Flax had rotted there, weighted down by huge sods.
Daily it sweltered in the punishing sun.
Bubbles gargled delicately, bluebottles
Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell.
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks. Here, every spring
I would fill jampotfuls of the jellied
Specks to range on window sills at home,
On shelves at school, and wait and watch until
The fattening dots burst, into nimble
Swimming tadpoles. Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Frogspawn. You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
Then one hot day when fields were rank
With cowdung in the grass the angry frogs
Invaded the flax-dam; I ducked through hedges
To a coarse croaking that I had not heard
Before. The air was thick with a bass chorus.
Right down the dam gross bellied frogs were cocked
On sods; their loose necks pulsed like sails. Some hopped:
The slap and plop were obscene threats. Some sat
Poised like mud grenades, their blunt heads farting.
I sickened, turned, and ran. The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
In the title poem of his first ever collection, Death of a Naturalist, Seamus Heaney gives a very sensuous and sumptuous description of the goings on at his local flax-hole. This hole or ‘flax-dam’ contained the flax which had been harvested and was now being soaked in a man-made hole in the corner of the flax-field in August. When the process was complete the flax was taken out and became the raw material for the thriving linen industry which had long flourished in Northern Ireland but was now showing some signs of decay in the nineteen fifties. The poem has an added resonance for me because I live in a beautiful part of West Limerick and next door to me is the townland of Ahalin, or Achadh Lín in Irish, which means the ‘field of the flax’. Each time I read this poem I am reminded that at some time maybe in the 1800’s or before just over the road from me was our very own flax-field with its festering flax-dam!
In this poem, ‘Death of a Naturalist’, Seamus Heaney gives a brilliant description of the local flax-hole. It is a memory poem, one of the many poems written about his childhood and early school days. Heaney, in this first collection of early poems mines a rich vein of childhood memory. It is, however, embellished memory – childhood through a rosy adult lens. The poem is extremely sensual and evokes the senses of sight and sound and smell to perfection. Indeed, the poem invites the reader to read it aloud such are the myriad examples of assonance and alliteration scattered throughout.
The flax-dam or flax hole came into its own each August when the flax crop was ready for harvest. Flax pulling by hand was a backbreaking job, taken on by casual, often transient workers. Hand pulling was necessary because the whole stem, from root to tip, was required to give the longest fibre, for the finest quality linen cloth. The pulled flax was tied up in beats (sheaves) and put in rows or stooks on the flax field. The stooks were collected and put into flax holes, or dams, and kept under water for ten to fourteen days. This was to `rat’ or `rot’ the inside wood part from the outside fibres.
The ‘flax-dam’ festered and ‘sweltered in the punishing sun’ in high Summer. We can almost hear the bluebottles as they,
‘Wove a strong gauze of sound around the smell’.
Each August the flax was immersed in the flax hole and sods of earth were used to keep it submerged.
The flax hole may have only been used by the farmers during the harvest but of course, it lay there unused all year round. The young poet, as naturalist, is obviously drawn to the pool at other times of the year as well, especially when there were great clots of frogspawn evident each Spring. He also visits in May to see the dragonflies and every July and August to spot the butterflies:
There were dragonflies, spotted butterflies,
But best of all was the warm thick slobber
Of frogspawn that grew like clotted water
In the shade of the banks.
The poet uses onomatopoeia to great effect to aid his description: ‘bubbles gargled’, ‘slobber of frogspawn’, ‘coarse croaking’, ‘the slap and plop’, and the brilliant ‘blunt heads farting’. We are also reminded of his age with the use of the word ‘jampotfuls’ and by the childish simile ‘Poised like mud grenades’.
Like all other budding young naturalists, he is lucky to have a great teacher! ‘Miss Walls’ encourages him and provides him with the necessary information, always appropriate to his age of course!
Miss Walls would tell us how
The daddy frog was called a bullfrog
And how he croaked and how the mammy frog
Laid hundreds of little eggs and this was
Her ecology classes sent him out to the meadows to collect samples for the classroom and for the windowsill at home in his kitchen in Mossbawn. Miss Walls also imparted other vital pieces of information which are seized upon by the young eager naturalist:
You could tell the weather by frogs too
For they were yellow in the sun and brown
There is a sense of childhood foreboding and fear of the flax hole and the mating frogs which is recreated with great accuracy by the poet – he knew, or he had been told by his elders, that ‘if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it’. These stories were obviously very effective in keeping inquisitive young boys away from the vicinity of these dangerous flax dams and he feels threatened and frightened by the scene that confronts him at the flax-dam.
The great slime kings
Were gathered there for vengeance and I knew
That if I dipped my hand the spawn would clutch it.
Indeed, the whole poem can be seen as a metaphor for growing up, laden with imagery which could be interpreted as sexual: we sense a child’s revulsion as he discovers the facts of life and his ensuing loss of innocence. He will never feel the same again about the countryside after this encounter with the bullfrogs! As the poem’s title suggests,therefore, his days as a naturalist are drawing to an end!
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time is set in an ordinary suburban street in Swindon sometime in the late twentieth century. Christopher, the main character, suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome and is confined to his house and his mainly scientific hobbies. He rarely ventures into his neighbourhood and his main venture each day is to attend a special school. However, later in the novel, he undertakes a major adventure, which leads to his exploring the city of London and discovering its ways.
