LORD OF THE FLIES, WITH GIRLS: OF COURSE

After re-reading last week William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies (1954), simply because some classics need to be revisited now and then, I got curious about whether there was a re-telling of the story with girls, rather than the all-boy cast of characters. What I found out is that there have been two recent projects, with very different outcomes, which are very useful to comment on patriarchy.

On the one hand, American film-makers Scott McGehee and David Seigel seem to have abandoned their project, presented in August 2017, to make a new film adaptation only with girls, following a deal signed with Warner Brothers. There are, by the way, two film versions of Golding’s novel, one directed in 1963 by Peter Brook, the other in 1990 by Harry Hook. A Twitter storm-in-a-teacup made it clear to McGehee and Seigel that this was a bad, unwelcome idea. A typical tweet (by @froynextdoor) read ‘uhm lord of the flies is about the replication of systemic masculine toxicity, every 9th grader knows this, u can read about it on sparknotes’. Front-line feminist Roxane Gay tweeted ‘An all women remake of Lord of the Flies makes no sense because… the plot of that book wouldn’t happen with all women’. The comments by readers following The Guardian article (https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/aug/31/lord-of-the-flies-remake-to-star-all-girl-cast) make for very interesting reading. The discussion, as it may be expected, focuses on whether Golding depicts specifically masculinity or generally humanity, and on whether girls would behave exactly like boys. Opinions lean towards the conclusion that the novel is indeed about masculinity but girls are also capable of the same cruel behaviour. A crucial, bewildering paradox to which I’ll return in a couple of paragraphs.

The other project is a stage adaptation of Golding’s novel, presented last October by director Emma Jordan at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, later transferred to Sherman Theatre, Cardiff. A small affair (with apologies to Jordan), then, in comparison to a Hollywood production. The Guardian reviewer, Mark Fisher, generally praises Jordan’s ‘muscular and brutal production’ of Nigel Williams’ 1996 adaptation of Golding’s novel (https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2018/oct/01/lord-of-the-flies-review-theatr-clwyd). Jordan presents two novelties: the play is set in the present, not the 1950s and the cast is all-female… but the names of the boys in the novel are kept–which is confusing. This production appears to be similar to recent Shakespearean productions with all-women casts rather than a retelling with girl characters. Another reviewer, Natasha Tripney reads, nonetheless, the characters as girls: this version ‘makes sense–there are few things crueller than a schoolgirl–but the production doesn’t capitalise on this premise’ (https://www.thestage.co.uk/reviews/2018/lord-flies-review-theatr-clwyd/). She complains that the production ‘lacks tension’ but welcomes it anyway, for ‘Jordan’s female-led production makes it clear that violence, tribalism and a hunger for power are not–and have never been–the sole preserve of men’ (my italics).

First lesson: it is fine for women to experiment with texts written by men by altering the gender of the original characters BUT it is not acceptable for men to do the same, as, regardless of their intentions, it is automatically assumed that the result will be sexist. If I were McGehee, I would hire Jordan as script writer and in this way the problem of who has the right to retell Golding’s story would be solved. Now, let’s address the problem of whether the plot of Golding’s novel would or wouldn’t work with girls.

I haven’t read Golding’s most immediate referent, The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858) by Scottish author R. M. Ballantyne. This is a Robinsonade (as the stories inspired by Defoe’s classic are called) about three stranded English boys who cope very well with the tasks of survival and in several encounters with evil Polynesian tribesmen and British pirates. Golding, it appears, decided that in his own tale, his English boys would carry evil inside and this would emerge as they gradually detach themselves from civilization and from the hope of rescue. A sort of Heart of Darkness for boys, then, but without Kurtz’ excuse of having fallen under the allure of tribal adoration and of the dreamy jungle.

Is Golding’s novel a story about masculinity? Yes and no: it is a story about how patriarchal masculinity overwhelms the positive influence, or rather lead, of non-patriarchal masculinity over the community. This is NOT a story about how all men react, but a story about how some men (Jack and his hunters), who are already patriarchal, make the most of the circumstances to impose their rule over other men with a far more rational worldview (Ralph and Piggy).

I agree with reviewers who downplay the public school background of Golding’s tale but, since this will help, let me rephrase his plot with other well-known names. Suppose that only the boy students of Rowling’s Hogwarts got stranded on a desert island (where magic does not work…). Initially, all would follow Harry Potter’s Gryffindor-inspired, sensible leadership but the moment Draco Malfoy declared that Slytherin should rule, the same split that takes place in The Lord of the Flies would follow. Both Harry and Draco are men (well, boys) but this does not mean that they have a common understanding of what masculinity is, and this is what happens with Ralph and Jack in Golding’s novel. What the author is criticizing has been usually called evil but it is actually patriarchy, even though people are now stubbornly calling it ‘toxic masculinity’, a label which is confusing, distracts attention from patriarchy and is useless to discuss women’s own hunger for power.

