The Re-Reading Project: Lord of the Flies

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another.

“Hi!” it said. “Wait a minute!”

The undergrowth at the side of the scar was shaken and a multitude of raindrops fell pattering.

“Wait a minute,” the voice said. “I got caught up.”

The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.

The voice spoke again.

“I can’t hardly move with all these creeper things.”

The owner of the voice came backing out of the undergrowth so that twigs scratched on a greasy wind-breaker. The naked crooks of his knees were plump, caught and scratched by thorns. He bent down, removed the thorns carefully, and turned around. He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgments for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles.

“Where’s the man with the megaphone?”

I’ve reproduced so much of the opening here, because it only felt right to get to the moment where Piggy is fully introduced, in addition to Ralph, as they are the two primary characters of the book. In a way, the whole Re-Reading Project has been leading here, to Lord of the Flies by William Golding. When I first decided to do the project, this was the first book I knew I had to re-read, because it is the one book that I can remember actively hating. I read it once, freshmen year of high school. I liked other required reading: Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451, CandideNative Son and even The Scarlet Letter and Grapes of Wrath. I geeked out over The Swiss Family Robinson. But I hated Lord of the Flies. When quizzed about why, I would cite an enormous plot hole that I felt the book contained. As the years passed, I couldn’t remember the specifics of this plot hole or why I hated the book. I wondered what I would think of it now, as an adult. Which led me to wonder the same about other books and thus, the Re-Reading Project was born.

For all of that, I was dreading this re-read as much as I was anticipating it. I’d hated this book for so long and I expected to be bored. I’ve never owned a copy of the book (I read a library copy, I believe, in high school), so last month I started keeping an eye out for a copy at the used book sale and bookshops. Then, right on time, I found a copy on the take-a-book-leave-a-book bookshelves at a coffeeshop I frequent (with a bonus cover from Marathon Man by William Goldman tucked into the back). It was the same version I remembered from school, the iconic one with the boy’s savage face peering out from the leaves.

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As I re-read, I very quickly found the source of at least 60% of my teen self’s dislike for the book. It is very British and I don’t remember learning anything about British culture while reading the book in school. Now that I’m a lot more fluent with British history, speech patterns and school structure (thanks mostly to yes, the Harry Potter series, as well as British writers like Lisa Jewell and Marian Keyes) I have a more solid understanding of what the heck the characters are talking about and the social structure the boys imitate unconsciously (and abandon) throughout the book. It’s a book about a bunch of boys who talk and behave like aliens, at least if you’re a teen girl in the 90s.

Also, it’s a little boring (more so if you’re a teen girl in the 90s with no context). Though I’m a woman in my 30s now and I understood a lot more of what was going on, I was still often bored. A good indication of boredom: it took me a week to read a book that’s less than 200 pages (I recently read a 400+ pg book in 24 hours). That’s a pitfall that parables are prone to, as the characters are relatively flat and are meant to represent personality types or ideologies. I didn’t really invest in any of the characters, either as a teen or as an adult. They’re not real people and are not meant to be, but represent aspects inherent in all people and cultures. But, after years of watching Survivor, I was fascinated by the conflicts that developed between the characters and later became insurmountable. As the story progresses and the stakes are raised, the story becomes more gripping.

At times, the descriptions are absolutely breathtaking. Golding could certainly write. But even when the action picks up and the boys are terrorizing each other, details are omitted or it’s hard to follow what is being done, to whom and by whom.

I had remembered (spoiler?) that Piggy died, but I had conflated the way in which he died with Simon’s horrific murder. I’d forgotten entirely that one of the littluns (with a purple birthmark on in his face) disappears, with barely any mention. Here’s another issue I had (have?) with the book: too many characters who are essentially background sketches. Because the book is a parable, the characters are only brought into focus when/if they’re needed and it’s unclear exactly how many boys are marooned on the island and how long they are there. It could be a week or six months. The only reference to time is the growth of the boys’ hair, but this is mentioned fairly early in the book, in Chapter 4. So, Chapters 1-3 are the first few days or week after they’re marooned and then we fast-forward a few weeks/months and the rest of the action takes place thereafter.

The lack of specifics was very frustrating to me as a teen and fairly frustrating to me on the re-read. I’ve grown to believe that the more specific the story, the more universal it becomes and I kept reaching for something to ground me in the story. But, as a parable, it consistently refuses to provide specific markers for its readers. In a way, this has worked well for Lord of the Flies, as it has remained a timely commentary about the darkness in the human heart for 60 years and has been listed on numerous Top 50 and Top 100 reading lists. But it won’t ever be a book I’ll turn to for entertainment or enjoyment.

One last thing that I find interesting about Lord of Flies now, almost twenty years after I first read it, is that it’s considered dystopian fiction, a genre that’s having a bit of a heyday now (as with the vampire resurgence brought about by Twilight, a lot of people like to pretend that the dystopian trend is brand spanking new, but it’s really not). A lot of new dystopian fiction is being published for young adults (though adults like me read it also), and Lord of the Flies is still taught to young people, and has influenced writers for decades.

What makes Lord of the Flies dystopian, I wonder? The barely referenced nuclear war that happens on the margins of the main story? The attempt by the boys to build a society for themselves on the island? The failure of this society, which is based on the society they have left behind? The main argument of the book seems to be how quickly humans can devolve from civilized beings into ungoverned creatures. There doesn’t seem to be a cure for our base nature, except for civilization, yet the book seems to be saying that society and civilization are doomed to fail (the boys are rescued by Naval officers who find them by chance while fighting their own adult war).

Dystopian fiction appeals to young readers, and is important for them to encounter, because it allows them to question their society and government by depicting an extreme example that is often not too far removed from their own reality, a world that they did not set into motion but must be governed by regardless. Dystopian fiction, especially what is published now, often depicts young people at the mercy of society and then fighting back, taking charge. This fiction allows young readers to realize that society is constructed and mutable, and hopefully wakes them up to their own responsibility in designing better social structures.

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Filed under books, literature, musing, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

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