A Terrible Fall: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

For a book about children, William Golding’s 1954 classic Lord of the Flies contains an awful lot of fatality. There’s the fiery disappearance of the boy with the birthmark, the unseen demise of the fighter pilot whose parachuting corpse becomes, for a time, the embodiment of the Beast and the slaughter of a fair number of pigs. Of all the book’s brutality, though, it’s the deaths of Simon and Piggy that stand out.

Brought about in a grand transference of power, in the midst of a crackling thunderstorm, Simon is murdered by mistake. He literally emerges from the depths of the island’s forest even as he is symbolically emerging from an internal meditation on the nature of fear. But there’s no time for him to explain any of that as he bursts from the trees and into the swirling madness of a mob. Golding does an exceptional job of creating tension in that moment: A storm rages as the boys are swept into a frenzy and, inspired by fear and fueled by Jack’s simmering anger, they chant, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!” The murder of Simon, and the measured maturity that he represents, is horrifying but natural in the moment, a dichotomy that is, of course, the whole point.

lord-of-the-flies-IMAGE

Simon’s death may be a gruesome murder, but it’s Piggy’s demise that still hits hardest, partially because he had been the voice of reason on the island and partially because of the way he is so thoroughly degraded before his death. His glasses, a lovingly inverted metaphor for power, are broken early in the story but remain at least partially functional for some time. Then they are outright stolen from Piggy so that, in his final moments of life, the book’s symbol of intellect is found crawling in the dirt or clinging to others, robbed of his independence. His is, fittingly, a terrible fall. And then, rather than being killed in a swell of passion, he is killed with cold calculation in a swift, clean blow. Simon perishes in a crime of passion but Piggy? Piggy is killed by systemic cruelty.

There are a lot of reasons that Lord of the Flies has remained relevant over the last 65 years despite the fact that it’s often heavy handed and overly reliant on symbolism. In this moment in time, as the world seems caught in a struggle between rejecting institutionalized bigotry and installing it, Piggy’s death and all that it represents reads as resonantly as it ever has.

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