Lord of the Flies: Really?

Since graduation, I’ve been trying to keep reading works in the canon of great Western literature (likely an unattainable dream). Last week I finished Brideshead Revisited (which mostly made me more annoyed at Downton Abbey for existing and also wishing that every Catholic author had the clairvoyance of Walker Percy). This week I’m reading Lord of the Flies for the first time.

I’m not sure what I expected, but so far, I’m profoundly disappointed. Maybe it gets brilliant after chapter 9, but up till now this book has been lazy writing and I don’t think it’s to prove a subversive Faulknerian purpose. I miss having lit class discussions, and I wish that my English major gang would bat this around with me a bit.

I read The Spire a couple years back and really enjoyed it, despite some psycedelic confusion (the character/narrative voice, not me). It was well-written and memorable and I would like to reread it and turn it over in my mind after a second reading. It merits it–there’s a lot going on in it.

So when I picked up Lord of the Flies, I hoped for something as provocative and difficult and memorable. But I feel like Golding let me down. So far, the narrative voice has been inconsistent, and the physical descriptions are lazy and inattentive. He’ll start describing something, interrupt himself, and then reintroduce the description, with new elements that he assumes and doesn’t describe. It’s all very confusing. I could forgive him the sloppy dialog (seriously, you couldn’t make a satisfying argument for who is speaking a quarter of the time), if only he would be willing to describe the island and scenes with a bit of care and attention. (That said, perhaps it’s a ploy to suggest the placelessness of human depravity! Even so, he could have done a better job at creating a placeless disorientation.)

However, his worse sin is that his character definition is spotty. The conflicts between the boys are hard to follow because he hasn’t created enough distinctions and individuality to cause such conflicts. Again, if this was to emphasize the everyman element of the story, he failed. These aren’t everyboys, they’re boring boys.

And I’ll forgive his weird juvenile homoerotic moments because he was writing in a different era and writing about childish affections. There’s enough true innocent loyalty in these moments to almost make this modern reader accept the heart palpitations and dizzy fondness as archaic norms. But could he at least give us enough character for each boy to let these interludes be believable? I guess I’d accept them more if I knew enough about Ralph’s personality to understand why he and Jack get along so well.  I don’t want them to be predictable, but this is an excess of character flat-lining on the other extreme.

I’m not going to give up on Golding, for the sake of The Spire. I’ll finish this book and I suppose I’ll read more of his work eventually. Maybe I’ll like Lord of the Flies better when I’ve finished it. To be determined.

For those of you who’ve read Lord of the Flies, what did you think? (Hold the spoilers for now!) Am I being too picky? What’s the brilliance of this? Couldn’t we just read Homer to pick up on the depravity of man left to himself?

This has been “Really? Really??” with Hännah.

Note: I’m aware that I’m significantly under-read in great literature outside of the Western canon. Now accepting suggestions!

9 thoughts on “Lord of the Flies: Really?

  1. Hey Hannah,

    I read Lord of the Flies once on a dare because I knew it would only take me about an hour. I never felt the need to drag myself through the mud again, but as I recall, it doesn’t get better.

    Sorry to break it to you.

    I think that originally the Lord of the Flies was supposed to be such a shocking depicting of a lack/corruption of innocence among children that you weren’t supposed to notice that the writing is crap. Maybe its a cultural thing, but I just wasn’t that shocked.

  2. I read it so long ago (back in early high school) that I don’t honestly remember all that much about it. I remember being alternately disgusted and morbidly fascinated, but I can’t recall any specific stylistic merits or failures. At the very least, you can say that you’ve read it, and whenever someone makes a cultural reference to something being like “Lord of the Flies,” you’ll know exactly what they’re talking about.

  3. Hännah, I’m not sure Golding is meant to be compared with Faulkner or Homer (I was honestly confused when I saw you were reading LOTF as part of the Western Canon!), but that’s not to say you shouldn’t read it or that it isn’t good; in short, it is a great political/moral tale, comparable to Orwell’s “Animal Farm” or Steinbeck’s “The Pearl.” It is to Orwell and Steinbeck that you must compare Golding, not Faulkner and Homer! And in that camp, it’s a fine piece of work. It is simple and highly allegorical which makes it great for young readers, but it is also piercing in its portrayal of group pyschology and human nature (as are Orwell’s and Steinbeck’s work). Moreover, while not part of the great Canon, it is part of the popular Canon of such Anglophone works.

