#1: Lord of the Flies (1954), by William Golding

“They were savages it was true; but they were human.”

I thought I’d kick off the Time 100 Challenge by wading into the small end of the pool, and William Golding’s 1954 curriculum standard Lord of the Flies certainly fits the bill (the classic edition pictured below that most people my age are familiar with weighs in at 202 pages). It also remedied a serious reading gap, as none of my teachers ever assigned it to me as a teenager.

Curiously, though, I’d never felt a strong urge to pull this off the shelf until now. I think one reason may be that this novel, like several other titles on the Time 100 list, arrives in the 21st-century reader’s hands almost pre-read — so completely have its themes seeped into popular culture that even if you haven’t read it you feel like you have.  Lord of the Flies, that’s the one about the kids marooned on an island, right? They try to create a civilization but turn on each other instead. Ralph, Piggy, Simon, Jack: iconic, archetypal characters all, and the idea that young boys left to their own devices will ultimately turn tribal and violent is by now an accepted behavioral trope. What could a fresh reading bring to the table at this point?

Well, for starters, I don’t think I was expecting the novel to be this bleak. From the moment the boys are washed ashore to the final scene where Ralph is crying in front of the officer, the story presents an unrelentingly gloomy perspective on human nature. The reader keeps waiting for some sunshine to break through the storm clouds, but it never happens. (I’m actually a bit surprised I didn’t like this book more, since Golding’s worldview — or at least the one he presents here — and mine align pretty well.) When you then consider that scores of U.S. students have been assigned this book, it’s almost perversely funny.

Here’s what E.M. Forster wrote in a 1962 introduction to the novel:

Lord of the Flies is a very serious book which has to be introduced seriously. The danger of such an introduction is that it may suggest the book is stodgy. It is not. It is written with taste and liveliness, the talk is natural, the descriptions serenely enchanting. It is certainly not a comforting book. But it may help a few grownups to be less complacent and more compassionate, to support Ralph, respect Piggy, control Jack, and lighten a little the darkness of man’s heart. At the present moment (if I may speak personally) it is respect for Piggy that seems needed most. I do not find it in our leaders.

To my mind, Forster nails the novel in the first half of that excerpt. Golding does a masterful job at blending the pastoral beauty and mystery of the island with the gruesome carnage that springs up in nearly every chapter. He lulls you into complacency with his lyricism, then hits you over the head with an act of sudden violence.

But it’s the novel’s broad characterizations that kept me from truly embracing it. Lord of the Flies is an allegory, and as such the characters serve symbolic purposes rather than emotional ones. Two major characters meet brutal ends, but I felt nothing for them, only acknowledging how their deaths fit into the larger themes.

This is why, while I appreciate Lord of the Flies as a technical marvel, filled with florid passages and large-scale implications, I failed to connect with it on anything other than an academic level. I don’t know how Golding could have done it differently; part of the book’s appeal is its compactness, each line seemingly a metaphor for something else. And yet, I turned the pages dutifully, already half-knowing where it was going, feeling the same confused relief by the last chapter that Ralph does when the officer arrives.

Other observations:

  • For which audience was this book written? We all know it’s a staple of school reading lists, but was this intended as work of adult literature or was it a primitive version of a genre that wouldn’t exist until much later, YA Fiction?  Where in the bookstore would this be filed if it were published today?
  • I mentioned above that the story is so familiar it almost precludes one from having to read it at all, and its influence so vast that scores of young adult books published today offer some variation on its themes. Seriously, a full half of all the YA books I order as a librarian is some dystopian nightmare. The DNA for those books can be traced back here.
  • Does anyone else notice how Golding sometimes moves past symbolism and just expresses the themes outright? Recall Simon’s famous declaration that “maybe…[the beast] is us,” or this one:  “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of a man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” Did he, now?
  • Love the irony of the final chapter: the officer paid to hunt and kill other people lamenting that young boys raised during wartime would resort to hunting and killing each other.
  • ‘Ululate.’ One may go his entire life and not see that word again.

All in all, a good start to the project.  What does everyone else think?

Sources

  1. Forster, E.M. “Introduction to ‘Lord of the Flies’.” (1962) pp. ix-xiii. Excerpted in Twentieth Century British Literature, Vol. 2. pp. 820-821.
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Comments

  1. Nicely done. I wasn’t a huge fan of this book. Golding’s style just doesn’t connect with me. It was the 4th book I read and is in my bottom 5 at this point. I know it makes me a heretic in some people’s eyes. Haha.

    • Robert,

      I can definitely see why you’d say that. I had to re-read quite a few paragraphs because of Golding’s prose. I can also see, though, why it’s held in such high esteem critically.

  2. The first one’s the hardest, now it’s all downhill!

    I read this one many moons ago, in Grade 8, and am going to re-read it as my 70th from the list. So, sometime in late 2012…

  3. I feel like Gone With the Wind is another of those ones that arrive “pre-packaged.” I’m having a difficult time rousing myself to read it. I have to say, I’m a little jealous of you, I can’t find Dog Soldiers anywhere in my city.

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