Lord of the Flies clocks in at number eight on the American Library Association’s list of banned and challenged classics. William Golding’s book has been challenged and successfully banned on a host of grounds, ranging from profanity to excessive violence. It is an intense book and like many books on the frequently banned and challenged list, it also shows up on a lot of best of lists, and has been singled out for praise in a number of circles. There’s a reason people keep coming back to it after all these years; this book is very much a product of the ’50s and yet it also reads true today, not just as a window into the 1950s, but also as a reflective mirror to examine ourselves now.
I assume that most readers are familiar with the text, but here’s a thumbnail version anyway; we are introduced to a group of boys of mixed ages cast ashore on a deserted island. There are overtones of nuclear war and militarism in the outside society which play a key role in the subsequent disintegration of social order among the boys. They essentially go feral, despite the efforts of a few to create some kind of order on the island. Their behaviour progresses from stalking and killing animals on the island to killing each other, all while wearing face paint and dancing around campfires. A war ship arrives and rescues the boys, with an officer remarking that he wouldn’t have expected this of British boys. Boom. The end.
There are so many layers going on here. Lord of the Flies is accused of containing racist content, and it does. You have a group of white boys very much framed as such who ‘go savage’ when left to their own devices, suggesting that ‘primitive cultures’ where people wear face paint and dance around fires lie deep in all of us, but that this is, ultimately, not British. There’s no escaping the racism in the book but it’s also obvious and thus provides a lot of room for conversation and discussion. One can talk, for example, about colonialism and the framing of indigenous people and the efforts made by many white people to position themselves as ‘more civilised.’
The racism in the book is also not presented in a static form, as something we see the characters doing without comment. It is also something the characters comment on and engage with. As they start sharpening spears and making face paint, they discuss what they are doing with each other. They ask if maybe they should have drums to do it ‘right.’ They parrot what they have learned about ‘savages’ from the people and media around them; from the films and books they’ve encountered, from the attitudes of their own parents. Even as Lord of the Flies depicts what could superficially be read as a ‘descent into savagery,’ it also points out that these attitudes do not occur in a vacuum. Is it reinforcing the racism it depicts, or challenging it? I think there are a lot of ways to read it and there’s no one right answer, which can make for lively classroom discussion.
There is a lot of violence, as well; violence with hunting animals, violence in the case of the murder on the island. It’s a violent book. It’s also an allegory and commentary on society. As the world the boys come from is at war, with violence on a much larger and more distant scale, with people dropping bombs on each other instead of stabbing each other, the boys mirror what they learn from the adults around them. Some attempt to model Robert’s Rules of Order, others attempt to model the battlefield heroism and tales they hear about on the radio and through the media. Many books with violent militarism are allowed in libraries without a peep of protest. What’s different about Lord of the Flies? The immediacy of violence? The suggestion that, far from being limited to stereotyped ‘savage’ and ‘primitive’ societies, violence and the capacity for great evil lies within all of us? Even British schoolboys?
The book is also ableist and misogynistic, and in fact some challenges actually have specifically focused on the ableism. Unlike the racism, which is presented with some dubious framing, I think that these two -isms are presented for comment. Readers are supposed to find them repellent. Readers are supposed to talk about it. We are supposed to react to Piggy’s marginalisation. Lord of the Flies represents the pinnacle of the ‘boys’ club,’ and it’s clear that these attitudes are embedded as commentary. If you read the book at face value, maybe, as a story about a bunch of boys stranded on an island together, then those -isms might seem uncritical. We are supposed to find it remarkable and talk about it, though, and that changes the picture.
Lord of the Flies confronts readers with things they may find uncomfortable and unpleasant. It has ambiguities and complexities and, among other things, it is a direct indictment of adult society. Of what people consider ‘civilised.’ It is a threatening, frightening book. This is perhaps why it is such a common target for challenges and bans, because people are uncomfortable with the content. Not because they think it is offensive on its face, by exposing readers to things like racism and misogyny in a setting that might, if the book is not carefully handled in class, reinforce those things. No, they think it’s offensive because of the metacommentary on society and the attitudes we all bring to it. Because no one reads Lord of the Flies as a book about a bunch of boys on an island.
Image: Lord of the Flies, Katy Warner, Flickr