Lord of the Flies by William Golding, first published in 1954, read in a Faber edition.
Unless you have not been paying attention for the last 60 years, the plot of Lord of the Flies will be familiar – a group of schoolboys crash land on a tropical island during an unsuccessful evacuation from a nuclear conflict. Without adults or the trappings of civilisation, order quickly breaks down, the little savages emerge, and things go badly for the vulnerable characters, until at the last minute order is restored by the arrival of the British navy.
Golding was a schoolmaster in Salisbury, and a veteran of the Second World War. Lord of the Flies was written at a time when war threatened as the USSR acquired a nuclear capability, and only a short time after the devastation of the Second World War. These experiences and context clearly inform much of the structure and themes of the novel. It can be read as a fairly simple parable – the savage within is only a little beneath the surface of man, and it takes only a slight change in circumstances for him to appear. We are all – those of us with Y chromosomes anyway – one missed meal away from murder. This simple interpretation is usually resisted – it is the fact they are boys alone on the island that leads to anarchy, and the presence of an adult immediately restores order. The contrast with Ballantyne’s Coral island, referenced several times both explicitly and implicitly in the novel, suggests that this is a corrective account of how boys would cope if stranded. But that I think misses the point. The adult world beyond the confines of the island is not a mature civilisation but an equally barbaric place where people are killed on an industrial scale. Instead of war-paint the adults wear uniforms, instead of sharpened sticks carry machine guns. The island is a microcosm of the wider world, not some sort of bizarre social experiment where, stripped of constraint, boys run wild. The Heart of Darkness, explicitly referenced in the novel’s closing lines (“Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart”) is within man, not just boys.
But is “underneath it all we are just savages” a strong enough message to sustain interest and, indeed, justify the book’s persistence on GCSE reading lists, and ultimately Golding’s Nobel prize? the book has its weaknesses. The symbolism is heavy handed – the conch, the pig’s head, etc – and the outcome of the narrative is flagged very early on. Jack is described as being almost mad as early as chapter 3, and as for Piggy’s destination – well probably even the most passive of readers will work out quite early on that things are not going to end well for Piggy. He is portrayed as one of nature’s victims, almost inviting his mistreatment/bullying. When the choir reform as a hunting group, focussed obsessively on killing pigs, the writing is on the wall for our anonymous, if endearing and ultimately quite brave friend.  
So we need to look elsewhere for material to sustain interest in the novel. You don’t get the Nobel prize for literature by writing adventure stories for children. Golding is a mature writer, even in this, his first novel, and his technique is complex. For example, he does something very sophisticated with his narrational point of view. He uses a third person narrator but gives them a limited perspective. It is not quite as simple as this being the viewpoint of the boys, although little is explained other than what is immediately obvious to the protagonists. So we are not told directly how they came to be on the island, why there are no adults (or girls!), and are left to deduce a lot of the backstory – the conflict, the evacuation, etc – from snippets of dialogue. The reader is given just enough information to understand that many of the boy’s observations about their circumstances are wrong – for example that the beast is not an actual creature. (And by the way, another obvious source for Lost here – or are there simply no tropical islands on which people are stranded by way of an air crash that are not haunted by strange creatures?). The narrator only occasionally tells us more about the island than the boys would know – one example is the scene where the plane fight in the night sky is described, and the dead parachutist lands on the island. At other times the scene comes closer to the boy’s perspective, such as the chilling scene where the Lord of the Flies speaks to Simon through the decapitated pig’s head.
This point of view allows us to understand the boys’ feelings as they get used to not having adults around, and as their sense of liberation ebbs away to be replaced by concern, then fear. We understand the lure of the hunters, and why savagery gets the upper hand. It also avoids the necessity of filling in much of the backstory – the reader is left to do the work.
Golding also uses a very rich range of imagery to evoke the island and the events of the story. The narrative uses simile, metaphor, personification, synecdoche and metonymy, as well as when appropriate figures of speech, which robbed from their traditional context are given new life on the island. This imagery flowers when the narrative reaches key points. Thunder is like the “blow of a whip”; pig guts look like a “heap of glistening coal” (160); the night has a “dentist’s chair unreality” (134) flies buzz “like a saw (152); Ralph kneels “like a sprinter at his mark” (155).
The island and elements are personified as a living creature or person – seaweed is like “shining hair” (121) the sea has “fingers of spray” (121) and its swell is “like the breathing of some stupendous creature” (115) and again is described as a “sleeping leviathan” (115); even the air acts as if it is sentient, “pushing2 in from the sea, (160) and “cuffing” the trees (161). The sun doesn’t just beat down, it does so with “enmity” (9). When Simon’s body is carried gently out to sea  it is treated reverently by the tide and the micro-organisms in the sea, as if they are showing him the kindness and respect he did not receive from his peers.
There is one final, telling use of imagery that I wanted to underline. When the children first see the “beast”, in the form of the body of the airman, it is described a sitting asleep “like a great ape”. (135). Jack has already been described (49) as ape-like, and later, when he is in full Mr Kurtz mode, the connection is reinforced: he is described thus: “power lay in the brown swell of his forearms; authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape” (165). We are left in little doubt as to who the beast really is.

 

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