Finding Character in 'Lord of the Flies'

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My colleagues thought my teaching Lord of the Flies was “perfect.” My seventh-grade class is two-thirds male. The group contains several strong personalities and many “followers,” who often mimic bad behavior. Last year, teachers struggled with this group, several instances of bullying, and a developing culture of negativity. I saw the power struggles on the first day of school and knew I had to address them early.

When reading William Golding’s classic novel with middle-schoolers, it’s easy to focus on Ralph and Jack, the two characters who wrestle for leadership in the novel. Both have qualities that are appealing to 13-year-old boys. Ralph is the strong, silent type who is a natural leader. Jack is a skilled hunter and able to take control of situations, though he becomes more unlikable as the book goes on.

I decided to focus on Piggy, one of the less “popular” characters. Piggy is what my kids call “the classic geek.” He is overweight, wears glasses, has asthma and talks at great lengths about how the stranded boys should act like grownups. My students were instantly annoyed by his whining and laughed along with the fictional pack of boys when they dubbed him “Piggy.” But I kept bringing their attention back to Piggy as we read the novel, asking them to focus on his gifts. What does he have to offer the group? What are his talents? What would have happened had Piggy not been there?

Through deeper examination, we began to appreciate Piggy’s strengths. He is a logical thinker and does not get pulled into fearing an imaginary “beast.” He is a constant companion and advisor to Ralph, making Ralph a better leader. Piggy’s glasses help the boys to make a fire on the island. Without him, they never would have been rescued. As a class, we decided that out of all the boys, Piggy is the “scientist,” the one who is able to see things as they are. These observations helped my students build a deeper respect and more empathy for Piggy, making his demise more difficult to confront, and Golding’s message that much more meaningful.

The longer I teach, the more I believe in the power of story to motivate genuine reflection and change. Not all my boys can make the connection between this wonderful and terrible novel and their own lives, but at the very least, our class discussions have established a common narrative for us to learn from and refer back to in future conversations.

Anderson is a middle school humanities and interdisciplinary studies teacher in Oregon.