Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Rose-coloured Reviews *Lord of the Flies* by William Golding

In 1954, when Lord of the Flies was published, the wrenching adventure story did not immediately grab readers, but 10 years on it was getting onto many school syllabi, and there it remains. The initial premise--a plane crash on a deserted island that leaves alive only boys aged twelve and younger--is certainly fascinating for kids around that age, and the protagonists' attempt to fashion their own society, and that society's disastrous disintegration, invites good solid lessons on allegory, dystopia, the failure of socialism, and a host of other good discussion topics.

But outside of LotF's appeal to teachers and the taught, it cannot be denied that with his first novel, William Golding wrought something stunning. This is *not* primarily a piece of social comment or pedagogy, or at least not as I read it; it is a brilliant novel. The island that the boys inhabit is so deeply imagined that topography works seamlessly into the narration. The boys' examination of their surround gives us an action-oriented way to examine it ourselves, smell the damp and taste the fruit and see the trees again and again from eye level, ground level, and on top of "Castle Rock" looking down. And as we examine the island through their eyes, we get to know the boys who inhabit it. Not everyone is described, not everyone is named, and the number of boys is ominously unknown (and, they claim to each other, unknowable) but the characters that are described become indeliably individual. This is done very simply, and largely through dialogue--we see the characters in what they say and do, though their physical presences are certainly felt.

Into this fully realized world, with these relatable characters, Golding gradually introduces terror. The circumstances on the island--isolated, alone without shelter or food other than tree-fruit, with the rest of the world possibly involved in nuclear war--are not ideal to start with. However, the kids are kids and they embrace the freedom and the adventure of it for a while. However, things start to go awry--"break down" in the words of their elected leader, Ralph. There are divisions and power struggles in the group, boredom and frustration sets in, and many boys seem to lose a bit of sanity after so much privation in such a strange place.

The best thing about this book is that, though it is commonly referred to as an "allegorical novel," it's not an allegory first. It's a story first, and a riveting one. How the boys come apart and torment each other has a little to do with the fate of nations, but a lot to do with schoolyard cruelty, and thus I think any reader can get sucked right into the position of cocky Ralph, or cowardly Sam and Eric, or chubby wise Piggy (is there *any* book about kids that does not have the outcast-intellectual figure who would become Author?) And for a while, their bullying mainly takes a form we recognize...name calling, chants and shoves, storming off, threats.

But the stakes are much higher here, where schoolyard hierarchy is all there is. The slide beyond "you can't play on our team" is incremental and it is Golding's genius to build up all that empathy for these ill-behaved kids and then show them sliding into behaviour the reader (this reader) could likely never fathom.

By the time the book ends, lines have been crossed and violence done that cannot be forgotten or undone...by characters or by readers. And unnervingly, we feel as if both are about the same.

*

I loathed this book. I found it painful reading from start to finish--Ralph taunts Piggy on the second page ("Sucks to your ash-mar!") and it devolves from there. Since I'm more than twice as old as one is supposed to be when first reading this book, I couldn't even enjoy the initial wonder of the adventure of the island. Though I appreciated the world-building, the array of characters, the magnificient emotional and sensory creation of this book, I knew bad things were afoot (*Lord of the Flies* has a bit of a reputation, natch) and I read the whole thing with my shoulders up around my ears.

What's more is that I am not the ideal reader for the dystopian allegory; this is the Rose-coloured blog after all. As I was saying above, I related primarily to the characters as themselves, and not as heavy-shouldered metaphors for the whole of the human race. I think at this point in history most have had to accept that the "beast is in us," but I'm sure there's a few schools of philosphy lurking around that don't think it's preordained that the beast will eventually dominate, all our (inter)actions. Which maybe isn't even a correct reading of Golding's intention, but it sure is the predominant one.

Even though I somehow escaped seeing the movie, reading a summary, or anyone telling me the ending lo these 30 years, I felt pretty confident I could guess how *Lord of the Flies* would end. I was wrong, and was genuinely shocked by the final pages, in a miserable sort of way. I still haven't fully worked out the ramifcations and will be spending some sleepless nights trying to work it out. Which is the mark of a good book, but hardly good news for me.

I'm always saying I can tell the difference between a bad book and a book that I don't personally like, so I wanted to write this review to see if I could prove it. Not sure if I did, but an interesting exercise.

There's a floating town of eiderdown / in a mist of mystery
RR

3 comments:

Fred said...

I read this book in English calss wheni was twelve and I hated it. HATED IT! But your (first) review made me want to go back and give it another chance. See all the things I had missed on my first go-round. But I am happy to find out you don't like it either.

Kerry said...

I read this in grade eleven, and I remember it so vividly even never having read it again. Sucks to your ass-mar, and how they played with tidal pools, and Piggy's glasses, and how they were returned to little boys at the end. It may have been the first book I ever read where it clicked how literature was working. (Though some, particularly profs we both know, might doubt this "click" ever actually happened).

Ransermo said...

I read it in grade eleven as well, but my english teacher was quite cruel to us; forcing us to rip the book apart one word at a time. I don't think any book would hold up to such punishment. Still, it spoke to the emotional power keg of being a young boy and I think of it everytime I watch Lost :)