Lord of the Flies book review

It kept coming to me while reading Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House – the similarities between the chaos, duplicity and treachery taking place in Washington and William Golding’s tale of a group of children marooned on a tropical island. Lord of the Flies is a world without grown-ups – as, it would seem, is the current West Wing.

Inspired by Golding’s experiences during World War II, Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of schoolboys who are being evacuated from England during a fictional atomic war. Their plane is shot down somewhere over a tropical island in the Pacific and only the children survive. (Why the plane, departing from England, is anywhere near the Pacific Ocean is never explained.) There has been a storm, which washed the wreckage of the plane out to sea; now, in its aftermath, two of the boys, Ralph and Piggy, meet up on the beach.

When they discover a large, cream-coloured conch shell floating among the weeds, Peggy suggests that Ralph blow into it to summon the others. With Piggy’s instructions, Ralph is eventually able to create a deep, harsh booming sound that reverberates across the island. Slowly, in groups of twos and threes, the children appear out of the foliage, in various stages of undress:

“Some were naked and carrying their clothes; others half-naked, or more or less dressed, in school uniforms, grey, blue, fawn, jacketed, or jerseyed. There were badges, mottoes even, stripes of color in stockings and pullovers. Their heads clustered above the trunks in the green shade; heads brown, fair, black, chestnut, sandy, mouse-colored; heads muttering, whispering, heads full of eyes that watched Ralph and speculated. Something was being done.”

The assembled boys include a school choir, all dressed in black, led by a tall older boy named Jack; he and Ralph immediately stand out as natural leaders. But Ralph holds the conch, he’s the one who has summoned them, and when it comes to a vote it’s Ralph who’s chosen to be chief. As a sop to Jack’s pride, Ralph decides that Jack and his choir will hunt food for the group.

In the beginning the boys are excited to have the island to themselves -“No grownups!” But Piggy, who is sidelined because he’s overweight, asthmatic and wears glasses, is more thoughtful. He reminds them that the adults, as far as they know, are all dead, having being killed in the bombing: “Nobody don’t know we’re here. Your dad don’t know, nobody don’t know–” His lips quivered and the spectacles were dimmed with mist. “We may stay here till we die.”

Ralph announces that they must build a fire on the top of the mountain and keep it burning. Smoke will give a signal to any passing ship – smoke is their only hope of rescue. At this stage, the boys are fired with enthusiasm for having proper rules – meetings will be held on a makeshift platform, and the one holding the conch will speak without interruption. Rules are important, after all … in the absence of adults, rules will keep them safe.

Some of them, however, fear they’re not safe. There’s a beast, says one of the younger boys. It comes in the night and disappears in the morning. Although the older boys scoff and try to laugh it off, it leaves an impression. When the body of the downed pilot, trapped in his parachute, is discovered in the dark, rising and falling in the wind, the boys are led to believe the horrifying truth – the Beast is real. And it is terrifying.

The description of the hunters’ first kill is a nightmare of violence and bloodlust. The pig is a sow; one moment she’s dozing peacefully in the sun, nursing her piglets, the next she’s being sliced and hacked and butchered to death. Afterwards, they sharpen a stick at both ends and impale the head of the sow on it, a gift for the Beast:

“. . . the head hung there, a little blood dribbling down the stick. Instinctively the boys drew back too; and the forest was very still. They listened, and the loudest noise was the buzzing of flies over the spilled guts.”

After this, the division sharpens between Jack and his hunters, intent on finding more pigs to kill, and Ralph’s followers who want to build shelters, keep the fire going and abide by the rules of the conch. The hunters become more and more “savage”, painting themselves in mud and charcoal, while Ralph and Piggy cling to what they remember of civilization. “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away.” Roger, at one point, starts throwing stones at a “littleun”, being careful not to hit him:

“Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.”

Jack becomes a symbol for evil…for why things “break up”, as Ralph puts it. But Simon, the mystic, lost in a hallucinatory conversation with the pig’s head – the Lord of the Flies – knows otherwise:

“‘Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

Simon rushes to tell the others: there is no beast, the evil is within them. He blunders into the middle of a ritual celebratory dance by the hunters and is murdered. The others – Piggy and Ralph, and the twins, Sam and Eric – tell themselves Simon’s death is not their fault. They weren’t part of the murderous dance that destroyed Simon. It was an accident, Piggy says. It was dark, they were scared – there’s no good to be got from thinking about it. They create a new version of the facts, one they can live with. One that suits their purposes.

Right to the end, up to the moment when he realizes Jack means to kill him, Ralph calls it a game – Jack and his hunters aren’t playing fair, they’re not playing by the rules. Rules created by adults in a sensible, civilized society. An English society, of course, which has no use for “savage” behaviour. Piggy, holding the conch, the talisman of sense, of law and order, demands: “Which is better–to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

Fear and anarchy win out. The leadership changes; in Jack, the new chief, we have a vision of authority without responsibility. Authority as it might be envisioned by a child. A spoiled, impulsive child, lacking compassion. Those who refuse to fall in with the new order are outcasts, despised and derided by the group. They are “the other”; as such, they’re fair game for insults, ostracism, even death.

Sound familiar?

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