The “darkness of man’s heart” is not a light subject. And so even though I’ve been teaching William Golding's Lord of the Flies to ninth-graders for more than a dozen years, I’ve always been a little unnerved by the novel’s ominous, menacing subtexts. It is, for many students, the first truly intense literary exploration of human savagery. Sure, it’s lost on many of them. But it scares the living hell out of fifteen-year-olds sophisticated enough to understand it. For those few, it’s a literary abyss that stares back at them—a gaping maw that spews a rancid, brooding, lamentable truth about our own capacity for cruelty. And that’s all the more frightening since—for many—it might be their first real confrontation with this enormous existential disappointment. It’s a despairing story, fraught with the naked exposure of our basest instincts. I’ve seen this crushing realization—only occasionally, though—in the eyes of those very few freshmen who truly get it. Most of them don’t.
And that’s why we should read it again at a later, less tender age. Not that long ago, I asserted that Lord of the Flies would best be taught to seniors in high school. Some colleagues in the English department rolled their eyes, but the truth in my mind is that a “near adult” is far better suited to savor the dark, bitter flavor of this savage exposé. Seventeen-year-olds have a finer grasp of the themes Golding treats—at least, they've had a bit more time to stew in these dark forces and ruminate upon their unfortunate effects. But I’d go so far as to say that even more comprehension awaits the adult reader: the reader old enough to pine for the innocence of childhood—and to truly appreciate it. To feel, on a visceral level, the hollowness of its absence. The adult reader who is old enough to know that even though our tween and teen years were in many ways a mess as we confronted our encroaching adulthood, that we were far closer to innocent back then.
Gees. Sounds like a miserable reading experience, right? Not exactly a ringing endorsement. But it is. Read it again, primarily, for the excellent writing and Golding’s astute use of precise language. Read it again to recognize just how presient the novel is in contemporary media culture: Lost, Survivor, et cetera. Read it again to savor the redeeming virtue that does persist among the strongest of the boys. Read it again to feel the heart-pounding suspense and raw, hormonal energy that crackles like a dangerous, arcing conduit between the minds and hearts of those lost, frightened kids. Read it again to marvel at Golding’s masterful portrayal of human nature at the extremes—and the primeval struggle between good and evil that faces us at our moments of deepest, most honest self-awareness.
Care to comment? Post it below. Any ideas for books that deserve another read, later in life? Let me know in a comment or via the contact form. I'm also interested in hosting a guest blogger on this subject of books normally read by kids that are worth revisiting as adults.