However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.
Earlier this year, I considered the question “What Is a Classic?”, in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast. With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as “the culture” in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.
If you’re still with me… I didn’t really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics. If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my “axes” or favorites, though there’d likely be some overlap. I guess that’s because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones. Anyways, more on that later.
I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think. I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens. That’s not to say I wasn’t disturbed by Lord of the Flies. But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn’t itching to pick it up again until very recently.
For those who don’t know the premise: A massive war – either WWII or its successor – is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean. It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world. To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.
In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick “Piggy,” and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys. What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power. At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy – known as the Beast – further divide the survivors.
Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from. What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning. Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you’re not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.
In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit “off-screen” death of the pilot. In chapter two, “Piggy” is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys – and the cause of their disappearance – is a tragedy just alluded to. In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself. This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.
Golding’s style is masterful in both its approach and its execution. The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph’s perspective. While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we’re also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph’s experience. That is why we are never told Piggy’s real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head. The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis. We are “stuck” with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.
While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it’s clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys. The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to. The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.
Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic. The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can. Certainly, I’ll be looking for other books by him in the near future.