The bit of truth behind all this – one so eagerly denied – is that men are not gentle, friendly creatures wishing for love, who simply defend themselves if they are attacked, but that a powerful measure of desire for aggression has to be reckoned as part of their instinctual endowment.
Sigmund Freud, Civilisation and its Discontents
“Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong – we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat – “
William Golding, Lord of the Flies
Much like a self-proclaimed film buff who has never seen Casablanca, I consider myself well-read while at the same time being uncomfortably aware that my CV has some outrageous omissions. One of these is – or was – William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
The plot is familiar. I saw the 1963 film many years ago and the novel has a claim to be one which has worked its way into the British psyche, like 1984 or A Clockwork Orange. The tale of schoolboys marooned on an island, the battle between civilisation and savage instinct, Piggy, the conch, the pig’s head, the parachutist, the painted boys. These things are at least vaguely familiar to a certain generation of British people.
A gaggle of schoolboys on a tropical island, then. Foppish firebrand Ralph takes command, blowing the famous conch to chair meetings which are among the most memorable scenes in a memorable, brutally atmospheric novel. The older boys jostling for position in the pecking order, the physically hopeless but shrewd Piggy, Jack Merridew and his hunters lurking at the periphery both of the ad hoc community and, later on, moral boundaries.
Ralph makes a plaintive plea for adult authority, but the only adults the boys can call to their aid are the ones they must find – or not – within themselves. This is what makes the novel captivating. Another famous fable of shipwreck and European man in the state of nature, Robinson Crusoe, features the unforgettable title character as homo economicus. But Crusoe is alone before acquiring Friday. There is no question here of who gets to hold the conch. More importantly, Crusoe is a man. Ralph, Piggy, Jack Merridew , Simon and the littluns are boys, some very small boys. They must learn fast.
There are many pivotal points in the novel, but the extinguished fire, the missed chance of escape, and the discovery that Jack and his boys were hunting pig – a gory success – instead of tending to the fire is the first intimation of a simple truth which provides Lord of the Flies with much of its dynamic. Although Ralph enjoys the adult-free licence of the island, ultimately he wishes to be rescued, as does Piggy. Adults may have created the war that has cast them adrift, but ultimately they need to return to the adult-run world.
Jack and his malevolent band, though, allow the fire to go out surely because Jack recognises a kingdom in their licence, not an exciting interlude. Jack wants to stay. Is Ralph the ego, Piggy the censor and Jack and his hunters the id? As you like. Lord of the Flies is a glorious game of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey for lovers of symbolism and the figurative in literature.
In terms of symbolism, Lord of the Flies is a treasure trove, although symbolism is an over-used toolkit for the post-modernists. What it does treat of though is power. The trappings of it, the symbols and improvised synecdoches. It’s enough to say that themes writhe and turn throughout the book. A structural viewpoint doesn’t, in fact, hurt, in my humble opinion. The disruptive points in the narrative – the fire, the killing of the pig, Piggy’s missing lens, Jack’s vote against Ralph, Simon’s semi-mystical ‘conversation’ with The Lord of the Flies, the killing of Simon, Piggy’s death and so on – are soaked in meaning whether one is a technocrat, Rousseauist, Libertarian or any other sect with a doctrinal approach to human nature. They also interconnect to give the book a tight internal framework, each small incident or image ratcheting up the tension.
That The Lord of the Flies is symbolic (the title itself is derived from the Biblical Hebrew phrase for Beelzebub, an incarnation of the Devil), is alive with symbols, the author himself was in no doubt;
‘The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue at the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.’ [From a questionnaire sent to William Golding by his American publisher].
Authority and its handmaiden control versus savagery and its familiar, anarchy; in what sense is this opposition symbolic of anything except itself? Lord of the Flies is not symbolic of the razor’s edge on which mankind in the state of nature walks constantly; in an important sense it is that edge, the escalating small crises mapping and pointing to the smashing and rotting of skulls attendant on the licence that seems at first to be a game. The children revert to savagery because, as they see it, there are no adults to keep them on the right side of their collective psyche. In one of the book’s most poignant scenes, the boys lament the absence of grown-ups;
‘“We’re all drifting and things are going rotten. At home there was always a grown-up. Please, sir; please, miss; and then you got an answer. How I wish!”
“I wish my auntie was here.”
“I wish my father – O, what’s the use?”
“Keep the fire going.”’
Keep the fire going. Keep the dark interior of the Freudian psyche lit, or who can say what abominations will take place down there, down in the dark? It is the dark interior where the greatest danger lies, not out there, projected onto the world as when the children flee in terror from their mythical ‘beast’.
Lord of the Flies has much in common with Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s genius work of civilisation displaced and the awful consequences of that displacement. Indeed, in the novel’s penultimate paragraph, Ralph gazes inwards in his grief;
‘And in the middle of [the boys], with filthy body, matted hair and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart…’
Lord of the Flies is terrifying once again because Europe is about to rediscover its heart of darkness. But this time it takes no desperate journey upriver or freak plane crash. The Western dream may well have reached the awful point in Golding’s masterful novel in which there is no return from consequences set in motion. After the boys have play-acted a pig-hunt and the death of the quarry, they congratulate themselves on a good game;
“We ought to have a drum,” said Maurice, “then we could do it properly.”
Ralph looked at him.
“I dunno. You want a fire, I think, and a drum, and you keep time to the drum.”
“You want a pig,” said Roger, “like in a real hunt.”
“Or someone to pretend,” said Jack. “You could get someone to dress up as a pig and then he could act – you know, pretend to knock me over and all that – “
“You want a real pig,” said Robert, still caressing his rump, “because you’ve got to kill him.”
“Use a littlun,” said Jack, and everybody laughed.