Book review – “Lord of the Flies” by William Golding

When I announced that this book was May’s choice for my Facebook reading challenge (theme, a 20th century classic), there were mixed feelings – it seems a few of our participants had studied it at school for their ‘O’ level English Literature (predecessor to the GCSE for anyone young enough not to know!). Some were delighted…others less so! I did not study this at school, but I read it at University (I did an English degree). My childhood home was not one filled with books, though I spent a great deal of time at my local library, so when I went to University I had a lot of catching up to do on many of the classics. Golding’s book is one of those and is widely considered to be one of the all-time great novels.

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My lovely 1965 edition of Lord of the Flies is older than me and has a cover price of three shillings and sixpence!

Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel, published in 1954. I doubt many people could name any of his other works (I couldn’t!), although he won the Booker Prize in 1980 for his novel Rites of Passage, and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. He died in 1993 at the age of 81. Lord of the Flies has been adapted three times for the big screen, and several times for stage and radio.

The basic plot is that a group of boys (thought to number about thirty, but it’s not entirely clear) are marooned on a Pacific island following a wartime evacuation attempt that ends in a plane crash. There are no adult survivors and the boys, ranging in age from perhaps nine to thirteen years, must learn quickly to survive. Three main characters emerge: Ralph and Jack are the two alpha-males of the group, but have very different instincts about the priorities, and Piggy, an overweight, severely near-sighted boy, probably of lower class than Ralph and Jack, who proves to be the most thoughtful, sensible and self-aware but who lacks the leadership skills to wield any power.

Initially, the boys attempt to organise, with Ralph at the helm. His primary concern is that they should get rescued and stay alive and safe until then. He meets resistance in the form of Jack, who is less keen on the rules and disciplines that Ralph wants to impose. His priorities are “fun” and hunting animals so that they can eat meat. As the days and weeks pass morale drops, particularly among the younger boys, many of whom are clearly terrified. They fear the darkness and the heavy forest on the island and what may be lurking within it – they imagine a terrible beast. Order begins to break down and powerful instincts surface. There is a terrible power struggle between Jack and Ralph which intensifies as the novel progresses. Factions form around the two leaders and the behaviours become increasingly reckless. Simon, one of the other older boys, and a sensitive soul, is killed in a case of mistaken identity, the now savage and adrenalin-fuelled group around Jack believing in his night-time approach to the camp, that he is in fact the much-feared “beast” they imagine stalks them.

Simon’s death at the hands of those who were once his schoolmates, unleashes further savagery, like the genie is out of the bottle. There is also, however, a kind of denial; it seems only Piggy recognises and is able to articulate the danger they are in – from themselves! It seems inevitable that Piggy should also die, brutally; Roger crashes a boulder onto him during a fight between Ralph and Jack in which Piggy is trying to intervene. Jack’s group would have killed Ralph too had it not been for the timely arrival of a rescue ship.

Although it was written in the early 1950s, this is very much a post-war book for me in which the author is reflecting on the base levels human beings can reach. If you simply scratch the surface of society you will find some instincts most of us would rather not admit to. A modern reading of the novel might also see the hazards of excessive masculinity and how lust for power can easily corrupt. You can also look at how easy it is for followers to forget their own moral codes and normal standards of behaviour when seduced by charismatic or persuasive leadership. The younger boys are unable to face the reality of their situation, stranded on a remote island, with an unknown chance of rescue, and the picture of excitement that Jack offers, playing at hunting, escapism from their problems, leads them to follow him down a dangerous path.

Whilst re-reading this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the current political turmoil we are in, both in the UK and globally. Some social norms seem to me to be breaking down. And when it came to the Jack/Ralph power struggle the Conservative party leadership contest came to mind! The only thing I couldn’t decide – who in our current crop of politicians is Piggy?!

A must-read for anyone wanting to gain a serious understanding of English literature.

Did you read Lord of the Flies as a teenager – can you remember what you thought of it?

