Lord of the Flies
Edited by Lily T.
In 1954 William Golding was 43 years old and a nobody. He had been demobbed from the navy at the end of World War Two and returned to his pre-war job teaching English at a small, single-sex boys’ grammar school. He was not much good as a schoolmaster, and had never really wanted to be one.
He finished Lord Of The Flies in 1952, but it was rejected by every publisher he sent it to, until a new recruit at Faber and Faber found it and persuaded Golding to make some changes, resulting in the novel it is today which quickly became very popular. It was published in 1954.
The anti-war meaning of Lord of the Flies helped to ensure its profound impact on the young at a time when the tension of the Cold War was increasing. Since then Golding’s masterpiece has established itself as a modern classic, appearing on countless school and college syllabuses worldwide. In 1983 William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
As a young man in the 1930s, Golding was politically of the left. Having observed the rise of Fascism in Germany, he joined the British armed forces to fight against it. The international crises Golding lived through shaped his political imagination and determined the political dilemmas he would present in Lord of the Flies.
Golding fought in World War 2
Lord Of The Flies was published in 1954
The book has a strong anti-war message
William Golding (1911-1993)
The novel is set in the future, during a nuclear war; before the novel starts the boys are being flown to safety. However, the plane is attacked and the passenger tube lands on an uninhabited island before it’s dragged out to sea, leaving some of the boys on the island.
We meet two boys, Ralph and Piggy, on the beach as they realise that there are no grown ups on the island. They find a conch (a seashell)’ and Ralph blows through it to attract the attention of the other survivors, who gradually appear.
A choir appears, led by Jack, who claims that he should be leader, but Ralph is elected when they have a vote. Afterwards Jack, Ralph and Simon (who suffers from seizures where he briefly loses consciousness) climb a mountain to see if it really is an island. They have another meeting in which one of the littluns brings up the idea of a ‘beastie’.
All the boys head to the top of the mountain and light a fire using Piggy’s glasses, hoping the smoke will attract the attention of a nearby ship, but it gets out of control and burns part of the forest, killing one of the littluns.
Jack starts to become obsessed with hunting pigs but is unsuccessful. Ralph and Simon try to build huts, but Ralph complains that nobody else is helping, just playing instead.
When a distant ship is sighted it’s revealed that Jack and his hunters had let the fire go out and had gone off hunting pigs, so the chance of rescue is lost. Ralph is furious, but the hunters are caught up in a wild frenzy, reenacting the hunt. Calling a meeting, Ralph tries to restore order but the conversation quickly switches to talking about the mysterious beast, which many of the smaller boys are afraid of.
One night, unknown to the boys, there is an air-battle high above the island and a dead airman lands by parachute on one of the island’s peaks. Sam and Eric, who are guarding the fire, see him sitting, as if alive, and run down to tell the others. Making a search of the island, Ralph and Jack find his corpse and both flee in terror, thinking it is the beast.
At an assembly, which Jack calls, he demands another vote to see if the boys now want him, rather than Ralph, as leader. However, he loses a second time, and runs off in anger to make his own camp.
Soon, most of the boys leave to join Jack’s more savage tribe, and they hunt and kill a pig, leaving the pigs head impaled on a stick in the ground, as an offering for the beast. Ralph and piggy are lured to Jack’s feast by the promise of meat.
Simon comes across the pigs head and it seems to speak to him before he loses consciousness for a short time. When he recovers he climbs the mountain and finds the dead airman and calmly loosens the parachute cords so that the wind will carry the corpse out to sea. He then goes to join the others and tells them that the beast does not exist. However, he arrives in the middle of a terrifying thunderstorm and the boys, mistaking him in the darkness for the beast, set upon him and beat him to death.
Jack and his followers retire to their mountain stronghold, but they make a night-time raid on Ralph’s camp to steal Piggy’s glasses, leaving him almost blind. When Ralph, Piggy, Sam and Eric approach the stronghold to get the glasses back, Roger dislodges a great rock that comes bounding down the mountain and kills Piggy. Sam and Eric are tied up and Ralph runs away to hide.
In the morning Ralph is hunted down by Jack and his savages. In an attempt to smoke him out of his hiding place they set the whole island on fire. Running away, Ralph reaches the beach and looks up to see a Royal Navy officer. The smoke from the burning island has brought rescue.
It didn’t take long at all for the boys to shake off their ‘civilised’ ways.
Exam Practice Questions
How does Ralph change as a character throughout the novel?
How does Golding use Jack to show the dark side of human nature in Lord of the Flies?
To what extent is Simon presented as a ‘christ-like’ figure?
What is the importance of Piggy’s character?
How does Golding use Roger to convey ideas about inherent human cruelty?
How are the littluns used to convey the idea of natural cruelty?
How does Golding use the symbol of the pig’s head to add a religious element to the book?
To what extent are Ralph and Jack used to symbolise different types of real-life leadership?
How does Golding present the Lord of the Flies as a political allegory?
What is the importance of the naval officer?
To what extent is the novel a commentary on social class?
Remember, even though the boys were involved in a plane crash during a war, the novel is set in the future.
Characters and Key Quotes
Ralph is one of the main protagonists in Lord of the Flies; him and the novel’s antagonist, Jack, are very different. Ralph admires his naval commander father, and has a traditionally British schoolboy code of ‘fair play’. Part of this code is that you should not hit weaker or smaller boys, so when Jack punches Piggy, breaking his glasses, Ralph condemns it in the language of his class and code as “a dirty trick”. He symbolises common sense, democracy and civilisation; his commitment to morality is strong, even when the other boys become increasingly savage.