As soon as cocky Jack appears leading his submissive choirboys we can already see that he is trouble. When, two thirds into the novel, most of the boys have joined Jack’s tribe of hunters, Ralph asks Piggy–whose real name Golding, very cruelly, does not reveal– ‘what makes things break up like they do?’. They do not have a clear answer but I do: it’s the sense of entitlement that patriarchal men act by. This is the key to everything we call evil, a befuddling pseudo-mystical concept I totally reject. The non-patriarchal, non-toxic men like Harry Potter or Ralph are not interested in power and lack that sense of entitlement but, since they are not as violent, they tend to fight a losing battle. If the providential officers had not appeared in the nick of time to rescue the boys, Ralph would have been hunted down and impaled, as Jack intends (remember the stick with two points that his lieutenant Roger makes?). Harry is almost destroyed by the mission Dumbledore gives him to cancel out Voldemort’s genocidal sense of patriarchal entitlement, but–and we must admire Rowling for that–he does so on his own terms, using intelligence rather than murderous violence.

So, can we have The Lord of the Flies with an all-female cast? Of course we can! Girls would be split in exactly the same way as the boys in the novel, BUT not because girls are essentially cruel or because they behave like boys. It’s because everyone, of any gender or genderless description, feels the pull of patriarchy and its promise to reward a personal sense of entitlement to power. So far, patriarchy has pushed women out of the rat race to accrue power, but the more conquests feminism makes, the more women we see acting out their own lust for power, and not at all to help other women.

I have recently heard Michael Dobbs, the author of the original House of Cards novels and Margaret Thatcher’s Chief of Staff (1975-1987) praise her thus: ‘But it was that drive and that anger, that determination, that obsessiveness that drove her on to achieve things which most of her people could not’. She stood out among other women and among other individuals of her low middle-class background but only to claim power for herself, not to do any good to others like her. I can easily see a girl named Maggie play the part of Jack in a female retelling of Lord of the Flies, and a girl called Katniss resisting her.

The confusion springs, then, from this idiotic, harmful, essentialist supposition that all men behave in one way and all women in another, which does not take into account the OBVIOUS intra-gender divisions. If anti-patriarchal men like Ralph were not constantly opposing patriarchal men like Jack, we would still be living in prehistoric times and women would be much, much, much worse off than they are now. It is, then, both silly and extremely dangerous to go on speaking in essentialist terms of men and women when, actually, human beings are divided along power lines.

Patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid), endorse the idea that society is a hierarchy determined by the degree of power each person enjoys (or lacks). Non-patriarchal individuals, whether men or women (or genderfluid) are not being motivated by a hunger for power, and so they (we!) prefer communal circles to hierarchical pyramids. This looks very much like the political division between right and left, but let’s not be naïve: many individuals in the left also seek power (remember Stalin?). I’m talking about something that transcends political divisions even though politics depends very much on it: the allure of power (for domination).

Golding published Lord of the Flies in 1954, at the end of the first decade in the Cold War. His boys are evacuees from some unnamed British colonial outpost, which they must leave following the explosion of a nuclear bomb in a war never mentioned, nor explained. The author had then a very good reason to abandon the optimistic Victorian view of Christian gentlemanliness in Coral Island and replace it with a Conradian pessimism. His novel is supposed to link tribal primitivism with modern barbarian so-called civilization and it is clear to me that the target of his attack were the patriarchal men like Jack or like the makers of the bomb, not the good guys like Ralph. What is very, very sad in Golding’s work is that it came out the same year as Tolkien’s final instalment in The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King. Why is it sad? Because, though profoundly damaged, Frodo manages to defeat Sauron with the help of his loyal Samwise and other friends in the Fellowship of the Ring. Instead, Ralph loses Piggy and has no chance at all of becoming the hero that will stop the villain Jack. He is radically alone, as Frodo never is–this is what is sad.

The lesson to learn, then, from Golding’s Lord of the Flies is how to protect ourselves from patriarchal fascists like Jack (or his imaginary female counterpart Maggie) by listening to the voice of reason. Like Piggy, who embodies it in the novel, this is a voice constantly bullied and denied–even by the supposedly sensible persons. Piggy begs Ralph not to tell the others that he is known by that body-shaming, awful nickname but he non-chalantly lets it be known, thus paving with this act the way for Piggy’s final murder. I do not mean that Ralph wants Piggy dead but that failing to protect reason leads to appalling consequences for all.

