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The Scrivener: Lord of the Flies 6

Brian Barratt continues his examination of some of the strands running through William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies’’, a significant and timeless novel.

To read the previous five articles with this series and many more of Brian’s engaging columns please click on http://www.openwriting.com/archives/the_scrivener/

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Freed From What?



Ralph first took his clothes off because he felt hot and encumbered by his traditional English schoolboy clothes, and he wanted to swim. Piggy is more hesitant:

Piggy was looking determined and began to take off his shorts. Presently he was palely and fatly naked. He tiptoed down the sandy side of the pool, and sat there up to his neck in water smiling proudly at Ralph.

The boys' clothes became torn and dirty but they kept them on, most of the time at the start of the story. Some of them felt embarrassment about nudity but there was also a practical issue, namely, the fact that they suffered from sunburn.

William Golding also points out that it was the custom to keep one's clothes on. When Ralph and Piggy strip off for a swim, it is in innocence.

For Jack, nakedness has different implications. In his rapid decline to savagery he smeared himself with red and white clay, with black charcoal and pig's blood. His body paint soon replaces his clothing as a symbol of his self-assumed status.

...[Ralph] saw that the tallest of them, stark naked, except for paint and a belt, was Jack.

...[Jack] paused and looked around. He was safe from shame or self-consciousness behind the mask of his paint...

The nakedness which at first represented innocence is replaced, for most of the boys, by a nakedness which denotes savagery. Once again in this allegory, we have to ask if the transition occurs because of outer influences or if it comes from deep within. The answer we might come up with is far removed from the words of the poet William Wordsworth in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood published in 1807:

...But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy
But He beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature's Priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended.
(Lines 64ff.)

Masks and self-identity

When Jack and his choirboys first appear:

Their bodies, from throat to ankle, were hidden by black cloaks which bore a silver cross on the left breast.

The silver cross, a symbol of religious belief and practice, presented them to the world as Christians. This is the only reference in the novel to the Christian church, and Golding introduces the symbolic garb as "strangely eccentric". It is a mask which will break down, under the influence of their leader, when they become hunters, savages and killers.

They lose the garb and voice of innocent choirboys, but only through events following the permission given by Jack to take off their choir robes. Masks and body-paint become the new garb and their voice becomes one of violence.

Jack reaches a new self-identity through not only his nakedness and also his mask:

...his sinewy body held up a mask that drew their eyes and appalled them. He began to dance and his laughter became a blood-thirsty snarling. He capered towards Bill, and the mask was a thin on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness.

The mask of paint serves to free the boys from whatever had held them back — they are free from convention and rules. "Freed by the paint" is Golding's telling phrase, inviting us to ponder the nature of innocence and the source of violence.

© Copyright Brian Barratt 2009


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