Martin Chilton has recently written an interesting article in the Telegraph on ‘depressing books’ and on his list of the 20 great depressing reads is William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. I should point out that Chilton is advocating the enjoyment, and even benefits, of reading bleak novels, and indeed, on reading through his list, there are some immensely dark but brilliant tales; Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic The Road and Kafka’s The Trial, for instance. And these books, as much as I’m a fan of both, really are bleak. McCarthy’s is a terrifying vision of the future, written in beautiful but sparse prose, and relentlessly haunting and harrowing. Kafka’s novel is both dizzying and frustrating in its portrayal of a man who is helpless in the face of persecution (for an unspecified crime) from an oppressive and unknown organisation.
Of course, when you really think about Lord of the Flies, it is, on the surface, rather depressing. Two children are murdered by their peers; one child is beaten as punishment (Wilfred); and a third murder is only averted by the arrival of an adult. The arrival of this adult, the Naval Officer, does not represent a happy ending however. It is at this moment that Golding’s allegory of war is fully realised. As the Naval Officer gazes out to sea at his cruiser, we see that the adults are no better than the children; they are engaged in their own war which will produce even more destruction.
But, as the narrative unfolds in Lord of the Flies, things never really feel bleak and utterly hopeless, as perhaps they do in The Trial. The novel is exhilarating – the final chase of Ralph across the island an excellent example of this – and the unfolding events are so engrossing that the book often doesn’t allow the reader to even catch their breath. I asked the members of our Facebook page if they thought Lord of the Flies was a ‘depressing novel’ and the responses were very interesting. Kasia felt that it ‘gives hope that you can protect your beliefs to the end’ and Nikitash thought that Golding’s choice to ‘frame’ the ‘depressing themes in the boundary of a children’s story brings a balance between exhilaration and depression’.
Chilton is right to include Lord of the Flies in his list and it is certainly in esteemed company. And when society begins to break down on the island, I do feel depressed and sad for the boys –particularly Simon, Piggy and Ralph. But the strength of Golding’s narrative and the sheer force of his imagination doesn’t allow us to dwell on this while reading the book. It is only after we’ve finished, and the cries of the characters are still echoing in our minds, that we truly realise the impact and importance of this masterpiece of literature.