BAD TV: Lord of the Flies

I got to the end of Lord of the Flies by William Golding and found the whole problem with the book in a few lines:

“We saw your smoke. And you don’t know how many of you there are?”

“No sir.”

“‘I should have thought,’” said the officer as he visualized the search before him, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys – you’re all British, aren’t you – would have been able to put up a better show than that…”

In the last analysis it is not the fault of Britain or the British boys on the island. It is the fault of William Golding who did not write a novel, but structured this book to support this phony conclusion, a condemnation of Britain or of something equally nonsensical.

Lord of the Flies is not a novel. It is a fable advanced as reflecting reality which is only possible on paper. How does a novel differ? There is setting, characters and what happens (story). There is an element of time – something happens before something else, and the reader understands that or the reader appreciates some order of events.

Lord of the Flies differs. The setting is a tropical island, I assume in the Pacific. The identified characters are primarily older boys, biguns Golding calls them. What happens on the island without adult input or supervision is questionable, inconsistent and in the end unreal. Time, the relations of events to one another, is scattered to the winds – the only means the reader can tell that something happens later than an earlier event is become it comes later in the text. It should be noted some events can be read before others, and it makes no difference to the reader’s comprehension or understanding.

The book begins with Ralph and Piggy, pampered fat boy with asthma, arriving on the island. They wonder how many boys survived the plane crash into the sea. As the reader learns at the end, no boy on the island has ever counted. Thinking back to my childhood, counting would be the first thing boys would do to know whether everyone survived each day. But Golding neglects this boyish whim; he wants no count. Indeed, he calls the young boys, littlums, and bigger boys, biguns. As events happen littlums and biguns are here and there when Golding needs them in increasing or decreasing numbers.

The island is explored, and the kids seem to know where they are going when they walk around, but no one knows how large the island is: Two miles, four miles, six miles long. The island is large enough to have remote areas and to support feral pigs which have not devastated all the plants. But it can only be inferred that it is small – there is one pit with a fire to cook hunted pigs [dead pigs are difficult for boys to move a great distance], and a signal fire. When Ralph is running for his life at the end, he thinks and acts like there is no place to hide (although the pigs hide pretty well) so the island is small. However, another boy Jack, breaks away from Ralph and Piggy and takes his “tribe” to another settlement on the island, so the island is larger. At best there are mixed signals about the size of the island.

Fat boy, Piggy, is on many pages but remains a mystery. Golding reports he has “brains,” but there’s little indication of them. It is suggested he is a bigun who likes to hang around with the littums, but I’m not sure how long that lasted. Piggy is fat because he is an orphan raised by Auntie who allows him to eat “sweets” and bon-bons all day from her candy shop. He also has asthma which limits his activities. Piggy remains fat throughout the pages, I suppose. His behavior doesn’t change. He is obstinate and obnoxious especially when his glasses are used to start fires [magnifying sun to get leaves and wood to burn].

It remains a question, how long are the kids on the island. Long enough to know hunting pig is real work; building huts is real work; maintaining a signal fire which always peters out [and Piggy’s glasses must be used again] is real work. Hair grows long; clothes are ripped, frayed and disintegrate. Golding doesn’t tell the reader how long, but it seems four months, perhaps six. Why is this important? Piggy. I was a fat kid once, and despite eating everything in sight at a one-week summer camp, I lost five pounds. Piggy is away from the candy shop for a time, and he’s eating fruit and occasionally pig but nothing else. [British kids are on an island and no one thinks to drop a line into the water to catch fish.] I figure after four months Piggy would lose 40 pounds, if he needed to lose that many. For a kid – lose weight, become more active, have more energy, perhaps the asthma symptoms are alleviated or eliminated – there is character development: “No one will call me Piggy, any more!” HOWEVER, William Golding has no sense of time or setting. Piggy is a person who is static, worthless, nonsensical and someone to kill, which Golding does.

