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|Island, published in 1857 in England, and Lord of the Flies|
Lord of the Flies
Lovers or Emily Bronte's Withering Heights
Lord of the Flies
Lord of the Flies
^ published in 1857 in England, and Lord of the Flies occurs in Carl
Niemeyer's "The Coral Island Revisited," College English, 22 (January,
1961), 241-245. Reprinted in this volume, pp. 217-223.-Eds.
3. As an illustration of this argument, note Ralph's actions when the
boys attack Robert as the substitute pig, p. 106 and when Simon is killed as
the beast, p. 141.-Eds.
no doubt that the novel is a fable, a deliberate translation of a
proposition into the dramatized terms of art, and as usual we have to ask
ourselves how resourceful and complete the translation has been, how fully
the, thesis has been absorbed and rendered implicit in the tale as it is
told. A writer of fables will heat his story at the fire of his convictions,
but when he has finished, the story must glow apart, generating its own heat
from within. Golding himself provides a criterion for judgment here, for he
offers a striking example of how complete the translation of a statement
into plastic terms can be. Soon after their arrival the children develop an
irrational suspicion that there is a predatory beast at large on the island.
This has of course no real existence, as Piggy for one points out, but to
the littluns it is almost as tangible as their castles in the sand, and most
of the older boys are afraid they may be right. One night when all are
sleeping there is an air battle ten miles above the sea and a parachuted
man, already dead, comes drifting down through the darkness, to settle among
the rocks that crown the island's only mountain. There the corpse lies
unnoticed, rising and falling with the gusts of the wind, its harness
snagged on the bushes and its parachute distending and collapsing. When it
is discovered and the frightened boys mistake it for the beast, the sequence
is natural and convincing, yet the implicit statement is quite unmistakable
too. The incomprehensible threat which has hung over them is, so to speak,
identified and explained: a nameless figure who is Man himself, the boys'
own natures, the something that all humans have in common.
This is finely done and needs no further comment, but unhappily the
explicit comment has already been provided, in Simon's halting explanation
of the beast's identity: "What I mean is ... maybe it's only us." And a
little later we are told that "However Simon thought of the beast, there
rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and
sick." This over-explicitness is my main criticism of what is in many ways a
work of real distinction, and for two reasons it appears to be a serious
one. In the first place the fault is precisely that which any fable is
likely to incur: the incomplete translation of its thesis into its story so
that much remains external and extrinsic, the teller's assertion rather than
the tale's enactment before our eyes. In the second place the fault is a
persistent one, and cannot easily be discounted or ignored. It appears in
expository annotations like this, when Ralph and Jack begin to quarrel:
The two boys faced each other. There was the brilliant world of
hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill; and there was the world of
longing and baffled commonsense.
Less tolerably, it obtrudes itself in almost everything- thought,
action, and hallucination-that concerns the clairvoyant Simon, the "batty"
boy who understands "mankind's essential illness," who knows that Ralph will
get back to where he came from, and who implausibly converses with the Lord
of the Flies. Some warrant is provided for this clairvoyance in Simon's
mysterious illness, but it is inadequate. The boy remains unconvincing in
himself, and his presence constitutes a standing invitation to the author to
avoid the trickiest problems of his method, by commenting too baldly on the
issues he has raised. Any writer of fables must find it hard to ignore an
invitation or this kind once it exists. Golding has not been able to ignore
it, and the blemishes that result impose some serious, though not decisive,
limitations on a fiery and disturbing story.
