I’ve been meaning to read this novel for quite some time. Firstly, I have a particular interest in stories about communal life since I came close to joining a commune when I was a teenager. Hawthorne based the novel’s intentional community of Blithedale on the real utopian farming commune Brooke Farm which Hawthorne helped to establish (although apparently he didn’t adhere too strongly to its values.) Secondly, the second novel in Joyce Carol Oates’ Gothic Quintet is called “A Bloodsmoore Romance”. I’m not sure if Oates’ book plays upon Hawthorne’s novel at all (other than in its title) but I figured it’s best to read the classic novel first. Perhaps my motivations for reading this novel slightly soured my experience of it because the story is more Romance than it is about the actual community of Blithedale.

It begins with its narrator Miles travelling to the newly founded intentional community of Blithedale in the dead of winter. He’s a poet so isn’t accustomed to the rigorous work of agricultural life which meets him when he gets there. Like many well-meaning intellectuals who go to found alternative societies, he quickly finds the practicalities of the enterprise overwhelm him: “we had pleased ourselves with delectable visions of the spiritualization of labor… matters did not turn out quite so well as we anticipated.” Therefore, it’s quite funny he quickly becomes ill and spends all his time in bed rather than working the fields or milking cows. But few details are given about the structure of the community or its core values. Instead the story becomes consumed with a beautiful resident named Zenobia who always has an exotic flower in her hair as well as a mysterious young woman named Priscilla who arrives. The novel primarily concerns the mysterious backstory of these women’s lives and Miles rivalry with a philanthropist and fellow resident Hollingsworth.

The tone of the story felt quite uneven because it strays into a slightly gothic or supernatural territory with legends about a veiled lady and tragic family histories conveyed. But then it will diverge into debates about certain philosophical ideas based on Transcendentalist theories or discussions about the rights of women. The dialogue involving ideas about the difference between the sexes was difficult to read because it makes so many old-fashioned generalizations. I felt the same way about reading “Summer Will Show” last year in how that novel makes such broad statements about Jewishness.

There were occasions when the novel would make an interesting statement which would stand out for me. I was particularly compelled by how he discusses people who devote themselves to a particular cause: “This is always true of those men who have surrendered themselves to an overruling purpose. It does not so much impel them from without, nor even operate as a motive power within, but grows incorporate with all that they think and feel, and finally converts them into little else save that one principle.” This feels very true in the way some people can let a certain ideology overtake everything about their identity so that they come to be defined only by this one idea or cause. This reminded me of the main character in the recent novel “Old Baggage” who is a feminist searching for meaning after her protest efforts help secure women’s voting rights.

I also found it difficult to engage with many of the book’s arguments because it seemed like they were riffing off from very specific concepts I wasn’t familiar with or parodying certain ideas like that of Charles Fourier. If you’re well versed in these theories this might have value but much of it felt like in-jokes which I couldn’t understand very well. The narrative also has a jerky momentum to it so I found it challenging at times to understand exactly what was happening or even the meaning of certain twists in the plot. After finishing the novel I even had to look up summaries online to explain some of the novel’s conclusions.

I felt very ambiguous about the narrator himself as well. He becomes so consumed with the trio of characters Zenobia, Priscilla and Hollingsworth that he drifts away from the Blithedale community to voyeuristically observe their interactions and untangle their histories. That’s why this novel felt like it was more about the romance aspect of the title than the commune. Perhaps that emulates many people’s experiences going to intentional communities like this where ideals gradually become completely subsumed in favour of the drama of interpersonal relationships. The trouble is this storyline didn’t feel very interesting to me and I’d have much preferred to read a novel like Susan Sontag’s “In America” where the dissolution of the utopian ideal is detailed in its physical breakdown as much as the social turmoil of its inhabitants. It’s haunting how Miles at one point feels like a ghost drifting on the outside of the community, but I had little sense of how the Blithedale eventually dissolved because the story was more consumed with melodramatic plotlines.