Christopher’s family unit is under a lot of pressure – mainly due to the stress involved in bringing up a young boy with autism. Christopher’s parents separate and other family’s in the neighbourhood also experience marriage break-up. His father lies about the disappearance of Christopher’s mother. She eventually leaves because she can no longer cope. She has an affair with her neighbour, whose wife, in turn, has an affair with Christopher’s dad. He doesn’t really understand these developments and he is more of a loner than a family member. It can be said that the comings and goings, the trials and tribulations, which befall Christopher are similar to those that befall many who live in a present-day urban setting.
Christopher’s life revolves around maths and what colour cars he sees in the morning. He is innocence in its subtlest form. He lives with his Father. When he finds his neighbour’s dog dead in the garden with a garden fork sticking out of his stomach, he sets out to find who the murderer is. This leads him to many a revelation and a world that Christopher isn’t used to. So, he decides (as does his helper Siobhan) that he should write a book about the events that occur after the dog’s death. So, that’s what he does. And that’s The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time by Mark Haddon.
This debut novel by Mark Haddon introduces us to the irresistible voice of his fifteen-year-old narrator, Christopher Boone, and this is what elevates this novel to fantastic heights.
It was 7 minutes after midnight. The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears’ house. Its eyes were closed. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog. The points of the fork must have gone all the way through the dog and into the ground because the fork had not fallen over. I decided that the dog was probably killed with the fork because I could not see any other wounds in the dog and I do not think you would stick a garden fork into a dog after it had died for some other reason, like cancer for example, or a road accident. But I could not be certain about this.
I went through Mrs Shears’ gate, closing it behind me. I walked onto her lawn and knelt beside the dog. I put my hand on the muzzle of the dog. It was still warm.
The dog was called Wellington. It belonged to Mrs Shears who was our friend. She lived on the opposite side of the road, two houses to the left.
Wellington was a poodle. Not one of the small poodles that have hairstyles but a big poodle. It had curly black fur, but when you got close you could see that the skin underneath the fur was a very pale yellow, like chicken.
I stroked Wellington and wondered who had killed him, and why.
“This is a murder mystery novel,” Christopher explains a few pages further on. Reading was for him a way of opening the doors of his imagination and allowing it to run free. As a child, he had the ability to think things out in detail. This ability helped him piece the truth together from the flimsy snippets of information he had acquired. Christopher Boone is a great fan of Sherlock Holmes and especially his detective masterpiece, The Hound of the Baskervilles. Indeed, it is this novel which gives him the idea that he should become a detective and investigate the killing of his neighbour’s dog, Wellington. “In a murder mystery novel someone has to work out who the murderer is and then catch them,” he reasons. “It is a puzzle.”
Christopher is quite good at puzzles.
His discovery of letters written by his ‘dead’ mother leads him to try and solve another mystery. His father tries to protect his son by telling him that his mother has died when in fact they have separated and she has gone to live with her new partner in London. Christopher’s discovery of letters written by his mother after her ‘death’ gives rise to a major breakdown in trust between himself and his father and also to his heroic efforts to be reunited with his mother.
Christopher is also very good at mathematics, and at remembering, and he proves to us many times in the book how good he is. For fun, and to calm himself down, he squares the number two over and over again. At times it’s rather scary that he can do it, and you wonder what it must be like to be like that. To be so capable of one thing – doing mathematics – and being so incapable of another thing – living a life. It’s heartbreaking. Even when it comes to numbering the chapters in his book the chapter numbers don’t go in order of ascending numbers, as is usual, but Christopher instead uses prime numbers.
Christopher is entirely incapable of delineating among the various grades of human emotion on the scale between happy and sad, which makes for a curious, if not altogether perplexing narrative perspective. Reporting on the conversations and interactions around him with virtually no understanding of their portent, Christopher surely ranks among the most hard-boiled detectives in all of literature. Logic dictates, indisputably. His brain is a one-party political system with no room for checks and balances – no fifty shades of grey here!
Christopher may not recognize them, but emotions lurk behind virtually every clue he uncovers. Still, his pitch never varies. Christopher never slips off course. That dissonance, the weighty, shifting space between the story Christopher is telling and the one we are reading exposes depths of insight and feeling no simple, straightforward narrative could hope to provide in so few pages. At certain times in the novel we feel great empathy for Christopher’s father: after all, Christopher is quite content with who he is and it is his father who has to watch him be how he is.
The Curious Incident is a unique novel, as Christopher’ narration gives us a powerful insight into the autistic mind. So while he is brilliant at science and maths (at one point, he quickly calculates 2 to the power of 15!) its people he finds complicated. With their devious ways and moods, people aren’t ‘logical’. By allowing us to observe Christopher’s thought processes, Mark Haddon shows us our illogical world in all its duplicity, while at the same time witnessing Christopher’s awkward behaviour getting him into countless rows with his family, friends, and teachers.
“Not liking yellow things or brown things and refusing to touch yellow things or brown things” is, in fact, one of Christopher’s Behavioural Problems. He does not like dirt, gravy, wood, or poo, or anything brown for that matter, including Melissa Brown, a girl at his school. And if on the bus ride to school he was to see four yellow cars in a row, to cite one extreme manifestation of his dislike for all things yellow, it would be “a Black Day, which is a day when I don’t speak to anyone and sit on my own reading books and don’t eat my lunch and Take No Risks.” To Christopher, despite sensible arguments to the contrary, this behaviour makes perfect sense.