IAN GREGOR and MARK KINKEAD-WEEKES
The urge to put things into categories seems to satisfy some deep human
need and in this matter at least, critics and historians of literature are
very human people indeed. A brief glance at the English Literature section
of any library catalogue will show what I mean. There we find literature
divided up into various lands of writings, and within the kinds we nave
historical periods, and within the periods we have groups or movements, and
within the groups individuals who write various kinds. . . . Now up to a
point of course this sort of classification serves a very useful purpose. We
need a map if we are going to do any exploring, and the fact that it is the
countryside we have come to enjoy, not the map, doesn't make the map any
less necessary. If we take out a map of The Novel we find, if it is a
general one, that it falls into three sections-the eighteenth-century novel,
the Victorian novel, and the modern novel. And these descriptions point not
simply to three centuries, but to decisive changes that have taken place
within the form of the novel. These changes are often due to historical
circumstances, and sometimes they can be described in terms of the ruling
ideas of the age or the literary expectations of the readers, out there are
other changes and shifts in fiction which seem to arise from the very nature
of the novel itself. A shift of this land may be seen in a useful
classification into "fables" and "fictions." It is a little
1. This essay appears as the Introduction to the "School Edition" of
^ published by Faber and Faber, Ltd., London, 1962, pp.
i-xii. It is reprinted here by permission of Faber and Faber and the
difficult to define this difference satisfactorily in the abstract, but
it is fairly easy to see what is meant in practice. When, for instance, D.
H. Lawrence wrote in one of his letters, "I am doing a novel which I have
never grasped. Damn its eyes, here I am at page 145 and I've no notion what
it's about . . . it's like a novel in a foreign language which I don't know
very well," he was almost certainly occupied in writing a fiction and not a
fable. In other words, a fiction is something which takes the form of an
exploration for the novelist, even if it lacks the very extreme position
which Lawrence describes; the concern is very much with trying to make clear
the individuality of a situation, of a person; for these reasons it is
extremely difficult to describe a fiction satisfactorily in abstract terms.
With a fable, on the other hand, the case is very different Here the writer
begins with a general idea-"the world is not the reasonable place we are led
to believe," "all power corrupts" -and seeks to translate it into fictional
terms. In this kind of writing the interest of the particular detail lies in
the way it points to the generalization behind it. It is generally very easy
to say what a fable is "about," because the writers whole purpose is to make
the reader respond to it in precisely that way. Clear examples of fiction in
the way I am using the word would be works like D. H. Lawrence's Sons and
^ or Emily Bronte's Withering Heights; clear examples of fable, Swift's
Gulliver's Travels or Orwell's Animal Farm. But these are extreme works and
most novels have elements of both. Oliver Twist, for instance, is certainly
a fiction in its portrayal of the intensely imagined criminal world; but it
also moves towards fable when ft describes the world of the poorhouse, and
the people who finally rescue Oliver from that world, because here Dickens
is moved to write primarily by abstract ideas, the educational hardships of
children, the wisdom of benevolence. You will notice I said that ^
Twist "moves towards" fiction, "moves towards" fable, and in this kind of
alternation it is typical of many novels which lie between such extreme
examples as I mentioned above. Now when we turn to Mr. Golding's Lord of the
Flies we find that what is remarkable is that it is a fable and a fiction
simultaneously. And I want to devote the remainder of this Introduction to
developing that remark.
When we first begin to write and talk about Mr. Golding's novel, it is
the aspect of fable which occupies our attention. And this is very natural
because the book is a very satisfying one to talk about Mr. Golding, our
account might run, is examining what human nature is really like if we could
consider it apart from the mass of social detail which gives a recognizable
feature to our daily lives. That "really" is important and you may want to
argue about it, but Mr. Golding's assumption here is one that most of us
make at one time or another. "Of course," we say of someone, "he's not
really like that at all," and then we go on to construct an account which
assumes that a distorting film of circumstance hate come between us and the
man's "real self." What Mr. Golding has done in ^ is to
create a situation which will reveal in an extremely direct way this "real
self," and yet at the same time keep our sense of credibility, our sense of
the day-to-day world, lively and sharp. It is rather like performing a
delicate heart operation, but feeling that the sense of human gravity comes
not through the actual operation but through the external scene -the
green-robed figures, the arc light which casts no shadow, the sound of a car
in the street outside. And it was in Ballantyne's ^ a book
published in the middle of the last century, that Mr. Golding found the
suggestion for his "external scene." This is not a question of turning
Ballantyne inside out, so that where his boys are endlessly brave,
resourceful and Christian, Mr. Golding's are frightened, anarchic and
savage; rather Mr. Golding's adventure story is to point up in a forceful
and economic way the terrifying gap between the appearance and the reality.
