‘Lord of the flies’ – take it out of the classroom

The arrival of Y2K brought none of the social, environmental, or technological catastrophes predicted by the tabloids, but neither did the new millennium bring relief from the persistent impediments to free expression that characterized the twentieth century. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., reminds us that throughout most of human history, authority, “fortified by the highest religious and philosophical texts, has righteously invoked censorship to stifle expression.”

He cites the Old Testament proscription: “Tell it not in Gath, publish it not in the streets of Askelon; lest the daughters of the Philistines rejoice, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph.” Schlesinger also offers the injunction of Plato: “The poet shall compose nothing contrary to the ideas of the lawful, or just, or beautiful, or good, which are allowed in the state; nor shall he be permitted to show his compositions to any private individual until he shall have shown them to the appointed censors and the guardians of the law, and they are satisfied with them.”

Introduction

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Once speech could be printed, it became a commodity, to be controlled and manipulated on the basis of religion, politics, or profit. After Pope Leo X condemned Martin Luther’s Ninety Five Theses in 1517, both Catholics and Protestants began censoring materials that they found dangerous or subversive. Religious censorship quickly led to political censorship when Luther defied the Pope, bringing an immediate response from Emperor Charles V. On May 26, 1521, the emperor issued the Edict of Worms, containing a “Law of Printing,” which prohibited the printing, sale, possession, reading, or copying of Luther’s works.

However, in the United States and England, a social consensus on censorship was emerging that would be far more repressive than overt state or church power. By the 1830s, this new ideology was proclaiming the necessity for propriety, prudence, and sexual restraint.

During the remainder of the nineteenth century, private virtue became public virtue, and American and British editors, publishers, writers, and librarians felt obliged to examine every book for crude language or unduly explicit or realistic portrayals of life. In her introduction to the 1984 New York Public Library exhibition on censorship, Ann Ilan Alter said that there may have been more censorship, self-imposed or otherwise, during the nineteenth century in England and the United States than during all the preceding centuries of printed literature.

The twentieth century in America has seen the emergence of pressure groups that maintain an uneasy balance in the struggle to interpret our First Amendment rights. The federal government tips that balance in whatever direction the winds blow, and since 1980, those winds have been chilling. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. notes: “[T]he struggle between expression and authority is unending. The instinct to suppress discomforting ideas is rooted deep in human nature. It is rooted above all in profound human propensities to faith and fear.”

Lord of the Flies – In the Spotlight

Lord of the Flies focused attention on the concept of cult literature as a campus phenomenon. Time magazine called it “Lord of the Campus” and identified it as one in a series of underground literary favorites that were challenging the required reading lists of the traditional humanities curriculum.

Up until William Golding’s surprise bestseller, it had been common knowledge that students were reading “unauthorized books,” especially J. D. Salinger The Catcher in the Rye, in spite of (and frequently because of) their condemnation by “the establishment.” But the existence of a serious sub-literature with an intelligent, dedicated readership flourishing in the midst of the conventional curriculum was something unprecedented on college campuses.

During the twenties and thirties, the novels of F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and Thomas Wolfe had quickly been welcomed into the ranks of mainstream, respectable writers and labeled literature. While a few critics might choose to ignore these newcomers, there was nothing particularly subversive about what they wrote. Following the success of The Catcher in the Rye, however, no literary observer could be quite sure that the tastes of young readers could be trusted. After all, there were certain attitudes in Salinger that threatened the established order, and when Golding wrote Lord of the Flies, there was apprehension afoot that young readers might find Jack more interesting than Ralph-as indeed many of them did.

Analysis

What nervous detractors overlooked was the obvious lesson in this Golding classic: that traits like naked aggression and gratuitous cruelty, selfishness, idolatry, superstition, and a taste for violence are not restricted to any particular nationality or race but are inherent in human nature and inhabit the mentality of every human being. If there was anything subversive about this idea, it was that no longer could evil be considered peculiar to the Japanese or the German character. In fact, those who had recently fought against them had waged war with equal relish.

When Golding saw the ecstasy on the faces of his fellow sailors in the North Atlantic as they returned the fire of the enemy or launched an attack he felt the shock of recognition that the beast was within us all, just waiting to break through that fragile veneer we call civilization. What he clearly intended as a reminder to his readers (after all, man’s aggressive nature was not a new philosophical position by any means) became for cult readers another weapon to use against those who argued that atrocities such as those committed by the Germans and the Japanese could never be committed by the Allies who had struggled against them.

