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'Lord of the Flies' Review

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Lord of the Flies Re-Covered
Timo Meyer timohmeyer/ Flickr CC


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Every year, the American Library Association's Office for Intellectual Freedom compiles a list of formal complaints filed by patrons demanding that certain books be removed from schools or public libraries. Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, persistently makes the top 100 on this list (in 2006, the novel reached number 70 on the banned books list).

Why? I have a pretty good notion...


William Golding's Banned Book

This 1954 novel fairly directly states that human nature is violent, and that there isn't any hope for redemption from our tendency to destroy all that is good in ourselves. This view is, of course, the reason Lord of the Flies is so popular among teenagers.

Although they often encounter the book first as a school-reading assignment, teenagers are pleasantly surprised that it offers a bleak assessment of humanity's chances for survival, an outlook that echos their often-gloomy worldview.

About Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel with a fairly obvious set of symbols to decode. The symbology is yet another reason the novel is popular with young readers (although their assurance may be misplaced). The novel also offers very believable characters and brief bursts of subtlety that are haunting and memorable.

First, let's consider the most accessible aspects of the novel. The story begins just after a plane crash. We meet English schoolboys who have survived the crash and find themselves on a desert island without any adults. A dream setup for any ten-year-old, right? Stay tuned...

Without the usual authority figures to direct the boys, they must fend for themselves. By default, the personable Ralph takes on a leadership position. He knows little more than any of the others, but he manages to gather them in one place and is voted leader. At his side is the compassionate, clever, but fatally clumsy Piggy, a nicely rendered character who serves as Ralph's conscience.

Ralph's election is contested by Jack, a cool customer with his own squadron of followers, a former choir under his leadership. Jack is a force of nature with intentions of leading hunting parties deep into the primordial jungle.

With Piggy's planning, Ralph's reluctant leadership, and Jack's energy, the castaways establish a successful, thriving village (at least... for a day or two). Soon enough, the few sensible efforts (such as keeping a fire burning at all times) fall by the wayside. These, after all, are young boys, and their plans tend to have half-lives of two hours or so.

In the meantime, headstrong Jack grows bored, restless, and resentful of Ralph's superior role. With his hunters in tow, he splits off from the main group. From here on out, nearly all of the book consists of the descent of Jack's tribe into base brutality. As Jack successfully recruits more boys, Ralph becomes more isolated. Then, Jack's tribe kills Piggy (his glasses smash in an excessively heavy-handed moment of symbolism, signaling the end of rational thought and civilized behavior).

Jack's troop have honed their hunting skills on pigs, and they proceed to move in on Ralph. There is no use appealing to their better nature now. They have abandoned all compassion. Ralph is cornered and seems a goner when suddenly an adult(a naval officer) arrives on the beach, with his uniform gleaming. His appearance puts everyone in a state of shock, particularly since there are only two or three pages left in the book.

From Innocence to Experience

In case the symbolism has escaped anyone, Golding informs us on the last page: "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." The naval officer eyes his cruiser in the distance. He has saved the children from their chaotic microcosm, but he's about to pile them onto a military vessel. Golding's own description further clarifies the symbolic overtones: "The officer... prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?"

Who, indeed? This is either a very deep and innovative question or old news, depending on one's life experience. For those who don't wrestle with such possibilities, it's a frightening question with no easy answer. The world wars and authoritarian regimes of the mid-20th century that served as Golding's historical moment certainly don't offer much hope.

What happens when "Jack" is a country that just won't stop hunting the mild-mannered "Ralph" countries of the world--despite the advice of the "Piggy" intellectual countries of the world? Who will intervene? Who will parachute in? The question is at least as old as Plato, and it has probably always worried parents who like to ban books like Lord of the Flies.

And maybe they're right. Maybe our children should live in blissful ignorance for a few minutes longer (if they can).

Then again, if we are denied the dark and hopeless symbolism of the novel, we will also be denied some of the more subtle symbolism.


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