Lord of the Flies: A brief review

At the age of 21 I suppose I’m a bit late to be reading this, but my curiosity was aroused.   I was browsing through Ebert’s great list of bad movies and took the time to read his review of the latest film adaptation of the book.  His brief mention of political undertones served as a large motivator.  In some back corner of my mind I remember my sister describing the book as an argument against anarchy.  There was every indication that this would be an important and significant book, even if it failed to meet my sympathies.

Unfortunately, it seems the hubbub was quite overblown.  To begin with let’s start with Ebert’s contention.  I feel that it is pertinent to describe what the book isn’t before I describe what it is, and this will offer a convenient way to do so.  Is Jack really a “free-market economist”?  In the course of the book he initiates numerous acts of violence, engages in theft, commits murder, and presides as chieftain over a number of despotic crimes.  The answer would have to be no.  “But!” I hear the objections “Free-market economics are a mythology, they exist nowhere in the world.  With that in mind isn’t it sensible to speak of Capitalism in terms of complete political economy?”

Very well then.  Assuming for the moment that we are limiting our analysis as such, can this story be said to have anything to do with Capitalism?  Let’s start applying our analytical tools where they apply most clearly, at the very beginning of the story.  The children arrive on the island and organise around Ralph, who they imbue with importance for his discovery of a Conch which he uses to get their attention.  They quickly vote him chieftain, producing a structure which might be described as government.  Among Ralph’s first acts as chieftain is his division of the children into two groups, hunters and builders.  Hence we see a specialization of labor emerging.  We also have Ralph as a political class, planning the structure of production.  So far so good.

Yet, what happens to the analysis once the troubles begin?  Once Jack declares himself chieftain of his own group?  It should be clear to see that if this course of inquiry is carried more than three feet forward, it can end only in contradiction or tautology.  The story is about Capitalism in roughly the same way every story is about Capitalism;  in the sense that all societies have a structure of production and all actions stem from decisions made by people.  What deep insight can be gleaned from recognising this fact in its specific instantiations?  None.  Of all the things Ebert should consider staying quiet about, economics is on the top of the list.

So what is this story about then?  Like most stories it must be understood in reverse.  The story ends with a manhunt, as a tribe of savages seek to chase and kill the last vestige of civility on their island.  It begins with a group of innocent children, stranded on an unfamiliar piece of land in the middle of the ocean with no adults to guide them.  How does it get from the one to the other?  To put it bluntly, incorrectly.

My copy of the book came helpfully with its own analysis already packaged into the deal.  It is very helpful for purposes of explanation, particularly when quotes from the author himself are given, such as these:

“The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.  The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable.”

Fair enough.  But what is this ethical nature of the individual?  Is it constructed by individuals themselves?  Or is it given before them?  The person who wrote the analysis in my copy of the book, E.L Epstein, states that “In this book, as in few others at the present time, are findings of psychanalysts of all schools, anthropologists, social psychologists and philosophical historians mobilized into an attack upon the central problem of modern thought: the nature of  the human personality and the reflection of personality on society”.  If true, this certainly accounts for much.  Epstein goes on to display his literary tastes by speaking of the symbolism of the book.  Particularly noteworthy is his description of Piggy’s glasses, breaking over time thanks to increasing savagery and therefore representing the “progressive decay of rational influence”.  Well certainly.  Yet why should this symbolism receieve praise?  Is it particularly valuable that a text should repeat in metaphor a message which is already perfectly well articulated in the literal interpretation of the work (in fact, when the symbol itself arises directly from the circumstances it acts to symbolize)?  All hail redundancy, the defining characteristic of art!

Enough of that though.  The real atrocity here comes when Epstein articulates his own ideas about the ethical nature of the individual, delving into a Freudian analysis of the characters that would be comical if it weren’t serious.  The great and grand insult comes when he chooses to speak of existentialism, attempting to reduce the insights of phenomenology to a mere equivalence with the structures of consciousness proposed by the psychoanalysts.  This is inappropriate and ignorant at best.  Intentionally or not, it is also dishonest.

So how does the work itself stack up to Epstein’s descriptions of it?  The most interesting items for inspection are the actions and objects which the boys choose to impart with meaning.  In itself this should offer no evidence for Epstein’s interpretation.  In fact, this story could play quite well as an existential parable if that were the extent of it.  When they first arrive on the island, the characters make a great fuss out of civility; they are British.  This means something to them.  As time wears on we see a sense of importance granted to the Conch, then to the facepaint of Jack.  This mask is described as liberating him from shame and self-consciousness.  Later, it is described as compelling to the other children.  Much has been made of this particular development, but I don’t think it is really understood as it should be.  This is not a degeneration to an alternate state of consciousness.  Rather, all of this stems from the same structure of consciousness.  The mechanism by which the children grant authority to the facepaint is the same one that they use to grant authority to the Conch.  Ultimately, it is also the same one that they use to grant significance to their British upbringing.

The evidence for interpreting the events of the story as representative of a degeneration to an alternate state of consciousness are numerous but subtle.  In the first place, Golding’s use of foreshadowing is quite heavy and grants the book a sense of inevitability.  We aren’t just shown what is personally compelling to the children, we also get a number of cases where the author is clearly speaking through them.  Most notable is the dialogue between Simon and the infamous Lord of the Flies itself.  The description given at various points of The Beast also demonstrates this phenomenon.  On that island the boys are not alone, and what they truly face isn’t the crushing burden of responsibility but rather some some deep, dark aspect of themselves.  Something that the light of proper british culture always kept at bay.  It is this addition which sabotages the book.

It would be one thing to show the savagery that human beings are capable of, unbridled and even without explanation.  When one searches for an understanding of people and their crimes in particular, the most painful explanation is always waltzed right over; that people chose to behave as they did.  That to be human is to choose, and therefore true brutality and evil are human in origin, by requirement.  This search for an ethical nature of the individual is as ill-conceived as any crusade, and what’s more it makes for bad fiction.  By trying to account for people, Golding replaces tragedy with destiny.

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~ by Kilroy del Dancefighter Estallion the First on October 21, 2009.

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