Fifty-eight years ago, William Golding decided to write a book that would depict boys as boys truly were. (I know this not because I am a Golding scholar, but because I read the novel’s introduction). A response, no doubt, to the child-detective, boys’-own, let’s-save-the-day-and-then-have-lemonade style books in fashion at the time. He called it Lord of the Flies, crashed his boys’ plane and stuck them on a deserted island sometime during ‘the war’. He then spun a tale of survival, discovery, alliances, tribal power, danger and murder that has resonated with readers ever since it was published.
This would usually be when I give a brief precis of the story, but I’m not going to on this occasion as after many a survey it seems everyone in the entire world—apart from those who were in the exact same classes as me—studied this book at high school. And if by some strange chance they missed it that time, they—again, apart from me—studied the book at university. This is all well and good and, hey, at least they weren’t analysing episodes of Gossip Girl to attain their leaving certificates, but it does mean that I have found no-one to discuss this novel with who read it either recently nor as an adult. It is one of the two things that led a truly significant reading experience to be less fulfilling than it should have been. This had nothing to do with Golding’s story or writing and rather a lot more to do with me (perhaps a too-common theme of this blog) and how the novel made me feel. Now. As an adult.
You see, because although I’m sure there are crossover points between what an adolescent ‘gets out’ of Lord of the Flies, and what an older person does, I also think there may be differences, especially when the older person is not straightjacketed by curriculum and a 20-year-old Cliff Notes copy. I think those who have a bit of a gap between their ‘younger years’ and their current age might consider the messages of childhood and human nature differently than if they were 15 years old; I think it might make them feel differently.
I’m wondering if other adults have read this novel and despaired as I did. At the horrible situation; at those poor lost, ignorant children; at the characters’ complete inability to truly understand their motivations for their decisions and to rarely be able to express them; at the portrayal of the sickening way children (and adults) can treat each other; at the terribly insulting and officious way the grown-up world casts children; at the ways some of us gain power and others are shunned. I despaired and I think I got angry—I must stress again not at the novel itself but at the ideas it was discussing. Perhaps Mr Golding’s entire point. And the fact that he could do all this and tell an adventure story that still both appeals and affects people of all ages points to his triumph.
It took a while for these ideas, thoughts and feelings to stop spinning around in the back of my brain and become vaguely coherent. Instead I was a little like the boy-characters, knowing something was going on but not being able to express what it was.
Boyfriend (opening front door in the evening): Hi, honey.
Me (grimacing with novel in hand): I hate Jack.
Boyfriend (who, like everyone else, read novel at school): Yeah, Jack’s not very nice.
Me: I hate him. I hate his guts.
Boyfriend (different evening): Hi, honey.
Me: They freaking killed him. It was horrible. I cried on the train.
Boyfriend: I thought you knew that would happen.
Me: Well, sure, but it’s still horrible. Those awful, murderous, ignorant, hateful boys. You know how I said I wanted to have children? Well, I’ve changed my mind.
And that was the second thing. Not only did I crave an adult-reader to talk to about Lord of the Flies but just as I had finally come to peace with the notion that it might be very nice to start a family in a year or two, I made the mistake of reading a book that shows us how capable of menace and cruelty and all those things we like to put on adults, children can be. As someone who has never been too definite on the idea of motherhood, this was another mark in the ‘con’ column. Perhaps it’s a biological thing. It only occurred to me while watching (the very good) The Hunger Games film that really, what that story had to deal with so carefully was the fact that its main plot points revolved around children killing children.
Of course, Golding wasn’t trying to say that children were cruel (nor that they were power-hungry maniacal murderers). He was telling a story about children stranded on an island, a story everyone had read before, but this time the characters and their actions were portrayed realistically, and the realistic possibility was that it would not all end with lemonade.
I’m so very glad I read Lord of the Flies. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it and I’m glad it lived up to its ‘classic’ status. It’s still sitting with me now; somewhere in the back of my brain. Ralph, Jack, Piggy and Simon. The beast. The conch. The rock pool. The shelters. The fire. All the ideas William Golding wanted us to ponder. Or perhaps we just end up pondering. If you’re like me and didn’t have to read this novel at school, I urge you to give it a try. And if you’re one of the millions who did … read it again, even just so you can talk to me about it and how it made you feel.