A key aspect of Ralph’s character is that he wants to return to their old life of adult authority, where there are people who tell him what to do, and there are rules that apply to him as well as to everyone else. This is what he wants to replicate on the island, as he tells the other boys at their first assembly:
“We can’t have everybody talking at once. We’ll have to have ‘Hands up’ like at school.”
Ralph is essentially a conformist and a dependent- a person who relies on others, not a natural leader. He is excited at first to find himself on an adventure-story tropical island, free of adult control, but he wants it to be just a temporary break, a kind of holiday. The possibility of staying there forever frightens him. Perhaps this is why Golding presents him playfully standing on his head in moments of joy. The island’s topsy-turvy world where boys are in charge is enjoyable to him only because he think he can return to the upright and the conventional afterwards.
Ralph clings to the hope of rescue throughout the book, which is one of the key reasons he thinks keeping the fire alight is so important. Sometimes, this hope seems unrealistically naive:
“My father’s in the Navy. He said there aren’t any unknown islands left. He says the Queen has a big room full of maps and all the islands in the world are drawn there. So the Queen’s got a picture of this island.”
He is trying to cheer up the smaller boys here, so the childish faith in the Queen and her maps is not necessarily his own, but his admiration for his father, his trust in the adult world and his hope that it will come to their aid are defining aspects of his character, and they distinguish him from Jack.
Ralph seems to almost never feel passion and when he does he regards it as something alien to him. In Chapter 2 when the smaller boys are babbling about there being a snake on the island, despite Ralph assuring them there is not, he grows angry:
Something he had not known was there rose in him and compelled him to make the point, loudly and again.
“But I tell you there isn’t a beast!”
Rage is unfamiliar to him, and until he starts to lose his temper, he had not realised he was capable of it. However, as the novel progresses, he begins to drift towards savagery and participates in the murder of Simon, although the knowledge that he did this haunts him.
Ralph symbolises common sense, democracy and civilisation
He wants to return to the old life of adult authority and clings to the hope of rescue
Ralph wants to establish fair rules and a stick to a moral code
Ralph – the benevolent conformist who wants to establish fair rules and lead democratically.
The polar opposite to Ralph in many ways, Jack represents savagery and the desire for power. He believes that he is a natural leader, and as head chorister he has a golden badge on his cap to distinguish him. When he first appears he announces:
“I ought to be chief, because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.”
Jack is also a much more passionate character than Ralph. Golding draws attention several times to Jack’s eyes which he says look “bolting and nearly mad”. The “bolting look” in Jack’s eyes is referred to again in Chapter 4 in the scene where he punches Piggy. “Bolting” is normally a term used about horses when they get out of control, and in this context we could see the “bolting” look in Jack’s eyes as passion getting out of control.
He is daring, independent and practical, teaching himself by trial and error how to kill pigs and then cooking meat for everyone. Of course, he is also capable of cruelty, whereas Ralph is not. He discovers after his first successful hunt that (despite the twitches and shudders that he cannot repress) he actually likes killing:
His mind was crowded with memories, memories of the knowledge that had come upon them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink.
Jack is also more realistic than Ralph about the chances of them being rescued. The prospect seems to him remote, and in any case he does not really want to be rescued. He is seized with a sense of adventure, and excited by the challenge of taking control, leading his band of hunters and making a new life on the island. When he lets the fire go out, Ralph is furious, but Jack has forgotten about even the prospect of rescue, and considers the fire an “irrelevance”.
Jack represents savagery and the desire for power
He wants leadership and believes he’s a natural leader
Jack doesn’t want to be recused as he enjoys life away from adult authority
Jack – the head chorister who enjoys being on the island. Believing he has a natural right to lead, he wields power through fear and violence – like a mini dictator.
Simon is very different from the other boys. Whereas Jack and Ralph represent civilisation and savagery respectively, Golding described Simon as a “saint” and a “martyr”, and in a lecture he calls him a “Christ-figure”. He represents goodness and morality and is the only one who realises that the beast is something inside of them:
“What I mean is… maybe it’s only us.”
This is confirmed when he seems to ‘speak’ with the pig's head, which the other boys have left as an offering to the beast. The pig’s head’s “voice” in Simon’s imagination confirms his idea that the beast was something inside of them:
“You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?”
Even if Simon joins the other boys, the pig’s head tells him, he will not get away:
“You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there.”
Evil is not some external monster or demon, but something inside people. “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!”, the pig’s head says derisively. The innate evil in the other boys is in direct contrast with the morality of Simon, but his death shows that there is no good left on the island and the boys are doomed to all turn to savagery. In chapter 7, Simon tells Ralph:
“You’ll get back to where you came from.”
Ralph dismisses Simon’s prophecy – “You’re batty” – but Simon’s prophecy is a remnant of the supernatural status that Simon had in Golding’s original version. Simon’s prophecy is remembered by Ralph in his moment of ultimate horror when he is being chased by the other boys, and with the arrival of the naval officer we can see that Simon’s prophecy will come true. So the possibility that he really did have supernatural powers survives to the very end.
Alternatively, Simon could be seen as a courageous rationalist. He does not believe in the “Beast”, and he alone is brave enough to walk right up to it and see it is just a human corpse. Rationally, he then disentangles the parachute’s lines so that the corpse will be carried out to sea by the wind, and returns to the other boys to bring his rational message that the Beast does not exist, but they are in a frenzy of fear and superstition and kill him before he can tell them the truth.
