Sunday, 14 November 2010

On re-reading Lord of the Flies


I, like so many of you reading this, had to read Lord of the Flies at school.  I loved the majority of my English lessons and had a truly superb English teacher, who is largely responsible for the fact that I’m now studying for a doctorate in Eng Lit.  However, I was always a little suspicious of set texts and disliked the way we would waste entire lessons reading out the text with each of us taking a part (unless I had a really big role, in which case I loved it).  Hearing some of the greatest works in English literature read in faltering (sometimes incoherent) tones by bored teenagers who were more concerned with other matters was depressing and uninspiring.  The good students read the book themselves at home so it was an entirely pointless exercise.
            Lord of the Flies was different to many of the other set texts on the English curriculum.  For one thing, it was far more modern – forty years old when I was studying English – and it seemed so much more relevant to us as young people than many other texts.  It contained at least one swear word – ‘bollocks’ – which was a source of amusement and the murders of Simon and Piggy were shocking and violent.  I remember that even the students who didn’t excel at English and barely had any involvement in the class seemed genuinely fascinated by this story of societal breakdown and children’s descent into violence.  This is, of course, the enduring power of this book: its ability to reach out and grab the reader and disrupt our pre-conceived notions of childhood innocence.
             I read and studied Lord of the Flies at the age of fourteen and regularly cited it as one of my favourite books.  Throughout my 20s, I taught the book in various guises – tutor and youth worker – and saw that it still struck resonantly with young people but I didn’t actually re-read it.  I concentrated on particular passages either for answering essay questions or to provide an example of disintegrating behaviour.  So, at the age of thirty, I undertook to read Lord of the Flies again.  I wondered whether studying and teaching the book over the years had diminished its achievement. The main narrative is so familiar to those who haven’t even read the book before; Lord of the Flies has influenced so many aspects of popular culture, for example, the television series Lost and Survivor, episodes of The Simpsons and South Park and the title is now a synonym for survival situations and savage behaviour.  Would a second reading elicit literary surprises? Would I simply read in anticipation of key famous events such as the finding of the conch, the encounter with the beast, the murder of Piggy?
            Having completed my reading, I can answer with a definitive ‘yes’ to my first question.  Lord of the Flies is still an immense literary achievement and the narrative so perfectly paced from start to finish.  Golding creates a number of characters, similar in age and background, but manages to give each boy their own distinct personality (perhaps with the exception of Sam and Eric, but really they are classed as one anyway).  The character that is perhaps most interesting is Roger, who is truly menacing even before the group splits into two. He watches the ‘littluns’ play in the sea and begins throwing stones at one of them, although he aims to miss.  Golding writes, ‘There was a space around Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter in which [Roger] dare not throw.  Here, invisible and strong, was the taboo of the old life.  Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and the policemen and the law.  Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilisation that knew nothing of him and was in ruins’ (67).  Roger shows here that, although he is still constrained by society’s rules, he wishes to cause harm to others, including those he can dominate by size.  Roger eventually pushes the stone that will kill Piggy.  When the boys are rescued, I wondered what sort of person Roger would become, as he is the only boy amongst the survivors to deliberately commit murder.   Although most of the boys are involved in the slaughter of Simon, they mistake him for the ‘beast’ in the dark and excitement of the bonfire.  Would Roger be able to forget his atrocious act?  Had he strayed so far beyond acceptable and lawful behaviour that it would be impossible to exist in ‘decent’ society? Was he inherently evil?  These are questions that the reader cannot answer but show the incredible vividness and believability of Golding’s characters.
            To answer my second question, I suppose I did read the novel in anticipation of the key events.  This is surely inevitable when re-reading any novel, particularly such a well-known one.  However, because I did know what was coming next in the novel, I was able to appreciate the clues placed by Golding to future events and the subtleties of the changing nature of some of the boys.   For instance, the pretend attack on Robert in Chapter seven when he acts like a pig and the other boys circle around him prefigure the attack on Simon.  When Robert, rubbing his sore ‘rump’ reminds the boys they need to find a real pig to kill, Jack jokingly suggests they ‘use a littlun’ (127).  In the same incident, Roger is ‘fighting to get close’ to Robert the ‘pig’ (126).
            The concluding part of the novel – Jack and the savages chasing Ralph after smoking him out of the undergrowth – loses none of its intensity when the outcome is known.  To say I ‘devoured’ this part of the book is horribly clich├ęd and overused but I read these final nine pages at a blistering pace.  And I know the end!  There is something quite extraordinary in the pacing of this last chapter with long descriptive paragraphs detailing Ralph’s predicament, disrupted by short, stand-alone sentences for Ralph’s thoughts: ‘Think’.  ‘Hide then’ (216-7).  The final ‘reveal’ of Jack as ‘a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair, and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist (222)’ jolts the reader back into reality; the horrors on the island have been committed by children.  Only the arrival of an adult can provide this perspective. 
            I’ve read some reviews on the internet – prompted by the poor film adaptation in 1990 – that say Golding’s novel no longer has the power to shock because of various tragedies that have occurred.  Incidents such as school massacres and gang killings have shown that children and young people are capable of murdering each other.  However, regardless of events that occur in our ‘real world’, Golding’s novel has not lost any of its tragic beauty and remains a haunting allegory.