From Paradise to Hell …

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Conceived, so I’ve read, as a response to the Utopian and rose-tinted worlds of Swallows and Amazons, and in particular, Ballantyne’s Coral Island, Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, is one of the most influential debut novels of the 20th Century.

I haven’t read it since my teens. With several decades of life’s experiences between these readings, its power to shock could only deepen second time around. It didn’t take long to realise that Golding’s dystopian vision of what happens when a group of boys end up marooned  in paradise is no anthropological experiment – it happens in the real world too, wherever there is bullying and pressure to join a gang, at whatever age.

Right from the start you can sense that the group of boys is never going to remain one big happy family.  Tall and blond, Ralph is elected leader.  Jack, his rival, and top dog of a bunch of surviving choirboys, is initially placated by being made chief hunter, and the boys all work together happily for a while doing their allotted jobs. Ralph, Simon and his crew build shelters and look after the younger boys, Jack, Roger and the rest of his band keep the signal fire going and hunt.  They maintain a sort of democracy through use of a conch shell – as the call to meetings, and speaker’s symbol.  Now to Piggy – the fat, bespectacled boy; he is habitually lazy due to his asthma, and a natural whiner which sets him up as an outsider from the start.  He is, however, shrewd, but it is only Ralph that listens to his advice.

They rub along together for a while, although the dark nights are full of nightmares and the vision of a Beast that starts to ramp up the tension between the boys.  But it is when Jack’s crew lets the fire go out as they’re having too much fun going native and hunting for pigs, that the rot really sets in.  Soon the boys split into two tribes and Jack sets himself up as a demigod in Conrad’s Kurtz mode (cf Heart of Darkness).  It will all end in tragedy, and the two seconds, Simon and Roger, will come to represent the axes of good and evil on the island in a near religious sense.  After all the violence, the concluding three pages came as even more of a shock, paralleling the boys’ experiences on the tiny island with the war that’s been going on around them.

In writing his antidote to boyish adventures with happy endings, Golding even goes so far as to name his two leaders Ralph and Jack, the same as two of the three marooned boys who have such good fun in Coral Island.  Ballantyne’s book is, however, aimed at younger readers who would not be ready for the gruesome entropy that ensues on Golding’s island.  And it all starts off so innocently …

The fair boy began to pick his way as casually as possible towards the water. He tried to be offhand and not too obviously uninterested, but the fat boy hurried after him.
‘Aren’t there any grown-ups at all?’
‘I don’t think so.’
The fair boy said this solemnly; but then the delight of a realized ambition came over him. In the middle of the scar he stood on his head and grinned at the reversed fat boy.
‘No grown ups!’ 

I read this novel for our book group’s August discussion on dystopias. More on that to follow next month.

If you’ve never read this book I’d urge you to give it a go, and if, like me, you read it years and years ago – why not see how you feel on a re-read. Golding’s writing is amazing in his descriptions of this tropical paradise turned into hell; he also really understands boys and their need for authority figures. (10/10)

* * * * *

I bought my book.
To explore the books mentioned further on Amazon UK, click below:
Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Faber pbk, new edition 2002, 240 pages.
The Coral Island (Puffin Classics)by R B Ballantyne
Swallows And Amazonsby Arthur Ransome
Heart of Darkness and Other Talesby Joseph Conrad

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13 thoughts on “From Paradise to Hell …

  1. I read this for the first time only a couple of years ago but reading your post has made me want to re-read it now! Such a good book and, as you say, still very relevant.

  2. I don’t know if you’ve ever read the comics Fables, but I’ve just made a strange connection between a character there an this cover. Never read this one, but it’s on my audiobook line-up.

    • Alex – now I’ve looked up Fables – sounds my kind of thing storywise, although I’m not into modern comics or graphic novels – could be my entry point … added the first vol to my wishlist! Thanks.

  3. I read this at school too (not for school, just because I felt like I should read it), and I found it appalling. I didn’t care at all about the fact that it was little kids being brutal (maybe I was too young for that part to be particularly striking), but the brutality itself upset me a lot. And ruined conch shells for me! Forever! I know I should reread it as a grownup but I seriously don’t want to.

    • Jenny, I read this at school because I had to, but I thought then that it was purely made up, and that stuff like that doesn’t happen in real life. I’m a little ashamed that its violence didn’t affect me enough back then.

      Choosing to read it again now, it did affect me, and I could see that showed a quite realistic vision. The fact that Golding wanted people to know that fun adventures with happy endings don’t happen in real life was now very clear, so I appreciated it for its honesty and great writing, but it did shock.

  4. I read this in late teens I really must reread it but know Golding want boys to be real boys and I felt that when I read it,also was studying psychology at time and it reminded me of the experiment with prisoners and guards the did in the us in the 1960 that was held up as a example of bad ethics it is so easy for people to fall into groups ,all the best stu

  5. I didn’t read this at school as I think it was set for a different class to mine (I think our book was Orwell’s Animal Farm). But I remember my friends talking about it. I’ve been meaning to but putting off reading it as I know it’s going to be ultra disturbing. But I really should!

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