“We” were good people who treated others with kindness and generosity and fought those who attacked us with the greatest reluctance and the utmost disdain. Even to suggest that we might enjoy the slaughter was to malign the honor and integrity of the Allied forces.

Regardless of how his theme was interpreted, however, Golding’s thesis had firm mythological precedents. There are many myths underlying Lord of the Flies, but the basic description of reality is of a world inhabited by men of an evil nature restrained only by voluntary adherence to a pragmatic pact of nonaggression. Such a pact passes for civilization, but because it is maintained only through fear, it is constantly threatened by that fear. The defensive fear that keeps one man from his neighbor’s throat can also incite him to cut that throat before his own gets cut.

Lord of the Flies is a case study in alienation. Gradually, with horrifying inevitability, against a backdrop of paradise, the numbers of those who remember their humanity and still cling to the threads of civilization are reduced until there is but one solitary figure left, and just before the ironic rescue, we see him–become him–as he flees his savage pursuers, the backdrop itself reflecting the degradation of those pursuers as the island of paradise burns and smokes and is reduced to char and ashes.

Storyline

First we see the whole group splitting and taking sides, but the balance, at least for a while, remains on the side of Ralph. Then slowly but irresistibly, Ralph’s supporters are drawn toward the charismatic Jack and his choir, until finally there are only four holding out against them: the twins, Piggy, and Ralph himself. Then the twins are captured and Piggy is killed. Ralph is alone, civilized man alone against the powers of darkness. But we are left with the awful suspicion that he remains “civilized” only because Jack must have an enemy and Ralph must be that enemy.

Excluded forever from Jack’s group, Ralph encourages exaggerated sympathy because he is so terribly alone. A victim always seems somehow more civilized than his tormentors. Nevertheless, much of the power of this book derives from the fact that our sympathies can only be with Ralph and that we, therefore, can feel the vulnerability, the awful weakness, of flimsy rationality at the mercy of a world gone mad. There is no place to run, no place to hide, no exit. And rescue is only temporary and perhaps ultimately more horrible than quick and early death.

Media treatment of issues about children relies heavily on such simplistic generalizations with children represented as objects of concern or as threats to adult order. The former relies on an idealized view of children as pure, innocent and vulnerable, needing protection or salvation from dangers they can neither identify nor comprehend. The latter, of children drawn innately (unless prevented) towards evil and anarchy, also has deep historical roots (Miller, 1983). It is a portrayal powerfully evoked by William Golding’s (1959) novel, Lord of the Flies.

The power of this fictional work is evident in the frequency with which it is given respect and credibility in press accounts of ‘deviant’ children. It evokes an apocalyptic vision of anarchy as being inevitable should children lose the discipline and order of the adult presence. The portrayals of children as ‘innocent victims’ or ‘culpable delinquents’ are no more than alternative placements that the adult world creates into which children are located at different times, in different circumstances.

The idea that children are products of nature or nurture leads to media concern as to whether child ‘deviance’ is rooted in a biological predisposition or in an environmental determinism. Children’s meanings and motivations are persistently ignored, as is the position of adults, both familial and professional, as powerful definers of deviant behavior. Consequently, much of the physical and psychological harm inflicted on children by adults is disregarded, while transgressions by children of their set role are the subject of furious condemnation.

Original sin is what Golding was writing about a religious concept, we suspect more relevant to the mayhem that occurred at this C of E school in Liverpool than any glib sociological generalization. Children will run wild, viciously wild, unless they are properly supervised. They need parents to give them a stable and ordered home.

They need teachers who know how to keep order as well as how to impart knowledge. They need, God help them, practical instruction in the difference between right and wrong. Here was a rhetoric established and developed which was to re-emerge throughout the next decade, particularly following the murder of James Bulger. It invoked Golding’s construct of anarchy inherent in children left to themselves.

Thesis – Fallacies and Immoralities

Golding seems in many ways to simplify Lord of the Flies in order to make his point as clearly as possible. For example, all developments in the book are entirely predictable, suggesting not only that the course taken by Golding’s boys is inevitable, but that violence and brutality are inevitable in all interactions among human beings. Moreover, though Golding’s carefully constructed book includes a fairly complex network of literary symbols and devices, all of them tend directly to support the central message. For example, the apparent deus ex machina ending of the book is undercut by the facts that the British are still at war and the adults who arrive to restore order are themselves engaged in a mission of destruction the motivation of which is not fundamentally different from that of the savage hunting frenzies of Jack and his tribe of boys.