Mrs Forbes said that hating yellow and brown is just being silly. And Siobhan said that she shouldn’t say things like that and everyone has favourite colours. And Siobhan was right. But Mrs Forbes was a bit right, too. Because it is sort of being silly. But in life, you have to take lots of decisions and if you don’t take decisions you would never do anything because you would spend all your time choosing between things you could do. So it is good to have a reason why you hate some things and you like others. It is like being in a restaurant like when Father takes me out to a Berni Inn sometimes and you look at the menu and you have to choose what you are going to have. But you don’t know if you are going to like something because you haven’t tasted it yet, so you have favourite foods and you choose these, and you have foods you don’t like and you don’t choose these, and then it is simple.
“This will not be a funny book,” Christopher warns readers. “I cannot tell jokes because I do not understand them.” And it’s true: Christopher cannot process anything but the most literal statements. Metaphors, to his way of thinking, are lies. Implying that one thing is another — it’s more than confusing; it’s downright dishonest.
One of the great triumphs of the novel is the way Christopher’s hyper-logical voice comes across to the reader as a brilliant brand of dry, deadpan humour. The story, quite funny to begin with, gets funnier still upon rereading, without the distractions and misdirection imposed by its underlying suspense.
If the book’s economical (and spot-on) dialogue allows a reader to see through Christopher’s obfuscating narration and straight into the heart of the characters — it’s only when we hear the characters speak that we gain a proper context for Christopher’s severely limited perspective — Haddon’s dialogue also provides tremendous opportunities for comedy. Christopher’s exchange with a policeman in a station of the Underground could well have been lifted directly from the vaudeville stage. Christopher is the straight man, nonpareil.
And I said, “What does single or return mean?”
And he said, “Do you want to go one way, or do you want to go and come back?”
And I said, “I want to stay there when I get there.”
And he said, “For how long?”
And I said, “Until I go to university.”
And he said, “Single, then,” and then he said, “That’ll be £32.”
Christopher’s narration can be hilarious on one page, then two pages later you want to cry!
When Christopher sets out on his brave but dangerous journey to London, the minutia finally overwhelms him. The swarming crowds, noise raging in every direction, and everywhere signs bearing alien, incomprehensible messages… it’s all too unfamiliar, and before long it’s too much for him to manage.
Here, not for the first time, Christopher’s investigation inadvertently exposes raw, difficult truths about our modern lives. In the bustling train station, Christopher practically collapses from sensory overload; you can almost hear his fuses pop (it sounds like groaning). We don’t exactly empathize with Christopher. There’s a border we can’t cross, despite Mark Haddon’s virtuoso performance. However, at the end of the novel, we finally realize, no matter how great our efforts at empathy, that nothing could ever make us truly appreciate the unending alienation Christopher suffers.
And finally, I come to the writing. One of the best elements of the book. As I’ve mentioned its simplicity is its brilliance. Haddon, somehow or other, obviously through months, if not years, of research has managed to get into the mind of a boy who suffers from Asperger’s Syndrome. He’s managed to write an insightful, unbelievably fascinating novel that is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time, if not ever. Books like The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time don’t come along very often, so we must cherish it like it’s gold. Because, really, it is. To not read The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time is most certainly the biggest crime of all. To not learn about Asperger’s Syndrome afterwards is an even bigger one.
“Here is a narrator who seems to be hugely ill-equipped for writing a book,” the author Mark Haddon aptly notes, “He can’t understand metaphor; he can’t understand other people’s emotions; he misses the bigger picture. And yet it makes him incredibly well suited to narrating a book. He never explains too much. He never tries to persuade the reader to feel about things this way or that way. He just kind of paints this picture and says, ‘Make of it what you will.'”
Yet, while there are pessimistic elements in the novel: his family is dysfunctional; he is anti-social; he imagines humans becoming extinct; on his journey to London he experiences many of the negative aspects of human behaviour, yet I think the overall vision is a positive one. He fulfils his life plan and gains an A Grade in his A-Level exams, he solves the murder mystery, he discovers the truth about his ‘dead’ mother and is safely reunited with her, he succeeds in writing a book, and he triumphs over his fears on his London journey. Christopher’s father makes up with him by buying him a dog, the first step in re-establishing the trust that had been badly damaged by his father’s lying to him.
The greatness of Haddon’s novel is that when we come to understand the young Christopher’s view of the world, we understand his responses and we see the validity and richness of Christopher’s interpretations. And we come to believe him when after getting an A Grade in his Maths A-Level he says, towards the end, that he WILL go to university and WILL live in a flat with a garden along with his new dog Sandy, his books and his computer. And he WILL get a First Class Honours Degree and WILL become a scientist. ‘And I know I can do this because I went to London on my own and because I solved the mystery of Who Killed Wellington … and I was brave and I wrote a book and that means I can do anything.’
The critic C.S.Lewis once remarked that the qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral ‘is to know what it is, what it was intended to do and how it is meant to be used’. George Orwell, with nice irony, subtitled Animal Farm ‘A Fairy Tale’. It is, in fact, an extended allegory. As a literary term, allegory is not really difficult to grasp. The writer of allegory describes a subject under the guise of another subject which has apt and suggestive resemblances to the first one. The allegorical work conveys a meaning other than, and in addition to, the literal meaning. If we read a story and conclude that beneath its surface meaning another meaning may be discovered and that the real point of the story resides in this other meaning, then we may safely conclude that we have been reading an allegory. Even the least qualified reader of Animal Farm will no doubt reach such a conclusion.