A last word: dystopias like Lord of the Flies are born of despair but make us cynical, which is why their current proliferation is so dangerous. If you want to redraw Golding’s tale changing gender lines, make the community of children varied (including boys and girls, hetero and LGTBI+). Tell how Jack and Maggie try but fail to establish heteronormative racist tribal patriarchy, and then have Ralph and Katniss and Hermione (in Piggy’s role), choose their colour, organize the whole community to resist their rule. If this works, Jack and Maggie end up isolated in a corner of the island, where, with some luck, they kill each other in a fight to determine who is more powerful; the rest build a democratic community based on mutual respect and tolerance. This works so well that when their adult rescuers appear it, they join it.

See how easy it is to think of a utopia that works? What, you find it sentimental? Well, some feeling would be welcome in our age of narcissistic unfeeling and hypocritical dystopian pessimism. And fight patriarchy not masculinity!

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

UNLEARNING ROMANTICISM, LEARNING REGENCY LITERATURE

As part of preparing for my Winter-Spring course on Romanticism, I have been reading Duncan Wu’s incisive 30 Great Myths about the Romantics (Wiley Blackwell, 2015). I’m inwardly smiling at how little the world may care for a crisis involving a middle-aged woman teacher suddenly discovering that she has to unlearn everything she thought she knew about Romanticism. But, well, this is the crisis I’m going through. I feel blessed and fortunate to be sharing it with my co-teachers, David Owen and Carme Font, who have been in charge of the course for several years. This crisis is already resulting in very fruitful discussion with them, and I am certainly benefitting from their experience and insights: David specializes in Austen, Carme is an expert on women writers of the 18th century, so you see what great company I keep!

I do not intend to comment here on all the thirty myths–a kind word for lies–that Wu destroys with his razor-sharp scholarship. Some are ideas which every self-respecting feminist has been battling for years (myth 25: ‘Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote Frankenstein’); others are a matter of common sense, for it is obvious that myth 5, ‘the Romantic poets were misunderstood, solitary geniuses’, is nonsense. Almost as barefaced as myth 6, ‘Romantic poems were produced by spontaneous inspiration’. Funnily, the myths about Byron are the ones I cannot stop thinking of, mostly because Wu is quite brutal with poor George Gordon. I accept with no problem, except Wu’s barely concealed homophobia, that Byron was a fat queen who preferred 15-year-old boys to women. Yet the demolition job applied to myth 19, ‘Byron was a “noble warrior” who died fighting for Greek freedom’, ends with a truly pathetic image: that of the poet dying in Greece not in the battlefield but at home, bled to death by incompetent physicians treating him for a fever caught from a tic in his dirty pet Newfoundland, Lyon. This is indeed the complete antithesis of Romanticism!

I must say that myth 14, ‘Jane Austen had an incestuous relationship with her sister’–Cassandra and the author shared a bed for 25 years, it seems–though improbably lurid made me reconsider again a nagging suspicion: Austen may have been a lesbian mocking the heterosexual women of her class, desperately seeking enslavement by the gentlemen of 1810s. An idea to consider when I teach Pride and Prejudice… with much care, for this is what Wu is attacking: using speculation and misinformation as the basis of scholarship. One thing is inviting students to consider ‘what if…?’ Jane Austen had been a lesbian, and quite a different matter is accepting with no proof that this was her sexual identity and, hence, this is how we should read her books. If you find this second option preposterous (which it is!) then you’ll be as surprised as I have been to discover that most assumptions about Romanticism are of that kind: empty bubbles very easy to puncture if only the right bibliography is read. For that is Wu’s main message–if scholars worried to check their sources, the myths would not be perpetuated. An extremely important point to make in the age of fake news.

I’ll quote two passages from Wu’s ‘Introduction’ that call for a profound reflection. ‘What we call Romantic’, Wu observes, ‘might more accurately be called Regency Wartime Literature were we to backdate the Regency, as some historians do, to 1788’ (xiv). Anyone who has studied the early 19th century knows that, properly speaking, it begins in 1789 with the French Revolution and includes the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). I read a while back the twenty-two volumes by Patrick O’Brien narrating the adventures of Captain Aubrey and Doctor Maturin at sea during those wars, but even so I still find it problematic to connect Romanticism with war.

The problem also affects our understanding of Modernism (roughly 1910-1939) for similar reasons: the name attached to a particular movement is used for a historical period, thus breaking the neat monarch-based chronology of English Literature. ‘Victorian Literature’ (1837-1901) should be preceded indeed by ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’ but, then, it is also followed by a mess of labels in the early 20th century which contemplate Edwardian and Georgian as periods but then get lost into Modernism and Post-Modernism (rather than the Second Elizabethan Age!). The point not to forget, however, is that Romanticism belongs in the Regency Period and that this was beset by revolution and war, as was Modernism (WWI, 1914-18; Irish uprising, 1916; Russian Revolution, 1917).

