Over the past couple of weeks, I read William Golding’s classic book, Lord of the Flies, to my son. This was a bit of a departure from the fantasy and science fiction books that I’ve been reading to him, but it was a book that I read in school a long time ago, and I thought he might find it interesting.
Now, I do have to say that I didn’t really care for it much all those years ago when I was forced to read it and write essays on the themes of the book. I didn’t feel it was terrible, but it was a bit too long, a bit too drawn-out, and felt like it there was too much set-up to get to the good parts (you know, where everything finally breaks down and the direct conflict begins).
But I was ready to give it a second go, and I figured that I could talk to my son after I read to him and discuss what was going on in each section of the book.
I needn’t have worried. He was captivated and wanted me to read it to him as quickly as possible.
There has been a great deal of debate about the value of this book over the years, and about its author (especially after the official biography released in 2009 revealed his attempted rape at 18 of a 14-year-old girl). Many call this book a piece of tripe, and many others revere it as a classic novel that explores the breakdown of society into savagery.
Regardless of where you file the book in your own mental library, the fact remains that it is a touchstone of literature that has had long and enduring influence on people’s discussions of the supposed beast that resides under the face of civilization and society. Whether you agree or disagree with Golding’s premise, Lord of the Flies still remains relevant to the overall discussion.
But, for all that, my comments on the books I read are focused on the actual writing, and the things I noticed when reading the book, aloud, to my son.
The element that immediately stood out to me was his use of repetition in the text. Repetition can be a great tool when used wisely. It can underscore a feeling, or a thought, and add emphasis through the rhythm of the words.
One of the greatest uses of repetition comes from the beginning to A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.
It was the best of times,
it was the worst of times,
it was the age of wisdom,
it was the age of foolishness,
it was the epoch of belief,
it was the epoch of incredulity,
it was the season of Light,
it was the season of Darkness,
it was the spring of hope,
it was the winter of despair,
we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way—
Shakespeare was also a master of using repetition to good effect in his plays. From Richard III:
“My conscience hath a thousand several tongues,
And every tongue brings in a several tale,
And every tale condemns me for a villain.”
Golding does use repetition well in a number of places in Lord of the Flies. But, in reading the book aloud, I found many places where his repetition of a word, or of a description, felt artificial and broke the rhythm of the narrative.
The best example is in the final chapter of the book, in which “ululation” is repeated over and over. It doesn’t feel like this is intentional, but rather that he couldn’t think of another word to use, or he just didn’t see it in his own text. In seven pages, I found nine uses of “ululation” scattered throughout the text.
An example from page 200:
Behind him the ululation swept across the island once more and a single voice shouted three times. He guessed that was the signal to advance and sped away again, till his chest was like fire. Then he flung himself down under a bush and waited for a moment till his breathing steadied. He passed his tongue tentatively over this teeth and lips and heard far off the ululation of his pursuers.
Each time he refers to this call, it is always “ululation” rather than any other descriptive word.
Like my comments on Raymond E. Feist’s book, Magician, these are elements that most readers wouldn’t notice when reading to themselves. But reading these books aloud really highlights anything that breaks the flow of the text.
On a positive note, I found that his descriptions of the island to be vivid and clear, and I was never left wondering how a particular scene should appear in my mind’s eye. While Golding was certainly not the best at descriptive prose in all the writers I’ve read over my lifetime, he had a skill that brought the island to life as I read the book.
And I’m quite happy that my son’s experience with this novel was enjoyable, in contrast to my own original reading of it so many years ago. In fact, I personally found it much better in my second reading, and at no point did I feel it was a slog to get through. That is, of course, the result of a few more decades of reading experience and maturity on my part, so I’m glad I gave it a second try.
What do you think of Lord of the Flies as a novel? What other writers use repetition particularly well (or not well at all)?
(Please confine any comments to the writing, and not the writer. This isn’t the place to hash out what kind of person Golding was in life, but to discuss the book itself.)