Monday, January 17, 2011

On Those Texts That Have Been Over-Analyzed: "Lord of the Flies"

My likely career as an English teacher presents me with some unique problems, considering I love books but I don't necessarily love the books I'll need high schoolers to read, at least at times. There's also the correlating problem of, whatever the fiction, getting high schoolers to feel reading a novel, a poem, a short story and so forth is worth their while in the first place.

Studies show reading isn't the popular pastime it once was, and why should it be? There's every other kind of portable and stationary stimulation to fill its spot. Problem is, few of those alternatives train people to be as active intellectually as books do. And you don't need to be a Marxist, or a Luddite or some forward-thinking science fiction writer, and you needn't have seen "The Matrix" or "The Terminator" or any other example of technology run amok to worry at the dangers of intellectual complacency. It's just not a good idea to be such and such a way, in terms of blah, blah, blah. Because it's borrring . . .

Ech! Fell into a techno-trap, as these things will cause.

Ok, but honestly, I agree with those who've noted technology does hamper concentration, on being able to focus. We shouldn't lose touch with our ability to focus, or highway safety might be reduced to something lower than where it's at, which is a low place, I've judged.

So all of that leads to my thinking about "Lord of the Flies" -- William Golding's classic novel from the mid-1950s -- which wonders how a collection of English boys, ham-fisted together by chance and a crash landing, would fare without adult intervention on an island surrounded pretty exclusively by water, lots of water. The answer is, overall, not very well. Badly, you might argue. Most everyone has read this novel if the everyone in question has been to high school in the United States. Like most high school novels it's been drilled and mined for its symbolic worth to the point of, ostensibly, being depleted completely.

So why am I wasting my time talking about it? Because despite all of that it manages to be a mesmerizing tale, one that forces students to decide fundamental philosophical things about the nature of humankind. Are we inherently good or bad? Is it a societal construct? I think it's the atavistic nature of the boy's circumstances. As interesting as reads like "Of Mice and Men" and "The Great Gatsby" and "To Kill a Mockingbird" are, they don't have the staying power of a novel like "Lord of the Flies." Because students, nay people, should always wonder about the true nature of humanity, if only to be better than or live up to that true nature.

As the greatest bit of symbolism in that story, the death of Piggy and the destruction of the conch shell, once knowledge and infrastructure are lost it's hard to reclaim them.

Don't crush the voice of reason, or destroy a rational order.


  1. Literary education in high school is a cause for concern. I hate this "you have to read it, because it's a classic" mentality. My mother told me once she admired me for reading "Le Pere Goriot". But I had to read it for school, I thought it was shit.

    There should be purpose to mandatory readings. I think there is purpose to Golding, Fitzgerald, Sallinger and Hemingway, but there's as many writers(or more) who are completely out of actuality (Jane Austen, to name one).

    I'm probably going to be teaching English in a short term future (have a M.d in Literature), but I am very wary of this habit we now have of shoving literature down the throat of younglings, the same way we give them saggy pants and hereditary debts, because it's a good thing to have.

    The meaning is the product with mean the medium...

    Fuck, I think MacLuhan just rolled over in his grave.

  2. Ben,

    Agreed. What's incumbent upon any educator is to take every pain to keep things relevant, even if that means greater effort / inquiry are required on his / her part. Students pick up on a teacher who's halfheartedly interested in a topic. It makes for bad teaching. It's why you can't become an English teacher purely for the love of "great" literature.

    That said, I think, even a novelist I don't prefer, let's use the example of Austen, can be made relevant from a variety of standpoints. But perhaps not. I know I'd have a hard time finding positive things to say about Virginia Woolf, for example, though she's a fine writer by anyone's standard.

  3. Yeah, you make a point about Virginia Woolf. I think her interest is situated mainly in a historical perspective of literature (like James Joyce, who I'm not that crazy about either) and therefore, isn't "mandatory" unless you pursue higher literary studied.

    You might be right about Austen though. I think she stinks, but I might just be biaised

  4. I tried reading Emma back in college. I read about 70 pages all on my own, and obviously, went over principal sections the instructor deemed relevant both in and out of class. It has some very funny moments, but ultimately I couldn't get sucked in. Too much of the minutiae of aristocratic social circles in early 19th century England. Is it fair to say it strikes me a bit as a really turgid and prude version of Sex and the City? Is that off base? I think I'm asking to be disagreed with here. Yes, yes I am. Disagree away! --Maybe this needs to be the subject of a new post.

  5. Nope...I got nothing. I think you're spot on.

  6. Interesting post.

    I found you via the New Dork Review of books and am a new follower.


  7. Glad to have you reading, Janna!

    You wouldn't have any opinion about the preceding back and forth between Ben and I? I.e. -- what is your feeling about Jane Austen, and / or do you have any authors you've tried to like but can't?

  8. I don't care much at all for Jane Austen, but I never had the issue of seeing her as so "Sexy and the City" (and you're not the first person I've heard say that). She's must too domestic than that, or something. I do think she can be very funny, and I found her funniest work to be Lady Susan, which is an outlier to begin with.

    Lord of the Flies is exactly the type of novel I did very poorly with in high school. I remember reading the scene of Piggy's murder and thinking, "What the hell are these kids doing?" I found their psychology really inaccessible. (That still happens to me a lot.)

  9. Ack, I mean "much too domestic for that," or "much more domestic than that," depending on whether you want the sentence pre- or post-mis-revision.

  10. I definitely think she's much too domestic to be thought of as "Sex and the City" -esque in any sort of contemporary terms BUT -- call me sexist (please don't actually, though) -- in Austen's early 19th century day and age, how much more cosmopolitan did it get for women than the hermetical aristocratic experiences on wealthy estates in the country and slightly more pluralistic experiences living in expensive flats and brownstones in more urban settings?

    I think the kids in Lord of the Flies are truly horrible but I can't shake the feeling that they resemble all the wonderful and horrible possibilities of mankind in one tragic happenstance occurrence on a desert island. And though I'm certainly among those who allege to be too highfalutin to appreciate allegory of this very transparent variety, I'm actually lying and enjoy it as much as lots of other allegories. My hypocrisy is likely much akin to Edgar Allan Poe's in this way, since he supposedly had no use for allegory and then went and used in flagrantly and often.