Friday, February 3, 2017

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Lord of the Flies by William Golding begins in media res with an unnamed, insecure, overweight and bespectacled boy finding another, older, confident peer, Ralph, as they stumble on the shore of the deserted island upon which they find themselves. Eventually our anonymous child lets slip that others have mocked him with the name of “Piggy.” Of course, in the manner of cruel boys, Ralph proceeds to call him the hated nickname. Eventually they find other boys, similarly abandoned to their fate. It is not made explicitly clear, but they seem to be the survivors of a plane crash. Jack arrives on the scene leading a band of choir boys who sing angelically as they approach the group. A small pissing contest ensues as Ralph and Jack determine the pecking order. Eventually an exploration of the island commences, and the boys discover they are truly alone.

With Ralph the recognized leader, he begins to organize the fledgling society. They find a large conch shell. Piggy suggest that possession of the conch will confer the power to speak at the rowdy meetings. It is determined that a large fire will be needed to send up constant smoke signals to lead rescuers to their location. Piggy’s glasses are used to start the fire. But the budding civilization is marred by rumors of a snake in the camp and potentially missing young boys. 

As can be predicted, progress on creating a civilized society proceeds in starts and stops. Ralph and Piggy work to get the structures built. Jack takes some of his boys off to hunt the feral pigs roaming the island. He becomes increasingly frustrated at his lack of success. The fire is neglected, and in the chaos, a young boy named Simon wanders off on his own.

Eventually a ship is spotted off the horizon. Yet in his lust for the kill, Jack has let the fire go out. In order to start another one, he viciously attacks Piggy, breaking one lens of the treasured glasses in the process. For complaining about his treatment, Piggy is denied the meat that Jack has finally procured and is sharing with the group. Ralph’s attempts to reinstate order and restart the fire-tending duties falter as the group becomes obsessed with rumors of a beast roaming the island.

Ralph and Jack try to determine once and for all if a beast is actually stalking them and turn up nothing. Meanwhile, Simon, in his wanderings has started to slowly lose touch with reality. This is becoming a common malady. Jack, with his obsession for killing pigs, has implemented a tribal mentality within his followers, complete with war paint and nakedness. In a bloody ceremony, they take a newly slaughtered pig’s head and post it on a stick, all paying homage to the “Lord of the Flies.”

Simon discovers the “beast” is actually a long-dead parachuter. Half-mad from his time spent alone in the jungle with the Lord of the Flies, he rushes to tell the others of his discovery. In the middle of their own power play, Jack has his tribe violently dancing, chanting, “Kill the beast.” While Ralph and Piggy helplessly look on, the group pounces on the unrecognizable, advancing Simon, slaughtering him like a pig.

The power quickly shifts to Jack as his groups seeks to rout out any others they feel are insufficiently devoted to their cause. Ralph and Piggy make up an increasingly small group as Jack’s triumphant boasts about his ability to feed them siphons even the most loyal away. Needing Piggy’s glasses to start a fire to cook their meat, they beat him up and go after Ralph as well. Eventually the barbarian tribe throws Piggy from a cliff and hunts down Ralph, wounding him. They take the twins, Samaneric, hostage, and lose all resemblance to a civilized group. 

In their zeal, they set the island on fire, trying to smoke out Ralph. The large conflagration attracts the attention of a nearby British cruiser. As the captain alights upon the shore he sees Ralph running towards him, being chased by Jack and his tribe. After remarking that the boys seem to be having a bit of fun, Ralph collapses before him into a sobbing mess. 

Golding, in a later interview, states that the purpose of the novel “is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.” (p. 204) As such, he tries to present a realistic scenario of human nature left alone to its own devices. He uses children and boys to negate the effects of a lifetime of civilizing and the tension that would exist between the sexes. He is trying to show civilization stripped of all of its supporting structures. 

He contrasts Ralph and Jack to show us two competing visions of society. On the one hand is Ralph, trying valiantly to preserve the vestiges of civilization. Opposing him is Jack. Jack is introduced to us a literal choir boy. But in his quest for power, he quickly devolves into a barbarian. 

We see the struggle in an exchange the boys engage in over whose turn it is to speak, since Piggy has the conch and Jack is interrupting. “‘The rules!’ shouted Ralph. ‘You're breaking the rules!’
‘Who cares?’
Ralph summoned his wits.
‘Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!’
But Jack was shouting against him.
‘Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong —we hunt!’”

Ralph tries to implement order through the use of the conch and modesty through the maintaining of a shirt when most others have stripped down. Ralph’s is ultimately a losing battle. He barely escapes with his life. Piggy represents the voice of reason that is rejected and destroyed because it comes in an unattractive package. 

The story is told by an omniscient narrator, in long winded, descriptive sentences, punctuated by short bursts of dialogue. This contrasts the island as a “character” in the story, unrelenting, disinterested, beautiful, yet deadly, and existing long before the boys arrive, existing long after they leave, to the immature and childish boys. In short, they never had a chance. Nature and human nature conspire against civilization. Even the civilized forces that pick the boys up at the end are part of a military that is traveling around the world to annihilate the enemy. They are grown up Jacks. In this way, the story doesn’t so much end as shift to another setting. 

I sympathize with Ralph throughout most of the story. Although he starts off a bratty boy, taunting Piggy and doing his best to make Piggy feel insignificant, in his quest to maintain order, he comes to value Piggy and his opinions. Jack scares me. He scares me because he is us. He is so terrifying because Golding is exactly right that the forces of the barbarian will dominate the forces of civilization if left to their own devices. 

As to the question of the human condition, Golding definitely makes the argument that human nature is violent and tribalistic, but we have managed to dress it up in “civilized” institutions. I disagree somewhat. While our nature remains violent and tribal, those maligned institutions help channel it in a more productive manner. They keep us from becoming wholly Jack. They may cover up the real nature, but getting that real nature under some sort of control is a worthy goal. I believe that writing, as he did, after World War II definitely colored his thesis. He brooks no argument in clearly making the case that mankind is, at its core, barbaric. Reason cannot exist long in this world. 

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