Thursday, September 23, 2010

How (not) to set up a functioning society

Two of my most favorite books are Robinson Crusoe and Jules Verne's The Mysterious Island - both stories of island castaways. They're some of the few books I enjoy re-reading on occasion and I love the way the characters overcome the challenges they face. In both stories the castaways recreate a society of sorts (even though it's only one person in Crusoe's case) that prospers and flourishes. But what if the group of castaways didn't get along? What if there was more than one person who wanted to take charge, and they had differing objectives? What if the group degenerated into tribes with disastrous results? Then we might have Lord of the Fliesby William Golding.

William Goldings Lord of the FliesA planeload of British schoolboys crashes on an island in the Pacific during the early part of World War II. No adults survive the crash and the boys settle in to "have some fun" and await rescue once their parents realize what's happened. Ralph, one of the older boys at around 13, is voted the leader of the group (which includes young children as well - "littluns" and "biguns"). Ralph is aided by a nearsighted and overweight boy callously nicknamed Piggy by the others, who suggests he blow a conch shell to gather everyone together. Initially they all agree on some rules, and most help out, but eventually another boy, Jack Merridew, challenges Ralph's rules and creates a division among them.

I was never assigned to read this in school and didn't really have much interest in it. All I'd heard was that it was a dark and disturbing tale and something about the boys eating each other (they don't, though). But when Braiden was assigned to read it in 10th grade I thought I might give it a try, too. And I'm glad I did - it was a fascinating story.

While I might theoretically agree with Ralph and think a short stay on a tropical island could be fun (probably not in real life, though) I find the idea of the group degenerating into tribes and the opposite of the other books just as interesting - theoretically, of course. But that's what I like about such books - they can explore an issue in a way that makes you think and sometimes look at it from a different angle. It's kind of a look at our deeper thoughts and desires, and how we get along in society.

The characters also add plenty of depth to the story. Ralph, the natural leader, is so happy at the beginning that he stands on his head and sees it as a chance for fun. Still, he recognizes the importance of building shelters and maintaining a signal fire. Piggy is the most intelligent boy, but is picked on by the others for his weight, glasses, and asthma. He's also the voice of reason (not a trait often valued by children, however) and supports Ralph's leadership. His glasses become essential for starting fires and similarly symbolic as the conch shell for representing order. Jack, while also a natural leader, quickly grows to resent Ralph's authority and seeks a more blood-thirsty role for his group (of choirboys, ironically) as hunters. It's Jack's desire for power and ready acceptance of violence that undermines the democratic order.

But it's this idea of law and order that forms the basis for the book - without laws and rules society falls apart. When members fail to fulfill their role (such as keeping the fire going, or helping to build the shelters, etc.) it affects everyone - especially the most vulnerable (littluns, in this case). And without that order maintained by the rules, chaos results.

I listened to the audio book read by the author, William Golding, and he offers a few interesting observations at the beginning and the end. I found it to be a very well-written book and full of meaning on multiple levels. It might be a bit dark and disturbing, but it was also compelling and I couldn't stop till I was done. I highly recommend it for those who appreciate a book with some depth.

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