I’m reading a bleak book with my grandsons. During this pandemic school year, we’ve been coming together via Zoom from Illinois, Kentucky, and Ohio for literature classes. And right now we’re reading William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
But what should be fun—a bunch of guys set free in the paradise of an uninhabited tropical island in the Pacific—turns tragic.
“What is this beast?” the boys kept asking as they read the early chapters.
I remember asking the same question in junior high when I first read the Lord of the Flies over fifty years ago. And I recall my growing horror as evil unfolded in character after character, chapter after chapter. The beast, I discovered toward the end of the book is about the evil in people.
“This isn’t only about the characters in this book,” my teacher had said all those years ago. “This is about what would happen if this class got stranded on that island.”
I recall looking sideways at my classmates. Who would be the one to throw rocks at the littluns? Who would punch a fist in Piggy’s stomach? Who would chant: Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Bash him in!? And who would push the boulder that killed Piggy?
I had no doubt that I was Piggy—me with my thick glasses, my quickness at books, and my awkwardness at a class party.
When I finished reading Lord of the Flies all those years ago, I felt I had gained a kind of grown-up sadness because I understood, really understood, that there was evil out there.
Golding’s characters have been my companions in the decades since. And they’ve taught me more about myself than I have wanted to know. Now that I’m a greying grandma, I’ve had the time to see over and over that I’m not only Piggy, I’m also Jack, who seizes power when I want things to go my way. And Roger, who enjoys hurting others, especially when they’ve hurt me first.
Too often I’ve found the beast, not by looking sideways, but by looking within.
With typical adolescent self-absorption, I glossed over this lesson in seventh grade. But I’m hoping my grandkids won’t miss it—that they will learn early on to see not only their own injuries but also the pain they inflict on others.
Even though, of course, they are perfect grandchildren!