Simon represents goodness, religion and morality
He is the only one who realises the beast is an evil inside of them
His death marks the end of morality and good on the Island
Simon – the enigmatic boy who represents goodness and morality.
A symbol of the rational, scientific and orderly side of humanity, Piggy is clearly of a different social class to the other boys. He is marked as lower class by his inferior physique as well as by the way he speaks. The first things we are told about him are that he is shorter than Ralph, very fat, and wears thick spectacles. We soon learn too that he suffers from asthma, which he incorrectly pronounces as “ass-mar”.
“What’s your name?”
The fat boy waited to be asked his name in turn but this offer of acquaintance was not made; the fair boy called Ralph smiled vaguely, stood up, and began to make his way once more towards the lagoon. The fat boy hung steadily at his shoulder.
We notice that Ralph swiftly identifies Piggy as working-class, and for that reason treats him as not worthy of friendship or even politeness. For Ralph, Piggy’s lower-class status justifies outright rudeness, but Piggy seems not to realise he’s giving himself away with these class pointers, and genuinely wants to be friends with Ralph. Thinking they might really be friends, he entrusts Ralph with a secret- he used to get called Piggy. Ralph laughs, then pretends to ‘machine-gun’ Piggy:
Ralph danced out into the hot air of the beach and then returned as a fighter plane, with wings swept back, and machine-gunned Piggy.
Here Golding conveys the idea that to someone of Ralph’s class someone of Piggy’s class is dispensable. The idea of machine-gunning him is fun, and it is our first hint that Piggy will eventually be murdered by the other boys.
In contrast to Ralph’s childishness and cruelty, Piggy behaves like a responsible adult. He alone sees the importance of finding out the names of all the boys who have survived. When Jack appears with his choirboys it takes him only a few seconds to identify Piggy as lower class.
Piggy’s superior intelligence allows him to see the reality of their situation more clearly than the others do. In the assembly Ralph takes the credit for this but it is Piggy who has thought it out. Piggy is intelligent and has a systematic mind, and this makes him a natural organiser. We can see that if he had been in charge, the story would have developed very differently. Piggy has a realistic sense of the priorities necessary for survival. Piggy is not only capable and intelligent, he is also scientific:
“Life,” said Piggy expansively, “ is scientific, that’s what it is. In a year or two when the war’s over they’ll be travelling to Mars and back. I know there isn’t no beast--- not with claws and all that, I mean.”
That Piggy is a boy with scientific interests may indicate that Golding had his own father in mind when he created the character of Piggy. Golding’s father, Alec, was the science master at Marlborough Grammar School and had come from a lower-middle-class background. Golding admired his father greatly, but on one subject, however, Golding and his father disagreed. Alec was a confirmed atheist; Golding believed in God, was intensely superstitious, and certainly believed in ghosts.
Golding exposes the inadequacy of Piggy’s view of the world is his reaction to the death of Simon. Ralph is devastated by the thought of the crime they have committed – “That was murder” – but Piggy refuses to call it by its proper name.
“It was an accident,” said Piggy suddenly, “that’s what it was. An accident.” His voice shrilled again. “Coming in the dark--- he had no business crawling like that out of the dark. He was batty. He asked for it.” He gesticulated widely again.
Piggy must convince himself that it did not happen, but rationality of this kind means denying the truth. Perhaps the psychological insight that Golding shows here was derived from personal experience. He had seen action in the Second World War, but he almost never wrote about the war and when he did he did not dwell on the horrors. From this we might conclude that his attitude was not very far removed from Piggy’s- “We can’t do no good thinking about it.”
Piggy, then, serves two purposes within the narrative of Golding’s novel. Through him, Golding offers a critical view of scientific rationalism. We are shown that scientific rationalism cannot get rid of our deepest terrors or account for the awful things people do. Through Piggy, too, or rather through the way the others treat him, Golding offers a critical view of social class in Britain.
Piggy symbolises the rational, scientific and orderly side of humanity
He behaves like a responsible adult and is more intelligent than the other boys
Because of his lower class and appearance, he’s constantly mocked and bullied
Piggy – the rational, scientific and orderly one. Perhaps if he wasn’t for his working-class accent or unathletic physique, he would have been accepted as a competent leader.
Roger shows how dictatorship corrupts. He becomes evil, but he is not evil to start with, any more than the millions of ordinary Germans who were inspired by Hitler’s leadership were evil. It is true that Golding’s description of Roger when he first appears suggests that there is something suspect about him.
There was a slight, furtive boy whom no one knew, who kept to himself with an inner intensity of avoidance and secrecy. He muttered that his name was Roger.
But this could just show that Roger is a loner. It is Roger who says, “Let’s have a vote”, when Jack asserts his right to be Chief, and this suggests that he is on the side of fairness and democracy.
Roger silently deserts Ralph soon after Jack’s rebellion, but that does not, in itself, make Roger particularly guilty, because most of the other boys desert Ralph too.
What distinguishes Roger is the moment of revelation that takes place during the conversation with Robert; it is also a moment of liberation. Up to now Roger has been restrained by his memory of the rules and disciplines of the grown-up world the boys have left behind. In Chapter 4, when he was throwing stones at Henry, Roger was careful to miss because “the taboo of the old life” placed around Henry “the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law”. These components of the old life represent responsible authority.
