It's been thirty years since I first read this book. I realize now this was the second Golding novel I first fell into at too young an age to fully understand all its implications, but intelligent enough (and "old enough," in terms of a bright child's sense of adults' hypocrisy, and experiences of the inevitable cruelty of this world -- peers, bullies, parents, teachers) to grasp the horror.
At age 9, my father gave me Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451" and Golding's "Lord of the Flies" to read. I had been reading since age 4 by that time, and was proud to accept the gifts of my terribly educated and terrifyingly unpredictable father. In retrospect, I realize how inappropriate these gifts were for my age, but as I was already reading several grades above my chronological grade level in school, I suppose he thought I could "handle it" and that, moreoever, I would "get it." Well, it wouldn't be much of an exaggeration to say that these books either cemented in me a sense that already existed, or sparked in me a sporadically hopeful but mostly pessimistic outlook on what is now probably considered the cliche of "man's inhumanity to man."
Being too young to grasp the larger issues, though, meant that in my wise-beyond-my-years-but-still-a-child way, I was drawn in by the prose and by the absolutely note-perfect -- in many chilling ways -- details of the points of view of the school boy characters in "Lord of the Flies" (and Bradbury's Montag's struggle against the horrible conformity and desire for ignorant bliss of all his fellow men, including his wife). I read "Lord of the Flies" over and over because I *was* all those boys; longing for the freedom of their adult-free island world, wanting to be a hunter, knowing I would think what Ralph thought, fearing I would act as Jack did, realizing that the ones I was really closest to being and understanding were Piggy and Simon -- doomed. I didn't know anything of the author, and I didn't care anything about him, at the time; he had written a novel that was both my dream -- to be free of the painful, punishing authority of adults -- and my nightmare: that freedom would also mean that there would be no protection from injustices and cruelties by others my age, there'd be little or no comfort, and my survival would depend wholly on my being as brutal about surviving as the hunters were about hunting.
The great horror of reading "Lord of the Flies" at the age of 9 was realizing that while I would have *liked* to be like Ralph, and while I had the sensitivities and proclivities of Ralph (but more Piggy and Simon), I would most likely -- faced with the same situation -- have allied with Jack and his hunters, or at least have stood by impassively as they killed off Piggy and Simon, just to save my own neck, perhaps lamely trying to help Ralph at the end in a doomed attempt to redeem myself. I might have been too young to understand the larger philosophical issues, but I certainly understood the baseness of man (in myself) and the depths to which one might sink morally in an effort to survive physically, emotionally, *socially* (because, in such a situation, your social death means... your actual death). Who, as a geeky, too-bright young child, hasn't seen and sensed the cruelty of other children (and adults), and yet also participated in it when the opportunity arose to smugly make known one's superior social rank?
I wasn't proud of recognizing these things in myself, and so starkly, with the aid of "Lord of the Flies"; I was ashamed. There are a couple people, to this day, I regret not having apologized to in grammar school for the banal cruelties I extended their way, which they probably haven't forgotten to this day (and us in our 40s now), and which I certainly haven't forgotten, because they make me cringe with self-loathing to think of them, and they were done for the weakest of reasons: peer pressure (I hate that term, but it is an accurate one). Little did I know how much worse adolescence would be in terms of testing one's true beliefs; little did I know -- although "Lord of the Flies" certainly gave me a terrible glimpse -- how I weak I would prove to be, only proving Golding right, so right.
I re-read "Lord of the Flies" in high school (I thought, oh, this'll be great: I've already read it a couple times, so it'll be easy to write a paper about... not realizing how wrapped back up into it I would become again, understanding so much more with just a few years' wisdom gained -- and so little wisdom, at that; who knows *anything* when just an adolescent?). It hit me with perhaps less visceral force at age 16 than at age 9, but with so much greater moral force, that I shortly gave up participating in anything based on peer pressure so that I could live with myself and not cringe inside at who I'd become. But that began my social suicide, a sinking to the bottom of the social ranks, and made me a target in the rather vicious teen world of kill or be killed. So I could live *with* myself, internally, but in the "real world" -- the external -- I became more painfully isolated, and found this other way to live was just as difficult as the previous; I could more or less sleep with a fairly clear conscience, except that my nightly pre-sleep minutes (sometimes hours) would often be spent re-living my humiliations of that particular day, and the days preceding.
