Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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!

41 comments

  1. I read The Lord of the Flies at school and remember it as a deeply disturbing book. It was one of the first adult books that I became deeply involved in – perhaps because of the age I was and how much it resonated with me! People seemed to change so much as we went to secondary school, and not in a good way. Thirteen year old girls, in particular, can be positively evil! I’m kind of surprised it isn’t popular in the classroom given that children and adolescents recognise the cruelty in each other… though, as you say, there are many more layers to be appreciated as an adult reader.

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it, Erica! I wish I had done when I was that age. I quite agree – it is very much like school and the nastiness that different groups inflict upon one another. Teenage girls are definitely the worst! Perhaps no one enjoys reading it because they recognise themselves in the characters too much! Though I think for me it’s because it was about boys and I just didn’t care about little boys running wild in a forest. Obviously I didn’t appreciate the underlying messages!

  2. Wow. You write with such passion. I love to read and following you has led me to types of books I would never have picked up. This is just a thank you.

  3. Lord of the Flies always seemed very real to me. I appreciate your insight about the story. When I was in junior high, someone encouraged me to read A Wrinkle In Time. Over the next 20 years I started it a half-dozen times and could not get going. Even though I loved everything else by M.L. One day I decided to read it to my 5th grade library group, just so I would finish it. I loved it and read the whole series. Why did it take so long to catch the spark of that book? A book many Minnesota teenagers must read is called Until They Bring the Streetcars Back by Stanley Gordon West. Set in a 1950’s high school in Minnesota, it is a gripping book that even non readers love.

    1. It’s funny, isn’t it, how books can sometimes strike us so strongly at one time in our lives but leave us cold at others. I’m finding that with Anna Karenina at the moment! I love A Wrinkle in Time! I’m glad you found a love for it in the end. I’m going to look that book up – thank you!

  4. This is, in many ways, a quite brilliant book, and well deserving of it’s status as a “must-read”. However, I feel it is best appreciated by a more mature audience, looking back as it were from maturity to the emotionally chaotic days of adolescence.

    Just because it is about young people does not mean it is necessarily a book for young people, a mistake that is made so terribly often in choosing books for teens as school set pieces.

    I too read and was extremely trurned off by this book in high school, but, reading it in adulthood, appreciated it much more.

    Interesting thing I’ve noticed, too. Perhaps having to “study”, dissect and analyze such books is what makes them so distatestful to the student. If they were left alone to mull them over by themselves perhaps a lot of the detested school novels would serve more of the purpose which they are chosen to achieve?

    My son read a number of “classic” novels when he was 14-15: Lord of the Flies, 1984, Brave New World, The Chrysalids, Animal Farm… he read them as “books” – “stories” – not as prescribed set pieces. We had some great discussions, initiated by him, around reading them, including why so many of his conventionally-schooled friends “hated” them. (My son is homeschooled, or rather, at this point, self-schooled🙂 with a decreasing amount of parental input as he matures.) I think he “got” the books in a way he might not have if they were forced upon him.

    Just a few thoughts. Great review – thank you!

    1. Thanks for your thoughts – and I agree with you on all counts! I think some books are given to some children too early, and I think over analysing texts can destroy a lot of the pleasure of reading them. Children are told that it means this or that and so they disengage and don’t think for themselves or relate the book to their own experiences. I’m worried about that and am going to be interested to see how other teachers get around this issue!

  5. How do I sign up for your class? I would love to read this again in a classroom setting and be witness to such a discussion. Lord of the Flies was required reading in high school, though I don’t remember what subject, thinking it was for a sociology class rather than a literature class. I had an amazing sociology teacher my senior year (17/18 years old). What innovative ways there are to use this book in the classroom. It would be interesting to some day hear how your approach this as a teacher and what the outcome is.

    Wonderfully insightful review, Rachel.

    1. You can come by any time, Penny! I think a sociology class would be a really interest within which to teach this actually, and I shall bear that in mind when I’m thinking about teaching it! Thank you very much for your enthusiasm as always!🙂

  6. We’ve had this book for years and for some reason I’ve never brought myself around to reading it. But I’m looking forward to reading it after having heard the story of your conversion!

  7. Sometimes I think we just aren’t ready for certain books at certain times in our lives. I got away with not reading this in secondary school but my husband read it in Year 10 and he actually loved it. I hope your students love it as much as you did on the second time round🙂

  8. I must confess that I was given this to read for school over the summer holidays when I was about 15. I thought I was going to hate it, but I loved it – found it totally gripping. And I loved the classes that followed in the Autumn. In fact, I enjoyed it so much I’m scared to reread it in case I don’t like it as much.

