Fri, Nov 4, 2011
A comment on Lord of the Flies
From CRUX, September 1970; adapted
But a sign came down from the world of grown-ups, though at the time there was no child awake to read it. There was a sudden bright explosion and a corkscrew trail across the sky; then darkness again and stars. There was a speck above the island, a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limbs.
This figure, which later Ralph and Jack identify with a monstrous beast in nature, is in reality a symbol of the beast in man; further, it is important to notice that both on the island and in the adult world violence, brutality, and bestiality are socialized and are accepted as patterns of behaviour in the social order. The figure that hung with dangling limbs from his parachute is a conforming member of his society as is the naval officer with his revolver and gilt buttons who saves Ralph from death in the final scene. Both these men have the same function as Jack – to lead their men to battle in order to kill those they regard as their enemies. The trim cruiser in the distance is simply a more lethal weapon than the spears of Jack and his followers.
One observes on the island that the bloodlust and killing instinct are socialized through ritual of the dance, chanting of songs, and by means of the hierarchical form of their small society. Similarly in the armed forces of the adult world killing and brutal barbarism are accepted behaviour patters that are socialized by means of ritual (uniforms, decorations, bands, parades) and above all by meansof the hierarchical composition of the army in general: killing in obedience to orders from superior officers is not murder, and thus is individual is relieved of any guilt. In the same way that ‘the mask was a thing of its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness’, so the uniform liberates in the adult world.
Ralph does not assume the mask, and he remains an outsider, who refused to conform to the kind of society evolved by Jack and Roger. It is true that Piggy supported Ralph, but only Ralph is capable of overtly admitting that the death of Simon is murder. Even Piggy attempts to rationalize in this way to give the death a social sanction:
‘It was dark. There was that – that bloody dance. There was lightning and thunder and rain. We were scared!’
But Ralph cannot abrogate his own sense of guilt and responsibility; he is the archetype of the person who is incapable for using the mask in order to liberate his conscience from the Christian ethic, thus enabling its descent into uncomprehending barbarism. Momentarily, though, even he descends during the dance into bestial depravity, but it is only a temporary aberration.
The pessimistic tone is marked in the conclusion where it is difficult to accept the fortuitous arrival of the British warship; despite the salvation of Ralph one feels that barbaric regression has triumphed.
Ironically, too, the natural beauty and bounteousness of the island have no civilizing influence on the boys, that is on Jack and the majority. Similarly, in the adult word the despoliation of the earth by man, the pollution of our great lakes and rivers, as well as of the atmosphere, reveal man’s insensitivity and indifference to his natural environment. In the novel and atomic war is hinted at – the supreme and most obscene example of man’s gift for destruction. This destruction wielded by grown-up man is paradigmed on the island when Jack and his followers set the island alight in order to smoke out Ralph, who after his escape, stands like a scarecrow before the British naval officer:
Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood… His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island …
Golding’s imagery forms an organic part of the novel, and certain images, for example a specific image such as the sow’s head, dramatically illustrate the symbolic theme of the novel as a whole – that man is guilty of original sin, that the beast is in man himself, that man is fallen from grace. In contrast, R M Ballantyne’s novel The Coral Island, first published in 1858 (and of which Lord of the Flies is supposed to be a gloss), reveals Victorian liberal optimism at its height: the boys who are cast away on a desert island lead ‘civilized and civilizing lives’ it seems that two world wars, the horrors of the Nazi extermination camps, and the implicit horrors of nuclear development have destroyed the complacent and optimistic outlook of The Coral Island. In Lord of the Flies Simon know the identity of the beast – ‘What I mean is… maybe it’s only us.’
Finally there is the irrevocable knowledge of man’s bestial nature unredeemed by an acceptance of God:
They [the flies] were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on its stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood – and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition. In Simon’s right temple, a pulse began to beat on the brain.
One may well ponder over the failure of Victorian liberal optimism, and one may search for reasons for Nazi and other atrocities, for the breakdown of the Christian ethos, for the violence which is prevalent everywhere in the contemporary world. Implicit in Lord of the Flies is the concept that the lust for power may drive man to primitive beastiality:
Henry brought him [Jack] a shell and he drank, watching Piggy and Ralph over the jagged rim. Power lay in the brown swell of his forearms; authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape.
It is the theme of [Shakeseare’s] Measure for Measure:
but man, proud man,
Dress’s in a little brief authority -
Most ignorant of what he’s most assured,
His glassy essence, – like an angry ape,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make the angels weep.
It is this power of the will to evil that concerns a writer such as George Orwell who, like Golding, is aware of the failure of Christianity in our age may imply that the power of the will to evil be unrestrained. In Nineteen Eighty-Four Orwell writes:
Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation… Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain… There will be no art, no literature, no science… But always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling an enemy who is helpless . If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – for ever.
With the death of Piggy whom we may regard as depicting the rational scientific mind, and that of Simon, mystic and saint, there remains Ralph, the representative of the leader who is civilized and liberal – the leader necessary if man is to develop his highest gifts. In the novel, Jack, who wishes to implement the kind of society envisaged by Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four, fails to destroy Ralph. One may only hope that in our actual world Jack will always fail.