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Book Review: “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

My Facebook Reading Challenge 2018 is well underway and March’s theme was a classic. I chose Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 classic, because it seemed to fit well with a lot of the women’s issues around and being discussed at the moment, particularly gender equality and sexual exploitation. It is fair to say that it had a mixed reception among the readers on the Facebook group!

2018-02-22 14.12.54I had read this book previously, but many years ago as an undergraduate, so whilst I had remembered the basic story, I had forgotten much of the detail. I had forgotten for example just how brilliant the writing is and how very like Jane Austen Flaubert can be in his use of irony. By all accounts, Flaubert was a perfectionist and spent years on this book; it is certainly masterful and for me the writing was sublime. I had also forgotten how unlikeable all the characters are! Even Emma, our supposed “heroine”, is at times unpleasant, childish, selfish, superficial and self-obsessed. When I discussed it with my husband (who speaks fluent French and read it in the original) he was surprised that I did not find Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, sympathetic. Interesting that he felt affection for the long-suffering, betrayed husband who loved his wife to the death, despite her many faults, whereas I found him ineffectual and basically unable to connect with his wife on any level, and that was part of the problem in their marriage.

I don’t think even Flaubert liked his characters and I think it was the intention of the author that we stand with him and examine the people he puts before us, with all their flaws. I believe he wants us also to dig a little deeper and examine the French provincial society that gave rise to Emma. As a young woman she lives a dull and uninteresting life with her widowed father on a farm, until the day she marries Charles, a physician in a neighbouring town, and goes to live a dull and uninteresting life with him. Passed from one man’s home to the next. Emma would not have had expectations, but she was an intelligent woman and the kind of life she was forced to lead did not fulfil her deeper needs. She is a woman of deep passions, but there is no outlet for them, apart from the romantic novels she devours. Certainly, Charles does not really do it for her! “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement.”

Flaubert hints that Emma’s lack of fulfilment may be dangerous when he observes, after she and Charles were invited to an aristocratic ball, where she glimpses how the other half live and begins to fantasise:

“This life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north; and boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart.”

What a sentence! Emma is naïve and inexperienced, however. Her life has been limited and she sees events in the most superficial of ways:

“She confused in her desire, sensual luxury with true joy, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.”

Flaubert doesn’t expect us to like Emma very much, but I think he wants us to see her as a product of a time and a place, not as wilful and malicious.

Seduced by romantic fantasy, Emma takes lovers, both of whom are equally selfish and unpleasant. Whilst she is clearly a willing participant in her adultery, there is no doubt that both Leon and Rodolphe exploit Emma. When Emma’s reckless behaviour leads her to run up unsustainable debts, the town’s notary, from whom she has been borrowing money, also exploits her. When he requests sexual favours in return for his continued discretion we can see how deeply lost Emma’s situation is and how as a woman she has almost no power or autonomy. Her response to him, is when we begin to see for the first time something more admirable in her spirit:

“You are taking insolent advantage of my distress, monsieur. I may be in a pitiful state, but I am not up for sale!”

Parts of the book are heavy going, but it is in Part Three that we see the tragic coming-together of events, the closing-in on Emma of all the consequences of her misguided actions, her falsehoods, and the tremendous dislike she accrued. She is not a nice woman – she betrayed her husband, who did not understand her, but loved her in his own way, rejected her daughter and treated those about her with contempt. She was the architect of her own downfall, but she was also a victim of heartless men, of social norms and conventions that failed women like her and gave them no outlet.

She is a difficult heroine for us, but one who makes us think, for sure. Recommended because it’s just one of those books you have to read!

Do you find it hard to connect with the classics? What is your favourite?

