Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding
Appropriateness Rating: To Avoid
Entertainment Rating: For a Rainy Day
Lord of the Flies is a novel about a group of school boys who crash on a deserted island where they are forced to fend for themselves. Instead of learning how to best survive and work together these boys grow more and more “savage” and succumb to the evil that is supposedly lurking just beneath the surface. The book is not just a book about an adventure some kids have, it’s definitely a book with a message about human nature, and while High School teachers love to assign it to their classes for this very reason this message is not one that fits with the Islamic understanding of human nature at all. I rated it “To Avoid” but if you (or your children) are in high school this is probably not a choice you have, so in this review I hope to provide a few points you can use to question the messages and assumptions in the book and discuss them with your family and friends so that they don’t simply go unchallenged.
Warnings: ‘humans are savage’ idea, children committing gruesome murders, racist portrayal of ‘savagery’
‘Humans are savage’ idea:
The main problem with this novel is that it sets out to prove that humans are ‘savage’ by nature and that this all lies underneath the surface and will come out if there are no civilizing laws to keep this savagery in check. This ‘savagery’ manifests itself in terms of the children on the Island committing horrible crimes, including accidental and then purposeful murder, hunting each other down, etc. This concept is completely against the Islamic principle that humans are all born innocent and pure and it is the world that corrupts them. It also goes against the Quranic assurance that war is something humans hate and have to be forced into – it’s against our nature.
If you are discussing this book in class the teacher will most likely not question the idea that humans are savage, the idea that little boys can and would commit such horrors when left by themselves, and you will probably not get anywhere by telling them that this is against your religious beliefs. But here are a few questions to ask and keep in mind:
If humans are naturally savages where did human civilization come from?
Why do all societies everywhere keep coming up with laws and guidelines if human nature just tends towards murder and savagery?
Have there been any real examples or actual scientific research showing that this would be how kids (or anyone) would behave if stranded away from their own societies? (many people will often use examples like ‘kids in schools bully each other’ as supporting evidence for their claim of savagery, but bullying has many causes and there are often adults complicit in allowing a bullying situation to continue and preventing the victim from getting out of it!)
There are many other questions and supporting examples that one can find, but hopefully these three will help you get started. Please share your own thoughts and examples in the comments.
children committing horrific crimes:
When reading this book the scenes in which the children commit crimes are so gruesome and detailed that it is quite disturbing to read. It almost reads like a horror book and if young children are reading this, even the teens that are often made to read it in grade 10, they might be very disturbed by it. Be prepared to discuss this with your kids and reassure them with real life examples showing that kids would NOT commit such crimes.
racist portrayal of savagery:
One of the most disturbing aspects of this novel that teachers rarely, if ever, discuss is the racist portrayal of savagery. When the children in the book descent into savagery they start to act like a ‘tribe’ and wear face paint and carry spears. They even stop using the language they know and start to communicate in sounds referred to as ‘ululation’ (which are actually sounds often used in non-white cultures to represent happiness at weddings, etc). This imagery is used over and over and over. It is constantly pounded into the heads of the children who are made to read this book that the British school uniforms and hats and so on represent civilization while the face paint and the ‘ululating’ sounds represent savagery.
There is a very racist hierarchy being presented here. The author fails to understand or explain that the societies who do use face painting and ululation are very developed, civilized societies that have rules and morals of their own. This is a very damaging racist message that is, unfortunately, being perpetuated every time the book is taught without questioning these things. You should have this discussion with your kids if they are reading the book and if you are a student reading the book, maybe you can be the first to bring it up in class! Many teachers, if they are part of the majority Euro-American cultures may not realize just how racist this imagery is. If you bring it up they might learn something!
Also, many analyze the book and say that Golding is trying to prove that it is not only other societies that can be savage, but that even the British can be very savage and that their savagery is just hidden beneath a facade of civilization and rules. The thing is, it’s only hidden from the British, not from anyone else. For example, the people of India who were colonized by the British and who suffered would have had no problem seeing the British actions in their land as unfair and ‘savage’ it is only through a racist lens that the British see their own customs and traditions as being better than those of others. It is this racist lens from which the book was written and from which it is often analyzed so we get to a point where the ‘different’ things like ululation and face paint come to represent savagery when in reality there is nothing inherently wrong with ululation or face-paint – there’s nothing that makes them linked to evil in any way! The problem is that this kind of racism is one of those unconscious, unquestioned things that teachers may not notice. They just want to analyze the symbols. Golding was a product of his time and his views, but by now we should be beyond simply accepting this symbolism!
Overall, this book is one to avoid if you can, but if you are forced to read it for class keep in mind that you are not the only one who finds it disturbing and try to look more deeply into it and question the assumptions and ideas that it presents!