    This may explain your complaints about description and character development, the narrative voice, etc. Don’t dwell on this, since that’s not what this genre is about. Pay attention to symbols, colors, themes–yes, including the homoeroticism!–and the big arch of the plot (rather than that character development).

    Hope that help. Read it for what it is.

    Sounds like next time you should read:
    Tolstoy’s “Anna Karinina” (I’m currently reading it, and it is everything I hoped it would be!)
    or, Dante’s Comedy (ESOLEN TRANSLATION AND NOTES!!!!!)

    1. Bah. But I LIKE Steinbeck. But if you’re only comparing it to “The Pearl,” I’ll give it to you. Orwell is definitely in a lower league here with LOTF, you’re right. I suppose I was including it in the canon because it’s such a repeat offender on required reading lists (and when you’ve been homeschooled, you sometimes don’t know what essential things you might be missing). So I felt I had to give it attention.

      I know it’s dystopia and a moral tale. But I was surprised at how bad it is – I’ve read so many better dystopian novels. I just expected more from the author of The Spire (which was the reason I was willing to read this in the first place).

      Lots of love for the Comedy (and Esolen and his notes). Anna Karenina is on the list to read, though.

      1. Fair enough. I read it in high school (along with the others) and loved it, and I remember rereading whole passages again and again not understanding (i.e. the big scene), and eventually loved the ambiguity of it. Of course that ambiguity might just be sloppy as you’re asserting; I’m sure you’re a better reader now than I was then!

  4. I suspect that Lord of the Flies leaves much to the imagination that I never noticed. I read it in high school and in college and generally appreciate it. That said, I’m not judging from the trained eye of an English major, but someone who tries to see beauty/ugliness, good/evil, and truth all around, apart from technique and scientific prowess and theory.

    In the case of LotF, though, I do think the distracted vagueness of description and dialogue tells you something about boyishness…because it’s definitely part of how boys tend to think/recall. It allows the reader to be in the mindset, but the “interludes” you mention can also make you feel that you are an alien in someone else’s thoughtworld. I guess I can’t really offer a defense of the piece but just to say I think there’s value to it that most English coursework ignores.

  5. Hännah, I had a similar experience with reading Animal Farm this summer…and found it unimpressive simply because I’d already absorbed its message in constant cultural references and had imagined something more- what? Subtle? The Pearl is a good comparison, though perhaps more beautifully told than LOTF.

    I had a similar reaction to Fahrenheit 451, which I read last year for the first time with the distinct impression that I came to its pages too late in life. I second Joel’s defense of LOTF and can recall in vivid detail the dawn of my understanding of the possibilities of literary symbolism (and really, human nature) in its uncomplicated, dark images. The conch, those eyeglasses, the unknowable sea, and the power of the masked mob stay with me still. So yes, it is probably not nearly as good as I remember it, but I think it an appropriate dystopia for young readers. (Though I wonder how it would fare against Lois Lowry’s The Giver on a second reading.) A last note is that I found it a shocking contrast to island adventures novels that I’d grown up with (cast it next to The Swiss Family Robinson, Treasure Island, or Kidnapped).

    And so, for Golding’s sake, no Faulkner comparisons. In O’Connor’s words (and narrated, in my head, by Collin Messer): “Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.”

    Joel, I’m about to dive into Anna Karenina as well! The Brothers Karamazov blew my mind a little but I think I’m sufficiently recovered to try something Russian again.

  6. I’ve been thinking about your request for books outside the Western canon. I don’t know if he counts as non-western, but I would recommend Salman Rushdie’s Midnight Children. He’s an Indian writer but writes (gorgeously) in English. His style seems to be very influenced by 20th century American and British authors, and of course Spanish, because it’s like magical realism.

    An interesting book that never found it’s way into the “Western canon” is Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It somehow escaped censorship at the end of the Soviet Union and became hugely famous, and now it’s apparently considered by some Russians and Ukranians to be more important than Dostoevsky. I have to say I get much more out of Dostoevsky, but you probably have to be Russian to understand all the political satire.

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