I finished it. Let me stipulate a few things first.
1) If you love and/or respect this book, rest assured that the Nobel Prize committee, Lionel Trilling, and Stephen King are on your side.
2) The idea of marooning kids on an island is a fantastic and fruitful idea for a novel.
3) The prose in this book is complex and often beautiful.
I stand, however, on the following ground: Lord of the Flies is a flawed novel with a flawed premise, but we’ve made it compulsory reading for 60 years because it’s an adventure story, because it’s about boys (rather than girls), because it’s short, and because the violence and cruelty make it seem important.
I can tell you’re already thinking, Laura, this is a bloooooooog. Do you have anything funny to offer me?
Yes: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews.
You can buy it now or when we’re done, but if you or your offspring has ever been asked to discuss Original Sin in Lord of the Flies, you should hang with me a sec.
Here's what William Golding says in his introduction to an unabridged reading of the book:
There have been a great many things said about how it came to be written, and I don’t know whether any of them are true or not, but as far as I’m concerned it happened because one day I was sitting to one side of my fireplace and my wife was sitting on the other, and I suddenly said to her, “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books.” And she said, “That’s a first class idea. You write it.” So I went ahead and wrote it.
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, "Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?" my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.
Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.
The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
Everybody okay? Anyone need to beat up a pillow or do what a good friend of mine used to do when she was a teenager and her parents were going through a messy divorce, which was to climb up on the water tower and hit tennis balls as hard and as far as she could?
Please join me as I race to the top of this water tower with my bucket of balls.
Forehand stroke to the east: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a story about some boys on an island, showing how they would really behave, being boys and not little saints as they usually are in children’s books?”
William Golding was born in Cornwall in 1911, so he would have been a child during World War I and its aftermath. I know you don’t want to sit here on the water tower while we discuss the history of children’s publishing, so let’s just stipulate that children’s books of that era probably contained more idealistic role models than might be found in YA literature of the present time. All I want to emphasize here is that Golding’s stated purpose is to show us how real boys really behave.
Forehand stroke to the west:
Golding: “. . . if you, as it were, scaled-down human beings, scaled-down society, if you landed with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.”
Watch your head. I’m going to have to really wail on this one.
Society, according to Golding, can be replicated with a group of one gender, but not with the other, but don’t worry, you crazy feminists! You are the superior sex!
And yet you have no place in a fable about civilization.
Forehand stroke to Florida: “I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.”
Hold that thought about sex, which actually does raise its lovely head on Golding’s island, though William and I use the word “lovely” ironically.
Setting aside a few obvious questions (Is sex trivial? Is it disconnected from the problem of evil?) I want to ask (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) this story about the problem of evil came to be such a central part of the education of American children, and how a group of English school boys stuck on an island for what must be a few weeks or months at most can accurately represent the rise of Nazism, which was foremost in Golding’s mind when he wrote it:
“It was simply what seemed sensible for me to write after the war when everyone was thanking God they weren’t Nazis. I’d seen enough to realize that every single one of us could be Nazis.”
Presumably, the “sensible” part is the value of seeing one’s own capacity to be evil. Since it’s Jack’s group that likes to kill weaklings and dissenters, Jack’s group represents the Nazis. But how many readers identify with Jack and thus see their inner Nazis? Jack, for one thing, is innately cruel. His transformation into a brute is swift and obvious—hardly a transformation at all, and it cannot be avoided or undone. It's more likely that the reader identifies with Piggy and Ralph, and that the book is thus read as a lesson about how you are never more than five feet from a person who could turn into a Nazi for no reason you could possibly understand and flatten the least popular person in your village with a giant rock and then hunt you with a stick that’s been sharpened at both ends (which is what many middle school kids already have on their minds as they exit English class for lunch).
It’s thus really a horror story, not a revelation about the self. In the horror genre, the monster can neither be understood nor killed.
Let’s travel now to a review in the Guardian of John Carey’s 2009 biography: William Golding: The Man Who Wrote Lord of the Flies. I’ll hit a few tennis balls to Switzerland while you’re reading it, or you can just read the parts I’m going to quote here.
The author of the review is Peter Conrad, an Australian professor of English literature at Christ Church, Oxford, and the author of 19 books, and this is what he says: “As a set text for schools, Lord of the Flies went on to sell millions of copies, introducing adolescents worldwide to the idea of original sin and the knowledge of their own barbarity.”
“My innocence came to an end when I opened Lord of the Flies.”
Knowledge of their own barbarity. The end of innocence. Is he possibly being ironic? There is no sign of that. Perhaps I’m mistaken about the number of readers who are willing to see themselves in Jack. Perhaps many accept this notion of barbarity within, and their innocence, in some sense of believing in the goodness of human impulse, is gone.
