Friday, July 10, 2009

Middle Shelf Selection: William Golding's Lord of the Flies

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon.
Categories ossify. Sure, they seem helpful at first. But soon enough they harden, and all you see is the name you've applied instead of the thing itself. Nowhere is this more evident than with literary fiction. To many, it's something with which teachers bore students, a stultifying sort of story that you ought to know about but don't actually need to read. More vexing is that quite a few of these ignored works have genre roots. Take William Golding's Lord of the Flies, a novel whose bloodlines contain post-apocalyptic, war epic, survival story and horror.

“How does he know we're here?"

Because, thought Ralph, because, because. The roar from the reef became very distant.

"They'd tell him at the airport."

Piggy shook his head, put on his flashing glasses and looked down at Ralph.

"Not them. Didn't you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They're all dead."
The Communist assault on England has become so ferocious that Royal forces are evacuating children from the mainland. But soon after a flight of young boys lifts off, a nuclear strike decimates the airport. Then enemy fighters shoot the plane down, and it crash-lands on a deserted island. A tropical storm sweeps the wreckage (and a good number of the passengers) out to sea, and the survivors, a motley crew ranging in age from six to twelve, must fend for themselves in a world newly stripped of adults. They gather tropical fruit and hunt pigs with sharpened sticks. They start a small signal fire in hope of rescue. Soon a rumor begins to spread among the littlest boys about a bloodthirsty beast that slithers through the jungle, looking for what it may devour. The older boys scoff at such tales, though. They have more concrete troubles. Envy, rivalry and conceit have begun to fissure the bedrock of their new society.

Jack listened to Percival's answer and then let go of him. Percival, released, surrounded by the comfortable presence of humans, fell in the long grass and went to sleep.

Jack cleared his throat, then reported casually.

"He says the beast comes out of the sea."

The last laugh died away. Ralph turned involuntarily, a black, humped figure against the lagoon. 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.
Literary fiction has earned the reputation of having fascinating characters that do absolutely nothing. But not Lord of the Flies. It moves, constantly and inexorably. Also, repeated readings reveal the delicacy of Golding's composition. He wastes nothing, nearly every sentence playing a needed part. A description of three boys rolling a boulder down a hill foreshadows a cataclysmic future confrontation. An older youth's willingness to pick fruit for the tiniest children reveals his unusual sensitivity, a sensitivity that may save or doom the island's inhabitants. And a fat kid's perpetual complaint of "What's grown-ups going to think?" over the group's immaturities adds a chilling irony to the novel's main theme, namely that, left to themselves, societies splinter.

In panic, Ralph thrust his own stick through the crack and struck with all his might.


His spear twisted a little in his hands and then he withdrew it again.

"Ooh-ooh --"

Someone was moaning outside and a babble of voices rose. A fierce argument was going on and the wounded savage kept groaning. Then when there was silence, a single voice spoke and Ralph decided that it was not Jack's.

"See? I told you -- he's dangerous."
Though plot, setting and character hardly get short changed, theme really is Golding's primary focus. He wants to explore the problem of evil, the main reason for the world's suffering. It's a lofty goal, an easy one to blunder. Yet the depth of Golding's insight impresses. There is a beast the prowls the earth, but it isn't economic inequality or racism or sexism or any of the other isms. No, the beast is very near to us -- as near as breath itself.


B. Nagel said...

High school ruined some literary cornerstones for me. Chief among them are The Great Gatsby, The Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm. In 2004 I reclaimed Fitzgerald. Maybe 2009 is Golding's year.

I still consider Orwell required reading, and good dystopian reading, but not my cuppa. The characters are men disguised as animals parading as men.

Loren Eaton said...

Give Lord of the Flies another chance, but try reading it as genre. There's certainly enough action to do so. Also, Audible has a rather nice recording of Golding reading it himself. You get a lot of nuance in that one.

ollwen said...

I read the very publication pictures in High School. My teacher must have been better than many, because I remember rather appreciating it.

Loren Eaton said...

One of the things I'm finding when I talk to high school students about it today is that that book is mostly reserved for honors classes. I suspect that this has less to do with the skill level the book requires and more to do with the "disturbing" content.