This parallel presumably suggests that the supposedly “civilized” adults are really as savage as the primitivized boys, though it could also be taken as a suggestion that the training received by Jack and his “choir” in military school had already been sufficient to inculcate them with the kind of militaristic values that have led civilization to a cataclysmic war. Indeed, despite the apparent clarity of its message, Golding’s fable is flawed on several accounts.

For one thing, this island society could never really represent a new start for humanity because it is all male and therefore incapable of perpetuating itself. For another, the boys on the island are not really innocent; they have already been thoroughly socialized by the same society that seems to be destroying itself through warfare.

Still, in some ways Lord of the Flies is an exemplary dystopian fiction. In it Golding creates a fictional society distant from the “real” world, then utilizes the defamiliarizing perspective of that distance to comment upon the shortcomings of our own social reality. However, whereas most dystopian fictions are designed to function as cautionary tales that warn against the development of specific social and political problems, Golding suggests that all human societies are inevitably doomed by the darkness at the heart of humanity itself.

Golding’s book thus lacks the drive toward positive social and political change that informs the best dystopian fictions. If there is a cautionary element in the book, it would seem to involve a hope that were humans aware of their natural tendencies toward violence they might stand a better chance of keeping those tendencies in check. In this respect, it is important to note that Lord of the Flies really makes two major points. First, and more obvious, is the suggestion that human nature lies at the root of most of the ills that plague society. But the book also suggests that society itself is based on an attempt to deny this fact, thus making matters even worse.

Although many critics have complained about the gimmick at the end of the novel — the boys are saved; the officer doesn’t “understand” the violence which has occurred — it is justified because it is another “appearance.” The officer allows his “eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance,” but we doubt that he can see it or the water with full knowledge. Lord of the Flies is therefore a novel of faulty vision. Can the boys ever see the elements? Are the elements really there? Is a marriage between elements and consciousness possible?

The novel is not about Evil, Innocence, or Free Will; it goes beyond (or under) these abstractions by questioning the very ability to formulate them. Look at any crucial scene. There is an abundance of descriptive details — the elements are “exaggerated” because they are all that the boys possess — but these details are blurred in one way or another. The result is, paradoxically, a confusing clarity. (Even the “solid” words the boys use are illusive: Piggy says “ass-mar” for asthma; Sam and Eric call themselves one name, “Sam ‘n Eric.”) Here is the first vision of the dead man in the tree:

In front of them, only three or four yards away, was a rock-like hump where no rock should be. Ralph could hear a tiny chattering noise coming from somewhere–perhaps from his own mouth. He bound himself together with his will, fused his fear and loathing into a hatred, and stood up. He took two leaden steps forward. Behind them the sliver of moon had drawn clear of the horizon. Before them, something like a great ape was sitting asleep with its head between its knees. Then the wind roared in the forest, there was confusion in the darkness and the creature lifted its head, holding towards them the ruin of a face.

Conclusion

Golding gives us the short distance, the hulking object. Ralph (and the others) should be able to see. But he cannot. Although he “binds” himself — becoming more stable — he does not know where the noise comes from or what the “no-rock” is. His senses cannot rule the elements. He, like the lifted face, is a ruin. V. S. Pritchett claims that Lord of the Flies indicates “Golding’s desire to catch the sensation of things coming into us.”

On the contrary, it indicates his need to tell us that “out there” and “in here” never marry — not even on an enchanted island. We should not forget that the Lord of the Flies may be only a skull — an object given miraculous life because of faulty vision. It is precisely because of this misguided literary piece and its possibility to lead school children astray with its vague philosophies.

Works Cited

Carey John, ed. William Golding: the Man and His Books. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987.

Devkota Padma Prasad. “The Darkness Motif in the ‘Primitive’ Novels of William Golding.” DAI 51 ( 1990): 860A.
Monteith Charles. “Strangers from Within into ‘Lord of the Flies.'” ( London) Times Literary Supplement ( September 19, 1986): 1030.
Tanzman Leo. “The Murder of Simon in Golding’s Lord of the Flies.” Notes on Contemporary Literature ( Nov. 1987): 2-3.
Watson George. “The Coronation of Realism.” The Georgia Review (Spring 1987): 5-16.
Golding William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Coward-McCann, 1962.

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