Some plot spoilers ahead.
I had forgotten just how accurately this book portrays the desperation rage malice of bullying and insecurity and competitiveness. A group of British schoolboys is stranded on a tropical island after a plane crash. The boys have to figure out how to survive. There’s a lot of fresh fruit, and some potable water, so the basic needs are met. This story is about the boys’ attempts at social organisation (choosing a chief, creating working teams, keeping track of each other, etc.) and physical organisation (forming hunting groups, building shelter, maintaining a rescue fire as a beacon for help, etc.). But all of that is a backdrop to how quickly most of the boys lose their civilised veneer when there are no adults around to enforce the rules.
Two boys emerge as the main contenders to be chief, and the other boys fall in line behind one or the other, based at various times on popularity, possessions, skills, fear, whatever moves them at the time. Despite the vivid descriptions of the tropical island, the lack of girls, and the fact that some of the boys die, it seemed like a fairly accurate portrayal of of my experience of elementary and junior high school. The bullying, the violence and threats of violence, the weird fluidity of leaders and cliques, the arbitrary rules and conditions imposed on both insiders and outsides—in my opinion, Golding did a great job of showing one aspect of children and adolescents.
On the other hand, I found it unrealistic that none of the boys, aside from a few attempts shortly after the crash, made much effort to shelter and protect the younger boys. This book felt very gendered to me even though there wasn’t a single female character. I feel that if Golding had written about a bunch of girls after a place crash, they’d all be nurturing the littlest girls and planting gardens and crying. I know that might be an unfair assumption, but since Golding’s view of these boys is that not even the older ones (about twelve, I think?) had any instinct or desire to take care of the younger children, it makes me think his view of men and women is very patriarchal and conservative. Seriously, nobody even keeps track of how many littlest boys there are, never mind makes sure they’re fed and rounded up at night. Yes, I get that this is supposed to be an allegory but it’s a pretty fucking bleak allegory that assumes twelve-year-old boys will all abandon the weak little young ones and kill the others who get in their way.
This whole idea that there are two poles: good / order / civilisation and bad / chaos / wildness is so simplistic. And when that gets plunked into an allegory or heck, even just a regular old story in which we are apparently going to “revert” to “savagery” (and wow, are those ever problematic concepts), this contributes to some really harmful ideas about authority, hierarchy, obedience, and how society should be structured.
I did really like the book. I like dystopias and post-apocalyptic stories and musings about how one would survive on a deserted island. It’s probably no surprise that I adored The Swiss Family Robinson as a child (although upon re-reading a few years ago, I was absolutely horrified, but that’s a story for another day…). I liked how he described how things fell apart, both in the cohesiveness of the group, but also within individual boys. I liked how he described the way fear and panic can drive people to do things they’d probably not otherwise do.
But I did not like the message that without authority, we are selfish, violent, and a danger to ourselves and others. I do not like the message that only a strong leader can save us from ourselves. I do not like the message that in the end, evil wins. Not that I’m saying there should always be a happy ending in books; how predictable and boring that would be! But there is nothing left of these boys at the end. Even Ralph, the champion and symbol of rules and order, ends up utterly defeated by his understanding that everyone contains evil. The book feels very hopeless in the sense that it is telling us that the only way to be safe from the evil we all contain is to submit to authority and rules.
I disagree. Sure, nature may be red in tooth and claw. But even wild animals will adopt orphans of other species. Even elephants mourn their dead. Humans and other animals of all kinds form social bonds, take care of their sick or elderly, protect babies who aren’t their own, and so forth. Not all of them, and not all the time, but often enough to know that we two-legged and four-legged and winged and finned people are not simply destructive at the core. And as much as I liked many, many aspects of this book, I deeply resent another hammer aimed at my head to slam home the lie that the only safety lies in obedience.
The Lord of the Flies by William Golding.