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Monday, March 05, 2012

 

First sentences: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Content warning: racism, including quoting the N-word

The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way towards the lagoon.

Stripped of a name, our hero begins. What follows will be built up from nothing from a blank start, with only human nature to guide.

Sort of.

It's worth pointing out that Lord of the Flies is, for all its artistic merits, a fundamentally racist book. The English boys revert to a state of savagery without the saving elements of civilisation, and this is explicitly racialised: Piggy, the voice of 'sense', yells 'Which is better - to be a pack of painted niggers like you are or to be sensible like Ralph is?', and his cry creates a moment of thematic climax. Civilisation and 'savagery' are diametrically opposed here: the idea that jungle hunters might have a civilisation of their own that merely differs from English culture is simply not part of the book's thinking. There is civilisation, and there is Other, and children revert to Other when exposed to tropical conditions and removed from adults. It may be the 'darkness of man's heart', as the final page has it ... but the very phrase evokes Heart of Darkness, published fifty years before, and Chinua Achebe had plenty to say about that. Jungles are not good for man, whispers the book. For its message to be accepted, we must accept the notion that some people are more 'savage' than others - not just more aggressive, more malicious or more unreflective, but more primitive. Portraying children as savages is the cultural brother of portraying 'savages' as children.

In the light of all this, it is significant that the first thing we hear about Ralph, the first words of the book, are a reference to the colour of his hair. White boys can have many colours of hair, not all of them immediately indicative of whiteness, but Ralph is blond, the fairest of the fair. Without having to state it directly - this is, after all, an elegantly written book - the narrative tells us that we are dealing with Caucasian children.

Caucasian children, but in a tropical setting. As we slide down the rock with Ralph we could be in a forest or on a moor; it's only when we reach the last word that we realise we cannot possibly be in England. 'Lagoon' is positioned for impact, a mild shock. Ralph's hair clashes with his surroundings - and it's notable, too, that he is not entirely at ease in them. He doesn't slide or jump down the rock, but 'lowered himself'; he doesn't walk towards the lagoon but 'pick his way'. He's sure-footed enough to navigate this environment - his physical superiority to Piggy will be quickly demonstrated - but it's the grace of a healthy English schoolboy, cultivated on the playing field and climbing the odd apple tree, carefully used to move through an unfamiliar environment. Ralph is not in his element here, and he never will be. He is strong and neat enough to get through it, but it's the attitude of a civilised boy: mens sana in corpore sano. Keep your feet and keep your head; don't get too comfortable here.

Of course, it's also a storytelling device: Ralph is moving away from a plane crash, already on the go when we see him. The crash itself is the last instant of civilisation, the death of all the adults responsible for the boys, and it is over before the story begins. We will be witnessing the Fall of Man, or at least the fall of boys, and we enter the story at the moment it begins. The boys are, according to the story's notion of children as unsentimental, unconcerned by the crash: it lifts off their memories leaving little trace just as the jungle grows back in the earth it damages, and since it will not be important to them, we do not need to see it. The story will operate in a space that becomes more and more as if there has been nothing before the island with only Ralph and Piggy to insist that there is another life to return to, and the narrative will not help them. Civilisation is only a memory here, and we will see it present only in hints and aftermath. Like the boys, we can only grasp what has preceded the island through half-remembered details and increasingly ambiguous traces.

It's also a character presentation. Ralph, to the annoyance of his rival Jack, is a foresightful boy who rejects immediate delights in the name of the long-term goal of rescue: Ralph is focused on solutions and practical about necessities, and he has staying power. When we first see Ralph, he's already trying to cope with his situation, navigating his way through a hostile environment with deft caution, heading towards the least hostile place he can find. Ralph is relentless in his commitment to order, and in the opening sentence he is working towards it.

This active start makes an interesting narrative mirror to the ending: we begin with Ralph, and we end with Ralph (almost; the last paragraph shows the embarrassed reaction of the rescuer, unable to understand the trauma the boys have undergone), and the sensible boy on the move ends as an overwhelmed boy weeping for 'the end of innocence'. Ralph will struggle for survival right up until the end, will give in to despair only when the arrival of adults makes it safe, but despair will finally get him. He starts by moving towards his goal of 'law and rescue', but by the time it's attained, it will bring nothing but the chance to mourn.

Ralph, in other words, begins the book already carrying the standard of civilisation. He will cling to it with heroic persistence right until the last minute, but will no longer have the conviction that drives him through the first sentence, that 'law' is the natural way to behave. Ralph's fair hair and careful steps are doomed.

Comments:
I remember Lord of the Flies as the first book from which I felt explicitly excluded as a woman. I read it when I was young (early yeas of high school) and it was presented to me as a study of the nature of civilization and savagery. So, apparently, both civilization and savagery can be examined by looking only at men/boys. Apparently one can study the nature of humanity without including human beings who look like me.

This is a book that, as far as I can find, mentions woman/women never and girl/girls only as an insult. Mopsey didn't read a book because it was "about two girls" or Jack's response to Piggy's suggestion he tie hair back "Like a girl!"
 
Interesting. I first read it in, I think, my early teens, and I guess you could say I'd been socialised from toddlerhood to expect that

a) If I was going to read, I was going to have to read a lot of books that excluded me, and

b) Boys in real life do often make a song and dance about not being 'like a girl'.

So the fact that it excluded girls didn't strike me as a problem with the book; it just made me read it from an anthropological perspective rather than an involved one. And in a way, the fact that it's written about children for an adult audience suggests that Golding might be aiming for that angle anyway? But I suppose it didn't bother me because girls and women are so absent that they don't get attacked very much...

It is an interesting question, though. Has anyone ever tried the Stanford Prison Experiment with women?
 
Lord of the Files is the only book that gave me nightmares. And I was in my mid teeens when I read it. I don't know why it had such a strong influence.

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V guvax vg jnf gur fnpevsvpvny xvyyvat bs Fvzba gung ernyyl fghpx va zl urnq.
</rot13>

TRiG.
 
As a general principle, I'm ruling that spoilers are okay in discussions of these posts. I'm trying to write semi-academic analyses, and the academic convention is that you should assume people have read the work you're talking about, or that if they haven't they can cope with a few spoiled surprises. You need to be able to cite whatever supports your point, and you can't do that if you can't mention relevant information from later on in the plot. So spoil away.

(Perhaps I should put up a post making that clear? Do people think that'd be necessary?)
 
Just found your blog and think it’s wonderful. It think it would be amazing if you would consider reviewing the first line of Little, Big by John Crowley:

‘On a certain day in June, 19-, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.’

Although the second line was the one that stayed sharply in my memory. [So maybe you could do them both ^^]

‘He was Smoky Barnable, and he was going to Edgewood to get married; the fact that he walked and didn’t ride was one of the conditions placed on his coming there at all.’

My girlfriend and I both read Little, Big last year and each of us found it utterly enchanting and moving.
 
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