Friday, February 13, 2015

Lord of the Flies - Analysis & the Art of Close Reading

The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down ...

Those seven words, which open William Golding's classic coming-of-age novel Lord of the Flies, would take me roughly thirty minutes to teach when I began the novel each September. And that is my introduction for my freshman on how to study literature at the high school level. After the students have had the book for a couple days, and have been asked to read the first chapter, I open with a discussion of effective reading strategies. This follows an earlier class when I exposed them to the possibility they were fake reading. And, I propose that we revisit the chapter and "read it aloud" employing reading strategies such as "asking questions during reading" and being metacognitive. They seem surprised but intrigued.

So, I begin. I read, "The boy ..." And then, I pause. "So, what do you know?" I ask. They seem confused. "There's a boy," they say. But what does that mean? Why does Golding start with the word "boy"? Why not Ralph, as the boy is identified a couple pages later? The reason, of course, is that we must know him as a boy, not a man. He is a child - one who is still innocent - and he will come of age by losing that innocence when he recognizes and understands the darkness that is in man's heart. Thus, by beginning with boy, and not man or person or Ralph, Golding establishes a potential bildungsroman.

"And why not a girl?" I proceed to ask. Would it be a different novel with a group of girls on the island? Of course it would. We discuss the more physically aggressive, immature, and potentially savage nature of boys versus girls. We ponder the drama that might arise among a group of adolescent girls. We discuss the difference between boys and girls at all ages. I share stories of nieces who, as toddlers, would passively observe the flowers in my parents' garden, whereas as my nephews would walk right in, trample, even pick them. I point out that if there is a group of young children frying ants on the sidewalk in your neighborhood in the summer, it will most definitely be boys, not girls. I point out that girls and women would never have invented skateboard halfpipes or MMA fighting. And, then I share with them Golding's answer when asked why he chose adolescent boys as his characters. "Well," he said in perfect deadpan voice, "when you get right down to it, the fourteen-year-old-boy is the closest manifestation of true evil you will find anywhere in the world." The class erupts. The girls enthusiastically agree, and the boys concede and shrug their shoulders. Golding's diction, "the boy," is absolutely significant in conveying theme.

We proceed. The boy has "fair hair." Is that an important detail? Absolutely. An author of great literature will not bother to mention a character's hair unless that quality is significant. In this case, the boy's fair hair is a reflection of his demeanor and role in the novel. He is the "good guy." Light is a positive motif, and in Western allegory light is symbol of the forces of good in the battle of good and evil. Additionally, Ralph, the boy, attempts to establish a system of order and justice. Thus, he is "fair." And, hair becomes a primary motif throughout the work, as numerous characters are identified by their hair. However, the next point is that the fair-haired boy "lowers himself down." Is that significant? Of course, it is. Just as light and dark are symbolic of good and evil in Western civilization, directions of up and down are, too. Obviously, heaven is up and hell is down, and gods are always considered to be up on the mountain or up in the sky. Thus, the boy - coming from civilization - is going down. This foreshadows and will symbolize man's "fall from grace" as the boys on the island descend into savagery and wickedness. Additionally, the reflexive pronoun is significant as the boy "lowers himself." Our hero plays a role in his fall - just as Adam and Eve or any tragic hero. He is partially responsible.

Following this analysis, the class realizes my expectations for them in terms of close reading and the task of analyzing how the author uses language to achieve his purpose. Certainly, they argue, if they spend that much time on each word, the novel will take years to read and analyze. Alas, I explain that much of this dialogue should be going on inside their heads, subconsciously. And as we continue to study, they will learn to instinctively apply such knowledge and ask such questions. The remaining time in class is spent on the rest of the first paragraph. The boys are in an Edenic-like setting. It has been damaged with a "scar" from the airplane which crashed. We discuss the connotation of "scar" and the idea that man's actions have damaged the innocent natural world. Other details include the boy shedding his clothes, trailing this sign of civilization behind him. The scar is a steamy bath of heat, and a the silence is broken with a "witch-like cry" of a red and yellow bird. These particular words create an ominous tone, foreshadowing the evil to come and the fire that will also become a significant motif. At the end of the class, we realize we'll need another period for the rest of chapter one.

Ultimately, this class is time well spent, as the students are introduced to the ideas of close reading and style analysis. Expectations are set for studying literature beyond the elements of the novel on which they focused in middle school. They will eventually compose a written passage analysis of this first paragraph when they are asked to re-read the passage and analyze the way "the author uses language to convey his theme."

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