Animal Farm is a special kind of allegory, the beast fable. Most of us are familiar with this universal literary form through our reading of Aesop’s Fables. Those who have read the Fourth Book of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels will scarcely be surprised to learn that Swift’s talking horses are literary ancestors of Orwell’s talking farm animals. A fable is a story designed to inculcate a moral about some aspect of human behaviour. Sometimes (as in the case of Animal Farm) the moral or lesson is implicit in the story; sometimes it is explicitly stated in brief form at the end. Like other writers of beast fables, Orwell uses animals and birds to represent the deeds and motives of human beings; like them, too, he has his moral lesson to enforce.
Satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution
Every account of Animal Farm traces the fairly obvious parallels between the characters and motives of Orwell’s animals and those of the human beings they represent. It was immediately clear to his original readers (in the mid-1940’s) that Orwell had written a fairly explicit satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the rise of Stalin, a circumstance which made it difficult for him to find an English publisher. The parallels are easily traced. Major is Lenin, although since he dies before the rising, the identification is not exact. Napoleon is Stalin, and Snowball is Trotsky, whose quarrel with Stalin after Lenin’s death led to his expulsion from the Communist Party and from Russia. Molly stands for those Russians who fled the country after 1917. Boxer is an image of the loyal, uncomplaining proletariat, and Moses an unattractive representation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Battle of the Cowshed is clearly the Civil War that followed the 1917 Revolution; Western countries (Jones and his neighbours) sent troops to the aid of the dissenting White Russians. The Battle of the Windmill is the German invasion of 1941. Orwell pointed this out in a letter to his publisher. He felt that at one point in the story he had been unfair to Stalin. ‘All the animals including Napoleon,’ he wrote in the Windmill episode, ‘flung themselves on their faces.’ This he wanted altered to ‘All the animals except Napoleon flung themselves on their faces,’ pointing out that Stalin, after all, did remain in Moscow during the German invasion.
The moral lesson of the fable
So much for the main parallels between Orwell’s animals and their human counterparts. What of the moral lesson of the fable? His experiences during the Spanish Civil War and his close study of Russian politics made Orwell acutely conscious of what he called ‘the barbaric and undemocratic’ methods of Communist governments. His main concern in Animal Farm was to make people in Western Europe see the Soviet regime for what it really was.
It appeared to him that since 1930 the USSR, far from moving towards socialism, showed clear signs of transforming itself into a hierarchical society in which the rulers (the pigs of the fable) were no more inclined than were the members of any other power elite to surrender their privileges. Since it was the common view of Western European socialists that a genuinely socialist regime existed in Russia, Orwell saw it as one of his tasks to dispel this misunderstanding in a story that could easily be assimilated by almost anyone, and that would lend itself to easy translation into other languages.
At the end of Animal Farm it is impossible to distinguish the human beings from the pigs, the latter having entered heartily into commercial and social relations with their former enemies and abandoned the major slogan of the Revolution, ‘Four legs good, two legs bad.’ In his preface to the Ukranian edition, Orwell made an interesting (and perhaps surprising) comment on his ending. A number of readers, he felt, might finish Animal Farm with the impression that it ends in the complete reconciliation of the pigs (the Soviet power elite) and the humans (the Western capitalist leaders). This, he pointed out was not his intention. On the contrary, he meant the book to end on a note of discord. He wrote it immediately after the Teheran Conference, which everybody thought, had established the best possible relations between the USSR and the West. ‘I personally,’ Orwell observed with satisfaction, ‘did not believe that such good relations would last long; and, as events have shown, I wasn’t far wrong.’
A novel of universal political truths
Some of the pleasure of reading Animal Farm lies in the reader’s gradual recognition of the parallels with modern Russian history. The various identifications can be disclosed rather like the answers to a crossword puzzle, or chalked up on the blackboard like so many equations. But the question arises: once we have made all the identifications what further interest are we likely to have in a work like Animal Farm? It might be argued that even as an allegory of Soviet politics, the book has lost some of its original point, since Orwell clearly did not contemplate, for example, such developments as those associated with the Krushchev era, or the astonishing course taken by the Soviet system since the coming to power of Gorbachev in 1985. Fortunately for Orwell’s reputation, his book is likely to attract readers long after the Russian experience has been forgotten, because it has large implications extending beyond the immediate circumstances of any single movement such as the Russian Revolution of 1917.In several respects, Orwell’s fable embodies universal political truths. What he describes is what happens sooner or later, to a greater or lesser extent, to all revolutionary movements. The modern Chinese theory of continuous revolution as a means of preserving intact the ideals of the first revolutionaries is an interesting recognition of the dangers (so convincingly illustrated in Animal Farm) which attended all large-scale efforts at the betterment of the human lot. Orwell’s book is a comment on the failure, as he saw it, of the Russian Revolution to fulfil the expectations of those who saw it marking a new era of true socialist democracy. But it can also be read as a disillusioned recognition of the apparently inevitable failure of every great reforming movement to preserve its original momentum. The French Revolution began in unbounded hope for a better world and petered out in the Jacobin terror.
