The Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Unlike almost all of my childhood reading, I read The Lord of the Flies around the same age it’s commonly assigned to American schoolchildren. But I don’t ever recall reading it for school—I came across a copy that may have belonged to my brother among my parents’ haphazard library and picked it up. I don’t know how much I absorbed, without a guiding hand, but I do know that I’ve, more or less, always said “she’s got the conch!” whenever I encounter people who interrupt. I’m starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for audiobooks of books I read before I started the book blog, so The Lord of the Flies presented itself in pretty short order after my last listen.
The Lord of the Flies opens in the aftermath of a plane crash during an unspecified British war on a island in the Pacific Ocean. The only survivors are a group of young boys, all under the age of thirteen. These boys include Ralph, a natural leader, Piggy, an overweight ashmatic whose glasses and practical thinking make him an unlikely resource, and Jack, a choir leader obsessed with hunting. At first, life on a desert island is all good fun, but as survival becomes difficult and the fear of a beast begins to spread among the boys, they begin to retreat to nature.
Much about The Lord of the Flies has already been said. It’s a novel about how important civilization and society are to make people out of the hairless primates we are, and it makes that point by showing, in microcosm, how thin the line between civilization and chaos is. Mutually agreed upon rules, after all, are all we have to protect us from each other—that’s why we need to obey them. (I scream something like this every time I take my car out in Atlanta.) I think, in writing about little boys, Golding may have been trying to go for shock in 1954. After all, he was brutally deconstructing the Robinsonade, especially R. M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, from which he takes a few character names. Some think that the shock value of the book has worn off over the years; after all, as Robert Ebert points out in his review of the 1990 film adaptation, “events take place every day on our mean streets that are more horrifying than anything the little monsters do to one another on Golding’s island”. But The Lord of the Flies isn’t meant to be universal that way; it’s universal in its specifics, if that makes any sense. It’s rooted in a midcentury England that believed children were capable of innocence, that they had a right to the world, and that things were done the way they were done because they jolly well were. (This, of course, is part of the boys’ problem—when survival rears its head, they can’t convince each other of its necessity, since they’ve never been given proper reasons for things before.) Since it’s such a construction, the boys fall into a natural state, indulging their impulses, even the most bloodthirsty.
Accordingly, this is an incredibly dark book. The characterizations are haphazard and more focused on physical characteristics, but that’s a result of the flattening of characters that comes from a idea-based work like this and also because these are little boys, incapable of both survival and also incapable of articulating themselves, down to their own identities. One of the “littluns”, as the youngest boys are called, starts off the book identifying himself with his full name and his mother’s address; by the end, he’s utterly forgotten it. Women, in fact, are identified with the civilization left behind—Piggy frequently references his aunt, who is derided as much as his asthma. And it’s brutally telling that the pigs hunted are all sows, including the sow whose sex is translated upon her brutal slaughter into the eponymous Lord of the Flies, a title that gives us civilization and chaos separated by the smallest of things. It’s an incredibly pared-down novel, which probably accounts for some of its longevity.
This is the first audiobook I’ve listened to where the book is read by its author; it’s an odd experience. Golding is not a dramatic reader, but that makes the story feel all the more ordinary and chilling. The presentation opens and ends with a few words from Golding. In the “prologue”, as it were, Golding addresses questions about why the boys are boys, not a mixed group or girls. The wording of his answer is a little gender essentialist, but I think his point comes through—it had to be specifically boys that were the specific product of this extremely specific culture to highlight how small the chasm between civilization and chaos is. At the end of the presentation, Golding won my heart by point-blank telling the reader that their interpretation of the novel is the one that matters most—not their parents’, not their teachers’, not the critics’. With novels that are analyzed so much, especially in settings that encourage the idea of digging out the “right” meaning (I’m looking at you, high school), it’s easy to forget that reading is something that happens when a reader encounters a text. Every reading—even readings done by the same person—is different; The Lord of the Flies is no different in that regard.
Bottom line: The Lord of the Flies, in its specificity, becomes universal—a dark exploration of how small the chasm between civilization and chaos is. The audiobook presentation, as read by the author, also includes a few comments about why Golding made it a male cast and why your own reading of the novel is more important than anyone else’s.
I rented this audiobook from the public library.