“Yet the man,” Peter Conrad says, “who wrote Lord of the Flies spent the rest of his life regretting that he had done so. Golding considered the book "boring and crude," its language "O-level stuff.” Its classic status struck him as "a joke" and he disparaged his income from it as "Monopoly money."
“Towards the end of his life, he refused to reread the manuscript (much revised, on Monteith's orders, before publication): he feared he'd be so dismayed he might do himself a mischief. Golding whispered the truth about these protests in his journal.”
I wonder if you could wait a sec while I go buy a new case of tennis balls.
We teach this book as a moral fable, a brilliant and terrifying glimpse into the soul, and yet the author thought the book crudely written, so bad, in fact, that he couldn’t bear to do what children everywhere are doing right now: parsing it line by line, tracking the Biblical allusions, identifying the beast as themselves.
I understand Golding’s self-doubt and recrimination. I understand the fear of finding one’s own book crude and horrible and boring. But I happen to believe his dismay has merit. When a book is used to teach enormous moral lessons, when Piggy and Ralph and Jack and Simon come to symbolize All Boys and all aspects of society, there is some obligation to ask how real, exactly, the boys are, and how symbolic of the rest of us they can be.
The book is, in fact, crudely imagined in the following ways:
1) The boys know they were put on a plane as part of an evacuation but do not seem to know each other or where they were going. How did this come about? What did their parents tell them? Did the parents say, “Look, we’re not sending your sister. She’s not worth it. We’re going to keep her here even if there’s an A-Bomb. Also, we’re staying here. But just go. It’s for the best.”
2) If we can enter the point of view of various boys—Jack, Ralph, Piggy, and Simon—why do they never ruminate on any of the above events, as you would once your parent’s decision to pack you off with a bunch of strange boys goes horribly wrong. I mean, it’s basically what happens at summer camp amplified a couple million times.
3) Why don't the boys ever think about the foods they miss--butter on a hot crumpet served by mother on Sundays, gritty delirium of sugar on a sponge cake on a rainy afternoon--even though this is the number one activity for homesick people everywhere? We get just two paragraphs of nostalgia in the entire book--Ralph's memories of home on page 112--and these paragraphs contain one sentence about food.
4) Why do they talk to one another so little, given that a boy at camp or a new school or stuck on a stranded bus would likely ask, Where did you live before? Where did you go to school? Where do you think we were supposed to be going? Why are you wearing that weird black cape? None of them are bored enough to socialize as you would on any playground of any school in the world?
5) Would boys aged 6-12 who have grown up principally in boarding schools and not in survivalist camps in Montana be this naturally good and enthusiastic about slaughtering a wild animal running around with its babies?
6) Would boys killing only the second pig of their lives (with remarkable precocity) really feel the kind of Oedipal sexual lust described in the book with so much feeling that I find it hard to believe Golding actually thought he had written a sexless fable?
7) I have more, but this is the last one I’ll go into here because I know you have things to do. Why (watch your head) WHY (watch your head) is the only female thing on the island—the sow the bloodthirsty boys hunt and kill as if they are not just killing it but having sex with it—instantly turned into a male beast the minute they cut off its head and it becomes the main symbol of the book: Blood-soaked Head of the Dead Mother on a stick = Lord of the Flies?
I wish I could tell you I’m finished with this bucket of balls, but I’m only warming up.
Storytellers of the world, please consider writing a book that could replace Lord of the Flies in our curricula. Jhumpa Lahiri, George Saunders, Tessa Hadley, Julian Barnes, Tobias Wolff, Jane Gardam, Tina Fey, Jason Gay, Harrison Scott Key, and Maria Semple, you could do better than this. You could write a book about real boys or real girls on an island, funny or not funny, and I would believe it. It would still be dark because we’re competitive creatures. I’m not saying no one is going to die or kill something to eat. I’m just saying that it needs to be a lot more real than this before I’m going to look into the eyes of my own boys and say, “This is you. This is the real, innate, barbaric you, and this is society in a microcosm.”
This book is a lot of things, but it isn’t that.
It’s the time of year when I’m forced to acknowledge the innate barbarism of boys.
I don’t mean the way our sons forget to unclot their balled-up, sweaty tennis socks or carry piles of clean, folded shirts five feet to their dresser drawers, barbaric as these things are in their own ways.
I mean that once again a person born to me has, when asked “What is your homework?” produced from his backpack a school-issued copy of Lord of the Flies.
Before I argue that this book is more poison than broth, I will present my credentials as a young reader who appreciated, even relished, a book about the utter destruction of one’s hopes for happiness.