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‘North and South’ by Elizabeth Gaskell

I last read this book when I was doing my English degree at University. At that time, the classics were my ‘thing’, indeed I’d spent my teenage years devouring the classics and, such was my love of them, it’s mostly why I went on to study English. By the time I graduated, I was so full of books that I shunned reading anything for quite a long time. When I got back into the habit, I turned my attention more to contemporary fiction as I realised there was a huge gap in my knowledge. One of the satisfying things about favouring the classics is that they are a largely finite resource; in a few years of effort you could basically read most of them! With contemporary fiction, on the other hand, you never get caught up. So, almost all my reading in recent years has been a desperate endeavour to keep up with all the amazing books published today, and as a result I have not turned back to my beloved classics very much. So, April’s reading challenge was to re-read a classic.

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I’ve been wanting to read this novel again ever since I moved to Manchester 5 years ago and even more so after visiting Elizabeth Gaskell’s house in Plymouth Grove last year. (If you haven’t been and you’re an admirer of the Victorian novel, you really must pay a visit). I have to confess I was a little intimidated to be picking up the book – my edition is innocuous-looking enough, but, oh my goodness, paper was thinner back then and the type face is miniscule! 530 pages of closely-written text. BUT, what a joy!!!  It took me a few chapters to get back into the style, and the Victorian atmosphere, but once I did, I got totally lost, and, truly, I re-entered the world I first discovered as a young girl. I can’t remember when I last got lost in a long book, became totally absorbed by the sense of place, or was able to step into the shoes of the characters and feel their pain, their happiness, their grief their longings. Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, which I read last year, has probably been the closest I have come in recent years.

In North and South, our central character, Margaret Hale, finds herself on an emotional and physical journey. When we first meet her she is living with her wealthy aunt and spoiled young cousin Edith in London; she was sent to them as a child to improve her chances in society. Margaret’s parents live humbly in rural Hampshire where her father is a country curate. Margaret has a brother, Frederick, who lives as a fugitive abroad; he is wanted in England, accused of leading a mutiny whilst serving in the navy.

When Margaret’s cousin marries, she returns to her parents only to find that her father intends to resign his post due to his religious doubt. He decides to move the family north to the city of Milton in Darkshire (for which read Manchester). There he plans to make a living from tutoring and they will rent a house from an old Oxford acquaintance of Mr Hale’s. The move comes as devastating news to Margaret and her mother, for whom the move is the last straw in her social degradation.

When the family first moves to Milton the contrast between their old and new lives is stark – their physical surroundings are completely different, the people they meet are different, and the activities that absorb their time are different. As the months pass, Margaret accepts her new life and as she is forced to confront her prejudices, so it exposes the vacuous existence she enjoyed in London. Gaskell sets about using her characters, their conversations and their confrontations to reveal certain ‘truths’ and challenge certain preconceptions held by many of the protagonists, whether it is Mrs Hale’s bias towards the south, the gentry and all the things with which she is familiar and about which she is nostalgic, or factory owner Mr Thornton’s intolerance of his workers’ strike. All the characters in this novel are in some way flawed by their prejudice (even the lowly workers at the factory despise the Irish labourers brought in to do their work when they strike). To that extent, the novel still has great relevance today, over 150 years later, as the north-south divide in England continues to have social, political and economic consequences.

Some of the characters in the book are two-dimensional, for example, the lowly Bessy Higgins, with whom Margaret develops a rather implausible friendship. It has to be remembered that these characters are merely devices through which the author is seeking simply to illustrate a point, although Gaskell’s readers at the time probably thought this was actually how poor people lived and talked. Margaret, on the other hand, is, for me, a well-rounded, credible and fully-developed character. She goes through a transformation in this novel which is both sincere and believable.

The ending of the book is entirely predictable, of course, but this is fine because the joy of this book is in the journey. Although some may find the language a barrier, for me it was sublime. Again, it took me a little while to get back into it and it made reading a little slow at first, but it was beautiful and oh so clever!

I thoroughly enjoyed re-reading North and South and I would definitely recommend picking up a classic from time to time.

Have you re-read any old favourites recently?

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