Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Everyone knows the premise of Lord of the Flies.  It’s one of those stories that have become an indelible part of our zeitgeist, like 1984 or Macbeth.  I don’t know when I was first exposed to the concept, but the most striking adaptation of the story for me was an obscure episode of The Simpsons, in which the children of Springfield find themselves stranded on a small island after a bus crash.  Having now read the actual book, Lord of the Flies, I find myself compelled to go back and watch that episode of The Simpsons so I can appreciate its brilliance all the more.

But, a reminiscence of childhood TV is not what this review is about.  William Golding’s famous work, Lord of the Flies, follows the attempts of survival by a disparate group of British school-boys, stranded on a tropical island.  It’s unclear what, exactly, brought the boys to the island, but we do know that, faced with war, the bunch of them were loaded onto a plane and flown over the Pacific, where they were shot down.  As the book was published in 1954, it’s unclear if the war that acted as an impetuous was supposed to be the Second World War (maybe the book was written during the conflict and published at a later date?), or it is meant to be a new war.  The British presence in the Pacific seems to imply a new war.  If that is, in fact the case, than Golding as created a dystopia within a dystopian future – which gets bonus points from me!

Stranded the island, the group of boys is forced to develop a set of rules and laws by which to live.  Initially divided between ‘littleuns’ and older boys, further cracks develop in the group when the older boys experience an ideological division between those who put hunting as a priority (led by Jack) and those who place a premium on rescue (led by Ralph).  In a world where parents are non-existent, boys are allowed to be boys, and rules chafe, the majority of the group quickly turns to the easier way of life and supports the tribe which allows the inner beast to dominate.  We then see even the most basic of social tenants break down and atrocities occur.  

This work was Golding’s first published novel and it shows (by the way, how depressing is it that if your follow-up works can never touch the fame of your first?).  There are occasions where re-reading is required in order to understand what the physical aspects of a situation are, which is a cumbersome task for an adventure story.  However, putting this aside, it is still a good read.  Golding’s characters are well crafted and balanced – though simplistic in some ways, it almost seems apropos, as they are in fact children trying to navigate a horrendous situation.  I enjoyed the fact that Golding does not impose moral clarity on Ralph until the very last page; it strengthens his plot (while in a book like The Hunger Games, it weakens it).

I can see why this book would be forced reading for high school English classes.  There is no doubt that there are multiple layers of interpretation to be found in everything, from the presence of a natural swimming pool, to the importance of the conch shell, to the final emotional conflict in the closing moments of the story.  I would imagine that what you see in each turn of the page depends on where you are in your life, and how deeply you’d like to explore it.  I’ll fully admit that, while I noticed these aspects, I chose to shy away from them: as I don’t have to hand in a 10 page paper on literary symbolism at the end of the week, I was able to read and appreciate this work as I never did with 1984 and Macbeth.  Rather, I sought pleasure in the plot and characters. 

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