Disaster and the absence of law shows us, ultimately, what we really are. When shipwreck casts an assortment of young boys onto a deserted island, the trappings of adult enforced civilization soon wilt under the primal nature of competition, hunting, and the devolution into power play and murder. Ralph, the fair haired leader of the gang and his loathed sidekick, the chubby, asthmatic Piggy, are pitted against Jack, the serpent in the desert, so to speak, who sways the younger children to his side with tribal war paint and rituals of blood and abandon. The heavy beauty of an island paradise soon turns into a purgatory for the unwary, and rumors of a mythic beast dispel the last shreds of carefully crafted humanity to reveal the true nature of what lies under the concealing paint.
A few years ago, I saw the remake of the Lord of the Flies movie and was captivated by the often debated concept – strip away rules and enforced society and what are people really? The idea of taking a group of children and allowing them to grow naturally without the molding influence of adults, law, school, and the repercussions of choice, presents an interesting paradox: will the good nature of children abide or will it be corrupted by power play and the ultimate desire to rule? When I ran into the audio book, read by the author William Golding, I recalled the unique dynamics of the movie story and decided to go in for some classic literature during a bumpy commute to work.
The novel is short; six discs on a poorly tracked audiobook and 290 pages in the PDF version I finally had to download when the main disc, right at the pinnacle of the action, got caught in a hard loop. The story is girded with lush descriptions, the island itself becoming a character, the heavy heat dripping from the creepers and enveloping readers until we too feel abandoned in a beautiful place that ultimately isn’t so friendly. The pink rocks of the island, the luster of the fragile conch, the tangle of the island, and the spray of the surface all intertwine together to create a place that we get lost in, a land that we fear for its primordial qualities just as much as the intense isolation that our characters are abandoned in.
The heavy descriptions compliment the youth and confusion of the biguns, the older boys who are forced to find some way to reckon with the island. The group of littleuns, the small children, prove helpless and hopeless, more interested in playing than rescue, leaving the divide to grow and the burden of responsibility to strike against the freedom of not caring and not planning. Things devolve.
The creation of Piggy, the social outcast because of his weight, glasses, and asthma makes another striking point as he floats in a world of his own, simultaneously loathed by everyone (including Ralph who begins the cruelty) but later fused with the image of civilization and thinking. Ralph realizes the value of his friend as it is too late, and the idea of being “different” from society and all the bolstering and creation of community through unanimous disdain speaks to the moral of the book – people are animals when left on their own.
The action starts in a mainly cerebral way. We watch the characters flounder with an accelerated growing up process as they try to think what the adults would do and how they need to approach a rescue. But the world around them was at war (World War II at the time), and it is uncertain if there is anything even left of their country to find them. The weight of knowledge settles and the juxtaposition between sense and the letting go creates a narrative that moves from thoughts into actions as the pace picks up and the savagery escalates to a conclusion that increases the tension and the stakes without ever losing focus on the main point which made Goldman’s novel so controversial and simultaneously attractive.
It was especially unique to hear the story unfold through the author’s own voice which at first seemed too monotone but later, as the narrative progressed, seemed the only way in which to read the narrative. I was especially miffed to find out that there was an actual hole right in the middle of the CD (not that unusual when you go in for library audio books). My Kindle also decided to pick that particular moment to irrevocably die right as the confrontation between Ralph’s tribe, representing civilization, and Jack’s tribe, representing savagery, engaged in the final battle. Thanks to this string of occurrences, I discovered that Lord of the Flies is available in PDF format to any google searchers, and I was able to finish the narrative in a breathless late night rush.
The story is ultimately one about what resides in the human heart. Long after the final moment of realization passes and the last page of the book is flipped, the story haunts and the sucking ocean around the pink rock still calls out to readers and reminds them of the potential lurking in all of us – of what we could become.
– Frances Carden