Limitations of the moral fable
In Animal Farm, as in all moral fables, the author starts off with his abstract truth or idea, and uses his story to illustrate this, to give it life. All the elements in the story are necessarily subordinated to the pattern dictated by whatever precepts the author desires to enforce on the minds of his readers. Even these bald statements about the literary genre to which Animal Farm belongs suggest its almost inevitable limitations. The major landmarks of fiction are exploratory in character; their important discoveries about human life and conduct emerge with the progress of the story. Writers like the Orwell of Animal Farm, on the other hand, give the impression of having made their discoveries before composing their works. The problem for all those who write fiction to illustrate pre-conceived ideas is that they must force a disorderly mass of experience into conformity with these ideas, which results inevitably either in some falsification of experience, or in a radically simplified view of it. Inconvenient facts tend to be rigorously excluded. Orwell, however, in choosing to illustrate what seems to be a universal human experience, is exempt from charges of distortion, whatever may be said about the limitations of his fable.
Orwell was one of those fortunate writers who recognised his limitations, who knew what suited his special talents and what did not. Readers of his other novels will quickly realise that he found it extremely difficult to breathe life into his characters, none of whom is really convincing or memorable. There is a sense in which Orwell is not really a creative writer, but a brilliant publicist, journalist, and apologist for liberal causes, who used the conventional fictional framework for his special purposes. If he could not create life-like characters in his novels, he could at any rate write a great political fable. What gives Animal Farm its vitality is not the kind of imaginative power one associates with a great novelist. Such imaginative power was not really needed in this kind of work. Orwell’s mind was one, which, like Swift’s, often contemplated the great human questions in political terms; like Swift, he found the beast fable an admirable vehicle for political ideas. The almost perfect correspondence in Animal Farm between form and content at once helps to explain its astonishing popular success and to ensure its survival as a minor classic.
Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 and in it, William Golding sets out to create a disturbing and dystopian view of the world – a social experiment that goes horribly wrong. The bleak aftermath of the second war to blight the Twentieth Century is still being felt in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1950’s. Images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, along with personal war memories and experiences and other atrocities were still very raw in people’s minds. This powerful novel can be included among other dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. This genre of dystopian fiction represents the other extreme from Utopias, fictional representations of ideal political states or ways of life, the classical example here being St. Thomas More’s Utopia, a Latin work written in 1516.
Golding, as you will soon be aware, is very concerned with the pervasive influence of evil forces in our world, and he has few allusions about the counterbalancing forces of good. It is possible to classify Lord of the Flies as a dystopian fable because in it Golding is casting a jaundiced eye on earlier and more optimistic variations on his theme, the best known of these being R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of parody of The Coral Island and Golding makes specific reference to it in his novel. A very brief comparison with Ballantyne’s book helps us see what Golding is attempting in Lord of the Flies. In The Coral Island, Ballantyne shipwrecks a group of upright, solid, church-going British boys, and allows them to build a decent imitation of British civilisation in their new and primitive surroundings. In Lord of the Flies, the shipwreck is now a plane wreck; the boys are still middle-class British Christians. Even the names of three of Golding’s main characters are similar to those in Ballantyne – Golding’s three central characters – Ralph, Piggy and Jack – are caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes . The vital difference between the two novels, however, is that whereas Ballantyne’s is thoroughly optimistic in spirit and outcome, Golding’s outcomes are disillusioning and pessimistic.
The need for social order
Lord of the Flies is a very grim illustration of the kind of situation that, as Golding sees it, must inevitably arise if the sanctions and controls of society are abandoned. In this kind of situation, the great majority of human beings (whether boys or men) will choose destructive courses. There will be the few who will choose order, whose acts reflect human decency and goodness, but they will be outnumbered and defeated by the evil tendencies of the many. The ethos of Ballantyne’s island was that of the boy-scout camp; on Golding’s the greater number of the boys choose to enact the roles of savages, painting themselves, wallowing in an orgy of animal slaughter, sinking into bestial habits, engaging in torture, murder and sacrifice to false gods.
Speaking of false gods prompts a reference to the significance of Golding’s title for the novel. This refers to Beelzebub, traditionally the most debased and disgusting of all the devils. The young British Christians, most of all the choirboys, instinctively chose him, rather than the Christian God as the object of their worship. This choice bears fundamentally on Golding’s views on human nature. Golding is, above all, a didactic writer and he is trying, therefore, to teach us a moral lesson here. One of his primary purposes is to expose what he sees as the shallowness of optimistic theories (he would see them as illusions) about human nature. At one level, his novel can be read as a strenuous rejection of humanistic theories of human perfection. It enacts an unrepentant belief in the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin; the doctrine which teaches that the first sin of Adam, as the old Catechism put it, ‘darkened the understanding, weakened the will, and left us a strong inclination to evil’.
A pessimistic world view?
This traditional view sets Golding apart from many of the modern ‘trendy’ currents of thought. Few of us have escaped the influence of the romantic view of childhood as a time of glorious innocence; the cult of the noble savage has, since Rousseau, enjoyed widespread support in all kinds of fiction. It was a common Romantic assumption that man was potentially a noble, upright creature if only he could be freed from the fetters of a corrupt society. Golding is having none of this! Not for him the vision of the child emerging in clouds of glory, or the inherent nobility of the savage life. What he finds instead, is that only the slightest push, or the removal of sanctions or firm restraints, is needed for children, as well as for men, to tumble into unfathomable depths of depravity. In Lord of the Flies he is trying to show us with what frightening ease man and boy can throw off all his superficial decency (‘off you lendings’ in Lear’s version) and regress back to that primitive state where ‘chaos is come again.’
