Unsurprisingly my favourite subject at school was English, and I never had to be forced to read the set texts. Unlike most of my friends, who would moan and whine and read as little as they could get away with, supplementing their knowledge with SparkNotes, I was reading voraciously, and probably reading the rest of the author’s books too. However, there was one book that defeated me; I hated it with a passion, and reading it was torture. Its name- the dreaded Lord of the Flies. Most school children in England have to read Lord of the Flies, and I’m yet to find someone who enjoyed the experience. My whole class hated the book. We would groan and loll about on our desks, begging our teacher not to make us read it out loud again. We’d sigh our way through a group reading, most of us staring vacantly out of the window in between reading our parts in an expressionless monotone. I genuinely thought it was the most boring book I’d ever read. I considered it to be silly and unrealistic, and I wished that all the boys would hurry up and kill each other so the book would just END. So when I got my list of set texts for the classes I will be teaching this year, I was horrified to see Lord of the Flies on there. Why? WHY?! The thought of having to read that awful book AGAIN and then having to be enthusiastic about it in front of a class of bored students who would also probably hate it filled me with dread. How was I going to manage?
Well, I needn’t have worried. I re-read it in two days, shocked to find myself absorbed by the same story that had bored me to tears just ten years ago. Unlike some of the other books for younger readers I am having to read, the language is sophisticated and evocative, perfectly conjuring up the atmosphere of a hot, humid island, filled with lush, exotic plants, strange creatures and unsettling noises in the night. The characters are realistic and intriguing, the plot inventive, the themes subtle and intelligent. When I first read Lord of the Flies, I didn’t believe that a bunch of little boys could be capable of hatred and violence, and so quickly degenerate from well behaved middle class children in school caps and stockings to naked dirty savages clutching sharpened sticks. Now I’ve seen more of the world, and become an Aunt to three little boys who are all obsessed with killing things (it’s a phase, it’s a phase, it’s a phase, I keep repeating to myself as I am repeatedly ‘shot’, ‘stabbed’ and ‘blown up’ and told to lay down and die), I no longer think the plot is far fetched. In a world where not a day goes by when the news isn’t filled with the evidence of the baser side of human nature, I can well imagine just how quickly, with all authority gone, a society could degenerate into hunter and hunted. I felt really quite uncomfortable as the plot developed, the boys’ united front slowly disintegrating and the true colours of those for whom a removal of authority meant a freedom to bully and wound becoming revealed.
The novel starts with two boys emerging from the wreck of a plane crash on a seemingly deserted island. One is tall and fair, well spoken and self confident. The other is short and fat, with glasses and a working class accent. Ironically they had been sent with their schools to be evacuated to a safer place; WWII is going on overhead and it seems that their plane may have been shot down. Piggy, the chubby boy with the glasses, is immediately concerned by the lack of adults; it soon becomes clear that he has never been popular amongst his peers and is used to adult company, and adult reason. He is keen to impose order and collect the survivors together, though he knows he will not be able to do this himself; he will need an ally who will be respected by any other boys who may arrive. Ralph, the fair boy, couldn’t care less about imposing order. The idea of having no adults to prevent him from doing whatever he likes is thrilling, and he is quick to strip off the confines of his previous life, discarding his school uniform and running around like a wild child. However, when he and Piggy find a shell, they decide to blow it to make a noise loud enough to alert any other boys who may have survived. Soon gaggles of little boys appear from the undergrowth, sitting in dumb submittance in front of the boy with the shell. Just when they think everyone has arrived, a shape like a black caterpillar appears on the sand. It is a be-frocked choir, led by a boy, Jack, who is ginger and mean-eyed. He is quick to challenge Ralph’s authority, asking for a vote on leadership. The boys, however, vote for the blonde good looks of Ralph, and Ralph, who has no great desire to lead and is keen to please everyone, gives Jack sole authority over his choir, who become his ‘hunters’. This initially placates Jack, and the boys become fast friends, with sensible Piggy forgotten and ousted, mocked for his name, size and glasses.
At first all is like a child’s wildest dreams; free from authority, the boys spend their days roaming, playing and having fun. But soon, dissension sets in. Ralph’s priority is to start and maintain a fire, to create smoke so that they are visible and can be rescued. Jack’s is to hunt the island’s native pigs, so that they can eat meat and also so that he can satisfy his lust for violence. When Jack’s hunters let the fire go out due to being too busy hunting, Ralph and Jack are pitted against one another. Meanwhile, fear has begun to take its hold, with the younger boys talking of beasties and screaming out in their sleep, and rumours circulate of a creature hidden in the forest waiting to pounce. Only Simon, a figure of tolerance and self sacrifice, can see that the beast they are afraid of is within the hearts of the boys, who are the only creatures on the island truly capable of wounding one another. The friendly camaraderie and united purposes of the early days slowly begin to break down, as Jack’s desire for control overrides Ralph’s milder and fairer personality, and the voice of reason becomes replaced with that of fear and superstition. Soon it becomes clear that these little boys are capable of significant evil, and without anyone to stop them, the consequences will surely be fatal…
What I found most interesting about this novel is how subtly the boys’ island paradise disintegrates, and how fear can be used to manipulate and pressure people into behaving against their natures. Golding never gives a timeframe in the novel; this ambiguity is intriguing and raises the question of just how long the boys managed to keep order for; I suspect not long at all. There is a fundamental conflict between reason and instinct, fairness and greed, desire for order and desire for power. With the framework of civilised society removed, some, like Ralph and Piggy, continue to adhere to its rules and guiding principles, whereas others, like Jack and his henchman Roger, use it as an opportunity to indulge their baser instincts. The weak are quickly bullied and outcast, the vulnerable manipulated, the different humiliated and destroyed. Most terrifying of all, however, is how the more sensible of the boys idolise the adult world of sense and order, fairness and safety, when the whole reason why they are on the island in the first place is because the adults are all at war with one another, and what is happening on the island is a mere microcosm of what is taking place on the battlefields of WWII. Clever, gripping, evocative and incredibly thought provoking, this is a novel that stands the test of time and has even more relevance in our world of terrorism and extremism. There is so much within it that’s worthy of discussion and analysis, but I do think that it is one of those novels that requires maturity to be fully appreciated. With that in mind, I’m looking forward to finding ways of teaching this that give it contemporary relevance and immediacy, and enable it to ‘speak’ to teenagers from within the limits of their life experience and world perspective. There’s a lot you could do with this in the classroom, and I’m really excited to start coming up with inventive lesson ideas!