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No single piece of literature can be fully appreciated on its own; every written work contains within it all of its predecessors. Themes, symbols, motifs, and allusions are eternal bridges across the ages. Standing alone, without these bridges, literature is “peering over the edge” of a chasm of meaninglessness. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness pose no obstacle to this theory; rather, the juxtaposition of their multiple complex symbols and themes provides a comprehensive and penetrating look at the inner philosophies contained in each classic novel. The uses of flies, darkness, death, and corruption in the two works are well worth such comparative analysis. This foray into the darker reaches of the text brings to light a far more powerful statement than either novel makes individually. The use of flies as symbols of decadence, decay, and corruption in each novel is merely the “tip of the ice-burg” of the wealth of symbolic meaning found in the comparison of the two. The enveloping theme in both works involves the corruption of man’s heart at the most primal level, an instinctive decadence and predilection towards corruption, and subsequently, death.
Much of the literary value these novels carry derives from the ease with which their respective authors address death and decay. The darkness seen in each portrayal of human nature is shocking and disturbing on a level we are unaccustomed to finding in novels (particularly those written more recently, though one can safely assume our times call for such discomfort just as loudly as did those of Golding and Conrad). Golding takes this method to the extreme, primarily when writing about scenes involving Simon. The most violent moments of the book; the slaughter of the sow, the interview with the Lord of the Flies, the discovery of the parachutist, and the brutal murder on the beach are all contrasted by the inclusion of the peaceable and “queer” Simon. He observes, or is a key character in, each of these scenes, and the almost prophetic purity with which he is portrayed makes Golding’s descriptions of the surrounding events all the more gruesome. Also linking these violent cornerstones of the gradual disintegration of morality is the afore-mentioned “fly” symbolism. These four scenes are each depictions of death; of the sow, of innocence, of the parachutist (and of ignorance, in that the true nature of the beast is now revealed), and of Simon, and are connected in the center by vivid images of flies.
When Simon first “meets” the Lord of the Flies, the following description is given:
“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. At last Simon gave up and looked back; saw the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood- and his gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition.”
Here, flies are very blatantly used to indicate desecration and death, the corruption of Jack’s hunters, and the evils of man when reduced to “that ancient” state. We are given the image, not of death as a verb, which is often looked upon in literature as heroic or romantically tragic, but of death as a noun…or rather, death as an afterthought. This is not a portrayal of a peaceful body, but of a pig (interestingly enough, considered both a symbol of filth and of love) left in the heat of a tropical island to rot. (Likewise, in Heart of Darkness, Kurtz hangs the heads of slaughtered “rebels” from sticks outside of his hut, leading a reader to safely infer that all men have the same basic evil, and manifestation of that evil, lurking within them.) The name Simon gives to this figure in his hallucination is “The Lord of the Flies,” from which the novel derives its name, and possibly an allusion to the common translation of ‘Beelzebub’ a name given both to Satan and to a his “right-hand” demon. Jack intended to leave the head as “an offering to the beast”, and unknowingly illuminated the beast within himself. The “beast” is, in fact, the symbolism behind swarm of flies, drawn to death, gorged on blood and the primal nourishment of a hate-filled hunt.
Immediately following this interview with the Lord of the Flies, Simon sets off to find “the beast” and instead comes across the dead parachutist, whose body had earlier been mistaken as a fearsome monster by the other boys. It is interesting to note that this is not the first description Golding gives of the parachutist as such; he is introduced in a prior chapter as a “sign from the adults.” This connection allows the application of the boys’ situation in this microcosm of society to the broader “adult” world, for the “flies” have not only found the carcasses of the hearts of children, but have alighted on the parachutist as a token of the rampant corruption and death taking place during WWII.
“The flies had found the figure too. The life-like movement would scare them off for a moment so that they made a dark cloud round the head. Then as the blue material of the parachute collapsed the corpulent figure would bow forward, sighing, and the flies would settle once more.”
The behavior of the flies in this excerpt is shockingly reminiscent of that of the
boys on their first encounter with the “bowing beast”. They, too, were drawn to the beast by fear, an emotion that, when fostered in the heart of man, becomes more a hunger than an aversion. They fled at its first sign of life, but, like the flies, would likely have been unperturbed by a simple scene of death, if their actions with the sow, Simon, and Piggy are any indicators of what has happened to their morality. This direct connection of boys to flies lends credibility to the theory that the novel’s title is based on a quote from King Lear: "As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — they kill us for their sport".
The numbness with which the boys could look upon death, and even cause it, is strangely echoed in the last a poem by Dylan Thomas, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London”, a title which rapidly becomes ironic when considered in the context of this novel. The closing line is simple, though ambiguous: “After the first death, there is no other.” Rather than here interpreting this line to imply, as many have, the impact death can have on the soul, we can consider it a fine summation of Golding’s negative philosophy on mankind. After that initial death of the soul of man, of human morality, all other death becomes as irrelevant and necessary as it is to beasts.
Though Conrad uses flies to depict less gruesome scenes, the sarcasm with which he delivers one line about the insects leads the reader to investigate a deeper meaning implied by his repetition (however minor) of this symbol.
“The sick man was too ill to groan. The flies buzzed in a great peace.”
The startling diction of the final sentence calls to mind the same numbness in the face of death, an apathy constantly manifest in the actions of the agents of the Company, to whom men are no more than beasts. It is this mindset, Marlowe’s stream-of-consciousness narration (permitted by the framed-narrative structure of the novel) would imply, that in turn renders them no better than beasts.
The use of “peace” is very much unlike the descriptions involved in Golding’s portrayal of death and decay, but achieves the same effect. Emily Dickenson, popularly looked upon as one of the most notable tragic poets, describes flies in a similar light:
I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.
The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.
I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,
With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.
The stillness in the first stanza is unexpectedly similar to that so often referred to by Marlowe when speaking of the jungle, a lazy and surreal decay of the heart of man, in the silence of those who would do nothing about it. It is, again, interesting to note the continuation of Conrad’s themes in Dickenson’s poem. The mention of the “king” brings to mind Marlowe’s interpretation of Kurtz’s thoughts on his deathbed, while the entire third stanza perpetuates the imperialistic and materialistic world which, in the end, drove Kurtz to withdraw into primal madness.
The use of light and dark is one of the most dominant themes in Conrad’s work, as well; from the very beginning every word has a tie to a visual connotation of light or darkness. In fact, the only other direct mention of flies in Heart of Darkness (in a non-idiomatic manner) is prefaced by a description of the lighting of the manager’s decrepit shack. Here, the flies take on the antagonistic person we have observed earlier in Golding’s work:
“It was hot there, too; big flies buzzed fiendishly, and did not sting, but stabbed.”
The infinite symbolic ties between the two novels serve only to enforce the beliefs of their authors about the decay of man, and the darkness of the deepest reaches of every soul. They both go beyond the typical concept of “original sin” to display corruption in a shocking and gruesome manner, both literally and metaphorically.