To return to categories and literary genres for a moment, Lord of the Flies is a fable. As Golding himself points out, the writer of fables is a moralist: ‘he cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it’, very similar to the parables in the Gospels. No matter how we look on this novel, however, it would be very difficult to describe Golding’s lesson here as a hopeful one. For him, men are generally vicious, murderous and liable to extremes of self-degradation and animal behaviour. What most forcibly strikes us as we read this novel is Golding’s intuition that, at best, civilising conventions and rules are passing things, but that what endures is man’s wild irrationality and his destructive urges. A passing visit to Sky News or CNN or BBC News may confirm this for us on a daily basis! Who would choose to live in Aleppo in Syria or the many cities in Iraq who have been condemned to untold barbarity in recent times?
A realistic novel
Lord of the Flies has proved an extraordinary popular book, both from the point of view of general readership and among academics. Golding may have conceived his novel as an allegory, but he is also a master of realistic fiction, and the book has a striking impact on the generality of young readers, for whom it is, here in Ireland as well as in Britain, a widely prescribed school text. Golding was a teacher for a number of years, and has an instinctive understanding of, and feeling for, the characters and mannerisms of schoolboys. One of the striking features of his method is his success in presenting his young characters in terms of idiom and linguistic habit (compare the under-educated, ill-spoken Piggy in this respect with Ralph and Jack). The novel, for all its allegorical and symbolic overtones, is rooted firmly in real experience. Physical sensations are admirably and tellingly rendered; the discomforts, unpleasantness, delights and other sensations associated with life on the island are evoked with astonishing realism. The beautiful descriptions of island and sea are unforgettable. Golding’s continuous success with the depiction of the physical realities of life, the rootedness of the book in the solid earth, is perhaps its most memorable feature for younger readers, most of whom, it is safe to suggest, can approach it on a realistic level without bothering unduly about its allegorical implications or its status as a moral fable. Discussing the wider picture, the novel as fable or allegory or simply realistic novel with an eager English class, is one of the great joys and job satisfactions of the teacher of English Literature!
Academics have naturally tended to focus on the allegorical and symbolic features of the book, following Golding himself, who has strongly emphasised these in his critical comments. There are numerous examples of symbols in the novel. The shell or conch discovered by Ralph and Piggy has attracted a wide variety of such interpretations. It is most obviously to be regarded as a symbol of the forces in the boys striving to uphold civilised standards and values. The character of Simon attracts a good deal of symbolic weight also. The pig’s head covered in flies is a symbol or sign of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Simon’s hallucination of the monologue from the pig’s head is another symbolic feature. But whatever importance one may attach to such matters, the vital consideration is that most of the episodes which obviously attract symbolic interpretations also work most successfully at a realistic level, which adds to the great appeal of the novel.
Dream to nightmare
Golding has a remarkable gift for presenting abstract conceptions in compelling concrete terms. One of the themes of the book that particularly appeals to younger readers is that it enacts a powerfully imagined version of the dream that most children cherish at one time or another of escaping from the restraints of a society controlled by adults. What Golding does in Lord of the Flies is bring this dream to life. But what he also does is to turn the dream into a virtual nightmare. Escape from the stabilising forces of the adult world, instead of bringing about happiness, results in a riot of destructive individualism. At the beginning, there is a vague, unsatisfactory sense of kinship and comradeship: Ralph and Jack, the two ‘mighty opposites’ of the later parts of the novel, can, at the beginning, look at each other ‘with a shy liking’. The collapse of this sympathy, the breaking of most of the bonds of human kinship, is the stark reality which haunts Golding’s fable. And even when the outside world comes to the rescue at the conclusion of the novel it only brings further reminders of disorder and war with the finding of the dead airman and the arrival of an armed warship. There is little comfort, then, to be drawn from Golding’s dystopian novel: neither a ‘civilised’ environment nor the lack of it, seem to offer much hope of even limited perfection or happiness to human beings.
The title that Steinbeck finally chose for his novel emphasises the unpredictable nature of existence as well as its promise, George and Lennie’s blasted dream to ‘live of the fatta the lan’. Taken from a poem by Robert Burns, the Scottish poet, the novel’s title suggests the transitory quality of even ‘best laid schemes’. Burns’s poem tells of an unfortunate field mouse whose home is flattened by a plough:
But Mousie, thy art no thy lane,
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
Gang aft a-gley
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain
For promised joy.
GEORGE: George is the story’s main protagonist, a small, quick man with well-defined features. A migrant ranch worker, George dreams of one day saving enough money to buy his own place and be his own boss, living off the land. The hindrance to his objective is his mentally handicapped companion, Lennie, with whom he has travelled and worked since Lennie’s Aunt Clara, whom George knew, died. The majority of George’s energy is devoted to looking after Lennie, whose blunders prevent George from working toward his dream, or even living the life of a normal rancher. Thus, George’s conflict arises in Lennie, to whom he has the ties of long-time companionship that he so often yearns to break in order to live the life of which he dreams. This tension strains George into demonstrating various emotions, ranging from anger to patience to sadness to pride and to hope.
