In my daughter's basement I found a dried-up, stained, pages-hanging-out 1959 paperback edition of William Golding's Lord of the Flies.On the cover: "Copyright 1954." "Over 4,450,000 copies in print." "Sixty-second impression." "Now Available For Students And Teachers: the Casebook Edition containing the full text of the novel, critical essays, notes, and bibliography." Lord of the Flies leaped into public prominence in the mid-1950s and quickly became a classroom staple. A quick googling found half a dozen websites designed to help high school students generate reports on the novel's "symbolism," etc.
I didn't like Lord of the Flies when I read it back then and it's become less likable-- and less worthy of respect-- over the last half-century. It's a variation on Robinson Crusoe, except that this time a score of boys land (how? and not a one of them injured!!) on a uninhabited island in the Pacific. They very quickly degenerate into savages, murder two of their own number, and are hunting down the last boy who possesses a modicum of civility when a naval officer (nauta ex machina?) arrives to take command. Lord of the Flies is a dyspeptic, dystopian novel; it's also, according to the websites, a story of the contest between civilization and barbarism and,-- guess what?-- it's barbarism by a country mile.
Robinson Crusoe himself was no perfect model of psychological health, but Defoe's story has been admired for centuries (it's the most reprinted novel in history) at least in part because it asserts that a resourceful human being can triumph over a bad situation. Crusoe reads his Bible, keeps a calendar and a diary, domesticates sheep, develops a working agricultural system, learns pottery, carpentry and other crafts, and builds himself both a summer and a winter domicile. Lord of the Flies, on the contrary, is entirely pessimistic about human capabilities: its flat, book-less, unskilled characters devolve rapidly into war-painted, violent tribesmen. Robinson Crusoe embodied Age of Reason optimism; Lord of the Flies is a post-Nazi novel in which there is no culture, government is nothing more than incipient dictatorship, and religion equals cruel scapegoating.
Why was it imagined that Lord of the Flies had something of value to say about about human nature? It's a sure thing that if Golding had written a novel in which an isolated group of people behave like reborn Crusoes and work cooperatively to tame the forest and create a communal utopia, he would have been derided as a simpleton. No room in the Cold War inn or on the best-seller lists or in high school curricula for optimism!
Golding arranges it so that the descent into barbarism appears to be not circumstantial but inevitable. He banishes from his island women and therefore any need for reciprocity in social institutions. (Violence without heterosexual sex--just what's needed in the high school classroom!) Moreover, the boys who land on the island are not a representative set of human beings: they're English public school children who've already internalized poisonous notions of hierarchy, hazing, power and class. When, at the outset, they choose a chief, they're really selecting a head boy for whom lesser creatures will "fag." Of the island's inhabitants, the only one with more brain than earwax is the physically repulsive Piggy, while the only boy whose instincts are democratic is slow, tongue-tied, and indecisive. Meanwhile, Jack, to whom Golding grants leadership abilities, is a slick soulless demagogue. The author may appear to be impartial, but in fact he's stacked the deck so that the emergence of a proto-fascism appears "natural." Golding, both a student and a teacher in English public schools, seems to think that adolescents of his own circle somehow represent common humanity. His analysis of culture is therefore as shallow as a parking-lot puddle. And because it's so shallow, the novel is a treasure-trove for the kind of teaching where the identification of "symbols" substitutes for genuine thought, or emotion, or aesthetic revelation. It's a convenient opportunity -- a casebook -- for the kind of bad reading that has damaged generations of students.
Golding's island abounds not in intelligence but in absurdities. Is it credible that three or four pre-adolescent boys armed only with sharpened sticks could a) confront a wild boar and b) actually bring down a mature sow, and that the sow would lie still, or allow herself to be held to the ground while one of the boys repeatedly stabs and eventually kills the animal with a penknife, and c) that the same boys, using no other tools than the single penknife, could quickly skin, butcher and behead the sow, and then d) cut and drive into the ground a post stout enough on which to mount that head? Or e) that a few boys could dislodge and push a rock that is "as big as a tank." Or that f) there could exist an uninhabited Pacific atoll so small that a group of boys could systematically search every inch of it like beaters on a hunt, but yet so large that, without experiencing much in the way of rain, it could have streams and pools of fresh water and, in addition, g) an inexhaustible supply of wild pigs (indigenous? feral?) If Lord of the Flies is an allegory, then perhaps such howlers don't matter. Yet even an allegory should not cause a reader to guffaw at inappropriate moments.