Hands up if you read this for high school.
Before rereading it I remember the book being strange and funny. Something about a fat kid named Piggy getting picked on, a silly kid’s thing about a conch, and a pig on a head; just another “literary work” forced upon students to try and teach them a moral/political lesson. Despite that, I also remembered being impressed by the words and allusions the author had used, helped in part by my teacher’s explanation that this wasn’t just a book about boys being stranded on an island, but rather what happens to people when there is no society and no laws to govern them. The budding writer in me was interested, at the time, in how metaphor and allegory was achieved, and this book stood out.
Thus I recently decided to give it another go, with, hopefully, a more mature and critical mind.
Believe it or not, this book is terrifying. I think it might even be one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read, and I’m a huge fan of Stephen King and Lovecraft. This review will consider the plot, characters, and narrative, and there will be spoilers.
Note: book cover and images used for this review are from the beautiful Folio Society edition of the novel.
Before Hunger Games, before Battle Royale, and before generally making kids fight each other to the death was cool, there was Lord of the Flies. In this story the kids are not there because of some imaginary dystopian government, but rather because of the real-world governments. In the beginning their plane is shot down, and we quickly learn that the story takes place during World War II, so their situation is a direct result of an actual conflict. That’s a one-up on just about every other book out there with a similar premise.
Ralph quickly establishes himself as the leader, by being the first one to gather all the boys together and speaking as the most charismatic and rational person out of all of them. The goal is to survive and create a fire in order to be rescued. He is initially helped by Piggy (real name irrelevant), a fat and sensible boy and whose glasses are the key to starting fires, and Jack, an older boy who is the leader of the school’s choir.
Things start out well. The boys agree on a plan: to build shelters along the beach, to start a fire at the top of the mountain, to gather water and fruits, and to chill by the pool and make sand castles until they’re rescued. However, everything almost immediately goes awry. Being kids, they are unfamiliar with responsibility and end up spending the first day playing and eating, after building only one shelter. Only Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and a couple of littluns (the younger boys) do most of the work.
The great turning point of the story comes when a littlun comes distraught out of the forest after the first day and claims to have seen a giant beast lurking somewhere on the island. It is this “beast” that slowly causes the boys to descend into a frenzy of chaos and fear.
Reading this in 2017, I recognized the beast immediately. The beast was terrorism, it was racism, it was the fear of refugees taking over our lands, and so much more. When a group of people becomes afraid, whether they are the society of a developed nation or a bunch of boys on an island, they will do anything to feel less afraid, no matter how irrational, useless, or harmful that is, and even regardless of whether the source of their fear is legitimate.
That is how Jack usurps power from Ralph, convincing almost everyone to abandon Ralph and join him. After killing his first pig, Jack gains bloodlust and is bold enough to believe he can defend the group against the beast, and the boys believe him, because he is the chief hunter. The problem is that Jack doesn’t care about keeping the fire going. He only wants to hunt pigs and eat meat, and the boys follow him not only because Jack will protect them from the beast, but because they enjoy eating meat too. The reason this book is so terrifying is that we slowly see this process developing chapter by chapter, where the beast goes from being a disregarded fancy of a little kid to the reason Simon and Piggy dies. The devil is in the details, and Golding’s brilliant narrative convinces us that we are reading a precise devolution from rational cooperation and peace to base savagery, and the result would be no different in any kind of society in any setting.
The author does a good job portraying the behaviour and mindsets of middle school boys. They have all their own personalities and are just learning what it means to be a leader, what’s right and what’s wrong, and so on.
Ralph and Jack are the two main characters of the story, who stand in opposition to each other. Ralph is the rational one, who knows the most important thing is to be rescued, while Jack becomes a tyrant whose claim to leadership is based on power and fear. In addition to these two, the boys all represent different characteristics, giving the text a variety of flavour, but I’d like to give a shout-out to Piggy, the unspoken hero.
Like Simon, Piggy is a good kid, but he lacks the charisma to lead and speak for the entire group, which is why he is willing to follow Ralph. Throughout the entire story Ralph does indeed know what the right thing to do is, but it is Piggy who reminds him why, even when Ralph doesn’t know himself. In fact, at multiple times Ralph recognizes he is tempted to join Jack’s group and methods, as there is something appealing about ritual dances and the pig hunts and the chant, but not once does Piggy ever falter. In fact, Piggy thrashes out loudly against Jack and his ways, and is more resistant than Ralph to the temptations of savagery. Fitting, then, that on an island where depravity and cruelty had set in, it is Piggy who dies a tragic hero’s death.
Golding narrates the book using simple sentences for the most part, which fits in with the cast of characters, but it also contributes heavily to the story’s identity. We wouldn’t expect a group of boys to wind up killing each other by ripping, tearing, stabbing, and biting, and the shock of it is more surreal by the plain and straightforward prose. Similarly, when Piggy dies we get a disturbing description of “pink things” spilling out of his head, then his body being washed away by the ocean. There is nothing deep and philosophical here, at least not directly through the words, but the shock contained within the simple prose contributes to the overall theme, pathos, and horror.
Horror, after all, only works when the audience understands the consequences and ramifications of the events they are reading about, and Golding takes every opportunity to remind us that these are young boys who are being corrupted, putting blood on their faces and sticking pig heads onto a stake. Simple writing can sometimes be equivocal to convincing writing, and Golding shows us with deceptively simple narrative how Jack slowly transforms the entire group into a bunch of lawless little monsters.
Lord of the Flies is a horror novel. I highly recommend reading it over if you haven’t done so in a long time. It is an entertaining and enjoyable read outside of the classroom, when you aren’t being told what and how to think. Of course, in your reading you might not see it as horror, but with the state of the world/humanity being what it is and how fear controls our local and international communities today, it ain’t hard to see how Lord of the Flies continues to have morbid relevance to this day.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.