When Roger hears that Jack has not given a reason, and does not need to give a reason, for beating Wilfred, it opens a completely new possibility- irresponsible authority. If authority is irresponsible, there are no longer any rules. Power is the only thing that counts. The attraction of dictatorship for someone like Roger is that the dictator represents pure, unrestrained power, and going over to his side will give you power to gratify your cruellest desires. That is how dictatorship corrupts.
The result becomes clear when Ralph and Piggy confront Jack and his savages. High above them is Roger, with his hands on the lever that will launch the great rock into space. What he feels is power: “Some source of power began to pulse in Roger’s body.” It is an exhilarating feeling. Roger leans all his weight on the lever “with a sense of delirious abandonment”, and destroys both Piggy and the symbol of democracy, the conch.
The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went.
The deed seems to shock even Jack for a moment. When Roger comes down to join the others, Jack shuns him: “The hangman’s horror hangs round him.” However, Roger quickly makes himself useful. Jack prods the twins, Sam and Eric, with a spear, but Roger intervenes and Sam and Eric watch as Roger advances on them, “as one wielding a nameless authority”. His authority is that of the torturer.
What methods he uses, we do not learn. Golding relies on the power of the unspoken, but Roger’s success is evident. When Ralph, isolated and pursued, next meets Sam and Eric they are almost too terrified to speak. Ralph trusts them and shows them the thicket where he hopes to hide. Later, crouching inside it, he hears one of the twins being tortured.
The twins have told Ralph that Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends, and we deduce that Ralph’s head, like the pig’s, will be stuck on a stick when the “savages” have killed him.
Roger is a symbolism of evil on the island
He’s been restrained from cruelty by the rules of grown-ups, but on the island he realises he can do whatever he wants
He kills Piggy and shatters the conch- a symbol of civility
Roger – shows how dictatorship corrupts. He becomes evil and cruel and eventually kills Piggy, and any chance of civility on the island with him.
THEMES & ADVANCED REVISION
The references to Ralph’s long hair falling over his eyes symbolise the eclipse of intelligence by irrationality and instinct, whereas holding back his hair shows that Ralph is trying to prevent himself turning to savagery.
Piggy, who represents intellect and rationalism, is the one who identifies the conch, and he’s also the one who treats it with the most care, solidifying its symbolism of civilisation and democracy. At first the conch’s democratic power is respected by all the boys, but as the colour of the conch itself fades over the novel, so does its power until it’s shattered when Piggy is killed, marking the definitive end of civilised society on the island.
The Lord of the Flies
The pig's head that seems to talk to Simon is referred to as the “Lord of the Flies”, an English translation of “Beelzebub”, which occurs in both the Old and the New Testaments as an alternative name for the Devil. The Lord of the Flies that Simon talks to seems to be a manifestation of the devil and the beast, as well as a symbol of the power of evil.
Piggy’s glasses are an important symbol of intellect and rational thinking, which is clearly shown as they’re used to start the fire, representing survival and hope of rescue. When Jack steals the glasses it leaves Piggy helpless and blind, but also leaves the whole group powerless as they no longer have the means to make fire. The glasses are also a symbol of Piggy’s intellect- once they’re stolen Piggy can’t see the answers to problems and is no longer useful.
The fire represents the hope of rescue that is of prime importance to Ralph, but soon becomes irrelevant to Jack and the others as the book goes on. To begin with, it burns high as they all want to return to civilisation, but as the fire begins to dim and become less important to the boys over time, we see that their civilised instinct is fading too. However, there are other fires in the novel. The first fire that kills the littlun and the final fire used to try and smoke out Ralph are both savage fires and, ironically, it’s this final savage fire that ensures they’re rescued.
The conch functions as a symbol of civility and democracy.
The novel is widely said to be about mankind’s inherent evil, or the Christian belief of “original sin” originating from Adam eating the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. Golding implies that small children are naturally cruel, and that it is only adult discipline that teaches them to restrain their natural cruelty.
One passage that shows this comes in Chapter 4. Three of the smallest boys, Henry, Johnny and Percival, are playing when two older boys, Roger and Maurice, who happen to be passing, deliberately kick over their sandcastles. Sand gets into Percival’s eye and he begins to whimper:
Maurice hurried away. In his other life Maurice had received chastisement for filling a younger eye with sand. Now, though there was no parent to let fall a heavy hand, Maurice still felt the unease of wrong-doing. At the back of his mind formed the uncertain outlines of an excuse.
The implication here is that morality is not natural but is the result of an adult code of behaviour the boys are taught, one that doesn’t allow cruelty to younger children.
Golding reinforces the point by showing, at the end of the next paragraph, that a child too young to have been subjected to such conditioning is cruel by nature. The child is Johnny. He was the first child to appear when Ralph blew the conch in Chapter 1. We are told there that he is “perhaps six years” old, and that he is “innocent”. However, in Chapter 4 we find he is not. After Maurice has left, it is Johnny who takes over as Percival’s tormentor:
Percival finished his whimper and went on playing, for the tears had washed the sand away. Johnny watched him with china-blue eyes; then began to fling up sand in a shower, and presently Percival was crying again.
Golding shows us that evil comes naturally to Johnny, and according to the doctrine of original sin the whole human race is inherently sinful. However, in Lord of the Flies Ralph, Piggy and Simon do not seem inherently sinful, and unlike the other boys they do not descend into savagery.
To begin with even Jack feels an instinctive horror at the idea of shedding blood, and this looks like a sign of original innocence rather than original sin. Even after a pig has been hunted down and killed, Jack’s rejoicing is mingled with involuntary horror.