We do not need to know ^ to appreciate Lord of the Flies, but if
we do know it we will appreciate more vividly the power of Mr. Golding's
book. If we take Ralph's remark about "the darkness of man's heart" as
coming very close to the subject of the book, it is worth just remembering
that this book, published in 1954, was written in a world very different
from Ballantyne's, one which had seen within twenty years the systematic
destruction of the Jewish race, a world war revealing unnumbered atrocities
of what man had done to man, and in 1945 the mushroom cloud of the atomic
bomb which has come to dominate all our political and moral thinking.
Turning from these general considerations of Mr. Golding's fable to the
way it is actually worked out, we find the novel divided into three
sections. The first deals with the arrival of the boys on the island, the
assembly, the early decisions about what to do; the emphasis falls on the
paradisal landscape, the hope of rescue, and the pleasures of day-to-day
events. Everything within this part of the book is contained within law and
rule: the sense of the aweful and the forbidden is strong. Jack cannot at
first bring himself to kill a pig because of "the enormity of the knife
descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood."
Roger throws stones at Henry, but he throws to miss because "round the
squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and
the law." The world in this part of the book is the world of children's
games. The difference comes when there is no parental summons to bring these
games to an end. These games have to continue throughout the day, and
through the day that follows. And it is worth noting that Mr. Golding
creates his first sense of unease through something which is familiar to
every child in however protected a society-the waning of the light. It is
the dreams that usher in the beastie, the snake, the unidentifiable threat
The second part of the book could be said to begin when that threat
takes on physical reality, with the arrival of the dead airman. Immediately
the fear is crystallized, all the boys are now affected, discussion has
increasingly to give way to action. As the narrative increases in tempo, so
its implications enlarge. Ralph has appealed to the adult world for help,
"If only they could send us something grown-up ... a sign or something," and
the dead airman is shot down in flames over the island. Destruction is
everywhere; the boy's world is only a miniature version of the adult's. By
now the nature of the destroyer is becoming clearer; it is not a beastie or
snake but man's own nature. "What I mean is ... maybe it's only us," Simon's
insight is confined to himself and he has to pay the price of his own life
for trying to communicate it to others. Simon's death authenticates this
truth, and now that the fact of evil has actually been created on the
island, the airman is no longer necessary and his body vanishes in a high
wind and is carried out to sea.
The third part of the book, and the most terrible, explores the meaning
and consequence of this creation of evil. Complete moral anarchy is
unleashed by Simon's murder. The world of the game, which embodied in
however an elementary way, rule and order, is systematically destroyed,
because hardly anyone can now remember when things were otherwise. When the
destruction is complete, Mr. Golding suddenly restores "the external scene"
to us, not the paradisal world of the marooned boys, but our world. The
naval officer speaks, we realize with horror, our words, "the kid needed a
bath, a hair-cut, a nose wipe and a good deal of ointment." He carries our
emblems of power, the white drill, the epaulettes, the gilt-buttons, the
revolver, the trim cruiser. Our everyday sight has been restored to us, but
the experience of reading the book is to make us re-interpret what we see,
and say with Macbeth "mine eyes are made the fools o' the other senses."
If we are to look at ^ from the point of view of it
being a fable this is the kind of account we might give. And, as far as it
goes, it is a true account. The main weakness in discussing Lord of the
Flies is that we are too often inclined to leave our description at this
point. So we find a Christian being deeply moved by the book and arguing
that its greatness is tied up with the way in which the author brings home
to a modem reader the doctrine of Original Sin; or we find a humanist
finding the novel repellent precisely because it endorses what he feels to
be a dangerous myth; or again, on a different level, we find a Liberal
asserting the importance of the book because of its unwavering exposure or
the corruptions of power. Now whatever degree of truth we find in these
views, it is important to be dear that the quality or otherwise of Lord of
the Flies is not dependent upon any of them. Whether Mr. Golding has written
a good novel or not is not because of "the views" which may be deduced from
it, but because of his claim to be a novelist. And the function of the
novelist as Joseph Conrad once said is "by the power of the written word to
make you hear, to make you feel-it is, before all, to make you see." And it
is recognition of this that must take us back from Mr. Golding's fable,
however compelling, to his fiction. Earlier I suggested that these two
aspects occur simultaneously, so that in moving from one to the other, we
are not required to look at different parts of the novel, but at the same
thing from a different point of view.
