Lord of the Flies
Bill Long 11/27/08
A 2008 Re-reading*
[*An essay on some of the vocabulary of this book is here.]
Re-reading Lord of the Flies this week was like visiting a school or neighborhood from my childhood. I recognized so many familiar places, even if there had been loads of changes in the intervening 40 or so years. We read this book in my 7th or 8th grade English class at Middlesex Junior High, Darien, CT between 1964-66. I didn't know at the time, and probably wouldn't have cared, that this was William Golding's first novelistic endeavor (publshed in 1954; he was born in 1911), and that it reflected a philosophical change he had undergone as a result of WWII. Before that time he, like many of the rest of his generation, was nurtured on the mother's milk of perfectionism and meliorism, but that belief disappeared along with the hundreds of thousands, even millions, who died on Europe's drenched soils.
Lord of the Flies presents us with an experiment of sorts. Just as a scientific experiment is best done in a controlled environment, so Golding places a group of about 15 or 20 young boys (from about age 6-12) on an uninhabited Pacific island, without any adult guidance or supervision, and sees how they build their society. The sad truth of the novel is that the boys degenerate into as much chaos and murder as their adult counterparts during the time of the War. The veneer of civilization, then, is simply that: a gossamer-thin covering over humans, humans that yearn not for ways to affirm and celebrate democratic processes and inalienable rights, but who seek control over their fellows and, ultimately, the elimination of those who disagree with them. Lord of the Flies, then, portrays the quick degeneration of human society when confronted with scarce resources and a problem--in this case, no one at hand to rescue them.
The "Struggle" in Lord of the Flies
As I re-read the book after a 40+ year hiatus, I noted that Golding sets up the opposing forces in a slightly too easy or obvious fashion. Ralph, the strapping 12 year-old, assisted by the near-sighted, fat, asthmatic but intellectually-inclined Piggy, represents the democratic impulse of humans. They respect elections, believe that if a solution to their dilemma is to be found it is through people working together. Frequent meetings of an orderly nature are necessary to make sure things are "on track." The three symbols of this approach to society building are the conch, the fire, and the shelters. The conch, found by Ralph and Piggy upon meeting each other, calls the boys to meeting and becomes the modern-day equivalent of the Homeric staff--whoever holds the conch can speak without interruption. Then, the fire has to be built and watched over, burning at all times so that the boys might be spotted by a ship passing near the island. Finally, the shelters are homes for the boys and symbolize the attempt to build a semblance of reality familiar to each of them. Rather than simply camping on the beach, they build shelters.
The "Other" Guys
The other group of boys gathers around Jack, a boy of similar age to Ralph but without the abilities that Ralph and Piggy have to lead and figure out a useful direction for the group. We first meet Jack as he appears with a group of similarly-clad boys called "the choir." Jack had been the "choir-director" of a group of boys who also were involved in the plane crash, leading to their presence on the island. I remember when I first read the book when I was about 13 that I was really confused about Jack and the choir. I had seen choirs before, even if I never particpated in one, but I wondered what a choir was doing on the island. I think the fact that I was reading the book in an American context in the mid-1960s made this "choir" reference confusing for me. When I become confused in reading, I tend to make things up as I go along. I think my mind words as follows: 'ok, the author can make up something pretty wild, so I will do the same as a reader.' Pretty soon, I lose the flow of the narrative.
Well, Jack at first acquiesces in Ralph's leadership, but he really doesn't buy into it. He knows that he has the loyalty of about eight other guys and, if he can articluate a goal for them, he can eventually be "in charge." Jack sees an opening when the boys become hungry. They could survive on the fruits of the trees, but Jack convinces many to come with him if they want to become hunters. Thus, the "hunter" instinct will be the first step in the deteneraiton of the group from civilization to barbarism. With the hunting comes neglect of the fires, comes lack of conern for shelters, comes rituals which can "smoke out" the pigs (the main animal on the island) as well as "war paint" for the task.
Confrontation between Ralph/Piggy and Jack was inevitable as the boys, hungry and needy, were buffeted between the natural authority and election of Ralph to be "the leader" and the call of their stomachs to follow Jack--who could provide them food. That competition, and tension, provides the story line for the book. Eventually, all come over to Jack, and Ralph is a pursued target. Only the timely appearance of a British naval officer on the island saves Ralph from what would be certain death.
Lord of the Flies and the Nature of Fear
All of these things I recall from my youth. But what was new to me this time around was the almost palpable sense of fear that haunts the book. The boys are on the desert island. Darkness comes, and fears rise. Then, there are fears because of possible beasts on the island--which the "littluns" imagine. Then, all become afraid because of a dead parachuter who is blown onto the island (though none has courage enough to go and determine, in fact, that the person is dead). Fear stalks them as they wonder if some beast from the sea is terrifying them. Finally, the point that Golding wants us to recognize and embrace is presented. The most fearful thing about a group of people are the people themselves, because the human heart is deeply flawed and, when left to its own desires, will ultimately work for the destruction, rather than the salvation, of the group.
Lord of the Flies is a profoundly pessimistic work. It shows how allegiance to rational principles and democratically-elected individuals erodes when people are faced with irrational fears and desires to fill their stomachs. The book really holds out no hope for human society; even the adult who finally "rescues" Ralph and ends the 'fun and games' on the island is himself a part of a society which finds itself enmeshed in war and threatening war.
One gets the impression from reading this, the first of Golding's novels, that the "lesson" he learned from WWII, of the depth of evil in the human heart, was one he felt he needed to communicate to all. But he did this through the tale of boys at each other's throats. Society isn't something that rubs out the original "virtue" in people; people are rotten to the core from the very beginning.
I don't think I got that message when I first read the book as a joyful and optomistic teen in the mid-1960s. I do remember, however, Piggy getting killed, the competition between Ralph and Jack and the opposition between the more "domestic" and more "hunter" guys. But I think the "message" was lost on me. Indeed, I don't think that any message in literature will convince 13 year-olds of the evil in the human heart. They have to learn that the same way that Golding learned it--by experience.
Let's turn to some of the words/phrases used by Golding in the book.