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Saturday, May 12th, 2007
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Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

Human Behavior

A review by Chris Bolton

For four years, I saw the books everywhere: on desktops, in the cafeteria, on the top shelves of lockers, stuffed into backpacks. They were so prevalent that I came to recognize each title from the briefest glimpse of its cover. I waited through my high school years for one of my English teachers to assign them -- The Catcher in the Rye, Catch-22, To Kill a Mockingbird -- but none ever did, nor did any of my college instructors.

It's not that I regret reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Great Expectations, or The Grapes of Wrath in my advanced English classes. Still, I've long suspected I missed something by not catching up with the assigned reading books that were never assigned to me.

This year I've pledged to catch up, starting with William Golding's classic Lord of the Flies. Of all the required reading books I wasn't assigned, this is the one that interested me the most. Why I never simply grabbed a copy to read on my own, I can't say. Fifteen years after graduation (excuse me while I shudder at this seemingly incomprehensible fact), I've finally decided now is the time.

I'll forego the quasi-pseudo-deep analysis (one bonus of reading the book on my own is: no essay assignments) and instead share the not-even-remotely-earth-shattering news that Lord of the Flies is terrific. I suppose that's a given, in light of its enduring placement on classroom reading lists and the way it has connected with each successive generation of readers since its initial publication in 1954.

What wasn't such a given was how well the book holds up when one isn't forced to read it. Has the book aged badly in the more than half-century since it debuted? Is it a "great book" that's enjoyable to read, or a "medicine book" that the reader must choke down because it's good for her?

My answers: no, yes, and no.

Beyond the many biblical allusions and its searing parable of the folly of being human, Lord of the Flies is simply a cracking good adventure story. How elemental is the appeal of strangers crash-landing on a deserted island, forced to fend for themselves to survive? Ask the legion of fans who flock to the TV series Lost like flies to the severed head of a sow. (Read that savory chapter and it's clear why Stephen King lists Flies among his all-time favorites in the book Top Ten.)

While the prose remains fresh and furious, with a nearly breakneck pace that sends the reader hurtling through its pages, Golding's theme of society's defects stemming from the nature of mankind is nothing less than timeless. I won't draw any parallels to current political and military situations around the world; they don't need me, as they practically point themselves out to even the least astute reader. What truly distinguishes Golding's writing is his gift for drawing us into his characters, notably Ralph and the badly maligned Piggie, without neglecting their own foibles. Neither character remotely approaches flawless, yet each is compelling in his own right, and they're next to saintly compared to the "savages," Roger and Jack.

The latter characters, alas, aren't as well rounded as their more civilized counterparts. In particular, Jack's plummet into savagery is a tad too abrupt. We never understand precisely what pushes him over the brink, aside from an escalating bloodlust as he becomes consumed by the hunt for food and a mysterious monster that the younger castaways claim to have seen on the island.

That said, I defy anyone to refute the potency of Simon's tragic arc, as his loyalties pull him from one side to the other. Just try to forget the scene where Simon deliriously imagines a conversation with the "Lord of the Flies" -- the aforementioned sow's head staked to the ground and brought to life by a flurry of hungry flies. It's the penetrating, surreal touches like these that elevate Lord of the Flies above the disposable Boys' Own adventure tales.

Although its influence on countless books, films, and TV shows is undeniable, I must confess that some of these subsequent works have actually eclipsed the complexity and enjoyment of Golding's book. In particular, the huge cast of strong characters and twisting, multi-layered storyline of Lost present a more compelling expansion on Golding's tale.

Even so, there's no denying the novel's sheer power to draw us in. Who hasn't fantasized about shirking off the chains of civilization and fleeing to a remote island? Golding's triumph is his ability to remind us, as he engages our fantasy, that the core of human nature is dark and inescapable. Wherever you go, there it is.


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