The Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)

Reviewer; Gary Dec 2019

I approached Lord of the Flies, quite uncharacteristically, from a position of complete contextual ignorance; that is to say that despite its position as a much-loved modern classic, I read it with very little prior knowledge. I should also state that I had - and have - no knowledge whatever of Mr. Golding or his background.

I feel these two things are noteworthy for the reason that it seems to me difficult to judge from the work alone just what position it was that he took on the questions confronting civilisation; I think it would be just as plausible to read it as a Rousseau-esque condemnation of the life-sapping artificiality of civilisation, a dirge for Arcadian innocence, as to read it more straightforwardly as a warning of the fragility of liberal democracy and the values of civilisation itself.

The cast of characters, as many will know, is made up entirely of children. These children, marooned on an island in the Pacific following an airplane crash - I don't recall any plausible explanation for why only the children survived - quickly realise the necessity of collective organisation for survival, and it is the way in which this organisation evolves that produces the drama and deeper meaning of the story.

The children quickly establish a mock-democracy, centring around the triumvirate of Ralph, Simon and Jack, the novella's chief antagonist. The three boys together represent the three viable methods of organising a society: common law democracy (Ralph), liberal democracy (Simon) and autocracy in its myriad forms (Jack). Jack, of course, uses the time-honored tools of populism to fracture the sensitive structure of democracy Ralph erected. Here is where Golding's ambivalence about civilisation comes in; like Buddha or the Solomon of Ecclesiastes, he appears to view something vulnerable and impermanent as being the less valuable for it, which seems to me an adolescent fallacy. It is also noteworthy that by casting not just Jack and his band, but Ralph too as a petulant and disagreeable child, he appears, again, to be telling us that Ralph's system is not a whole lot better.

In view of the above, it will be apparent that whichever of the two plausible readings we accept of Lord of the Flies, it turns out to be something of a failure: if it is an attempt to vindicate liberal democracy, it fails for having represented that system as vain, petty and unstable. If it is an attempt to condemn civilisation on the grounds that it makes demands of its members, then it fails on moral grounds. Or perhaps it's the context that's missing. Either way, the book seems to me to deserve no more than a token reading.