LENNIE: George’s companion, the source of the novel’s conflict. Lennie, enormous, ungainly, and mentally slow, is George’s polar opposite both mentally and physically. Lennie’s ignorance and innocence and helplessness, his childish actions, such as his desire to pet soft things, contrast his physical bulk, making him likeable to readers. Although devoid of cruel intentions, Lennie’s stupidity and carelessness cause him to unwittingly harm animals and people, which creates trouble for both him and George. Lennie is tirelessly devoted to George and delights in hearing him tell of the dream of having a farm, but he does not desire the dream of the American worker in the same way that George does. His understanding of George’s dream is more childish and he grows excited at the possibility of tending the future rabbits, most likely because it will afford him a chance to pet their soft fur as much as he wishes. Nevertheless, a dream is a dream, different for everyone, and George and Lennie share the similar attribute of desiring what they haven’t got. Lennie, however, is helpless to attain his dream, and remains a static character throughout, relying on George to fuel his hope and save him from trouble.
CANDY: He is the old, one-handed swamper who is the first to befriend George and Lennie at Soledad. He is humble and weary and seems to be at the end of his line after Carlson shoots his last possession and companion, his old, blind, dog. ‘When they can me here I wisht somebody’d shoot me’, Candy confesses to George and Lennie, hoping for a similar fate as his dog. But when he hears the two talking of their little place, Candy offers all his money and his meagre services to be in on the dream. His substantial sum of money and the fact that he knows of a place make it impossible for George to refuse him. Candy clings to this hope of a future as a drowning man would to a piece of driftwood. It rekindles life within him, but it also becomes an obsession, and in his excitement and indignation, he lets the secret slip to both Crooks and Curley’s wife. And when Lennie kills Curley’s wife and shatters the reality of the dream, Candy becomes hopeless and full of anguish, the broken shell of a man.
CURLEY: He is the boxer, the son of the boss, the angry and hot-headed obstacle to George’s attempt to keep Lennie out of trouble at Soledad. Insecure because of his size and over-protective of his wife, Curley is eager to fight anyone he perceives as a threat to his self-image. Lennie unwittingly incurs Curley’s antagonism simply because of his size, and the reader immediately braces for future confrontation. Curley remains undeveloped, forever little and forever mean, poking his head in at various points in the novel, either to look for his wife or to stir up trouble on account of her.
CURLEY’S WIFE: Nameless and flirtatious, Curley’s wife is perceived by Candy to be the cause of all that goes wrong at Soledad: ‘Ever’body knowed you’d mess things up. You wasn’t no good’, he says to her dead body in his grief. The workers, George included, see her as having ‘the eye’ for every guy on the ranch, and they cite this as the reason for Curley’s insecurity and hot-headed temperament. But Curley’s wife adds complexity to her own characterisation, confessing to Lennie that she dislikes Curley because he is angry all the time and saying that she comes around because she is lonely and just wants someone to talk to. Like George and Lennie, she once had a dream of becoming an actress and living in Hollywood, but it went unrealised, leaving her full of self-pity, married to an angry man, living on a ranch without friends, and viewed as a trouble-maker by everyone.
CROOKS: called such because of a crooked spine, Steinbeck does not develop Crooks, the Negro stable buck, until Chapter Four, describing him as a ‘proud, aloof man. He kept his distance and demanded that other people keep theirs’. Crooks is bitter, indignant, angry, and ultimately frustrated by his helplessness as a black man in a racist culture. Wise and observant, Crooks listens to Lennie’s talk of the dream of the farm with cynicism. Although tempted by Candy, Lennie and George’s plan to buy their own place, Crooks is constantly reminded (in this case by Curley’s wife) that he is inferior to whites and, out of pride, he refuses to take part in their future farm.
SLIM: The tall, jerkline skinner whom Steinbeck describes as something of a living legend: ‘He moved with a majesty only achieved by royalty and master craftsmen. He was a jerkline skinner, the prince of the ranch, capable of driving ten, sixteen, even twenty mules with a single line to the leaders. He was capable of killing a fly on the wheeler’s butt with a bull whip without touching the mule. There was gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke ….. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought.’ Slim lingers in the shadow of this overwhelming description throughout the novel. He serves as the fearless, decision-maker when conflicts arise among the workers and wins the confidence of George, offering advice, comfort, and quiet words of wisdom.
CANDY’S DOG: ‘A dragfooted sheepdog, gray of muzzle, and with pale, blind old eyes’, Candy’s dog is a far cry from his sheepherding days. Carlson says to Candy, in regard to the dog: ‘Got no teeth, he’s all stiff with rheumatism. He ain’t no good to you, Candy. An’ he ain’t no good to himself. Why’n’t you shoot him, Candy? And Candy is left with no other option, but to shoot his longtime companion. This sub-plot is an obvious metaphor for what George must do to Lennie, who proves top be no good to George and no good to himself. Steinbeck re-emphasises the significance of Candy’s dog when Candy says to George that he wishes someone would shoot him when he’s no longer any good. And when Carlson’s gun goes off, Lennie is the only other man not inside the bunk house, Steinbeck having placed him outside with the dog, away from the other men, his gun shot saved for the novel’s end.
THE CRIPPLES: Four of Steinbeck’s characters are handicapped: Candy is missing a hand, Crooks has a crooked spine, Lennie is mentally slow, and Curley acquires a mangled hand in the course of the novel. They are physical manifestations of one of the novel’s major themes: the schemes of men go awry. Here, to reiterate the point, Steinbeck has the actual bodies of his characters go awry. It is as if nature herself is often doomed to errors in her scheme. And whether they be caused at birth, or by a horse, or by another man, the physical deformities occur regardless of the handicapped person’s will or desire to be otherwise, just as George and Lennie’s dream goes wrong despite how much they want it to be fulfilled.