    So, have fun teaching it – some of your pupils might be loving it.

    PS I remember secretly loving a book desire maintaining I didn’t because that’s what everyone else was saying (A Kestrel for a Knave, I think), so even if your future pupils profess to hate something, may be some don’t.

  9. I read Lord of the Flies at school too – and hated it with a passion. I have a theory that kids hate it so much – almost everone I have spoken about it to say the same – because deep down they know it too be true. The world of schools operate just like the world of the boys in the novel, it’s a world kids understand much better than any of the staff. Lord of the Flies is probably just a little too close to home for many kids, especially those not in the cool/popular group.

    1. I think you might have a point, Ali – the world of schools with their cliques and bullying is very similar to this – kids can be best friends one day and enemies the next, and can be so cruel. Seeing yourself reflected in someone your teacher says is evil probably isn’t the nicest thing in the world!

  10. Rachel, I, too, hate this book. I had to read it when I was 14 and remember throwing it across the room. I didn’t even like how it smelled; it was a cheap paperback edition we had to buy at the school store. The book terrified me, and the movie was even scarier.

  11. I had to read this in 10th grade, and I loved it–just as I loved most of the set texts we had in school. I’ve always liked dark stories, and this one certainly fits the bill! Actually, from what I remember, this book was pretty well-liked among my classmates, which probably means the teacher was doing something right–and it means it is possible not to bore all your students🙂 I wish I could remember more of what my teacher did, but it’s the book itself that stuck with me. The only thing I remember for sure was some role-playing we did in groups.

    1. I wish I’d been in your class, Teresa! That does encourage me that not ALL kids will hate it and it’s certainly not a lost cause! Role play could definitely be interesting….

  12. “sigh our way through a group reading”

    Ahem. Your sighs rather attract my attention, dear R.

    Hmmm.

    I have on my reading list, Rousseau’s Social Contract. Also Plato’s Republic. In other words, testimony and some definition to the darkness within human beings which appears to arise invevitably when we compete, fight, and act within animal-like parameters which underly civil constructs.

    I too read LOTF when I was about 15, as part of English.

    Don’t remember it particularly favourably or otherwise.

    Its lovely, R, how you take this kind of topic on board in regard to the demands of PGCE English.

    When you’ve finished coming to terms with it, one way or another, I have some Traditional Twinings Afternoon for you.

    Ahem.

    – Bop

    PS Needless to say, disregard my wittering but accept the sentiment. I browsed, today, The Bookseller of Kabul. Books. Books. BOOKS.

  13. I had to read Lord of The Flies with an American student whom I tutored and he loved it and I too realised how it has stood the test of time. He had to read dystopian novels which included a short story by Shirley Jackson called The Lottery and also Hunger Games. I so enjoyed working with him and I recommend the short story to you. I would love to hear what other books are on your list. Good luck with the teaching. I am teaching for two weeks and loving it. I am afraid we are reading Charlotte’s Web as they are Primary School children but nevertheless I am loving it.

    1. I like the idea of reading this with The Hunger Games, Enid – giving it a parallel with a much more widely read and popular book might just help to make it more relevant. I must read The Hunger Games pronto! Thanks so much Enid – I’m glad you are loving your time teaching too!

  14. I absolutely adored this book back when I read it in school – it is actually the only set text I remember enjoying! It’s a story that has stayed with me ever since. I’m not sure if you’re aware that somebody wrote a version of LOTF with stranded girls instead of boys, and I’ve always meant to read it as it sounds like a really interesting idea. Imagine how differently the story would pan out! Might be interesting to discuss with your class🙂

    1. It’s funny how different people’s reactions can be, isn’t it?! I’m glad you loved it! The person above you just gave me the name of that book and I’m going to get hold of it. I think that would be a fascinating discussion – what if they were girls? Would the outcome have been different? What would their preoccupations have been? So many opportunities to get them engaged!🙂

  15. I read this at school and thought it was OK. Then I re-read it a year or so ago, and was totally bowled over by it – so much so, that I am beginning to think that it might be a better book not to read too early – you didn’t mention which year will be reading it at your new school, but good luck with it.

    1. Yes, I do think some children need this later than when they’re actually given it. I wish I’d read it a bit later. I think they read it when they’re 15 so I’ll be interested to see how it sits with them at that age.

  16. I, too, hated this as a teenager, Rachel. Funny how only a few weeks ago I was thinking to myself I should probably read this again, maybe I won’t find it a terrible read now that I’m an adult and with so much more reading experience behind me. I expect what happened to you might be the same thing for me. I will try to give it another go sometime!

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