Saturday, April 02, 2005

Reading Lord of the Flies today

I went to school in an era when it is was pretty much obligatory to study William Golding's Lord of the Flies for O level English Literature. In those days the novel was presented to us as an allegory about original sin, although my English teacher contested this conventional view and asked how civilisation ever arose if evil is inherent in man in the way that Golding appears to argue.

The conventional view, however, is still offered by this website for modern-day high school students in America:
We see the innate evil within the boys which is a reflection of the evil within the entire mankind.
I wonder if we do still see this. One of the characteristics of forgeries is that they are much easier to detect 50 years on. When one looks at Han van Meegeren's fake Vermeers today, some of the faces have a distinctly 1930s look. Presumably people at the time could not see this: they were to close to the era in which the forgeries were made.

Reading Lord of the Flies today it seems to me to have a strong scent of 1950s England that critics at the times were unable to detect, again because they were too close to that decade. As I wrote the other day, the 1950s - and in particular their educational practices - now seem very strange to us. This was brought home to me by a couple of books I read recently: Simon Gray's The Smoking Diaries and Tim Jeal's Swimming With My Father.

Gray's book is fun though ultimately insubstantial, but Jeal's memoir of parents is a book that stays with you. I quote here two passages from it which convey well the mentality which a certain sort of 1950s education gave rise to:
Schools like Boarzell seemed to be preparing boys for a harsh life on the frontiers of an Empire, which, by 1953, was doomed. Soon I took on, as my own opinion, the regulation view that boys who complained about physical hardships, such as cold showers in February, and playing rugby on frozen pitches, were contemptible. Even before I came to this conclusion. My letters home needed no vetting. Only recent new boys tried to express what they felt, rather than what they soon knew they ought to feel. It was strange how we added rules of our own to an already rules-bound existence. Our prohibition on "sneaking" to a master about bullying, or thieving from tuck boxes, might have enables us to hold out in a German prison camp without betraying the location of an escape tunnel, but in the 1950s it merely meant that our daily lives were much nastier than they need have been.
And:
I never mentioned to my parents the mauve and purple bruises that dappled my buttocks in term time and which earned me admiring comments in the showers. My fear of being guilty of unmanly whingeing only partly explains my reticence. I may have feared that my parents' sympathy would pierce the defensive hide I was trying to grow. Worse still, if I told them how I really felt, and they failed to remove me, how would I be able to think that they still loved me?
Jeal is describing private education of 50 years ago, not today, though his bruised bottom should get me a few hits from the dirty mac brigade. And a little reticence would be welcome in our emotionally incontinent age.

Nevertheless, having read Swimming With My Father I am less inclined to see Lord of the Flies as a timeless allegory. Its violence and the tribalism seem exactly what one would expect from a group of boys who had been subjected to British prep schools for boys in the 1950s.

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