Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

1954: Lord of the Flies (Golding, William)

The frisson between accepting childhood or adulthood (5/5)

Not science fiction here, but Lord of the Flies is usually rated as one of the top 100 horror novels... and I do like my horror, though much of it is painted in supernatural droll that it becomes unappealing. But when the horror is purely human, when the human nature rears its head... that's good horror, even when I disagree with the human nature/nature of childhood Golding pens in Lord of the Flies.

I've been a teacher for over seven years now but only in the past year have I been getting more and more interested in the history of pedagogy. Through my master's studies, two names have struck me as both progressive and extreme: A.S. Neill (1883-1973) and Anton Makarenko (1888-1939). While progressive education may be not suitable for nationwide schools, some lessons gleamed from the case studies can be implemented. Before reading Lord of the Flies, I channeled by humanistic educational theories to sort out the misconception of the brutality of childhood through the theories of Neill and Makarenko.

Rear cover synopsis:
"A plane crashes on a desert island and the only survivors, a group of schoolboys, assemble on the beach and wait to be rescued. By day they inhabit a land of bright fantastic birds and dark blue seas, but at night their dreams are haunted by the image of a terrifying beast. As the boys' delicate sense of order fades, so their childish dreams are transformed into something more primitive, and their behavior starts to take on a murderous, savage significance."


Inspired by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island (1858), William Golding turned the tables on the way children react when left by themselves. In Coral Island, three boys were stranded in the south pacific and got along quite well... until the adults intervened: pirates, inhabitants, and missionaries. By themselves in their childish world they led an idyllic life, but conflict arose when they were confronted by world of the adults. Golding takes a different stand on this theme and sees the children as hopeless without adult supervision; the nature of the child as a barbarian.

Golding is a Cornish author while Ballantyne was a Scottish author. These are facts often better left to historians, but one more character needs to come into play in order to reaffirm my position: the Scottish progressive educator A. S. Neill. Neill believed that children carried the same tacit ideals of what it means to be a good human being as adults do; children have the innate ability to govern themselves and discipline themselves. When adults assume their self-appointed role as governors over children, Neill believed that the children were then subjected to all the psychoses in the adult world, which steals the essence of childhood away from the children. Neill's Summerhill School offers an education like this.

As an educator myself, I read The Lord of the Flies through the eyes of A. S. Neill and his Soviet counterpart Anton Makarenko, both believing in child self-sufficiency. Much of the symbolism and many of the incidences on the island can be attributed to the psychological distress the boys endured when under the rule of the adults and how some struggle to hope with their childhood nature. The conflicts arising from the adult-ish characters (Ralph and Piggy) contrast the overbearing childish attitudes of the rest (Jack and Roger) with the "littluns" displaced from the power struggle between Ralph and Jack. Though frightened and largely ignored, the "littluns" are the only children on the island to be spared the awkward suspension of responsibility between childhood and adulthood. The rest are victims of their inadequate understanding of their adulthood misconceptions and their own miscarriage of upholding their childhood values.

The central symbol of adulthood misconception is the conch, a tool used to gather around the subordinates like the children experienced at the airfield when they were gathered by the megaphone. While initially successful, and with much disdain displayed by Jack, the conch is accepted as a symbol of unity and law. However, the mere idea of using the conch to symbolize the megaphone shows that Ralph and the children are ill at ease with their new found freedom. Abiding by the rules of adulthood they experienced in school has ill equipped them for the freedom they should be experiencing on the island--a time for growth, a time for the children to be children.

The awkwardness is apparent: the life they were experiencing in England (under the yoke of adult governors) versus the life they can experience on the island, where the children can be children. Even Golding writes in Chapter Four, "the northern European tradition of work, play, and food right through the day, made it impossible for them to adjust themselves wholly to this [the island's] new rhythm" (74).

Piggy and Ralph both obviously carry the largest burden of adulthood to the island. Their intrinsic need for conformity and law drive a stake through the fabric of the childhood experience for the rest of the children. When a schism arises between Ralph and Jack, it's Jack's childish notion of having fun that tears him away from Ralph's sect; Jack's need to experience the hunt, to have what he considers fun, establishes the rift which separates his cave-dwelling clan (what boy doesn't want to build a fort?) from Ralph's stricter beach-sheltered clan. This schism between the clans of adulthood and childhood manifests itself in hopelessness and savagery.

The savagery experienced through the eyes of Ralph is that through the eyes of an adult. The children, the clan of Jack's cave, simply see their bloodlust actions as uninhabited self-governance--those who disallow their childish ambitions are persecuted, albeit beyond Neill's and Makarenko's idea of kind justice. Even then, the savagery isn't realistically experienced by all of Jack's clan with one death being attributed to honest fear and another death being attributed by the action of one. The ultimate hunt at the end is seen as bloodthirsty through the eyes of Ralph and Roger, whereas only Roger really sees the violence as necessary to regain the equilibrium of his clan's childish motives. Jack is Roger's vehicle of madness, his key to the door of his warped fantasies... adult fantasies not shared among the rest of Jack's clan (What happens to the twins at the end of chapter 11? Torture?).

The fear of adulthood manifests itself with the arrival of the dead airman. When the children are begging for the presence of an adult, one arrives in corporal yet corrupted form, and the children vilify the corpse. They assure themselves there is no beast yet they later confirm its very existence. This fear stays with them even after the corpse itself is flung to sea. At the conclusion there's an air of unwelcome acceptance, calm hostility, or belittling realism.

So, the savagery of childhood that is commonly associated the Lord of the Flies isn't part and parcel with childhood itself; rather, the brutality is only a symptom of one character's (Roger) nonacceptance of childhood and the most of the scenes of violence can be explained by the children's inadequate understanding of both their own childhood nature and their misconceptions of the adult world which they try to implement, failingly, in their own world. It's not childhood that's brutal, it's the misconstrued conveyance of adulthood to children (through education, advertising, entertainment, etc.) that is manifested in the child's actions that's brutal. Children aren't born with hate... their taught.

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