Book #4: Lord of the Flies
- Lord of the Flies only sold 3,000 copies before going out of print in 1955. But by 1962, the novel had sold over 65,000 copies and was required reading at many colleges.
- Stephen King has been heavily influenced by the novel. In fact, “Castle Rock”—the town that appears in many of his novels—came from the island landmark in the book.
- The connections between Lord of the Flies and the television show Lost are too many to count. To name a few: the island, the monster, two dueling leaders (one of whom is a hunter), the overweight comic relief character. The first season of the show drew heavily from the novel.
- Lord of the Flies author, William Golding, won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.
I find it interesting that three of the first four novels I’ve read during this project involve adolescent protagonists. But that’s really all Lord of the Flies has in common with The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird.
The story is a bit depressing. Set in World War II, a group of schoolboys–who have been evacuated out of England—crash onto a deserted island. What starts as freedom and maybe every boy’s dream (an island to explore, without grownups!) slowly devolves into chaos, mutiny, and even murder.
Two leaders emerge: Ralph, who is intent on getting off the island by keeping a signal fire going no matter the cost, and Jack—the more aggressive and vocal of the two—who becomes the group’s face-painted hunter and eventually overthrows Ralph as leader.
In a nutshell, the story demonstrates two of man’s competing tendencies: order versus chaos. At first, the boys follow Ralph’s lead. He blows a loud conch to summon everyone when he chooses to have an assembly. They discuss matters of the island—food, shelter, and fire.
The longer the boys stay trapped on the island, the more chaos that follows. Jack and his group break away from Ralph and Piggie, who is the voice of reason, and begin painting their faces, hunting pigs, and participating in “tribal dances”—during which one boy, Simon, is killed. They begin hunting—to kill—Ralph and any other stragglers that haven’t joined their club. It’s no longer play time on the island.
There’s an interesting tension between this disjointed civilization the boys have created for themselves and the fact that they are in fact still young boys. You almost forget that you are reading about a bunch of kids. They exist in a world of life and death, but issues like imaginary monsters still haunt them.
One of the youngest sees a “monster” early in the story. Slowly, they all begin to believe a monster lives on the island. This beast turns out to be the dead corpse of man who parachuted onto the island and got hung up in a tree. The wind knocks the parachute around and, at night, seems to be a breathing beast.
Jack offers a sacrifice, a severed head of a sow, to the imaginary beast. This
sacrifice is “The Lord of the Flies,” a smiling head that attracts flies, of course. But, more than that, it represents the evil that has overtaken the island. In one scene with Simon, he imagines the head talking to him, telling him that evil lies in all of us and to have fun with it:
There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast. . . . Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! . . . You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?
There’s a load of symbols here that point to Satan’s influence on man. We all have the potential to be evil. Simon resists, but ends up being killed by Jack and his savages. But Jack gives in, illustrating how out of hand we can get when we follow that path.
Golding’s writing is memorable. If you’re not into overly-descriptive writing, you may find the novel a bit tedious at times. I’ll be honest, I did. It’s not uncommon for Golding to take a couple of pages just to set up a scene. Here’s an example:
The edge of the lagoon became a streak of phosphorescence that advanced minutely, as the great wave of the tide flowed. The clear water mirrored the clear sky and the angular bright constellations. The line of phosphorescence bulged about the sand grains and little pebbles; it held them each in a dimple of tension, then suddenly accepted them with an inaudible syllable and moved on.
My favorite novels have a fair amount of dialogue with descriptive paragraphs seamlessly woven throughout. With Lord of the Flies, I felt like Golding was almost too descriptive. Some critics may laugh at a statement like that, but I’ve read a lot of novels and sometimes I get bogged down by rereading sentences two or three times. That was the case, at times, while I read this novel.
The Meaning: As I mentioned above, the decapitated pig’s head on a stick is the Lord of the Flies and symbolically represents the presence of evil on the island.
Highlights: I loved the final scene of this book. It’s a beautiful exchange between Ralph and the naval officer who rescues them. Maybe it was the officer’s patronizing tone, but, for the first time in the novel, I became vividly aware that these really were just kids.
Lowlights: I’m not a fan of some of the overly descriptive sections of the book, but who am I to question a Nobel Peace prize-winning author? Kurt Vonnegut says every sentence in fiction should advance the story. Sometimes, I got bogged down in Golding’s descriptions, anticipating the next set of dialogue or forward movement in the plot. It was distracting.
Memorable Line: I thought this piece of dialogue, quoted by Piggie right before he died, sums up the main tension of the novel: “Which is better–to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”
Final Thoughts: I enjoyed Lord of the Flies, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by it. Would I read it again? Doubtful. In just 200 pages, Golding tells an involved and layered story. At times, I couldn’t put the book down. And, at other times, I was just ready to finish it and move on to the next novel. The story is a half a century old, but it still influences both literature and television today. It’s definitely worthy of Time‘s list, but maybe it’s just not my cup of tea.
Up Next: Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell
Question: Lord of the Flies fan? Why or why not did you enjoy the novel?