Friday, July 18, 2008

William Golding - Lord of the Flies ****

The first time I read William Golding's Lord of the Flies, gas was about a dollar a gallon and I thought the Backstreet Boys were never going to go away. My, how times have changed, even in a few short years. A schoolyard standard in American (and I can only assume British) school systems, William Golding's 1954 tour-de-force still endures as one of the most important and comprehensive studies on the human psyche put to paper.

What it may lack in characterization and description, it more than makes up for with meaning, symbolism and scathing social commentary. Really, as great a piece of fiction as the brief novel is, calling it merely a piece of fiction is such a disservice. As a piece of fiction the novel was panned upon its release, looked at as an overly-violent adventure story, a nonsense romp for boys who liked tearing the wings off flies and torturing the neighbors cats. But now, fifty years after its publication, it has been seen for what Golding intended--in his own words, "an attempt to trace the defect of society back to the defect of human nature." Even if you're not a fan of the man's prose, it is a difficult thing to disagree with his delivery on theme.

As for the actual writing of the novel, it is a bit spastic at times. I did not always know who was talking or where they were talking from. Suddenly we are in the foreset, no the beach, wait, we are running from the Beast, or are we just chasing a pig? Between the dozen odd characters that populate the pages, it's hard to put names to personalities when personalities run so thin and names run so close together (Ralph, Roger and Robert all in the same story?). But to put that blame fully on Golding's head would be to ignore the style of the time and the intended audience. As much as Lord of the Flies is so much more than an adventure story, it still was aimed firmly in that direction, and its quick-draw pace, stark prose and painfully common naming is just a by-product of that. However, such minor issues shouldn't dissuade from the novels importance in social commentary--in the greater project at work. Ten years earlier, George Orwell wrote a brutal social study veiled in science fiction and ten years later, Kurt Vonnegut would wrap his series of social studies in some of the most ridiculous costumes that literature has ever seen. A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. After reading Lord of the Flies, even the most ignorant of a young reader should feel their moral fiber thicken, even ever so slightly. And those who actually can see the story's purpose should feel all but guilty that we are a species about which such a tale of horror can be spun.

And that's why it's a classic--there is just too much to learn from it for it to be anything less. It's been read and taught for fifty years and it will be read for a thousand more, giving a window into our own selves through its pages. I can only hope that our civilizations will end up better than that of these British schoolboys, or else we've damned ourselves to a fate much worse. They'll be no cruiser to interrupt our game and save us from ourselves. The only chance we'll have to step back and to see just how miserably we acted to one another will be one that is far too late to change anything.

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