Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Lord of the Flies

Somehow, I have managed to go this far in my life without ever reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I never had it as part of high school or college curriculum, nor did anyone specifically suggest I read it.  In fact, as I was reading it in a cafe the other day, a man near me saw me reacting to a dramatic moment in the story and asked, "Is it just as good the thirteenth time you read it?"  I had to confess it was my FIRST reading and we chatted a bit about the book.  But now I have finished it and can slap it on to my list of Classic Literature because I feel it has earned its right to be there.

Lord of the Flies is a book about children that is in no way a "children's book."  In fact, I'm glad I didn't read it in high school or sooner because it's quite brutal.  If there is anyone out there besides me who hasn't read it yet, it's about a group of children who are stranded on an island by a plane crash and transition from order to chaos, peace to war.  Before writing this post, I browsed some of my favorite book blogs for their comments on this classic and was surprised to discover a great deal of negativity surrounding this novel.  In fact, I couldn't find a single positive review of it that said more than "so awesome."  So it turns out that my discussion of this book is going to be a bit of a defense of it as well.  I believe that the Nobel Prize board knew what they were doing when they gave out this award.

This is a great piece of literature for a number of reasons, but I will highlight just two - its use of symbols and its analysis of human nature.  Lord of the Flies is written as an allegory - please keep that in mind.  I do not think that you are supposed to see any of the characters as multi-dimensional, nor do I think you are to become extremely attached to them.  It's a very short book, so Golding doesn't take the time to build the novel in order to produce this kind of result.  Instead, they each represent something important in the story.  In addition to the children, there are a number of objects that have power in the story as symbols.  For example, the conch shell and Piggy's glasses represent order that are slowly disrespected until they are destroyed.  The Lord of the Flies itself (the hog's head) haunts the characters in its first appearance in the story, foreshadowing doom and a change in the atmosphere. The invisible beast looms over the island, masterfully illustrating the power of fear.  Indeed, fear becomes a tool for gaining power and unleashing destruction, ultimately making those who are afraid become that which ought to be feared.  And the corpse trapped in the parachute marks the beginning of death as it majestically reigns over the island without anyone's knowledge of its rule.  I'm sure with some more thought and time, I could dig up several more symbols because they are the heart of the text.

Golding's analysis of human nature in this novel is bleak and tragic.  Personally, I like to think that there is a larger measure of good embedded in humanity, but Golding's portrait is nevertheless intriguing.  Using children to demonstrate this is a fascinating approach.  He's trying to break down humanity to its elementary form and show how the lust for power can overtake even those which we might be inclined to label "innocent."  SPOILER ALERT*  I kept waiting and waiting for Ralph to be able to conquer Jack and restore peace on the island, but Golding doesn't let that happen.  He proposes that violence is more powerful than reason.  The only relief is the arrival of an adult, who instantly reduces the powerful, savage creature back to nameless children.  I love the abrupt change in both description and narration at the end.  Yet it's still not quite so simple as a restoration to order, for the source of their rescue is a naval officer.  The naval officer represents the adults' kind of war and implicitly indites that as part of the evil and savage nature that escaped among the children. 

I've read that the writing is unimpressive, but I disagree.  I think it is "simple" because the point of the whole novel is to strip to the basics.  And he demonstrates his writing skills at the end when he subtly switches styles at the entrance of the adult.  I'll stop here for now; I do understand and believe that people can have different experiences with books and that's all there is to it.  So if you didn't like it, I certainly don't look down on you for that. But I hope you can see some redeeming qualities in it, and I believe it's worth a try.


Ben said...

"Lord of the Flies is a book about children that is in no way a "children's book" ".

You know, I'm pretty sure Golding was worried about that too. Thankfully, like you said, he kept it metaphorical (and pretty horrendous too). Transcending genre is about going far enough. Great review.

Amy said...

It's so refreshing to hear that someone else likes this book. Thanks for your feedback!

christina said...

I read this my freshman year in high school. It was the first official "classic" book I read in the school system. I still remember how disturbing it was. And I cannot ever look at a conch shell without thinking of the book.

Anonymous said...

A good analysis, but I feel we have only skimmed the surface of the emotion and wisdom that brews inside Amy Bither from a great book. Where's the passion? Where are the thoughts that arose that make one question the very core of existence and society? Do we need the superior authority figure? Is there truly not enough virtuosity in the world to stand with Ralph and triumph? Where did we lose Jack or was he a goner from the beginning? Why is it so easy to follow evil but not lead? Are the evil simply fearful and the virtuous brave? Fear of what? humiliation, pain, death, the unknown... Are the brave exempt or do they simply fear something else? Most importantly, of what are you truly afraid?

Amy said...

I'm a little amused by this recent comment, for it is clearly someone who knows me personally and wants to challenge me. In my defense, I did note that I would just discuss a few of the many thoughts I have about it, which is what I do in all my blog posts. I have a feeling that I would not get many readers if I thoroughly exhausted all my thoughts on all the texts.

It seems that you find many deeper messages in the text, and I am glad to see that because it seems that there are not a lot of fans out there. But I have to admit that I did not experience an abundance of existential and societal messages because the novella is short and intentionally allegorical. I think it takes more time and focused character development to break down the question of existential identity and a person's interaction with society. Good and evil are big questions in the book that are raised and not fully answered. I think Golding presents evil as our instinctual nature, one to which we will succumb if removed from structural society. Personally, I would like to think that there is a powerful good nature as well, and I might perhaps even suggest that goodness is more of our default than evil.

I would challenge you to say that Golding indicates that one can be "evil" and a strong natural leader, not just a follower. Jack is a gifted kid from the beginning, and it doesn't take much work to gain followers, even when it was as "innocent" as a hunt. Likewise, I think he was brave in his own way, but fear was his tool for control.

And of what am I truly afraid? Now if you really know me, you can ask me that in person and not in a broadcast to the world-wide web. But in a general way, I think I have some fears of existential angst, which may be why I am so attracted to that exploration in literature. Speaking of which, if you truly want to see "the emotion and wisdom that brews inside me from a great book," you should check out my thoughts on my favorite books, which are listed in the left tab.