In 1982 I was in a book store (I spent a lot of time in book stores as a high schooler), and chanced across a paperback copy of "Darkness Visible." Having already read "Lord of the Flies" and experienced its ability to shake one's faith not only in mankind, but in oneself, I didn't even think; I just grabbed it off the shelf and bought it. I was 15 years old, even more finely tuned to the hypocrisy and lies of adults, and expected I would be able to "handle" "Darkness Visible." The Milton reference was completely lost on me, of course.
But "Darkness Visible" pulled me into the utterly convincing and intricately detailed inner worlds of its monstrous main characters. I was powerless to resist; the prose practically reached out of the book and dragged me in to live with these characters. I had a younger sister, only 2 years younger, so I could relate to the way Sophy and Toni are "everything to each other" and how wonderful and terrible that is, how such sibling relations test both the boundaries of love and intense hate. Golding's rendering of the characters' internal worlds and the twins' childhood world with each other (and Matty's childhood world in school) is so intimate and so accurately evokes a child perspective; his portrayal of Matty's inner world, and his experiences in the outer world, is crushingly detailed and full up with the literal misunderstandings that children and innocent minds make of what others, especially adults, say.
But I think what perhaps spoke to me most was the "weirdness" of Toni, as well as Matty's bizarre experiences with the figures who "don't appear to him, but bring him before them" (I'm paraphrasing an actual quote). I didn't know it at the time, in the way that one doesn't see the forest for the trees, and in the especially adolescent way one can not step really outside oneself and see the dysfunction, but merely accepts it as part of one's landscape, internal and external... but I was spiraling down into a major depression which, within less than 10 years, would leave me requiring medication for basically the rest of my life. In this way, I entirely related to Toni's "weirdness" and how it felt to be "weird" inside, and Matty's monstrous-ness. Indeed, it becomes obvious after Sophy has left that Toni is herself spiraling down into depression, a nihilism born of the emptiness inside and outside her.
Another reviewer here has mentioned the fact that these characters are traumatized, and I agree. There is much said these days about abuse and trauma, and of course Matty's having been rescued from a post-bombing inferno, but left permanently physically damaged and disfigured, qualifies as "Trauma". But there is only just now beginning to be understood the "traumas" of living life, of growing up... which is how Tony and Sophy are traumatized: the loss of their mother, the revolving succession of "aunties," the distance and fearfulness of their father, essentially a rejection. In my childhood days, no one really recognized the abuse or beating of children as abuse or "Trauma" (or even "trauma") but I can tell you, it is trauma (choose big T or little t as you please; they're equally damaging). The rejection of parents whose love is conditional on their children not being who they actually *are*, but who they *want* their children to be, is also traumatic; it's a negation of the self, a deeply felt rejection that leaves one with self-doubt that, when combined with physical trauma, can quite twist a person internally. I have spent much of my life trying to "fix" myself of dysfunction and damage that was taken out on me in childhood, and while a good portion of the "acting out" is gone, the internal thoughts haven't substantially changed so much as had the volume turned down a bit.
While that's great, and much farther than I ever thought I would come, it's also left me wondering why I didn't turn out to be a sociopath. I don't think it's because of gender (as far as I'm concerned, women can as easily become sociopaths as men; they're just more likely to enact their sociopathy in passive-aggressive ways as "befits" a "lady" where men would just be aggressive-aggressive). I think the only thing that really saved me -- and what does NOT save Sophy and Toni -- was adequate (and, a day late and a dollar short, more than adequate; but that's another story) mothering.
