Monday, March 1, 2010

Great Book #45: Lord of the Flies

I somehow got out of reading this one in middle school Language Arts class, but I was always curious about it; Lord of the Flies is one of those novels nobody seems to like (or if they do they don't own up to it). It’s a shocking book, but what shocked me most was how much I enjoyed it. I listened to the audiobook narrated by the author, which is always a particular treat since you hear the story exactly as it was intended to be read.

Even if you haven't read this book you've probably heard how ugly it gets: English schoolboys plane-wrecked on a deserted island during World War II attempt to form a civilization, which quickly disintegrates. Ralph is focused on maintaining a signal-fire so they can be rescued, while Jack is only interested in hunting pigs and unseating Ralph as 'chief'. Jack succeeds in turning the rest of the 'tribe' against Ralph, and they literally begin to hunt him down like a wild animal.

It doesn't matter that how they came to be there—why all boys and no girls? evacuated from where, to where? None of the boys mention having been anywhere outside of England—is implausible, and the ending even more so. The boys' descent into savagery is horrifying because it is, for the most part, believable. On any school playground anywhere in the world you can witness myriad minor cruelties that, in the absence of adult supervision, could snowball all too easily; the innocence of childhood is just a veneer over our cruel primal instincts. Jack—what is he, twelve, thirteen?—uses the prospect of a phantom in the forest to rally the boys behind him, paints his face with pig's blood, and does not care that his obsessive ambition to lead the group results in at least two violent deaths. The fearmongering and the struggle for power, the mad despot, the merciless scapegoating and the torturing of anyone who dares to disagree...it all sounds awfully familiar.

Golding's prose can be, erm, too evocative (particularly when the boys go after a wild pig with bloodthirsty glee), but some of the descriptive bits are really splendid: "the lagoon attacked them with a blinding effulgence"; "a sudden communion of shining eyes in the gloom"; "the tree trunks and the creepers that festooned them lost themselves in a green dusk thirty feet above him". And it's not just the jungle atmosphere he nails: "Piggy sat expressionless behind the luminous wall of his myopia." I wonder if somebody with perfect eyesight could understand how apt that sentence is, because I sure do. (Poor Piggy! We never find out what his real name is.)

Golding begins and ends his recording with a conversational bit about how he came to write the book. He said he had to make the group boys only, because if it had been mixed the book would have had to be primarily about sex, and if it had been only girls they would have behaved a whole lot better and there wouldn't have been a story. I don't know about that—at times in my adolescence it certainly seemed like the cattiness of girls was a far more insidious thing than the boys' tendency towards violence and domination—but I did appreciate this: 'I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men. They are far superior, and always have been.' As my grandmother says: 'Amen, brother. Amen.'

2 comments:

Pare said...

Hang on. People don't admit to liking this book? I loved it when I read it in high school and I think I said so...a lot. All these years that love has been making a statement abt me I wasn't even aware of, huh.

Kate said...

This book has been on my to-read list since high school. Maybe it's time to move it to the top of the list and read it this summer (after yours of course ;)

P.S. I like the Grandma Kass quote.