Who is important in the book and disposed? Jack, the hunter, who invents the competing “tribe,” and who raises fears about the island “beast.” Somehow, Jack got most of the biguns and littums, how many no one knows (10, 12, 50) to join him. Activities Jack organizes include putting on paint (symbolizing primitive man) and dancing around a fire (when available), a primitive man activity. But how did Jack get the others to join him? Still no one knows; there is no reasonable or plausible explanation. What we know is the littums were worthless when work was necessary; they want to play, interacting with one another in that arena of a fantasy/reality world. Will they put on face paint and dance if there’s no Halloween candy? Will they abandon huts built in one place to go to another? None of this reality is spelled out in an organized, regular and straightforward manner. It seems Jack’s activities are planned but involve work, not play. A reader can infer elements of fear and terror are part of Jack’s tribe: Simon, Jack’s fellow hunter is killed, Jack raids Ralph and Piggy’s encampment, Jack organizes his encampment so it is defensible and Piggy is killed. There is no reason to stay with Jack’s tribe.

There is no part of Lord of the Flies which represents reality. There are holes, lacunae; there is no character development; after Jack breaks away and lives in his own camp newly invented biguns (Roger, Robert and Maurice) show up. The tale is myth and fantasy. What does it have to tell us about human beings? There are better novels, studies and histories to read to learn about the stuff which William Golding conjectures.

There is a curious feature about the book. The characters are set and remain the same throughout; the setting is the same although undefined; the activities don’t differ greatly from one another; one activity does not progress easily from one chapter to the next. The dialogue is very mediocre and somewhat repetitive. Early in the book I had the sensation that each chapter was a episode of a TV show: Arrival on the island. Getting organized. Signal fire. Hunting – hut building. Looking for the beast. Successful pig kill. Painting bodies, dancing, tribalism. So episodic are the chapters that they suggest the reality TV shows today, whether set on a tropical island or in a house. What William Golding has written is a TV show for a season.

There are novels which are episodic and can be told in a series of episodes. Lord of the Flies is not one of them. In those books an episode is presented, and a second episode set out, adding to, developing and telling of the characters, although the time and the setting may be static. When I read that the biguns were searching for the beast, I thought, they have no memory, no experience and no knowledge of where they came from[British society] and what they learned there. They and the story are contrived. None of those kids has ever heard of a snipe hunt. Lord, this is a bad TV show.

Another static fixation at the beginning is the conch. Piggy and Ralph find a conch shell which Ralph learns to blow and make sounds. Island Rule One: When the conch sounds there will be an assembly; the person holding the conch has the floor. Golding sets this rule into cement for the remainder of the text, but in reality any group, even biguns and littums will change or modify the rule. The rule in cement is a reason why Jack splits, forming his “tribe.” The group psychology of that is not part of the text. Golding is interested in making an unsupported fantasy point. He does not want to represent reality. He is remarkably unsightful about the politics and the psychology of anyone or any group on the island, an extraordinary coincidence considering that the whole mess is coming from his mind. This is a bad TV show.

There is one setting, transplanted to the island, that might support Golding’s story: A private British Boarding School. I sense a lot can be written about those schools and those places, the horrors that are perpetrated and the demented boys they matriculate. They are not best represented by “Good-bye Mr. Chips.” Possibly, Golding wrote but didn’t want to identify the school. He thought, I’ll drop the kids on a tropical island. They won’t know why they are there, just use the word “evacuate,” like World War II. There will be no adult supervision; the kids can go hog wild. Using those bases the book is incomplete and imperfect. It is bad TV.

I suspect the boys are not British, despite Golding’s nationality and identification at the end. Nowhere among the thousands of words is “queue” mentioned. The world knows (especially in the 1950s) that queue and queuing were part of the genetic makeup of every person living on those islands. This omission gives the book no anchor, leaving the words adrift seeking the safety of land. Golding maybe writing about Latin American boys, or Chinese or Russian but certainly not British. He is not writing about Americans who are trained to numbers: 68. Look at the counting-box, 36. That’s a long wait, but the solution is obvious. As the clerk finishes one customer, he looks ahead and asks, Who’s next? Someone points to the counting-box, and everyone waiting learns the clerk can read and count: “37, 38, 39…61.” Suddenly life becomes more sensible and manageable.

There should be more sense and order in Lord of the Flies. 

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One thought on “BAD TV: Lord of the Flies

  1. Perhaps it could have sat more convincingly in one of Rod Serling’s Twilight Zones. Or it might be a more worthy tale if Captain Kirk & his Enterprise crew were to drop by and educate Jack with a little Star-Trek know-how…

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