It's that moderating influence of mothering that none of these characters are allowed in the world of "Darkness Visible" -- Matty has no parents, and he gets no mothering, except an exquisitely brief experience of hugs and comfort from one of his nurses, whom he loses when he is transferred to another hospital. Sophy and Toni have only their cold, distant father and a succession of "aunties" and each other. But their competitiveness -- perhaps an inescapable fact of sibling-hood? -- negates what comfort they might take in each other; their closeness is broken up by their resistance to being subsumed by the other when in their "everything to each other" love/hate world of being too often and too long left to their own devices (by a father with too many of his own problems to pay much attention to them, and too incapable of understanding needs they are too young to articulate). And so the world is, for all of them, emotionally cold and uncaring, leaving a not consciously known or acknowledged hollowness or void in each, which is yet sensed helplessly, sometimes angrily and with the rage of abandonment, and mostly hopelessly, by each individual.
The void in each of them has to be filled with *something* -- and it is... in ways it shouldn't be, in the way that nature abhors a vacuum and will fill it with whatever is at hand, natural or unnatural, dear or depraved, soothing or sick, and all points in between. There is a deep kind of grief in this novel, a haunting sense not of loss, but of *never* *having* *had*. Yet the prose is so beautiful, so stunningly clear at times, that it grips you and pulls you along, even when you can't tell what is going on, even when you realize what is going on and want to look away (for isn't that what made the three of them the way they are? all that looking away by those who should have been looking *at* each of them) because it's so disturbing.
This deep grief, the angry void that subsides into apathy and hopelessness (for Toni), each tries to fill with some kind of meaning. It is not filled, of course, and their attempts are in some respects so narcissistic -- but it's the narcissism of a child, placing him/herself at the center of their small world, feeling him/herself to be both at fault and yet blameless, cause and effect. And yet it's also the narcissism of the sociopath, of one who can't be down in the mundane world with all the others to whom nothing ever happens, because that would negate the extraordinary-ness each secretly (or consciously) believes him/herself to possess, and that failure to be as extraordinary as he/she wishes he/she was, is so self-erasing that it must be either dismissed, fought off, or wholly unacknowledged... even if not to fit into the mundane world of others is also lonely and isolating.
I of course read the book again multiple times, over the years, trying to understand that which seemed to dance just outside my vision, to grasp the swirling miasma of thoughts that seem to rise up in the back of the mind while reading this novel, so specific and authentic and definite are the prose, the characters, their stories... and yet somehow so mystical and *connected* to the unspeakable and the transcendent as well. I can't say I understand it any better now, but I was certainly branded by the first reading, and remembered whole passages nearly verbatim for the clarity and specificity of the world they conjure, into which you, the reader, are immersed. It is an experience not to be missed; it is disturbing; it is evocative; it is moving; and, perhaps when you least expect it, it will sear you with it's hopeless beauty. You will perhaps be lost in thought about these characters for days or weeks after you've finished it, pondering their fates, wondering could things have turned out any other way for any of them, where in their paths could they have turned aside or turned back, or wondering if all that occurs is somehow predestined and they themselves moved inexorably towards their fates like chess pieces pushed by unseen hands.
There is a great catharsis in this novel, which is perhaps what one other reviewer meant by being shattered by it. I have used so many words here and yet, somehow, I feel I haven't sufficiently described why, even though "Darkness Visible" made me weep when I first read it -- which is rare, in books (my being brought to tears by them; the last book was Toni Morrison's "Beloved" -- I would (and have) read "Darkness Visible" again (and again), still despairing that I didn't *truly* understand it, still waiting (maybe hopelessly?) for that which is just outside my vision, the heavy weight of the rising, swirling thoughts, images, and *senses* Golding conjures but which remain in shadow just behind my conscious, reading mind, to all make itself *known* and explicable in ways I suspect it may never. And which I'll probably aspire to uncovering by reading (and re-reading) this book every few years until I'm too old and blind to read anymore.
This is very much a tour de force: evocative, disturbing, haunting, moving. It is not for those unwilling to invest time and emotion in it (yet not all that long a read, actually), and also not for the easily squicked.