Sometimes the books you read can feel too abstracted from real life to have much impact. Even if it’s an engrossing read, you can close the book and think ‘Well, it’s just a collection of clever ideas.’ But when I was finishing reading William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” last week the meaning was made horrifically clear to me after an incident near my workplace on Thursday. I came back to my office block to discover the doorway surrounded by police tape and an ambulance parked out front. Paramedics were assisting a man on the ground who was covered in blood. A colleague of mine was outside and told me what had happened. Only shortly before I arrived someone across the street was surrounded by a group of young men who stabbed him repeatedly in what must have been a planned attack. The man on the ground was taken away in the ambulance and all that was left was a single torn sneaker and a large puddle of blood colouring the cement and tarmac red. An article by the Evening Standard last year reported that there are on average over 400 knife crimes in London per month which end in injury or death. The mentality of small groups who believe themselves apart from larger society can create their own rules with no common morality. The horrific violence that appears in “Lord of the Flies” is actually all around us.
I first read “Lord of the Flies” back in high school. What I was particularly conscious of when reading it this time was the small shifts of power play occurring between the boys. Ralph’s emergence as the nominated leader is accepted so totally at first, but gradually his authority slips away as his confidence wavers and Jack’s enthusiasm for the hunt grows. As a teenager the balance of power seemed to me totally natural. Those that are loud and exert power control the group. Of course, the boys want to chase down the pigs and gut them. Of course, Piggy is immediately betrayed by Ralph and mocked for his body size, his asthma, his intellectual prowess and social awkwardness. It’s what makes it such an ideal and easily-digested read for teenagers. This is the reality of school life where children segment themselves into groups based on superficial qualities like beauty or strength or charisma. Those that are easy targets become the butt of the joke. Those that are powerless hang about at the sides as helpless and innumerable as the “Littluns.” The key figure that emerged for me reading it this time was Roger. At first he appears as “a slight, furtive boy whom no one knew, who kept to himself with an inner intensity of avoidance and secrecy.” This description immediately endeared me to him. Yet, it’s he who emerges as the most “beastly” of all instigating violence against the other boys and savouring the mad rush of it all. More than any of the others, he seems to me to most represent the common man. Civilization reigns in all his worst impulses, but when it disintegrates totally he feels completely released from any kind of moral constraints. Roger felt to me to be the one capable of really making his own choice and what he chooses is unapologetic barbarity.
The final quarter of the book takes on such a rapidly increasing velocity and power, that I was awed by the way Golding could write such carefully controlled scenes containing so much action and many characters. Using only a few short lines he conjured in my imagination a scene so completely that I could really feel the full panic and burning heat of the crisis taking place. In the lines “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away. Once there was this and that; and now – and the ship had gone” there is the loss of a possibility for rescue but also the loss of something crucial that holds the boys’ shaky conception of government together. There is such a tragic inevitability to everything that takes place, yet there is the abiding sense of hope held mistily in Ralph’s mind which is shared by the reader. There is the hope that governance will return and the individual will no longer have to bear the brunt of decision making. Simply following the rules is so much more preferable than taking the initiative to galvanize a group of people into organizing themselves into civil behaviour. Though Ralph tries his hardest, he recognizes his own limitations and it becomes clear his authority is as fragile as the conch he uses to assert his voice. There is also the hope that people’s better nature will come through eventually – like the hope that the sun won’t ever burn your back. “Lord of the Flies” is a book I could write about endlessly as it’s laden with intricate symbols and metaphors and layers of meaning. But as I return to work each day and pass the stained tarmac outside my office it feels like a book that is all too frighteningly real.