Friday, July 28, 2006

Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (United Kingdom, 1954).

I somehow graduated from high school -- a boys religious high school, no less -- without being assigned Lord of the Flies. So I decided last week to read the mother of all high school English books.

I came to the text with certain preconceptions and prejudices. Like many high school students, I was force-fed my share of meaningful stories with something to say. I though To Kill a Mockingbird was simple and didactic, and, after two readings, I cannot comprehend what any serious person sees in The Catcher in the Rye. In Cold Blood and The Stranger were more my speed, stories with the confidence to tell their tales and not hit you over the head with life lessons. I approached Lord of the Flies with wariness.

The story is well known. A flight filled with English schoolboys crashes on an uninhabited island, killing all of the adults. Ralph, a charismatic but forgetful 12-year-old, is elected the leader of the survivors, who quickly segregate by function. Ralph determines the day's tasks. Fat but smart Piggy counsels. Jack and the members of his boys' choir hunt the island's wild pigs. The "littluns," the six- and seven-year-olds, exist in a task-less state of near hysteria.

Jack, the warrior prince who provides meat, becomes envious of Ralph's position as leader. The principal arc of the 200-page book is the heightening tension between Ralph, whose priority is to maintain a signal fire and be rescued, and Jack, whose priority is to hunt and lead.

Many passages were suprisingly clunky. Dialogue sections repeatedly ignored Strunk and White's admonition to "make sure the reader knows who is speaking." Author William Golding devoted substantial space to physical descriptions, but they tended to be vague and confusing. Many of the secondary characters were cardboard, as thinly drawn as in Dickens but without the cartoonish charm. The narration's point of view changed abruptly at certain points.

Lord of the Flies was Golding's first novel, so imperfections can be forgiven. He was ultimately awarded the Nobel Prize and a Booker so, to paraphrase Shelly Winters, some people thought he could write.

But what is it about this book, an almost archetypal "promising" first novel, that has landed it on so many required reading lists? Lord of the Flies has sold more than 10 million copies, deep into Dan Brown territory, and my raggedy paperback is the 96th Capricorn printing. (Interestingly, the book initially flopped, selling only a few thousand copies.)

Much of the success of Lord of the Flies must be due to the fact that it is a useful tool when teaching some of the basics of literary theory.

First of all, kids will read it, especially boys who may not be the most avid readers. The idea of a world without grown-ups catches adolescent interest. The book is short. There's a fair amount of action, including a taut climax.

Moreover, the Big Themes are laid on with a backhoe. The symbolism is so obvious that the slowest kid in fourth-track English can figure it out. A student can spend hours matching the characters with their analogues in modern society and, judging from some of the web pages devoted to the book, students have spent much more time than that. Every high school English teacher needs to explain that sometimes there's more to a story than what the characters do and say, and Lord of the Flies feels custom-cooked for that effort.

I don't think Lord of the Flies has much to offer an adult reader, but it's a pleasant reminder of youthful efforts to learn the rudiments of symbolism and subtext.

Now, class, what do Piggy's glasses represent?

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Anonymous mrs. walsh said...

alternate theory: in sixth grade, on a day in which my friends and i were acting paricularly unruly, our teacher calmly wrote on the blackboard, "William Golding, Lord of the Flies." Her point was that here is a tale of anarchic 11 year olds just like you -- see what happens. I submit that a book about unruly preadolescents who end up slaughtering each other is just too useful for adults to discard.

5:12 AM  

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