books, ReLit

ReLit: Lord of the Flies

This will not end well.

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We had some friends over for dinner the other night, and at one point the four adults were upstairs in the kitchen and the four kids, ages two through four, were downstairs in the basement. There was screaming, pounding, and possibly the sound of a power saw being turned on. The adults looked at one another, swirling our glasses of wine and posing in the manner of debonair sophisticates, and said, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” before returning to a spirited conversation about Freud’s theory of the uncanny. (This last part is not true: Someone did say, “Sounds like Lord of the Flies down there,” then we hurried downstairs, praying we would not see a child tied to a spit and rotating above a makeshift fire with Legos as kindling.)

Such is the hold of William Golding’s 1954 novel upon our collective imagination. (Full disclaimer: Three of the four adults were/are English teachers, but we contend that a remark such as the one above could’ve just as easily been made in an entirely English teacher-free group of adults.) What’s startling about Lord of the Flies when you read it as a parent is that you begin to wonder how your children would fare on that island. Would our boys be a Ralph (oh please oh please)? A Simon? (Gulp.) Anything but a Jack. Or Roger, that cruel blunt instrument of a human being. (Roger, not Jack, is the one who pushes the boulder over the hill that kills Piggy and — symbolism alert! — shatters the conch.) Or that poor nameless littlun with the mulberry scar who we meet early in the novel but who mysteriously wanders off and never appears again.

So why reread a book about kids killing kids … especially if you have kids now yourself? Let’s consider this closely.

What You Probably Remember About Lord of the Flies From High School: When we read Golding’s novel in the early 90s, Battle Royale and The Hunger Games were not on the scene yet, and there was still something a bit shocking about children dying at one another’s hands. (Though we’re fans of The Hunger Games — or at least were up until the dismal conclusion — there’s something far more sinister about kids killing one another in the complete absence of adult supervision. Katniss and her ilk killed because they were driven to it by adults; the boys on the island kill for no reason other than power and cruelty, the breakdown of civilization.)

If you remember any of the kids in particular, our guess is that you remember not the leader of the island — “the boy with fair hair” (Ralph), as the first words of the novel tell us — but rather the boy pictured above: Piggy. (The still is taken from Peter Brook’s 1963 adaptation, a subtle and disturbing little film.) You might remember that Piggy isn’t even his real name — we never find that out. (He is “the fat boy” in the novel’s first pages.) Piggy was what the boys at school used to call him, in his life before the crash; when Ralph accidentally repeats it at an assembly, the nickname sticks.

The truth is, when you think back on high school, we remember the Piggys of the world long after the Ralphs have faded from our memories. There’s something sad, pitiful, but also noble about young Piggy, who is twelve-going-on-forty. He is whiny, yes — but also logical, intelligent, honest and — we know this from the minute we meet him — doomed. A fat kid with glasses and an asthma problem? (“Sucks to your ass-mar!” the other boys taunt him about his condition; the way they speak to one another rings true of pre-adolescent boys, and no doubt Golding’s experience as a teacher helped fine tune his ear.) Nuh-uh, not going to make it.

You may also recall that the boys learn to hunt, and kill a pig (more on this in a second); that there’s one other boy they kill along the way, the Christ-like Simon; that a dead parachutist lands on the island, and the boys mistake him for a “beast”; and that the boys are rescued by a naval officer, who sees them dressed like savages, done up in war paint, running around with a stick sharpened on both ends, and assumes they’ve been engaged in harmless child’s play … despite the fact the island is going up in flames. “Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island,” he says, at which point Ralph breaks down in front of him and the officer realizes something unimaginable has taken place. The novel ends with him looking away, a bit embarrassed, “to give [the boys] time to pull themselves together.”

You might also remember your teacher droning on about how Ralph and Jack embody competing ideas of civilization — democracy vs. totalitarianism, or order vs. chaos, or good vs. evil — and maybe you recall writing an essay at one in the morning about the symbolism of the conch and thinking it was pretty brilliant, until your vindictive, spiteful teacher gave it back to you with her petty red pen marks like death scribbles on your very soul. If so, our deepest sympathies. We are that soulless teacher now, and we say to you: nothing gives us greater pleasure than marking the world in red pen. Nothing.

What We Got From Lord of the Flies The Second Time Around: This is not the same book when you read it in parenthood. The boys are no longer just characters on the page; they have faces and names and personalities, and you cannot help but see your own kids in them, or imagine your child hovering on the fringes of the island assemblies where the firelight is just faint enough to capture his face. Chances are you also have a greater understanding now than you did as a teenager of your own capacity for cruelty, and of human capacity for evil. It’s on the local news every night at eleven.

We also got a fuller understanding of the darkness of Golding’s vision. When that naval officer alludes to “Coral Island,” he’s referencing an 1858 book by R.M. Ballantyne, a Robinson Crusoe-esque adventure about three boys — whose names, Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin, will strike a bell — on a Pacific island. Golding read The Coral Island as a child — indeed, many Brits did, as it was a juvenile classic and appeared on required reading lists. Whereas Ballantyne’s vision was benign, though, Golding’s turns the other way. Golding is not interested in evil from without; in the wake of World War II (Golding fought in the Royal Navy), he explores the evil within. Two examples will suffice:

  1. When Jack and the boys kill the pig, they don’t simply cut its throat or spear it in the belly. They sodomize it (“Right up her ass!”), a point your English teacher was probably happy not to emphasize in class discussions. The violence on the island is more than just physical; it is sexual, mental, spiritual; it is, in other words, total. We’ll refrain from quoting the specific scene here, but read it again and it’s obvious what Golding is doing: he’s writing a rape scene. The boys aren’t just killing this pig for its meat; they’re killing it because of bloodlust, because they want to assert their power.
  2. The pig was a sow. She was a nursing female. So the boys, orphans on this island, have now orphaned native creatures on the island. Lord of the Flies suggests that it’s not just that evil happens to us (a war is taking place in the world beyond the island, and that’s surely why the boy’s plane crashed); it is also that evil happens because of us.

The other white meat.

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Then there’s Simon, our Christ-like figure. Any time you’ve got a character wandering off into an Edenic jungle spot to be alone, spouting off about the true nature of the beast (“maybe it’s only us”), and then — this is the key part — getting himself killed as a sacrifice, your Christ Parallel Radar should be going nuts. That’s not too hard to figure out. But what’s most intriguing are the ways Simon is not like Christ. His discovery that “the beast” is actually a dead parachutist — a discovery which has the potential to enlighten the boys and dispel their irrational fears — is his alone; he is killed before he can relay this to the others. Furthermore, his death brings about no atonement or sacrifice. Lord of the Flies offers no easy redemption; Simon is not the way, the truth and the life … he is simply a dead boy, washed out to sea.

Why We Think You Should Give Lord of the Flies A Reread: Because it’s better than its dystopian imitators (we’re thinking The Hunger Games, specifically, but that has its own inferior imitators). Because Stephen King called it “the first book with hands – strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat. It said to me, ‘This is not just entertainment; it’s life-or-death.’” Because you miss “Lost” but don’t want to go back and watch all 121 episodes again. Because Lord of the Flies is actually a brisk, straightforward read — written sharply, filled with imagery and symbolism that’s not too complicated nor too simplistic. And so that you can continue making witty references to other parents during playdates, but realize, thankfully, that your basement is actually quite unlike Lord of the Flies.

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