“I cut the pig’s throat,” said Jack, proudly, and yet twitched as he said it…
“There were lashings of blood,” said Jack, laughing and shuddering, “you should have seen it!”
Evidently some instinctive part of Jack, which is not under his conscious control, recoils from bloodshed. It soon becomes clear though, that Jack's evil is much stronger than this horror.
Golding implies that all people are naturally cruel
Morality is the result of an adult code of behaviour the boys are taught
They’re horrified at the idea of killing to start with, but their inherent evil is stronger than this disgust
Would The Boys Really Behave Like That?
Some readers have questioned whether boys left alone on a desert island would have behaved as Golding writes in the novel. Golding himself certainly meant their behaviour to be true to life, setting out to create a more realistic version of books such as The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne which tells the story of three boys who survive a shipwreck and learn to provide themselves with food, shelter and clothing. During his years as a schoolmaster, Golding had watched the behaviour of the boys he taught, and he used that as inspiration for the boys in the novel. Although many disagreed with the way he showed the boys behaving, similar stories have emerged from survivors of real disasters.
Is morality (or cruelty) something innate or learned? i.e. is it natural or cultural?
The original manuscript of Lord of the Flies shows that Golding intended his novel to be unmistakably religious. His experiences in the war had left him a profoundly religious man, and it’s reported that he would spend hours on his knees in prayer in the school chapel.
Thanks to lots of editing, only one event is left in the published version of the novel that could be called “religious” in a supernatural sense, and that is Simon’s encounter with the pig’s head in Chapter 8.
The conversation with the pig’s head is imaginary; we are told that the pig’s head’s voice is silent: “‘Run away,’ said the head silently.” This technique allows us to understand that the pig’s head’s ridicule of Simon is imagined by Simon himself and it takes place only in his mind. The pig’s head “voices” Simon’s own self-doubt. It tempts him to distrust himself and to distrust his sense that he has a special mission.
Simon struggles successfully against his own imaginings. When the pig’s head claims that it is “the Beast”, Simon defiantly dismisses that claim and calls the pig’s head what it is: “Pig’s head on a stick.” However, from it’s name the ‘Lord of the Flies’, a translation of the devil Beezlebub, this Pig’s head is seen as a manifestation of the devil.
On the other hand, the novel in its published form could be read as the exact opposite of religious. An atheist reader would be perfectly justified in interpreting Golding’s story as a satirical account of how mankind came to invent religion. The boys on the island, terrified of a “Beast” that does not exist, decide to appease it with a sacrifice:
“This head is for the beast. It’s a gift,”
An atheist could argue that all of the world’s religions have grown from a similar irrational attempt to please a non-existent terror.
After Simon’s death the boys are desperate to deny they murdered him and one of them suggests that it was not Simon they killed but the “Beast” in disguise. Jack is prepared to accept this.
“Perhaps,” said the Chief. A theological speculation presented itself. “We’d better keep on the right side of him, anyhow. You can’t tell what he might do.”
Golding’s irony about the “theological speculation” underlines that what the boys are doing is inventing a religion.
Golding was very religious and intended the book to be too
The ‘Lord of the Flies’ is a translation of the devil Beezlebub, showing the presence of evil on the island
It could be read as a satirical account of how mankind came to invent religion
The pig’s head was a “sacrifice” for the imaginary Beast; is it a manifestation of the Devil, or a satirical representation of the invention of man-made religion?
Power and Leadership
Leadership and power present themselves in different ways from the beginning of the novel when the vote for chief is held. Though the choir all obediently vote for Jack, they are outvoted by the others and Ralph is swept to power. Only Piggy hesitates, possibly because he is thinking responsibly. He recognises that Jack has a quality that Ralph lacks, namely, authority.
Piggy had recognised this as soon as Jack arrived, instantly intimidated by Jack’s “offhand authority”. “Offhand” shows that Jack is so used to authority (as head chorister) that he no longer thinks about it. He assumes he has it, and will be obeyed.
Having natural authority arguably makes Jack the more suitable candidate. However Piggy’s hesitation invites us to ask ourselves whether Jack would have been a better leader than Ralph if he had won the election.
He would’ve been a tougher leader, and easy-going Ralph is incapable of toughness. He doesn’t realise that having political authority means creating rules for people and enforcing them. Ralph leaves the only rule-enforcing agency (the choir) under Jack’s control, a mistake that leads to the fire going out and, eventually, to Piggy’s death.
Ralph is fair and democratic, but this isn’t enough to lead successfully. In Ralph’s long speech in Chapter 5, Golding mercilessly exposes Ralph’s failure to understand that rules are pointless unless they are enforced, and that enforcing them means punishing those who disobey them. If they are not punished it is his fault because he is the leader.
Later, in Chapter 5, when the assembly breaks up in disorder, leaving Piggy and Ralph alone, Piggy urges Ralph to blow the conch:
“You got to be tough now. Make ‘em do what you want.”
Ralph answered in the cautious voice of one who rehearses a theorem.
“If I blow the conch and they don’t come back; then we’ve had it.”
Ralph at last realises that his authority is empty if he cannot enforce it.
Ralph’s political failure exposes some of the shortcomings of democracy, whereas Jack’s eventual political success exposes the key characteristics of dictatorship: its reliance on ruthless discipline and on torture and terror. To give the portrayal of power, he is enthroned and surrounded by offerings, like a god:
Before the party had started a great log had been dragged into the centre of the lawn and Jack, painted and garlanded, sat there like an idol. There were piles of meat on green leaves near him, and coconut shells full of drink.