So I felt this was an interesting book, but not a very satisfying read. While I was reading this novel I tweeted about it and Joyce Carol Oates responded that I should read Hawthorne’s American Notebooks so, while I was engrossed in this novel at the beginning, maybe I should have switched books before getting tangled in Hawthorne’s uneven narrative.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

I’ve not read “Orlando” since university so in my memory it felt like one of her more flighty and playful novels focusing on gender. It is that but there is so much more in the novel I’d forgotten about or missed when I read it the first time. I think Woolf’s highly stylised prose that are packed with so many ideas make her an especially interesting author to revisit at different stages of your life. Orlando is famously about an individual who begins as a teenage nobleman in the Elizabethan era and who lives through a few centuries aging little and swapping genders. It’s remarkably inventive and forward thinking. The character was perfectly realized by Tilda Swinton in Sally Potter’s 1992 film and I recently visited the Charleston Trust where they are currently celebrating the book’s 90th birthday with different events and exhibits. I relish visiting the Charleston House and Monk’s House whenever I can. I saw writer Olivia Laing and the artist/writer La JohnJoseph give an interesting performance responding to the book. Seeing different modern takes and interpretations of the novel has given me a whole new appreciation of Woolf’s vision alongside revisiting the text itself.

Something I didn’t recall from my first reading of the book was the way Woolf pokes fun at and satirizes being a writer throughout the novel. Orlando aspires to be a poet working on a poem about an oak tree for a few centuries. But Orlando’s opinions about writing and the literary community change over time. Orlando encounters Alexander Pope and other literary figures who disillusion him/her about being a writer and Woolf marks how writers’ reputation and stature changes dramatically over time. The book recounts how insular some literary circles can be (how little has changed over time!) and how Orlando is drawn to only writing for himself and then abandoning writing altogether to just appreciate nature, but Orlando is eventually drawn back to working on that epic poem. There’s a lot of ironic humour when Woolf contemplates how “once the disease of reading has laid upon the system it weakens it so that it falls in easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the inkpot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.” Woolf herself is such a fixture in the literary canon now that I feel this statement really humanizes her. The way she writes about conflicted feelings about the meaning and pursuit of literature makes me consider how she must have felt so conflicted herself despite her stature as a highly stylized writer devoted to the arts.

Connected to that is the whole premise of “Orlando” which is ostensibly a biography of this fantastical figure. The novel frequently makes references to the problem of writing a biography and the difficulties of trying to summarize someone’s life when really a person is infinitely more complex than recounting the facts about their history. This feels especially poignant since Woolf’s own father Leslie Stephen was a biographer himself. When Orlando considers biographical information about Alexander Pope it’s observed how “every secret of a writer’s soul every experience of his life every quality of his mind is written large in his works. Yet we require critics to explain the one and biographers to expound the other. That time hangs heavy on people’s hands is the only explanation of the monstrous growth.” It’s so interesting how Woolf seems to be skewering literary criticism and biography here which can only give a subjective interpretation of a writer’s work. But also the observation about people having too much time on their hands when Orlando is in some ways plagued with an immortality which forces him/her to continue forth without ever discovering answers or true revelations. All that changes is the proliferation of literature which increases when the development of mass printing takes place and Orlando studiously orders all the latest literature available.

I was also excited by noticing imagery and symbolism in Orlando which recurs in other books by Woolf. So, as in “To the Lighthouse” she makes the same metaphor about a lighthouse beam temporarily illuminating something just as our fleeting thoughts give a fleeting insight into our being. She also portrays an individual observing waves and toy boats at the Serpentine and then imaginatively inflates these to much larger events and occurrences in civilization. The character of Rhoda does the same thing rocking paper ships in a basin of water in “The Waves”. It’s interesting seeing how Woolf reworked certain metaphors over her different novels to assiduously probe the questions about life which were most central to her endeavours. Also, since I read Cavendish’s “The Blazing World” for the first time this year I was struck by how part of “Orlando’s” boundary-breaking imaginative influence must have come from this earlier 17th century novel. This is despite Woolf’s dismissive tone about how Cavendish “frittered her time away scribbling nonsense and plunging ever deeper into obscurity and folly” as she wrote in her essay “A Room of One’s Own”.

