Sunday, December 14, 2008

Book #27 - Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

Dark, darker, darkest. That seems to be my path by reading "Vanity Fair", "Pere Goriot", and "Lord of the Flies" all in a row. Because while Thackeray and Balzac have cynical, bleak views of humanity in their respective novels, Golding tops them all in "Lord of the Flies". The premise of his novel is that beneath a shallow layer of civilization lies a bloody pool of savagery in us all. Or as Margaret Thatcher once said "The veneer of civilization is very thin".

I remember seeing part of the movie version of this novel with my brother when I was very young, and it scared me to death. I had forgotten most of the movie, so it was fun to read the book. And I have to say the book is a real page turner. The story, which has really become a part of our cultural canon, is simple. A planeload of young boys is being evacuated from England because of war. It's not clear if this is World War II or some other fictitious war, although the "Reds" are mentioned at some point. Seems weird that children would be evacuated by plane to somewhere that they'd have to fly over the tropics to get to. Regardless, for some unmentioned reason, the plane crashes onto a deserted tropical island and the pilot(s) are killed. Only the boys are alive. Under the leadership of one of the older boys, Ralph, and advised by a smart but fat and sickly kid, Piggy, the boys form a rudimentary democracy. Ralph tells the boys they must build and maintain a signal fire, and they need to build shelter.

But things soon go awry. Another one of the boys, Jack, wants to be the leader. He takes up hunting, and leads a small group of boys who used to be his choir mates to become hunters of feral pigs found on the island. The kids quickly revert to savagery, in part driven on by their fear of "the beast", a monsterous creature they're convinced is out on the island somewhere. Jack and his hunters rebel and form their own tribe, and things quickly go downhill. Simon, a boy who is a saintly and wise, is killed in a ritualistic frenzy by the boys after they've eaten some freshly killed pig. He had come out of the jungle to tell the boys that what they thought was the beast was actually a dead parachutist. But he surprised the boys and they started to kill him with their spears, and even when they realized who he was they kept on stabbing him, due to their frenzy and blood-lust.

Piggy gets killed as well, buy a huge boulder pushed by Roger, the most sadistic of the kids. Finally all the boys on the island are in Jack's tribe except Ralph, and the kids start hunting for Ralph to finish him off. They set fire to the jungle to smoke him out, and so he runs to the beach, where he finds that British soldiers with machine guns have landed because they saw the huge jungle fire. Ralph tells them what's happened and the head solider says "But you kids are British, we expect better from you". Ralph cries with sadness and relief, and the boys are rescued. The End.

As I said, this was a great read, even with that deus ex machina ending. The language is taught and tense, and as the situation spirals downhill I really wanted to keep turning the page to see what happens. But I have to say, this book is not as complicated as the past few I've read. There is a lot of symbolism, but it's all pretty obvious...the pig's head (The Lord of the Flies) represents the beast within us all, Piggy's glasses represent knowledge and rationality, the conch represents the order, etc. And the main characters...Ralph, Roger, Jack, Simon, Piggy...all stand for specific types. Piggy is the intellectual, Ralph is the good, practical politician, Jack is the power hungry dictator, etc. It's a well written book, and fun to read, but maybe best read in high school, because the symbolism and allegory and characterization are all pretty black and white. But I don't mean for that to come off as an insult.

Still, the overall theme of this book is fascinating to think about. What WOULD happen in this situation? Are we really all just savages underneath? How dark is human nature? I can certainly see how Golding would have a dark view of the human psyche just after World War II when this was written. And in this age of terrorism the darkness continues. But nevertheless, society survives, as does civilization. We have laws, which are usually obeyed. Life on Earth is not the war of all against all of Thomas Hobbes. I can't argue that there isn't darkness in the human soul, but there's light in there as well, which has, over the centuries, triumphed over the darkness more often than the reverse. At least in the long run. So maybe Golding is a bit bleaker than is warranted. But ask me whether I still feel that way after the nuclear holocaust.

1 comment:

J.D. said...

When I reference LOTF, which all of my kids read last year, I say that it reminds me of a quote I read somewhere by, of all people, one of the creators of South Park.

Like Hobbes, the shows creators believe that people have to be made or taught to be good--the reason their eight-year-old characters are selfish and thoughtless is, according to the quote, that that's how they'd be without adult impositions.