08 September 2017

Golding and the Girls

Recently news broke that a Hollywood studio optioning a remake of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies with marooned schoolgirls instead schoolboys. I saw some people suggesting that adaptation missed how the novel is a critique of male behavior; others said that wasn’t what Golding had in mind at all. So I decided to look into the question.

As the book was being published, Golding told his publisher:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island.
It seems clear not only that Golding hadn’t set out to discuss male behavior. Indeed, his use of the generic word “children” for the all-boy cast of characters hints that he believed boys were representative of all children.

And that’s confirmed by Golding’s later comments. Peter Brook, who eventually directed the best movie adaptation of the novel, recalled hearing Golding respond to Hollywood producer Sam Spiegel’s suggestion to add girls to the cast:
Mr. Spiegel, I wanted the film to be an allegory on the human race. “Man” suggests all, “boy” equally—if you bring in boys and girls you’re forced to bring in secondary side issues, sexual attractions, conflicts, problems of puberty…
Indeed, a teacher casting the play in a co-ed school found something similar: “while having the female actors read lines with the male actors during auditions, Williams noticed that the teasing dialogue had turned into flirting.” Surely Golding, a schoolteacher, understood those issues arose in an all-male group as well, but they weren’t as open, especially with such young boys.

However, that quotation also shows that Golding was considering male as the default gender, especially when discussing “the human race.” In the introduction for a reissue of the novel, Golding expressed that idea at even more length:
When girls say to me, and very reasonably, “Why isn’t it a bunch of girls? Why did you write this about a bunch of boys?” my reply is I was once a little boy. I have been a brother, I have been a father, I’m going to be a grandfather, I have never been a sister or a mother or a grandmother, so this is why I wrote it really about little boys. That’s one answer. Another answer is of course to say if you, as it were, scaled down human beings, scaled down society, if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be.

Don’t ask me why, and this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from Hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality. This has nothing at all to do with equality at all. Women are foolish to pretend they’re equal to men. They are far superior and always have been. But one thing you cannot do with them is take a bunch of them and boil them down so to speak into a set of little girls who would then become a kind of image of civilization, of society. That’s another reason why they were little boys.

The other thing is, why weren’t they little boys and little girls? We being who we are, sex would have raised its lovely head, and I didn’t want this book to be about sex. I mean, sex is too trivial a thing to get into with a story like this, which is about the problem of evil and the problem of how people would work together in society.
After considering these quotations, I concluded that it was clear Golding didn’t intend to write about masculinity, but also couldn’t conceive of masculinity as an issue in the problems he set out to explore. Which looks like an aspect of the male behavior up for critique. Unknowingly, or in defiant denial, Golding portrayed the worst of male behavior while insisting he’d done no such thing.


Glenn Ingersoll said...

Since the current hegemonic form of society that Golding was critiquing is a patriarchy it would follow that "a group of little boys, [is] more like scaled-down society than a group of little girls would be. "

A society run by women in any way analogous to our current men-led society would be a different society than the one we've got. How different is a question difficult to answer.

J. L. Bell said...

When Golding was writing in the 1950s, looking back on the world wars, international relations were clearly dominated by men. What’s striking about his comments over the decades is how little interest he showed in other possibilities, even as he acknowledged women were becoming more vocal about equality. While elevating women to a superior status in some moral sense, Golding still insisted they weren’t representative humans.