This past week, I read through William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for the first time. It’s been a few years since a book held my interest so firmly, and I made it through the novel quickly. It’s the sort of book that reminds me of why I love literature so much, being symbolic but not presumptuous, intense, and realistic. It does have a few problems, but overall I loved this novel.
The premise is well-known. During a wartime evacuation, a plane carrying a group of British boys crashes onto a deserted island, and no adults survive, leaving the boys, aged from six to about twelve, to make it on their own. Gradually, however, order and the remnants of civilised behaviour begin to break down under the weight of fear and jealousy. Golding constructed the plot excellently; the boys behave realistically while still carrying a definite symbolic dimension, and the book is about a perfect length, with very little that could be meaningfully added or taken away. He also made a good decision in setting the story on an island with plentiful food, so as opposed to, say, Robinson Crusoe, the conflict comes not from the need for basic survival, but from the characters themselves.
The novel is short but intense. Each chapter amplifies the primary conflict between Jack, bloodthirsty and jealous of the elected chief, Ralph, who is far more pragmatic. Though most of the conflict comes between Jack’s obsession with hunting and desire to be chief, and Ralph’s determination to build shelters and maintain a fire to signal any passing ships and be rescued, Golding also introduces what the boys call “the Beast.” The younger boys are convinced that some possibly supernatural predator is roaming the island, and while the older boys ridicule the belief, they aren’t entirely sure themselves that it doesn’t exist, and neither is the reader. The added stress intensifies the novel and helps push along the main conflict.
Lord’s one nuisance comes from unintentional ambiguity. In dialogue, for example, Golding often doesn’t identify clearly who’s speaking. Other times, I found myself re-reading paragraphs to decipher what action is supposed to be taking place. This isn’t a major problem, but a small amount of editing would have made the novel easier to follow, and these issues distract from an otherwise absorbing read.
For those who care about such things, note that the rest of this post has MAJOR SPOILERS, as I’ll be discussing the ending and major themes.
Another problem, small in my opinion but still worth pointing out, is that the ending hinges on a deus ex machina. Jack, having won over all of the boys to his “tribe,” leads them on a hunt to kill Ralph, and in the process set the island on fire. A ship in the Royal Navy sees the smoke and lands, and Ralph runs into a naval officer on the beach just ahead of the hunters. A huge coincidence, no doubt, but the only other way I could see ending the novel would be to have Ralph killed. I suppose that would’ve been too bleak, even for Golding, but it seems significant that the boys cease their hunt once they see this representative of civilisation.
As a side note, when the officer sees the boys’ sorry state, he comments, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys - you’re all British, aren’t you? - would have been able to put up a better show than that.” Golding’s generation, I suspect, would’ve been the last to produce an officer who would say that; it seems politically incorrect to specify “British” like that now.
One thing I liked about I Lord of the Flies is that, while largely realistic, it’s very much a symbolic work. Ralph represents rightful authority, and the desire for order in human affairs. Piggy is the intellectual, who has the best ideas on how to run the island but no authority to carry it out. Jack is man’s bestial side, bloodthirsty, recognising no authority but strength. The major theme of the novel is how difficult it is to maintain civilisation. Ralph and Piggy try, with some help from a couple others, but are ultimately thwarted by a combination of factors - the immaturity of the “littluns,” Jack’s interference, and the lure of adventure and fun versus the need for building shelters and maintaining order, all compounded by fear and conflicting personalities.
The whole novel rejects outright the Classical Liberal notion of man as a rational actor; John Locke wrote that men tend to act in their own interest, and establish a state for the common good. In Lord of the Flies, even the boys, apart from Jack, seem to know that Ralph’s desire to build shelters and maintain a fire is rational and in their best interest. However, they find themselves drawn away by the immediate gratification offered by Jack. Civilisation, then, cannot be maintained isolated from institutions, and can scarcely even begin without those institutions already in place, even among a group of people aware of such things. They do, for instance, set up a rudimentary parliament, but ultimately they do not, perhaps cannot, build up to a state, but rather descend into savagery.
Now, Golding does load the dice somewhat by making the characters boys instead of adults, but the central point remains, and that recognition is, I believe, the greatest strength of Lord of the Flies.