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Orlando frequently refers to an emerald frog throughout the novel

Of course, one of the brightest and most striking things about the book is how Orlando changes sex halfway through. But I’d forgotten how several other characters in the book also have a more fluid sense of gender and swap their sex at certain points. One of the great points that Laing and La JohnJoseph made in their talk was how enlivening it is to read a story about a character who swaps genders without their being oppressed for doing so and there’s something liberating and freeing about the way Orlando simply wakes up one day as a woman. Of course, Orlando does experience social trouble for the way the question of his/her gender is taken to court, there’s the issue of property ownership and how restrictive female clothes become for Orlando over time. But overall, it’s seen as a positive natural thing. One of the strongest statements Woolf makes about this is “Different though the sexes are they intermix. In every human being a vacillation from one sex to the other takes place and often it is only the clothes that keep the male or female likeness while underneath the sex is the very opposite from what it is above.” This powerfully marks the subtly of gender identity, but I was struck by how Laing observed that Woolf also frequently makes moving statements about how (as well as the question of gender) she portrays the way we’re all ever-changing beings beneath the identity on the surface. Later on in the book, Orlando frequently changes back and forth between male and female clothes and takes on a proliferation of identities to suit Orlando’s mood and the occasion. It feels like this character is an early proponent of how everything about the way we socially present ourselves is a form of drag.

I really appreciated the emotional and intellectual pleasures of this novel by revisiting it after such a long time. As much as I’m inspired by many aspects of it, I could also argue with Woolf’s perspective and point of view. One of the most notable the privileged and classist attitude Woolf exhibits through the novel and her other writing. She makes questionable statements about the worth of teaching the working class to read and at one point when Orlando goes out to try to appreciate the world he/she condescending exclaims “I like peasants. I understand crops”. But it would be easy to argue that Woolf is highly aware of writing from a position of privilege and mocking this state within the novel. Nevertheless, these opinions make Woolf all the more interesting and worthy of revisiting as a writer who contains infinite complexity and who is endlessly enjoyable to discuss.

You can watch more of my reaction to revisiting Woolf in this video:

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesVirginia Woolf

Reading two major classic novels written by women for the first time felt like the perfect way to bookend my reading of the entire Women’s Prize for Fiction 2018 longlist. I started with Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” and now I’ve ended with “Wuthering Heights”. These novels are also both included in the ‘Rediscover the Classic’ campaign I’ve curated and overseen for Jellybooks. Although both these novels and their famous characters are so ingrained in our cultural lexicon, I’ve been taken aback by the way their powerful narratives still gripped and surprised me. This is also the third novel I’ve read by the Brontë sisters after reading “Jane Eyre” for the first time several years ago and “Agnes Grey” last year. It’s interesting to think about how some parallels can be drawn between them but also how each author employs such different writing styles and has their own unique outlook. “Wuthering Heights” felt like it had the most complicated narrative form of all these books and some of the darkest content, but its made a big impact on me.

It's a good time to get swept up in Brontë fever with 'Brontë 200' happening. This is a five year programme celebrating the bicentenaries of the births of the four Brontë children (2018 marks Emily's 200th birthday). Recently it was announced stones engraved with new writing by Carol Ann Duffy, Jackie Kay, Jeanette Winterson and Kate Bush that commemorates the sisters will be placed in the walk between the sisters’ birthplace and the family parsonage. Not only does The Women's Prize organize events celebrating new authors, but they create opportunities to celebrate women's writing in general. So this week I also went to a wonderful event they held with a number of authors who paid tribute to the legacy of “Wuthering Heights” and they discussed the personal impact its had on them. It was so fascinating hearing the different perspectives on how much they were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” as teenagers and how their reading of the novel has changed over time. It was also noted how the themes, violence portrayed and style of the novel still feel so bold today.

Since I'm discussing “Wuthering Heights” in the context of The Women's Prize, I'd like to briefly draw some parallels I can see between Brontë's novel and books that were on the longlist. I have no idea whether these current authors were influenced by “Wuthering Heights” or not, but it's still interesting to look for connections. The way Brontë explores the line between romance and obsession/abuse and how it portrays the real bloody violence that results in a destructive relationship made me recall Kandasamy's extraordinary portrayal of an abusive marriage in “When I Hit You”. The rift between classes with the Lintons and the Earnshaws/Heathcliff and the question of who will control this rural land and houses felt reminiscent of the class struggle evident in Mozley's “Elmet”. The intense sense of claustrophobia and a family that hates each other trapped inside the farmhouse that is Wuthering Heights made me recall the toxic atmosphere in the house in Schmidt's “See What I Have Done”. The continuing impact of history that manifests in the presence of ghosts was also portrayed in Ward's “Sing, Unburied, Sing”. I don't know how much an in-depth comparison between these novels would yield, but it's nevertheless worth noting how Emily Brontë wrote about themes which are still relevant and being written about today.

