Recently, my students finished reading Lord of the Flies, and I had them perform this thought experiment: What would happen in an all-female retelling of the novel? My students hadn’t heard of the proposed movie remake, so thankfully their thoughts were all their own.
It’s strangely interesting to watch students stare at their peers and wonder, “Who would cut and tear my flesh, affix my head to a spike?” Their responses ranged from the silly to the macabre, the sexist to the mundane. Some argued that the girls would have lacked the survival skills necessary to survive, while others contended that the girls would have collaborated with ease, finding a more truly democratic means of maintaining order. Some painted a picture of kumbaya-singing solidarity—a complete reversal of what transpired with the boys. A few conceded that the girls would have splintered into factions and suffered from bitter infighting like the boys, but most maintained that the girls wouldn’t ultimately stray into violence. In the words of one, the “white savagery” that steered the brutal path of western history was only the curse brought by men.
We all laughed at the shared responses, the thought experiment easy to brush off. In the end, my students did not, as Capote put it, regard each other strangely, and as strangers. As we read this novel, we grappled with the essential question of who we are. We read of Jack leading his tribe in the brutal pageantry of violence, sharpening their sticks into spears as they chant, “Kill the pig! Split its throat! Spill its blood!” We discussed the horror of when this “demented but partly secure society” finds a safety valve for its fear in a communal act of violence.
But this violence felt remotely distant from our white-tiled classroom in cozy Northwest Arkansas. After all, the novel is itself a mere thought experiment, based on data from a world war far removed from our own time. At least, we hope it’s distant.
Still, in many responses students hinted at real twinges of pain suffered in these early years of their life, mostly from the young women. In their descriptions of the splintered factions and betrayals, I saw the broken friendships of their junior high days. In their descriptions of violence, I saw the imprint of a cruel and often violent world on their impressions of human nature. These responses reminded me of all the pressures these students have to bear, unspoken and often unnoticed. That in their eyes life can feel as savage as life on Golding’s island.