Let us begin by looking at the coral island. We have mentioned the
careful literary reference to Ballantyne ("Like the Coral Island," the naval
officer remarks), the theological overtones with the constant paradisal
references, "flower and fruit grew together on the same tree," but all these
things matter only because Mr. Golding has imaginatively put the island
before us. The sun and the thunder come across to us as physical realities,
not because they have a symbolic part to play in the book, but because of
the novelist's superb resourcefulness of language. Consider how difficult it
is to write about a tropical island and avoid any hint of the travel poster
cliche or the latest documentary film about the South Seas. To see how the
difficulty can be overcome look at the following paragraph:
Strange things happened at midday. The glittering sea rose up, moved
apart in planes of blatant impossibility; the coral reef and the few,
stunted palms that clung to the more elevated parts would float up into the
sky, would quiver, be plucked apart, run like raindrops on a wire or be
repeated as in an odd succession of mirrors. Sometimes land loomed where
there was no land and flicked out like a bubble as the children watched, (p.
It is this kind of sensitivity to language, this effortless precision
of statement that makes the novel worth the most patient attention. And what
applies to the island applies to the characters also. As Jack gradually
loses his name so that at the end of the novel he is simply the Chief we
feel this terrible loss of identity coming over in his total inability to do
anything that is not instinctively gratifying. He begins to talk always in
the same way, to move with the same intent. But this is in final terrible
stages of the novel. If we turn back to the beginning of the novel we find
Mr. Golding catching perfectly a tone of voice, a particular rhythm of
speech. Ralph is talking to Piggy shortly after they have met:
"I could swim when I was five. Daddy taught me. He's a commander in the
Navy. When he gets leave he'll come and rescue us. What's your father?"
Piggy flushed suddenly.
"My dad's dead," he said quickly, "and my mum-"
He took off his glasses and looked vainly for something with which to
"I used to live with my auntie. She kept a candy store. I used to get
ever so many candies. As many as I liked. When'll your dad rescue us?"
"Soon as he can." (p. 11.)
Notice how skillfully Mr. Golding has caught in that snatch of
dialogue, not only schoolboy speech rhythms,2 but also, quite
unobtrusively, the social difference between the two boys. "What's your
father?", "When'll your dad rescue us?" There are two continents of social
experience hinted at here. I draw attention to this passage simply to show
that in a trivial instance, in something that would never be quoted in any
account of "the importance" of the book, it is the gifts which are peculiar
to a novelist, "to make you hear, to make you feel . . . to make you see,"
that are being displayed.
Perhaps, however, we feel these gifts most unmistakably present not in
the way the landscape is presented to us, nor the characters, but rather in
the extraordinary momentum and power which drives the whole narrative
forward, so that one incident leads to another with an inevitability which
is awesome. A great deal of this power comes from Mr. Golding's careful
preparation for an incident: so that the full significance of a scene is
only gradually revealed. Consider, for instance, one of these. Early in the
book Ralph discovers the nickname of his companion with delight:
Ralph danced out into the hot air of the beach and then returned as a
fighter plane, with wings swept back, and machine-gunned Piggy.
Time passes, games give way to hunting, but still the hunting can only
be talked about in terms of a game and when Jack describes his first kill,
it takes the form of a game:
"I cut the pig's throat---"
The twins, still sharing their identical grin, jumped up and ran round
each other. Then the rest joined in, making pig-dying noises and shouting.
2.In their notes for this edition the authors define all of the
schoolboy slang terms that are likely to confuse adult readers.- Eds.
"One for his nob!"
"Give him a fourpenny one!"
Then Maurice pretended to be the pig and ran squealing into the centre,
and the hunters, circling still, pretended to beat him. As they danced, they
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