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

Authors Kate Mosse, Dorothy Koomson, Juno Dawson & Louise Doughty at the Baileys Bar Women's Prize event on Wuthering Heights. 

It feels odd in a way coming to “Wuthering Heights” as a 39 year old man as this does seem like a novel that I ought to have first read as a teenager. In the discussion the other night, Juno Dawson noted how “Jane Eyre” seems like the perfect young adult novel but she didn't appreciate “Wuthering Heights” as much until reading it now. I might have had a similar reaction, but I like how the reality of reading Emily's novel defies the common conception that it is a great love story. The reality of Heathcliff and Catherine's lifelong romance is so much more twisted and bitter than a Romeo and Juliet story. Built within it is a rift between the born privilege and class aspirations of Catherine and the resented orphan Heathcliff. Rather than a love story, “Wuthering Heights” is more an extremely elaborate revenge tale where Heathcliff plays the long game to enact the wrath he feels at being so mistreated as a child and then slighted by the woman he loves. I sympathized with Heathcliff's anger over his outsider status, but of course I was also horrified by the monstrous way he acts and schemes to dominate the houses and all who inhabit them.

I must confess that I found the convoluted narrative structure a struggle for most of the first half. There is so much story within story where in some instances the present tenant Lockwood is being told a tale by the servant Nelly who is recounting a letter written by Isabella who is recalling an encounter she had. It made some parts difficult to follow, but this is a reason why it feels like rereading would yield a lot more and how it's worth really knowing the characters and the dynamic between them going into this novel. I know that this style of narration raises lots of interesting questions about how trustworthy the narrators are, but it does make it challenging to follow. In a way, I much preferred the second half of the novel which has to do with the second generation of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. Here I could feel the resonance of all that came before and how children are drawn into and absorb the quarrels of past generations. It's also fascinating how the roles of characters are switched around in the new generation and how you can feel the internal battles these younger individuals have to reconcile the past. There are also passages which are deeply meditative with characters contemplating their positions and struggling to see how to carry on. The second half of the novel gives “Wuthering Heights” an epic feel and made it much more emotionally resonant for me than if the story had stopped at the end of the first half.

It struck me that as an orphan story “Wuthering Heights” is much bolder and more daring than a book like Dickens' “Oliver Twist”. Oliver is so wholly good and moral whereas Heathcliff becomes an embittered and destructive monster. It feels like Emily Brontë presents a much more complicated and nuanced portrait of good vs evil and she shows how, though there is a lot of reprehensible action and other people's resentment is taken out on innocent people, there are understandable reasons for such violence. I could empathize with the struggle of many characters in “Wuthering Heights” and particularly admired the way she portrayed Isabella. She could be dismissed as a superficial or comic individual, but I felt for her conflict, the way she gambled and lost, and the way she resolutely decided to remove herself from a toxic situation where everyone else remained. I'm excited now to look at some film adaptations of the book (although I know most only portray the first half of the novel) and one day I look forward to reading Emily's story again.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesEmily Bronte

It’s so interesting reading Mary Shelley’s hugely influential novel “Frankenstein” after having so recently read Margaret Cavendish’s fantastically bizarre “The Blazing World” since both of these novels begin with a journey to the North Pole. I’ll need to read more about Shelley’s life and influences, but I assume having published her novel 152 years after Cavendish’s she must have been somewhat influenced by it – not just by the story’s action but the engagement she makes with scientific and philosophical ideas. Although, I have to say, Shelley’s novel is far more immediately engaging and readable for the incredibly gripping and sympathetic plot she created. While doctor Frankenstein’s infamous creation may have been reduced to an unreasonable monster in popular culture, in the novel he’s incredibly sensitive and articulate. It’s the fact that society sees Frankenstein’s creation as a monster that turns him into a monster rather than there being anything inherently evil about him. For this reason, I can see why this novel has really stood the test of time. As the ultimate tale of an outsider to society, it has a universal resonance and its meaning is still powerful today – for instance, Guillermo del Toro credited and thanked Mary Shelley when he won best director at this year’s BAFTAs for his film ‘The Shape of Water’.

