Thursday, 3 November 2011

Lord of the Flies

A little while back I set myself a literary challenge. I've now decided that a side of A4 is not enough but I have restricted myself to two sides. I'm currently working my way back through the 20th Century and here's my analysis of part of the final chapter of Lord of the Flies.

William Golding was the master of the unexpected ending. In many of his novels there is an unexpected change of perspective in the final chapter which makes the reader reconsider all that has gone before. In Pincher Martin, for example, it is only right at the very end of the novel that we realise that the sailor whom we believed to have been struggling for survival throughout the novel has been dead all along. And in The Inheritors, a novel in which we follow a wonderful group of Neanderthals, it is quite a shock when, in the last chapter, we see them through the eyes of homo sapiens, through our eyes in effect, as nothing more than “strange creature[s], smallish, and bowed.”

In his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, the change of perspective comes shortly after the children have completed their descent into savagery. At the start of the novel their plane comes down during what is presumably World War III and they find themselves stranded without adults on a desert island. But gradually their bestial nature comes to the fore and two of the boys, including the one nicknamed Piggy, are killed. As the book draws to a close, a murderous hunt is underway for Ralph, the group’s former leader.

Just as he is about to be killed, the boys stumble across a British naval officer and, suddenly, we see them as they are: a bunch of unruly children. But they are no longer mere children. Like the adults who have been tearing each other apart in a nuclear war, they have discovered “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart” - original sin if you like – and, in a wonderfully bathetic moment, they burst into tears.

The final irony, of course, is that the officers who discover them, men whose only response is to turn away “to give [the children] time to pull themselves together”, are no better than savages themselves. They may have neat uniforms instead of matted hair and unwiped noses, and machine-guns instead of spears, but, as Golding knew full well having served in the British Navy during World War II, they are as capable of following the Lord of the Flies as any schoolboy.

In some ways Lord of the Flies is very much a book of its time. As Golding himself put it: “Before the second world war I believed in the perfectability of social man; that a correct structure of society produced goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society. It is possible that I believe something of the same again; but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another. I’m not talking of one man killing another with a gun, or dropping a bomb on him or blowing him up or torpedoing him. I am thinking of the vileness beyond all words that went on, year after year, in the totalitarian states. They were not done by the head hunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skilfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilisation behind them, to beings of their own kind. I must say that anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.”

But Lord of the Flies is not merely a response to the horrors of Nazism: it is a book about the human condition written in beautifully poetic prose (a book written by a man whose first published work was a, now largely forgotten, book of poems). Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 because his novels transcended the times in which they were written and spoke to something deeper in his readers’ minds and hearts.

Of course there’s one other reason why I’m keen on Golding. Before he became a full-time writer, before he won the Nobel Prize for Literature, he was an English teacher. There’s hope for us yet.

(P.S. See here for the Nobel Prize Lord of the Flies game)

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