Jack insists on an outward show of submission and obedience, although his followers are embarrassed by it at first. When he arrives to issue the invitation to the roast pork banquet, the guards’ role is to give it the grandeur of public ritual. Through these tactics of displaying power, as well as manipulating the boy's fear of the beast to his advantage, Jack is able to maintain control much more effectively than Ralph could.
Jack is so used to authority that he assumes he has it, and will be obeyed
Ralph is fair and democratic, but is incapable of toughness
Through tactics of displaying power, Jack is able to maintain control more effectively than Ralph could
Why Are There No Girls In Lord Of The Flies?
Golding was often asked why he had not put girls as well as boys on the island, and his reply was that he knew about boys from being a school teacher, but not about girls. We can only guess what difference girls would have made on the island, but in some of his other works he’s discussed how women, unlike men, have “a passionate absorption in the being and fate of people as individuals”. So if there had been girls on the island perhaps they would have looked after the “littluns” who tend to be neglected by everyone except Piggy.
The conflict of leadership results in devastation of the island – much like the real world.
Democracy and Politics
Although it doesn’t deal with governments and ministries, Lord of the Flies is a political novel, and traces the development of a political situation. When Ralph raises the primary political question of leadership, Roger suggests they should have a vote and the idea catches on. Golding’s comment is cynical:
This toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch. Jack started to protest, but the clamour changed from the general wish for a chief to an election by acclaim of Ralph himself. None of the boys could have found good reason for this; what intelligence had been shown was traceable to Piggy while the most obvious leader was Jack. But there was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out: there was his size, and attractive appearance, and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch. The being that had blown that, had sat waiting for them on the platform with the delicate thing balanced on his knees, was set apart.
A democracy, Golding implies, is only as strong as its electorate. If the electorate is trivial-minded, and makes its decisions on the basis of such things as physical appearance, democracy becomes a trivial system – a “toy”.
Ralph also introduces the parliamentary idea that only the boy who holds the conch has the right to speak. This is a democratic idea because it means everyone has a voice and the weak cannot be shouted down by the strong. Jack tries to stifle some of the conch’s power, claiming that it doesn’t count on top of the mountain, but Ralph says that the rules apply everywhere. This quickly highlights the different styles of leadership that Jack and Ralph want and represent: dictatorship versus democracy. At the final assembly in Chapter 8, Jack caps his defiance of Ralph by making a bid for leadership himself.
“Hands up,” said Jack strongly, “whoever wants Ralph not to be chief?”
The silence continued, breathless and heavy and full of shame. Slowly the red drained from Jack’s cheeks, then came back with a painful rush. He licked his lips and turned his head at an angle, so that his gaze avoided the embarrassment of linking with another’s eye.
The scene is full of political significance. Golding describes the silence that follows Jack’s question as “full of shame”, and the phrase lends itself to various interpretations. Jack feels shame, of course, at being rejected, but the phrase suggests that the shame is more general.
It suggests that Ralph and the other boys feel ashamed that Jack should so nakedly expose his own ambition and his hatred of Ralph, but perhaps they also feel ashamed because they know themselves to be treacherous and deceiving. They cannot bring themselves to vote for Jack while they are under Ralph’s eye, yet they already intend to change sides. The boys may be ashamed, too, of their motive for changing sides, which is that Jack and his hunters can offer them meat.
The weakness in democratic politics that Golding points to is that the electorate can be swayed by promises of material gain. The rise of Hitler, which Golding had witnessed in the 1930s, depended in part on the promises of material well-being that National Socialism put before the German people, and Jack’s roast pork lure could be read as a fable-version of that catastrophic development.
Jack’s passionate weeping, as he runs away from the assembly alone, could be read as a reminder that this is after all not a proper adult political crisis, but just a dispute among a group of children. Or it could be read the other way round – suggesting to us that real political crises can be traced to the emotions, personal ambitions and resentments of world leaders that are essentially just as childish as Jack’s “I’m not going to play any more”.
Dictatorship’s reliance on ruthless discipline is revealed when Roger climbs up to the crag where Jack has made his camp and admires Jack’s authority: “He’s a proper Chief, isn’t he?”. He learns about Jack’s latest proof of chieftainship from Robert:
“He’s going to beat Wilfred.”
Robert shook his head doubtfully.
“I don’t know. He didn’t say. He got angry and made us tie Wilfred up. He’s been”- he giggled excitedly- “he’s been tied for hours, waiting- ”
“But didn’t the Chief say why?”
“I never heard him.”
Sitting on the tremendous rocks in the torrid sun, Roger received this news as an illumination. He ceased to work at his tooth and sat still, assimilating the possibilities of irresponsible authority.
“Irresponsible authority” could be a definition of dictatorship as Golding envisages it, and this moment is a turning point in the novel, for Roger is set to become the one functionary that all dictators need: a torturer and an executioner.
Lord of the Flies is a political novel and traces the development of a political situation
Jack wants a dictatorship whereas Ralph wants a democracy
Golding suggests the weakness in democratic politics is that the electorate can be swayed by promises of material gain
Nuclear Holocaust Fiction
Fictions about the survivors of nuclear catastrophe became popular in the Cold War era and are still a major science-fiction genre. Lord of the Flies was among the first. At the time there was a widespread fear of a nuclear war after the atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, instantly incinerating tens of thousands of victims, with a quarter of a million more dead within 30 days from radiation poisoning. Lots of fiction asked what would happen if society was destroyed in a war like this, but Golding’s take on it with schoolboys was very different from most.
