No, I’m not talking about its publication date, which was actually 60 years ago exactly, if the copyright date on my edition is correct. I am talking about the last time I read it: when I was 15-years old in my Grade 10 English class.
Which is why I’m re-reading it – my eldest daughter is 15, in Grade 10 and reading Lord of the Flies for the first time.
Now, I remember being profoundly disturbed by this book at the age of 15. I enjoyed reading it; it was creepy and dark and swelled to a terrifying climax only to stop abruptly, like a wave crashing against a wall. It made me think of the world, about how violence lives deep inside our own skin.
It also gave me the academic credentials to refer to school and other enforced social institutions as “totally Lord of the Flies”, a moniker I have been banking on since I first read this cheerful little tale of a gang of boys stranded on an island.
25 years later: I am still profoundly disturbed. The breakdown of the boys’ mini society is just as realistic, just as terrifying as it was when I read it at age 15. The symbolism in the novel (oh, how the Grade 10 teachers love their symbolism) is simple and yet effective: the conch, a bright, shiny white thing as representative of order and society; Piggy’s glasses, which work doubly as the technical know-how of society (fire starter) as well as Piggy’s clear-sightedness and forward thinking; the boar’s head on a stick, the Lord of the flies, the symbol of our own dark hearts and need for destruction.
When I was 15 I read it and yes, marveled at the darkness of the story. But I read it as if this kind of mastery was commonplace, with the attitude that of course all stories should be strung this tight. In short, I read it with the exquisite arrogance of a 15 year old, the same arrogance that allowed me to take my home, with all its safety, shelter and warmth as my due.
Now on reading it as an adult, I think the difference might be in my own humility. Yes, I probably understand the symbolism better. I probably get the subtle nuances more than I did. Experience has showed me that the quality most necessary for civilisation to function is restraint, a training of the self to recognise the violent emotions and subdue them in order to get along with others, the very thing that breaks down with Ralph and Piggy’s best laid plan, the very thing that Jack is unable to do. I might have had a glimpse of this at 15, but I don’t think I could have put it into words.
But Golding’s craftsmanship goes beyond his commentary on society and how it is shaped by the people who make it up. It is also deeply true to the nature of childhood. I was struck how through his 3rd person narrative he was able to explain to the reader the immensity of what his characters were feeling without them ever understanding it fully themselves. They see a glimpse of a wider world, of bigger knowledge but it is always blocked. I think this is best represented in Ralph who struggles to take Piggy and his warnings seriously, who is always fighting the curtain that goes down over his understanding:
“A kind of glamour was spread over them and the scene and they were conscious of the glamour and made happy by it. They turned to each other, laughing excitedly, talking, not listening. The air was bright. Ralph, faced by the task of translating all this into an explanation, stood on his head and fell over.”
This is how Ralph deals with big emotions, big ideas – he stands on his head. By the end of the book, he no longer does this. He has grown up. He has seen that for all of Piggy’s patheticness , he sees farther than any of them, that he has the sense of an adult, a sense he glimpses but can’t quite grasp.
“The trouble was, if you were a chief you had to think, you had to be wise. And then the occasion slipped by so that you had to grab at a decision. This made you think; because thought was a valuable thing, that got results…Only, decide Ralph as he faced the chief’s seat, I can’t think. Not like Piggy.”
This teetering on the cusp of adult understanding is so painful to read, so acutely reminiscent of how it felt to be young, I am in awe at Mr. Golding’s skill. Like Ralph, at 15 I saw only a glimpse of the story, an outline of something bigger, but did not have the vision to make out any detail. As an adult, the weight of Golding’s story, with all its condemnation of human nature, its metaphors for how civilization breaks down, and I would say redemption – for Ralph at the end grows up, feels this tug of war inside himself, and understands its consequences – feels as heavy as one of the boulders Jack and his tribe roll down the hill.