I was encouraged to finally read this novel because of my involvement in curating the “Rediscover the Classics” project for the company JellyBooks. I talk more about this project and how you can join in with it in this video. It gives a great excuse for finally getting around to reading some much-lauded books. It feels especially poignant reading “Frankenstein” this year because it’s been exactly 200 years since it was first published. That a novel written so long ago can still feel so fresh and relevant is astounding. It’s no wonder that this book makes such a great choice for classrooms because young people can naturally relate to and understand the intense feelings it expresses of being an outsider – and the language it uses is very easy to read. There are so many moral and social issues raised in the plot that can be considered from different angles. It considers notions such as ambition, artificial intelligence, community, education, revenge, righteousness and many more.

It’s interesting how Shelley frames her story within the correspondence between a captain named Robert Walton with his sister Margaret. By beginning and ending the novel with his perspective it’s like she keeps this dramatic tale at arm’s length and invites the reader to consider how they would react if they came across a monstrous giant being chased through the arctic by his tortured and resentful creator. It’s also interesting how Robert insists how lonely he has become in his journey towards the North Pole in his quest to achieve some success and fame. This parallels with Frankenstein’s creation who expresses such an achingly intense feeling of loneliness in being rejected by anyone he encounters because they are repulsed by his hideousness. Frankenstein’s drive to achieve scientific recognition led to him creating an independent being that he quickly discarded. It’s as if Shelley is stressing how important it is to maintain empathy when attempting to realize our ambitions because we can easily forget about other people’s feelings in our drive towards achieving success and furthering the progress of civilization.

A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

A depiction of Frankenstein's creation in a film from 1910.

Something I found curious about the story is when Frankenstein’s creation describes his experiences living nearby a family that he observes over many months without revealing himself. It’s touching the way she describes his appreciation for this tight-knit family and the way that he learns the elements of language and society through observing them. He beautifully expresses the propulsive force of learning: “Of what a strange nature is knowledge! It clings to the mind when it has once seized on it like a lichen on the rock.” But he also interestingly describes learning about other cultures through their subjective understanding. When describing the colonization of North America and the slaughter of Native Americans he expresses how he “wept with Safie over the hapless fate of its original inhabitants.” But he also learns disdain for “the slothful Asiatics” which are so characterized because of a complicated sub-plot to do with their family involving slavery in Turkey. It seems curious how there is empathy for one nationality, but a sharp condemnation and stereotyping of another. Certainly the politics surrounding both these areas of the world understandably lead to such broad characterisations for this particular family. But I think this shows how the family's subjectivity induces them to make generalisations about people based on nationality. It adds to the novel’s broader message about not rejecting other people because of outward appearances. 

I didn’t expect “Frankenstein” to be such an emotional and heart breaking story. The isolation and misery of doctor Frankenstein’s creation is so powerfully depicted. It feels especially cruel that the creation is never given a name, but only referred to by the doctor as “the fiend” or “monster”. To deny someone a name feels like essentially depriving them of their own humanity. But the way the creation describes so vividly his feeling of longing, rejection, despair, anger and regret makes him one of the most dynamically realised humans I’ve ever read about. This is such a powerful book that I now feel eager to explore much more about Mary Shelley’s life and the many permutations of this narrative that have been created since this story’s inception 200 years ago.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesMary Shelley
4 CommentsPost a comment

One of my highlights from last year’s reading was participating in a Jean Rhys reading week. So when I saw that Waterstones Gower Street is doing a ‘Forgotten Fiction’ reading group where they’ll be discussing Jean Rhys’ “Voyage in the Dark” as well as Lynne Reid Banks’ seminal book first published in 1960, I jumped at the chance to read this classic novel for the first time. Before I even started reading I felt a big bout of nostalgia as I realized Reid Banks also wrote one of my favourite children’s books “The Indian in the Cupboard.” This imaginative drama takes place in a child’s bedroom where he can bring his toys to life and I connected with it so strongly when I was young. It’s interesting to now read Reid Banks’ gritty realist novel that represents the experience of being a single young woman whose father has thrown her out of their home for being pregnant. The novel incisively portrays the social prejudices the heroine Jane faces and the internalized shame she feels as a consequence, but also how her strength of will helps her endure and establish a new life for herself.