SOLITAIRE: George is often in the habit of playing solitaire, a card game that requires only one person, while he is in the bunk house. He never asks Lennie to play cards with him because he knows that Lennie would be incapable of such a mental task. Solitaire, which means alone, is a metaphor for the loneliness of the characters in the novel, who have no one but themselves. It is also a metaphor for George’s desire to be ‘solitaire’, to be no longer burdened with Lennie’s company, and his constant playing of the game foreshadows his eventual decision to become a solitary man.
THE DEAD MOUSE AND THE DEAD DOG: These two soft, furry creatures that Lennie accidentally kills are both metaphors and foreshadowing devices. As metaphors, they serve as a physical representation of what will happen to George and Lennie’s dream: they (Lennie in particular) will destroy it. Lennie never intends to kill the thing he loves, the soft things he wants more than anything, but they die on him nonetheless. The dead mouse is also an allusion to the novel’s title – Of Mice and Men, a reminder that dreams will go wrong, even the desire to pet a mouse. And because bad things come in threes, Lennie’s two accidental killings of animals foreshadow the final killing of Curley’s wife, an accident that seals his fate and ruins the dream for him, George and Candy.
When discussing the various themes in Steinbeck’s novel, we would do well to first examine the title, which is an allusion to a line from one of Robert Burns’s poems: ‘The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft aglay.’ Translated into modern English, this line reads: ‘The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.’ This cynical statement is at the heart of the novel’s action and serves as a foreshadowing prophecy of all that is to come. For, indeed, the novel’s two main characters do have a scheme, a specific dream of changing their current way of life in order to have their own place and work only for themselves. The tragedy, of course, lies in the fact that no matter how elaborately our heroes plan, regardless of how intensely they hope and dream, their plan does not find fulfilment.
This is a novel of defeated hope and the harsh reality of the American Dream. George and Lennie are poor homeless migrant workers, doomed to a life of wandering and toil in which they are never able to reap the fruits of their labour. Their desires may not seem so unfamiliar to any other American: a place of their own, the opportunity to work for themselves and harvest what they sow with no one to take anything from them or give them orders. George and Lennie desperately cling to the notion that they are different from other workers who drift from ranch to ranch because, unlike the others, they have a future and each other. But characters like Crooks and Curley’s wife serve as reminders that George and Lennie are no different from anyone who wants something of his or her own.
All the characters (all the ones that Steinbeck has developed, at least) wish to change their lives in some fashion, but none are capable of doing so; they all have dreams, and it is only the dream that varies from person to person. Curley’s wife has already had her dream of being an actress pass her by and now must live a life of empty hope. Crooks’ situation hints at a much deeper oppression than that of the white worker in America – the oppression of the black people. Through Crooks, Steinbeck exposes the bitterness, the anger, and the helplessness of the black American who struggles to be recognised as a human being, let alone have a place of his own. Crooks’ hopelessness underlies that of George and Lennie’s and Candy’s and Curley’s wife. But all share the despair of wanting to change the way they live and attain something better. Even Slim, despite his Zen-like wisdom and confidence, has nothing to call his own and will, by every indication, remain a migrant worker until his death. Slim differs from the others in the fact that he does not seem to want something outside of what he has, he is not beaten by a dream, he has not laid any schemes. Slim seems to have somehow reached the sad conclusion indicated by the novel’s title, that to dream leads to despair.
Another key element is the companionship between George and Lennie. The two men are not unique for wanting a place and a life of their own, but they are unique in that they have each other. Their companionship contrasts with the loneliness that surrounds them – the loneliness of the homeless ranch worker, the loneliness of the outcast black man, the loneliness of Curley’s wife, the loneliness of the old, helpless cripple – and it arouses curiosity in the characters that they encounter, Slim included. And indeed, the reader becomes curious as to their friendship as well. And can we call it friendship? Lennie would call George a friend, but George would perhaps be hard-pressed to admit the same of Lennie. As he tells Slim, he has simply become so used to having Lennie around that he, ‘can’t get rid of him’. Despite his annoyance, George also demonstrates protectiveness, patience, and pride when it comes to Lennie. He is perhaps motivated to stay with Lennie by a sense of guilt, or responsibility, or pity, or a desire to not be alone himself. Most likely it is a combination of all these motivations. Yet it seems strange that George would choose to remain with Lennie, given the danger that Lennie poses for the both of them. George is not blind to the fact that life would be easier without Lennie, and he often yearns for independence when Lennie becomes troublesome, creating a major source of tension in the novel. This tension is not resolved until the final gunshot by the riverside, when the strain of Lennie’s company makes it impossible for George to survive with his companion.
By killing Lennie, George eliminates a monumental burden and a threat to his own life (Lennie, of course, never threatened George directly, but his actions endangered the life of George, who took responsibility for him). The tragedy is that George, in effect, is forced to shoot both his companion, who made him different from the other lonely workers, as well as his own dream, and he is forced to admit that it has gone hopelessly awry. His new burden is now hopelessness and loneliness, the life of the homeless ranch worker. Slim’s comfort at the end (‘You hadda George’), indicates the sad truth that one has to surrender one’s dream in order to survive, not the easiest thing to do in America, the Land of Promise, the land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.