The Darkness of Man’s Heart
(A Book Review of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies)
(Author’s note: I’m giving you a fair warning—Spoilers be within.)
I believe there’s always the proper time when a book is meant to be read.
Such was the case when I recently read Lord of Flies by William Golding. I first encountered this slim book back in high school where it was never even made a required nor an assigned reading to us. It found its way to me as I was prowling the library’s dusty shelves. Described as an adventure story of marooned English schoolboys on a tropical island on the back cover, I readily grabbed and borrowed it. And that was the only thing that made an impression to me as my interest for it waned when I couldn’t get past the second chapter, deciding that this “serious” book with its slow and drawling narrative was a bad choice after all. So I moved on another book, the one about this wizard boy in a magical land that was quite the rage of the day when I heard it from a loquacious female classmate who couldn’t be kept from ranting mad about it in between classes.
So what made me finally pick it up?
I didn’t know that Stephen King was the key all along. It was mentioned in a short story in his collection Night Shift and is one of his all-time favorite books. As if opening the floodgates of nostalgia for this half-read book left all these years, once again it found its way to me. This time I deem I’m fit enough to know what it speaks of.
Lord of the Flies explores the dark side of humanity, the savagery that lies even within the most civilized human being. It begins as a simple story about a group of English schoolboys marooned on a tropical island when the plane evacuating them from atomic war-torn England crashes. The reader first meets Ralph who thought the island is a paradise, a perfect setup for playing with plenty of food, made specially wonderful without the supervision of “grownups” around. Can this really be the image that the island seem to project? Golding makes us suspect otherwise as he described Ralph’s immediate surroundings with phrases such as “the long scar smashed into the jungle” that the plane made when it hurtled to the sea, the “creepers” where Ralph broke through and the “skull like coconut” scattered along the Terrace.
Initially, the boys tried to establish the culture they left behind, electing Ralph as their leader with the support and wise counsel of Piggy (the intellectual of the group), as they set up rules and put as their major priority the making of a signal fire in hopes that a passing ship might see thus making rescue possible. Eventually, the task of maintaining the fire was designated to the choir boys-turned-hunters commanded by Jack. From the very beginning, Jack hungers for domination so much so that he poses as the main threat and challenge to Ralph’s leadership and the semblance of civilization he creates and represents. As the duty for tending the signal fire was neglected, and as Jack and the boys become more and more obsessed with hunting due to their natural tendency and inclination to violence (symbolizing man’s evil side), an opportunity to be rescued was lost erupting the crisis between Ralph and Jack. The promise of rescue and the need for meat, both of equal significance to the boys, creates a tug of war tension amongst them as loyalty shifts and allegiances made. This conflict between Jack and Ralph — and the forces of savagery and civilization that they represent — is made worse by the boys’ fear of the beast that roam the island.
Lord of the Flies for me is a piece of Literature, and of Art in general, whose view of modern of man resonates today and beyond. Within the boundaries of the novel Golding explored three aspects of human experience when different types of people under similar condition face new and difficult situation. One, is that some desire for social and political order (symbolized by the platform and the conch); others show man’s natural proclivity toward evil and violence (symbolized by the choir boys-turned-hunters-turned-murderers); while there are some who resort to divine intervention or superstitious beliefs (symbolized by the ritualistic dancing and offerings to appease the “beast”).
The single most important symbolism central to the novel’s theme is that of the “beast” or the “lord of the flies,” who according to my book edition’s critical note by E.L. Epstein, “is a translation of the Hebrew Ba’alzevuv (Beelzebub in Greek) a suggestive name for the devil…devoted to decay, demoralization, hysteria and panic.” The beast in reality is human and represents man’s capacity for evil. Taking it to the novel’s context, the boys fear what is in fact themselves, for they have created the subject of their fear, that even though sustaining their physical need, living thus finally degenerates them into the most inhuman form of savagery.
In fact, when the book was first released in 1954, Golding went on to describe the novel’s theme as “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” As the book demonstrated repeatedly, human beings are capable of intense evil as result of their own natures and not because of any outside factors. Civilization, far from being a corrupting influence, is the only thing that restrains mankind from a life of barbarity and utter degradation. Human nature is what it is and there is no easy way to change it.
Even if I could’ve tried and forced myself to read the book back then, I doubt if I’ll have the same appreciation and understanding of it as I have now. Truly, a book, not we, is the one who decides if we’re worthy to receive them. As I read this story I had this feeling of being atop a tower looking at the wider and wider prospect of human nature, each bleaker than the last.
The novel ends with grief and a chilling warning.
We wept and grieved with Ralph because of that indelible mark of evil in each person’s heart that we scarcely believed existed. Between reason’s civilizing influence and animality’s self-indulgent savagery, we choose to abandon the values civilization does and represent. As we awaken to this realization we don’t only mourn the death of friends, but the death and lost of our innocence.
The finale of the book presents a disturbing message. As we look away from the boys and out toward the cruise rescue seems to have arrived. This dramatic change in perspective is Golding’s subtle means of changing the focus away from the boys and turns it to the world and on to us. Ralph has not been saved to return home but to be plunged once again to another larger war not of his making; nor does it also mean that Jack’s rule ends here for all we know those conducting the war have the same immature attitudes about civilization and power that the Jacks of this world may yet have their way. Golding tells us that we too will be destroyed. Then who will be there to rescue us?
We must remember that the world that surrounds us is like an island, our only island. We have the responsibility to protect our civilization and its freedom, most importantly the freedom of choice and speech.
Published by The Berkley Publishing Group
(Mass-market Paperback, A Perigree Book 1985 Edition)
Started: May 17, 2010
Finished: May 23, 2010