Although Jane works at a decently-paid job, after her father expels her from their house she moves into a seedy and bug-infested boarding house in Fulham. She feels that “In some obscure way I wanted to punish myself, I wanted to put myself in the setting that seemed proper to my situation.” The attic room she takes has an odd L-shape and twines around the room of her neighbour John, a black musician who increasingly becomes a devoted friend. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help wincing at Jane’s descriptions of John who she claims at different times to have an “animal” smell and a “negro odour.” This is symptomatic of a present-day difficulty with this novel. Although Jane’s position of being an unmarried pregnant woman who refuses to get rid of her baby must have been quite a radically liberal stance in her time, the way she describes people of colour and gay people is problematic and cringe-worthy.

Early on in the novel when she was working within an acting troupe she describes her antagonistic relationship with a gay actor who fancies her boyfriend Terry. She and Terry make out in front of this gay man to show him that they are “normal” and that he is not. Later on she visits a curry house and remarks how the Indians who serve her smile “in an enigmatic Eastern way.” It’s interesting thinking how progressive it must have been at the time to portray homosexuals and racial minorities in any way within a novel. However, no one could write such descriptions now without being considered bigoted. But, in a way, I’m glad that Jane’s provincial point of view is so blatant as it highlights her unconscious prejudices and how they contrast so sharply against the prejudice she receives as an unmarried pregnant woman in this time. She’s sympathetic and friendly with the racial and sexual minorities that she meets in the novel, but she was probably totally naïve about the way her attitude denigrated these people. Interestingly she seems more conscious of the effect her ex-boyfriend Terry’s anti-Semitic attitude has on her Jewish neighbour Toby.

None of this detracts from this novel’s moving and well portrayed story. Some of the strongest scenes show how powerless and vulnerable a woman in Jane’s situation was made to feel. She goes to visit a doctor to confirm her suspicion that she’s pregnant and she recounts how he realizes that she’s unmarried and therefore “he looked at me reproachfully. I stared back at him, feeling suddenly angry. I hadn’t come to him to be looked at like that. He wasn’t my father, it was nothing to him. But I couldn’t think of any stinging words to say; I just sat there, feeling angry and humiliated.” The scene devolves into an even more egregious situation. I felt totally outraged that someone in such a perilous situation should be lambasted with such moralistic judgement and shady medical practices in this era before the 1967 Abortion Act in England. Of course, the most biting and cruel scenes are when she receives contempt for accidentally becoming pregnant from her own father and the man she later falls in love.

Jane feels an overwhelming sense of shame when she understands the full extent of the public’s opinion of her: “I was right in the middle of a moment of truth, and it was still and quiet and empty in there, as it is supposed to be in the heart of a tornado.” However, the novel is certainly not all bleak as she also experiences wonderful moments of sympathy and kindness from strangers, a friend and another family member. Nor are doctors all bad once she manages to find a sensible one. It’s encouraging to read a story about someone who can survive and thrive despite the social stigma which has been attached to her – much in the same way as Joyce Carol Oates portrayed in her novel “We Were the Mulvaneys.” Where Reid Banks’ novel really excels is the complex way she shows how Jane can overcome her own self-loathing about her situation and transform it into a source of strength. I'm looking forward to going to the reading group and considering the parallels and differences between Jean Rhys' writing and Reid Banks'.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesWilliam Golding
5 CommentsPost a comment

The other day I was talking with someone about "classic" books and I couldn't help feeling guilty at some books that I still haven't read. Yes, there will always be books considered "must reads" that I haven't yet got to, but that doesn't stop me from feeling bad about missing some. Here are some great books I haven't yet read. Some authors like Shirley Jackson, Thomas Mann and Agatha Christie I haven't read anything by. Should any become a really urgent reading priority because my life can't possibly be complete without having experienced it?

Do you have any "classics" you feel guilty to have missed?

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment