(Since the beginning of 2008 I've been writing an ongoing series of essays here that I call the "CCLaP 100," whereby I read for the first time a hundred books considered by many to be classics, and then write reports here on whether or not I think they deserve this label. For the complete list of books, as well as an explanation behind how the list was compiled, you can click here.)
Lord of the Flies (1954)
By William Golding
Book #46 in this essay series
The story in a nutshell:
First published in the beginning years of Mid-Century Modernism but not a bestseller until a decade later, William Golding's 1954 Lord of the Flies is a look at a group of high-class British schoolboys who end up stranded on a literal eden of a tropical island, after the outbreak of a speculative World War Three takes down the plane they were on and kills the pilot. At first the situation seems like an adult-free, clothing-optional Paradise on Earth*, but like all humans, the boys quickly realize that they will have to work together in order to survive; and at first they actually do a pretty good job at making a British stiff-upper-lip go at it, forming a direct democracy of sorts with the intelligent and charismatic Ralph naturally emerging as their leader, and his annoyingly nerdy overweight friend Piggy representing the docile middle-class who are apt to blindly obey whatever random authority figure happens to be in charge. But alas, this being the human race, there of course must be a violent, sociopathic powermonger among their group as well -- the truly scary Jack Merridew, that is, who even came to the island with his own private militia, the children's choir he had already been the bullying leader of back in civilization, and who appoint themselves the official food providers for the castaways on the constant hunt for meat, a situation that quickly degenerates into insular tribalism and the literal painting of war-marks on their faces.
When this perpetual hunting, then, interferes one day with the maintenance of their signal fire, ruining a random chance they had of getting rescued, a Soviet-style power struggle for their nascient society suddenly starts forming; and by exploiting the fear of a mythical "Beast" that supposedly lives in the island's interior (obviously a metaphor for the controlling power of organized religion), believed in without question by the population of small children who have formed their own Neverland-like subculture away from the older boys (a symbol for the literal unwashed, mouth-breathing masses), Jack is able through deceit and superstition to wrest authority from Ralph and effectively become their society's bloodthirsty leader. That then leads by the book's climax to a literal assassination hunt through the jungle for the fleeing Ralph, saved only at the last moment by the deus-ex-machina appearance of the adult military again, although with it being heavily implied that the apocalyptic war they are heading back to will make their island travails seem like a cakewalk in comparison.
The argument for it being a classic:
Well, for starters, Golding was eventually a winner of the coveted Nobel Prize for Literature; and this is without question the most famous book of his career, making it a natural title to turn to when wanting to explore the best of what the Mid-Century Modernist arts had to offer, a book that by now has been read by tens of millions of people because of it eventually becoming a staple of high-school literature classes. And then of course there's the fact that it's simply a great book, argue its fans, an exciting and surprise-filled page-turner containing a powerful message about the true nature of human behavior, a message eagerly eaten up in the '50s and '60s by the bitter survivors of World War Two who were now staring down the barrel of the atomic gun known as the Cold War. Add to this the fact that, much like The Catcher in the Rye from those same years, this was one of the first books to eventually define the now-hot Young Adult (or YA) industry, and you have a title that its fans argue should rightly be considered a classic no matter which way you look at it.
The argument against:
The main argument against Lord of the Flies being a classic seems to be that it simply isn't as good as its fans claim it is, in reality a clunkily-written potboiler that telegraphs its plot turns with almost no subtlety at all, and that the only reason it's as well-known as it is is because of its patently obvious symbolism being the best thing to ever happen to lazy high-school lit teachers worldwide. (Yes, yes, Simon is Jesus! I get it, Mrs. Hobart, I freaking get it!) Although few seem to dispute that it remains an exciting actioner for kids, and violent little boys in particular, there are lots of people out there who claim that this is all this YA groundbreaker is, and shouldn't even be considered for "classic" status among the adult literary canon.
So much like my experience reading The Catcher in the Rye last year for the first time, I'm split in my opinion of Lord of the Flies after now reading it for the first time too; because although I definitely found it an undeniably thrilling book, I also wholeheartedly agree that it will be of interest mostly just to teen readers, and that in fact it probably would've never been considered for adult "classic" status in the first place if the YA industry had already been established when it first came out. And that's really what makes YA such a tricky genre, as we've seen by the recent grown-up popularity of authors like John Reed, Sarah Dessen and Stephanie Meyer; because what the term really means is that these books are fully adult when it comes to plot sophistication, overall message, and the things at stake among its characters, just that the books themselves are written with young people occupying most of the main parts, and in a style designed to not go over the heads of most young readers. So does that make a book like this a classic or not? Obviously, if you were talking just about the influence it's had over the formation of the YA industry, the answer would unequivocally be yes, and obviously no matter what the answer, it still remains an exciting book that most people in the early 2000s will still really enjoy (that is, if you can get past its evermore rapidly passe slang, with the book chock-full of quaint '50s terms like, "Ah, nuts to ya!"); but since ultimately this is an essay series about adult books designed expressly for adult readers, Lord of the Flies under this definition squeaks in just under the line where I myself would consider it a classic, and I have a feeling that it will be one of the first titles of this entire series to eventually be forgotten by society as a whole as the future progresses. Although I definitely recommend it if you've never actually read it before (and think it should be required reading for any inquisitive teen in your life), I can't in good conscience call it a book that I think everyone must read before they die.
Is it a classic? No
The next four books scheduled to be read:
All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque
The Executioner's Song, by Norman Mailer
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
(And don't forget that the first 33 essays in this series are now available in book form!)
*And indeed, Golding used to freely admit that this novel was originally inspired by such boys' paradise novels like Treasure Island and The Coral Island, and how ridiculously unrealistic he thought they were.