We finished reading Lord of the Flies (1954), number 49 on the BBC book list, by William Golding. I read it to my 11-year-old daughter, who has been recovering from a tonsillectomy and an adenoidectomy this week. I’ve read it before, but I had forgotten most of it.
I feel a loss of words when it comes to describing this novel, although I can think of parallel situations or emotions to what this book portrays. (Think the current state of U.S. politics.)
On the surface, Lord of the Flies is about a group of British boys who crash-land on an island from an airplane and they must figure out how to survive until help arrives. The first two boys we meet are Piggy (his unflattering and unwanted nickname) and Ralph, two twelve-year-olds. The two find a beautiful white conch and blow it to call the others to a central location. Once gathered, Ralph is named chief, and he makes plans to keep a fire as a signal going on the island’s uppermost point so that they can be rescued.
These plans work well for a while. The boys eat fruit, swim in a lagoon, and gather under palm trees on the beach a few times a day to discuss duties and what can be done, especially for the “littluns” or the littlest boys that are with them.
However, as Golding intended, this book is not about well-behaved English boys with manners and obedience to societal conventions. It is about human nature and what can and will happen when such nature takes over. I also saw fear as a motivating force for this novel’s trajectory. It seemed as if most of the trouble they faced was due to fear, not facts, and that fear led to some disastrous results.
The fear begins with the littluns who have nightmares. Those nightmares become stories of a monster on the island, and the older boys disbelieve the accounts. However, one littlun has disappeared, and when Ralph and some others climb to the top of the island to investigate the fire going out and a possible monster sighting, they see something frightening. It turns out to have been a rotting corpse attached to a parachute, which moved the body with the rise and fall of the wind, but the boys did not see that.
Fear descends on all of the boys, and they begin to fracture. A boy that had been jealous of Ralph’s position as chief asserts some authority. He is Jack, who has found a way to hunt the pigs on the island for meat. Jack and his group make hunting a priority over keeping the fire going. Consequently, when a ship is spotted in the distance, it is Jack’s fault that the fire is not signaling for help. Tensions build between Ralph and Jack, and eventually most of the older boys follow Jack to another part of the island to start their own tribe, complete with war paint and spears.
The tribal behavior results in the murder of another boy named Simon, who enters the tribal dance after a pig feast at the wrong time. Simon has come to explain that the monster is just a parachute with a dead man attached, but nobody listens and they instead kill him, as the proxy monster. This is just the beginning of terror on the island.
Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric are left out of the tribe. They decide to approach them, in order to get back Piggy’s glasses, which were stolen. In that attempt, Piggy is killed in a fall and washed out to sea, Sam and Eric are taken prisoners, and Ralph runs away with some spear wounds.
The denouement of the book occurs when the tribe decides to hunt Ralph. He hides, he runs, and he panics. The tribe sets the island on fire to smoke him out of his hiding places in the jungle and the brush. He runs for his life to the beach in a gripping final chapter.
On the beach, he runs straight into a naval officer, who has landed because he has seen the smoke. Oh, the irony! The boys admit to “war games,” and even mention the deaths. However, they are sobered by the arrival of a person of authority. Jack is no longer trying to kill Ralph. The tribe is no longer a group of “savages,” but instead, a group of boys playing in the mud with sticks.
I am pleased to have reread this book. I know it is a gruesome one, and an infamous one for many of us from our school years. However, I see why it is required reading. I understand why it is a classic. My daughter “loved” it, in the sense that she was gripped by the book’s deep meaning even while cringing at the horrible actions of its characters.
I think she’s ready for the Exploration in Literature class I insisted she sign up for next year in seventh grade. It’s a elective, and she didn’t really want to take it, but I suspect she’ll enjoy it and we will have many wonderful evenings of reading great literature together and discussing its significance and applications.