The second passage: ‘The point is that the contemporary perspective was different from our own. Today Jane Austen is one of the most popular novelists of all time but in 1814 no one thought she would occupy that status, nor did they suspect an obscure engraver named Blake would 150 years later be hailed as a literary and artistic genius’ (xv-xvi). The writers that Wu names as popular, best-selling names in Regency Wartime Literature (let’s start using the label) are not at all part of the canon that has survived, in which mostly unknown names with some exceptions (Byron, Scott) shine. I suspect that Wu cheats a little when he claims that ‘The current popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner would have been unimaginable to the scattered few who heard of them when they first appeared’ (xvi, my italics), for I believe that their fame soon grew (or am I perpetuating a myth?). Yet the point he makes is equally relevant. What survives from the past is a haphazard selection no person then living could foresee. If we could bring back a handful of common readers from the early 19th century they would be as amused (or dismayed) by our preferences as we’re certain to be should we return from death in the 23rd century. What great fun it is to guess who will survive!! I wonder that gambling houses are not already offering the chance to bet, for the benefit of our descendants…

Why do the myths persist? Wu replies that ‘The limpet-like persistence of some myths may be related to the illusion they draw the Romantics closer to us’ (xviii) but I’m not quite convinced. It might even be the other way round: Wu’s presentation of Byron as a flamboyant homosexual feels somehow more relatable than his reputation as a heterosexual Don Juan; likewise, his middle-class Keats, the well-educated Medicine student, makes more sense than the working-class apprentice apothecary killed off by a review. Wu, then, is the one approaching the Romantics to our time while debunking old and new myths (lesbian Austen!). Rather, what seems to be happening is that since the instability of the label ‘Romantic’ makes it impossible to understand what Romanticism truly was, we clutch at the myths, even knowing they’re lies. At least they form a coherent body of knowledge, fossilized into respectability first by the Victorian critics and scholars, and later by all the rest until our days. The myths, in short, are convenient and, as we know both as students and teachers, they’re also a convenient way to keep undergrads interested as they swallow with immense difficulties the poetry and the novels (we don’t even touch the Romantic plays).

Wu is at his most sarcastic when he highlights the ‘nuttiness of the thesis’ defended among others by John Lauritsen, according to which Percy Shelley wrote Frankenstein. Why? Because any scholar who bothered to check the two volumes of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, The Frankenstein Notebooks: A Facsimile Edition of Mary Shelley’s Manuscript Novel, 1816–17, edited by Charles E. Robinson (1996) could see that a) Percy contributed little and b) of no interest. Wu is specially annoyed because most of the textual evidence required not to blunder and perpetuate myths is easily accessible online. The point that he is making is transparent: all our knowledge of English Literature, beyond Romanticism, relies on bad scholarship; even worse, despite the efforts made in recent decades to correct the most glaring mistakes/lies/myths, they are still being perpetuated because nobody really cares about the truth. You may be thinking, ‘well, I prefer my Byron thin, handsome, and a woman-eater’ but apply lazy scholarship to other fields and we might get ‘Stalin was never as big a genocidal tyrant as Hitler’, a myth we should question. For, you see?, if the History of Literature is based on almost indestructible myths, surely this also applies to History, only too easy to sum up as a pack of lies. Not what you want to do in Trump’s era.

How should we, then, teach Romanticism? There is no introduction yet that follows faithfully Wu’s volume, which means that we’re bound to teach still a myth-based version of Romanticism (a mythical version?!). I see little sense in teaching the myth and the truth together to students who know nothing about Romanticism, yet I don’t feel ready to incorporate fat queen Byron into my teaching–I might be starting another myth, for all I know. Then, as Google tells me, with two exceptions in minor colleges, everyone still uses the label ‘Romantic Literature’ rather than ‘Regency (Wartime) Literature’, though I’d be happy to re-name our course at UAB. What Wu has produced, then, is a sort of intaglio effect in cameo carving, by which you see the figure as concave or convex, depending on the light. I have reached the point when the effect is visible but, to be honest, I don’t know how to proceed.

Well, I do know: hard study. I doubt, however, that I have before February the time it will take to undo 30 years of knowing the Romantic in the standard, clichéd way. And this is how myths survive: by acquiring partial, biased knowledge we are later too pressed for time–or too plain lazy!–to undo.

(PS: Now go and check myth 26, ‘Women writers were an exploited underclass–unknown, unloved, and unpaid’)

I publish a new post every Tuesday (for updates follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: http://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: http://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/