Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Lord of the Flies

I love my thousand-year-old battered-up Faber edition of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
If my digital camera was working I could present a photo of its dog-eared beauty, but no, I must provide a canned image here. It’s a great book. If you haven’t read it, I am about to highly recommend that you do!

In Lord of the Flies, [published in 1954] a group of young schoolchildren [all male] are evacuated from Britain in the wake of a nuclear war. As it turns out, their airplane has crashed onto an uninhabited island, with the result that there are no adult survivors to be found. In the opening scenes, children begin to slowly emerge from the forest and converge on the beach at the summons of the book's main character Ralph. As they are now thrust together in this new environment, it becomes apparent that a new sort of social order is going to be necessary. What follows for the length of the book is an elaborate working out of this (attempted) democratic style of social order.

After an initial confrontation of two groups on the beach (one led by Ralph, the other led by Jack), Ralph is elected as leader. Early on, we see that Ralph's interests tend to be "group" oriented. His concern is with rescue, and with keeping the others focused on this objective through the maintenance of a signal fire. We see shadows in Jack however, that are more temporal, concerned with the hungry rumble in his stomach. And here we sense the beginnings of conflict, and the age-old fact looming to remind us that, even in democracy we need to recognize submission to elected leadership.
In a pivotal chapter (ch.5) one of the children declares, "We're drifting and things are going rotten. At home there was always a grown-up."
The significance here is that, by filling his island with castaway children (rather than adults) Golding allows us to consider more aspects of innate or instinctual human nature than if it had been otherwise.
Children are raw.
If this island were inhabited by castaway "grown-ups" the results and conclusions they came to would be conditioned by all of the ingenuity, resourcefulness, and maturity with which they'd have dealt with previous struggles and needs. Socially, they would have been able to draw upon the results (good or bad) of past decisions made in the clash and clang of more mature inclinations and inhibitions.
But children are not afforded this perspective of experience. Golding populates his island with children because he wants to emphasize the full range of possibilities that are INNATE in the human condition, typified in this case by Ralph's tears on the very last page. Tears, we are told, which he wept "for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart."
With the frenzied killing of Simon in ch.9 comes the real disintegration; a rapid descent into moral anarchy. Ralph is the only one who dares to say it... "That was murder."
He has the keenest sense of the mob mentality that will inevitably run roughshod over the individual conscience. Earlier than any of the others he understands their own capacity for evil when he says to Piggy, "I'm frightened. Of us.”

The lasting value of the book is its ability to pose the question, "What if I were thrust into a similar situation?"
Which character would I most resemble... with whom do I most identify? How is it then, that we in fact, do behave? What if?...
This story speaks to any overly optimistic answer to that question when we remember that the entire reason these children found themselves on this island in the first place, was that they were fleeing a nuclear war that "grown-ups" had started.



stefanie said...

Nice review. I have never gotten around to the book. I promise I will one of these days.

cipriano said...

It's a terrific book.
Add it to that nine-foot high pile of books you are going to read, Stefanie!
-- Cip