The fear of nuclear destruction at the time was understandable, given the devastation caused by the atom bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This picture shows the atomic bomb ‘mushroom cloud’
Civilisation Vs. Savagery
In Lord of the Flies, Golding portrays the conflict between the boys’ civilised behaviour that they’ve been taught by the adult world and the more fundamental savagery and evil that they all possess. This inherent evil becomes strikingly clear when all the boys, scared by the storm and the threat of the beast, murder Simon in an animal-like way:
At once the crowd surged after it, poured down the rock, leapt on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore.
Their civilised ideals are stripped away by fear and all of them take part in the savage dance that leads to Simon’s death. The savagery is inherent in them all, though to begin with even Jack, who turns to savagery willingly, believes that they are all naturally civilised:
“I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things.”
He believes that the English are naturally disinclined to be savage, and so this makes the eventual turn to chaos even more impactful.
We see from the reference to the atomic bomb and the parachutist that a similar descent to savagery and evil is taking place in the adult world, and therefore the island becomes a sort of microcosm – a miniature portrayal – for the war that is raging in the rest of the world.
Lord of the Flies is specifically an anti-nuclear war novel and was written while the shock of the arrival of the nuclear age was still new. The fact that, in the novel, the world has been devastated by nuclear war makes the boy’s trust in grown-ups both comical and tragic. To hammer home the irony, the sign (which the boys beg for) that comes down from the world of grown-ups is the dead airman, hanging from his parachute- the latest casualty in a war that is evidently still raging.
The arrival of the naval officer at the end is crucial to the novel’s meaning. It tells us that the grown-up world has learnt nothing from the atomic war that set the novel’s action in motion. The officer’s words express his unshaken faith in nationalistic tribalism.
“I should have thought that a pack of British boys- you’re all British aren’t you- would have been able to put up a better show than that.”
While Ralph weeps for “the end of innocence” and “the darkness of man’s heart”, the officer, with less self-knowledge than Ralph, turns away in embarrassment and allows his eyes to rest, for reassurance, on a symbol of armed might: “the trim cruiser in the distance”.
Lord of the Flies is about the conflict between boys’ civilised behaviour and their more fundamental savagery'
To begin with the boys believe they’re naturally civilised
The island is a microcosm for the nuclear war raging in the adult world
Accounts of real survivors show that they often faced death from hunger or thirst, and in a quite high proportion of cases they resorted to cannibalism. Comparing Golding’s story with these, it can be seen that he has carefully situated his boys in conditions that are completely without danger. The island provides an ample and self-replenishing food-supply (fruit, pork), drinkable water, and materials for constructing shelters. It harbours no natural predators. In other words, it offers virtually ideal living-conditions, and therefore the boys’ descent into savagery cannot be blamed on their environment.
The novel highlights how the British class system is ridden with injustices and inequalities by showing how class hierarchies are ingrained before adulthood.
Golding grew up with an obsession with social class, and almost everything he wrote was about it to some extent. The character in Lord of the Flies that introduces this concern is Piggy, the most intelligent and responsible boy, and more adult than any of the others.
With this clear intelligence, why is he not in charge? The question brings home Golding’s point not just about the boys on the island but about the organisation of English society. He means us to see that there is no chance of those who are most capable being in charge, because of the rigorous class system which excludes a large proportion of the population from having any power.
For Ralph, Jack and the others it would be absolutely unthinkable that they should take orders from Piggy, though in a society where intelligence and capability were the determining factors, rather than social class, that is what they would be doing. As it is, by making their contempt for Piggy apparent to the smaller boys and turning him into a laughing stock, they render it impossible for him to exercise any authority.
This becomes clear when he tries to make a list of the smaller boys' names, as Ralph has ordered him to do- a list of names that could have been the first step in bringing organisation and welfare to the island. When Ralph later blames Piggy for not listing the smaller boys’ names, Piggy’s reply makes clear why it didn’t happen:
“How could I,” cried Piggy indignantly, “all by myself? They waited for two minutes, then they fell in the sea; they went into the forest; they just scattered everywhere. How was I to know which was which?”
If Ralph, instead of undermining Piggy’s authority by ridicule, had told the smaller boys that Piggy was in charge, the situation could have been saved. But that would have required a momentous change in Ralph’s ideas about social class and authority, of which he is simply not capable.
When Ralph, Simon and Jack decide to explore the island, Piggy wants to join them. Ralph pretends that it’s only because he is not as physically fit as they are that he cannot come with them, but when Piggy protests, Jack is brutally frank, addressing him unmistakably as an inferior and as someone who is personally objectionable. “‘We don’t want you,’ said Jack, flatly.” When Ralph tries to talk to him, he recognises that he’s hurt Piggy’s feelings by revealing his name.
Silence descended on them. Ralph, looking with more understanding at Piggy, saw that he was hurt and crushed. He hovered between the two courses of apology and further insult.
“Better Piggy than Fatty,” he said at last, with the directness of genuine leadership, “and anyway, I’m sorry if you feel like that. Now go back, Piggy, and take names. That’s your job. So long.”
We see that Ralph really had not suspected that a creature like Piggy could have feelings. He had not credited him with being fully human enough to be hurt when jeered at in public, but even though Ralph has at last realised Piggy is human, he cannot bring himself to make a full apology. The tight little conditional formula he uses (“if you feel like that”) half implies that it is Piggy’s fault for being too touchy, and his semi-apology is followed by a command, which re-establishes the class-difference between them.
