I recently had to teach a unit on Lord of the Flies by William Golding. I first read the book back in high school, my junior year, I think. I remember thinking it was fine but not really my style. Even back then, I fundamentally disagreed with Golding’s views on human nature. Rereading it now, I find it has gotten worse. I still disagree with the points it makes, but that’s not the only reason why. The characters are either unlikable or half-baked. And it couldn’t be less subtle.
The message of the book, to put it simply, is that people are bad. Civilization is nothing more than a cheap facade put up to hide our true selves. We are savages at heart. Even kids are not innocent. It is very Hobbesian. It shows the boys’ lives on the island to be nasty, brutish, and short. And, as the kids descend into chaos, we are constantly reminded of the World War in the adult world telling us that grownups are no better. I’m just not down with that kind of pessimism.
As for the characters, the first two we meet, Ralph and Piggy, get, by far, the most characterization. Ralph is the closest thing the book has to a hero. He’s the one who tries to keep everyone civilized. The problem is he is entitled, arrogant, and mean. There are two scenes near the beginning of the book where he is outright cruel to Piggy, once thoughtlessly and once purposely. When the boys first gather, he introduces the “fat boy” to everyone as Piggy. A short time later he makes fun of Piggy as a way of ingratiating himself with the rest of the boys. Ralph also steals Piggy’s ideas and is completely indifferent to the littluns. Definitely not someone I’d like to spend time with.
Piggy is almost the opposite of Ralph. He’s timid even though he was doted on before the island by his auntie. He never even tells Ralph or anyone else what his real name is. He goes by “Piggy” even though he said that was the one thing he didn’t want. He’s lazy. He doesn’t help with the shelters or the fire or anything else even though he’s the one who said they were needed. And he’s constantly whining. I pity Piggy, but that’s as far as it goes.
The only other characters that are even possibly likeable are Samneric and Simon. Unfortunately, we don’t get to know much of anything about them. Sam and Eric are twins who finish each other’s sandwiches (sorry, I meant sentences). That’s all we get in the whole novel. They seem likable enough, but they aren’t fleshed out at all. Then, there’s Simon. He’s less of a character than a symbol. When he’s murdered, the reader doesn’t so much feel bad because he died but disgust at what the other boys did to him.
Disliking the lack of subtlety is a personal preference; I’m sure some people like their literature obvious, but man oh man does Lord of the Flies lack subtlety. You see, there are pigs on the island and one of the characters is named Piggy. The boys chant, about the pigs, “Kill the pig!” Is there any doubt what’s going to happen to Piggy? In the Lord of the Flies’ big speech to Simon, the pig’s head just says everything. There’s nothing left for the reader to figure out. Caillou is comparatively subtle.
One thing I will say is that I get why English teachers like to teach this book, everything is so obvious. If you want your students to know what allegory, symbolism, themes, motifs, or many other literary devices are, they’ll certainly be able to find them in this book. Golding might as well have highlighted them in red. There’s nothing to draw out when everything is on the surface.
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So, there you have it, my impression of Lord of the Flies as an adult. I actually felt a little bad teaching a book I don’t like very much. But it is one of the most referenced books of the twentieth century, so I guess it’s good that the kids were exposed to it.