Remember Ethan Frome? Ends with a horrible sledding accident? I actually liked this book.
Tess of the d’Urbervilles? Beautiful innocent peasant girl is raped by her titled cousin, loses the baby born out of wedlock, finally marries her true love, and is rejected by him when she confesses that she slept with the titled cousin? Ends with the line “The President of the Immortals had ended his sport with Tess?”
A Farewell to Arms? You know, the book Bradley Cooper throws out the window in “The Silver Linings Playbook” in a scene that I truly love even though I've actually been the type of English teacher he's railing against and this was my favorite book for many formative years.
You see where I’m going with this. Sad = okay by me.
Lord of the Flies, mes amis, is another matter. I’ve kept my secret all this time, but I’m telling you now in a low whisper: I have never been able to finish reading this book. I always plan to do it, if not for myself, for the Children. Specifically the ones who live in my house and say, “I have an essay on this book due in 15 minutes. Can you read my rough draft?”
Plus there’s the matter of it being a Modern Classic. As of today, this book has 1,327,932 ratings on Goodreads, where the plot description is truly enticing: “At first, it seems as though it's all going to be great fun; but the fun before long becomes furious & life on the island turns into a nightmare of panic & death.”
Help me, Rhonda. The rough draft, I remind you, is due in 15 minutes.
I will report back, I promise you, when I’ve finished reading the book and somebody's rough draft, but first I’m going to say a few words--posit, as we used to say pretentiously in grad school-- about why children read, why teenagers read, why adults read, and what you should put on your bookshelf right now to help you recover from Lord of the Flies.
Children read to be someone and somewhere else. Ditto teens, except here I would add that they also read to learn about sex and to see if other people feel as worried and embarrassed and left out as they do all the livelong day. Adults read for the same reason, if they still read anything at all, having learned that most books make them feel the way Bradley Cooper feels when he throws A Farewell to Arms out the attic window. To be elsewhere, elseone.
But what about books that are published for young people to read on their own (hopefully), and books that are assigned every year, year after year, in school? What are adults up to when they set those gigantic machines in motion?
I would argue that the motive is the same in the marketplace as it is in the curriculum: to teach kids something we really want them to learn. You’re still going to go elsewhere and be elseone, estudiantes, because that’s the nature of a book (or movie or video game) but we want to make sure you learn something we’re trying to teach you right now about justice, sexual identity, loving yourself as you are, and Socialism. (This is also the time of year when someone born to me is likely to bring home 1984 and Animal Farm.) Is this instructional motive bad? No. It’s inevitable. School is for teaching our kids to be exactly like us only nicer and smarter, though not too much better, because we work really, really hard and by God when we were children nobody unclotted our balled-up socks or paid for this many tennis lessons.
If school is for teaching kids to be smarter and nicer than we were at their age and, hopefully, than we are now, it’s important to ask what role pleasure has in reading, even in compulsory reading, and what kids gain from being in the particular elsewhere of a book. I don’t mean we should ask, “Hey, how are you kids liking this book? Should we finish it?” We don’t do that with Calculus or chemistry, and we shouldn’t do it with Macbeth. But the thing is, reading started out differently from those subjects. Stories were fed to us in the beginning because they were, at some level or every level, fun. Books exist as a recreational device, and all of the books that are widely assigned in schools--Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby--started out not as a cog in the educational machinery but as novels that were bought voluntarily by adults.
If that’s true, then Lord of the Flies was published because a for-profit company thought adults would willingly pay to immerse themselves in that experience, and it’s now taught in schools because we believe it will teach kids to be smarter and nicer.
Before I read beyond chapter three (the farthest I’ve ever gone) and see how it does or doesn’t do that, I’ll say this: I believe that the reason I have never finished Lord of the Flies is that you can tell in chapter one that you are living in a world where the cruelty of boys is innate and unstoppable, and where you cannot take the supreme and only comfort that art offers when the innocent die or are unjustly destroyed, which is to inhabit the mind of an empathetic character.
Secondly, I suspect that the number one reason we teach Lord of the Flies is that it punctures the fantasy of the young that they would be much better off without us, that if they could go to a tropical island without teachers and parents and coaches they would be FINE. So much happier, in fact. This book says, No. You would not be fine. You need us to keep you safe.
I’m definitely going to admit it if I’m wrong in Part Two of this post, or you can tell me why and how I’m wrong now. But meanwhile, here’s what I would set on the bookshelf or nightstand if you, like me, are about to join Ralph and Piggy on the nightmare island of panic and death for the first time:
Could someone handle the laundry for a while? Make the boys turn their own socks right side out first if you can.
I’m going in.
Books by Tom and Laura McNeal