1954 did not produce a bumper crop of bestselling novels. Even Taylor Caldwell, Frances Parkinson Keyes, and Daphne du Maurier — authors whom I usually count on to provide entertainment and a bit more besides — disappointed me.
John Steinbeck’s Sweet Thursday and Hamilton Basso’s The View from Pompey’s Head are the best of the lot and neither of them is a novel I want to have close at hand for convenient rereading. Sweet Thursday is a bit too light, Pompey’s Head a bit too studied.
The best of the novels of 1954 is the one that didn’t make the bestseller list that year: Lord of the Flies by William Golding. It’s a keeper.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is such a familiar novel that many readers would be surprised to learn it was not a bestseller when it was published in 1954. College students discovered the novel, and gave it the popularity that turned it into a classic.
The novel is about preteen English school boys who crash onto an uninhabited island while being airlifted out of a war zone. Without adult supervision, the boys form their own social groups for companionship. The group magnifies the power of the individual and lets individuals rationalize their behavior as they’re doing what everyone is doing.
Before long, the boys fall into into the worst kind of adult behavior. Fighting. Torture. Murder.
Golding is a superb storyteller. Every detail has a purpose. The boys are vividly drawn, a realistic mix of memorable personalities — Ralph, Piggy, Jack — and walk-ons.
Golding makes clear that human nature, even that of innocent children, is sinful. Roger, initially just a face in the crowd, finds he has a talent for torture. And Ralph, the best of the boys, paves the way to murder by ignoring the request that he not reveal his new acquaintance’s nickname: Piggy.
Lest you think Golding was just an old crank with a sour view of the world, the same week I reread Lord of the Flies, newlyweds in Pennsylvania allegedly murdered a man because they wanted to do something together.
Golding would not have been surprised.
Lord of the Flies
By William Golding
Originally published in 1954 in Great Britian by Farber and Farber, Ltd.
50th anniversary ed. Perigee book published 2003 by Penguin Group
with introduction by E. M. Forster, biographical and critical note by E.K. Epstein,
illustrations by Ben Gibson
[broken link removed 2016-03-09]
© 2014 Linda Gorton Aragoni