Novel * William Golding * Devolution * 1954
This book, for me at least, is a bit of a nostalgia trip way back into the dim, distant haze of high-school-English-class past. Now that I mention it, I might even be thinking about eighth grade, which is rarely a thing I do on purpose. Regardless, Lord of the Flies is on par with To Kill A Mockingbird insofar as entry-level book analysis within the confines of the American school system is concerned (at least it was xx years ago, who knows what they’re reading now. Kids these days, etc.). I should make it clear that I’m not taking a shot at either of these books just because they’re on the early end of an English curriculum. They’re far better novels than the likes of A Separate Peace (“I loathe John Knowles.” “Me too.”) or Catcher in the Rye. However, upon rereading this novel, which I blew through in a couple of afternoons, I found myself thinking of those early English classes fairly often. Which is to say, despite being a quick but dire little story, Lord of the Flies is just asking for some next-level analysis. The plot and the symbolism present are all fairly on the nose and don’t really push the reader to dig much further to figure things out. Lord of the Flies is an easy lay, is what I’m saying. Perfect for freshman English students.
The story is entirely contained on a tropical island, which is populated with a bunch English children who crash landed for some unknown reason. The children are all boys aged from six to twelve years old, and before too long they are confronted with the prospect of having to survive without aid from grownups. The youngest of them are, of course, quite useless and are hereafter referred to as littleuns. The older boys then attempt to hash out the building of a tiny society, which immediately creates friction between the two individuals best suited for leadership, Ralph and Jack. The largest, most damaging fracture comes when trying to ascertain the priorities of their little society. Ralph, who is initially chosen as the leader because he found a sick conch shell and figured out how to blow in it real loud, contends that the most important thing is to build and maintain a fire so that they might be rescued. Jack, who is an asshole, believes that time and resources should be used to hunt pigs, because it is fun. There are an assortment of other characters who side with one leader or another, but really they’re only present to aid in the conflict between these two. Eventually things go sideways because it turns out that young boys are terrible at government.
It becomes clear early on that the events which unfold on this unnamed island are a microcosm for the entire human race. Even if you managed to get through high school without having read this, Lord of the Flies has plenty of cultural weight behind it. It’s a known quantity. “Oh, it’s that book where all the kids revert into savages and stab each other with spears or whatever.” Pretty much. Now, what makes that idea interesting in the first place is watching the process of social devolution unfold over the course of the novel. Compounding this aspect of the story is the fact that we’re dealing with kids, which I think is something that is often overlooked, which makes sense considering that when I first read it, I was a kid myself. Returning to this story as a grownup (to use the novel’s parlance), the age of the children was probably the most striking aspect. I spent the first half of the book thinking to myself “man, these guys are fucking idiots. Why would you think that would work, you little dummy?” I had to continually remind myself that, oh right, the oldest and most capable character in this book is twelve, and even clever twelve-year-olds can be mighty stupid about things (which is obviously due to lack of life experience as opposed to innate intelligence). Taking their ages into account blunts the edge of the social commentary, though, although I suppose one could easily read the opposite as well. Perspectives and all.
Personally, it seems to me that expecting children, even a “pack of British boys” to “put on a better show than that,” as voiced by the only adult in the novel at the very end, is expecting rather much. Hell, even Ralph, our bastion of civilization, is a bit of a tool in the beginning. Everything seems like a grand adventure, and why wouldn’t it? Who hasn’t sat at their desk in a boring class (perhaps discussing this very novel) and drifted off into some preferable world that was void of responsibility? Further, who didn’t know kids who always took shit too far? Jack is a bully, and he has a single-minded dedication to the game of being a hunter, but he’s still just a kid. There’s no one there to correct his idiocy so he just rampages over all the other concerns of the island, like shelter and fire. The counter-perspective is, I would think, that Lord of the Flies exposes humanity in general to be programmed for savagery. Like, these kids resort to mindless beasts pretty much right away. Between the single-mindedness of Jack’s meat obsession (heh) and the immediate return to superstition, there is evidence to suggest that it’s only a matter of time before the entirely of civilization collapses.
There is some evidence in the novel that the drama that unfolds on the island is parallel to a much larger conflict raging the in adult world. In the beginning there was some speculation as to just what the hell happened to land everyone on the island. Piggy, who is a wiener and a dork but for all that is also the smartest one, claims to have overheard something about an atom bomb. Much later, rescue from the land of grownups appears in the form of a naval officer and a warship. So, the adults are involved in a more complicated version of what just happened on the island. However, this is as peripheral as it gets when it comes the story. Hints and allusions to a greater kind of savagery. After reading this, one starts to wonder when Western Civilization broke their conch (because the conch = civilization; like I said, it’s pretty on the nose). Considering when this book was published, the answer to that was World War II and the advent of nuclear weaponry, or the point where humanity finally reached the point of technological advancement necessary to truly eradicate ourselves as a species. Piggy, despite being a wiener, still represents the better side of human nature, which is to say intelligence and restraint. He is of course murdered by a bunch kids who have decided hunting pigs (Piggies? Oh, come on) is more important than thinking things through. Once the veneer of civilization is swept away, irrational violence is the only outcome left for a society of humans. Of course that bastion of civilization produces greater potential for widespread destruction as seen in the World Wars of the 20th century, so who’s to say Lord of the Flies is wrong in its assumptions?