--that is a nice phrase, isn't it? Indigo is a "substance obtained in the form of blue powder from the plants of the genus Indigofera..." Thus, the unlimited expanse of blue sea suggests infinity or an "unknown indigo of infinite possibilities." Just use this phrase once, go to the beach with a girl/guy and use the phrase, and see what happens...
Well, we conclude with the word sough. It is ononmatopoetic or echoic (SUFF), and means "a murmuring sound; a rushing or whistling sound, like that of the wind; a deep sigh." It is a great word, one that has generally fallen out of our usage.
So I leave Lord of the Flies again, having picked it up after a 40+ year hiatus. I leave it this time, however, feeling strangely richer. The words, I think, have embraced me.