Piggy is the character that raises the theme of social class
Because the boys ridicule Piggy, it makes it impossible for him to exercise any authority over the littluns
Ralph and the others treat Piggy as not fully human because of his appearance and class
Some critics have suggested that American schoolboys would have acted differently, and blamed the boys' descent to savagery on their British upbringing with more restrictive structures and brutal discipline. However, Golding clearly meant for the idea of inherent evil and original sin to be universal, and experiments into the nature of young boys have taken part in America too, showing that it’s likely American schoolboys would’ve behaved the same way.
Golding's language enlivens inanimate – and even dead – things on the island.
Language and Personification
Golding uses his style to enliven things that are not alive. When the gale carries the dead parachutist out to sea, he seems to come back to life.
On the mountain top the parachute filled and moved; the figure slid, rose to its feet, spun, swayed down through the vastness of wet air and trod with ungainly feet the tops of the high trees; falling, still falling, it sank towards the beach and the boys rushed screaming into the darkness.
Here Golding’s poetic inventiveness turns the dead man into a treetop-treading giant because that is how the boys see him.
But often Golding animates lifeless things because that is how he wants us to see them, not because the boys see them in that way. The fire on the mountain in Chapter 2 is like an animal. It scrambles up a tree “like a bright squirrel”; it creeps towards a line of saplings “as a jaguar creeps on its belly”. It is human too- it thrusts out a “savage arm” and it has a “beard”. The personification adds layers of imagery and meaning to this section; it also alludes to many of William Blake's plates in his Songs of Innocence and Experience.
There is no suggestion that these similes and metaphors occur to the boys. They are Golding’s animation at work.
Sometimes, though, he also gives the boys’ imaginations his enlivening poetic power, and that’s what makes the island terrifying for them.
A tree exploded in the fire like a bomb. Tall swathes of creepers rose for a moment into view, agonized, and went down again. The little boys screamed at them.
“Snakes! Snakes! Look at the snakes!”
Through Golding’s language, the natural world is made to seem conscious. When Ralph looks out across the Pacific from a high point on the island, the ocean swell seems “like the breathing of some stupendous creature”. As the creature breathes in, the waters sink among the rocks, revealing “strange growths of coral, polyp, and weed”. Then “the sleeping leviathan” breathes out and the waters rise.
Golding used to speak as the goddess of the earth, Gaia, as the divinity whom he worshipped. The animation of the natural world in Lord of the Flies shows Golding’s idea of Gaia. The earth, in his perspective, is far older than humans, and will outlast them. This sense of nature as immemorially old is written into Lord of the Flies. There is a startling reminder of prehistory in Chapter 3 when Jack is exploring the forest in the midday silence.
Only when Jack himself roused a gaudy bird from a primitive nest of sticks was the silence shattered and echoes set ringing by a harsh cry that seemed to come out of the abyss of ages, Jack himself shrank at this cry with a hiss of indrawn breath; and for a minute became less a hunter than a furtive thing, ape-like among the tangle of trees.
Human evolution is momentarily obliterated. Jack is an ape, and hears the same cry that apes would have heard before human life began.
When Ralph pauses on the way up the mountain we are given a geological fast-forward.
He was surrounded on all sides by chasms of empty air. There was nowhere to hide even if one did not have to go on. He paused on the narrow rock and looked down. Soon, in a matter of centuries, the sea would make an island of the castle.
The sense that humans are temporary and ultimately irrelevant, and that the great systems of nature go on with no regard for our survival, is evoked as Ralph watches the deep-sea waves: “They travelled the length of the island with an air of disregarding it and being set on other business.” They represent “the brute obtuseness of the ocean”. A similar switch away from a human perspective influences the description of Simon’s body being carried out to sea, which is often praised as the great poetic climax of Lord of the Flies.
Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose further and dressed Simon’s coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange attendant creatures with their fiery eyes and trailing vapours busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.
Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling, and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved further along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon’s dead body moved out towards the open sea.
In the first part of this passage Golding’s poetic imagination turns Simon’s body into something glorious, like “sculptured marble”. Golding had intended Simon to be a portrait of a “saint”, and with his luminous halo of “attendant” creatures round his head he seems like one.
But with the new paragraph the perspective changes. It expands to take in the sun and the moon and the constellations beyond them. From this universal viewpoint the earth is small and distant- a planet, with its oceans reduced to a “film” of water. The “moonbeam-bodied” creatures which seemed at first romantic and beautiful, change too when we remember how they were first introduced in Chapter 4.
There were creatures that lived in this last fling of the sea, tiny transparencies that came questing in with the water over the hot, dry sand. With impalpable organs of sense they examined this new field. Perhaps food had appeared where at the last incursion there had been none; bird droppings, insects perhaps, any of the strewn detritus of landward life. Like a myriad of tiny teeth in a saw, the transparencies came scavenging over the beach.
So what the “inquisitive bright creatures” are busying themselves with, in the passage describing Simon’s body, is eating him. His body is not sculptured marble but part of the food chain, on a par with bird droppings and insects. Gaia’s disregard for human life is set beside Golding’s transcendent view of Simon as a “saint”.
Golding uses language to enliven things that are not alive
He gives the boys’ imaginations his enlivening poetic power, showing how the island is terrifying for them
Through personification and language, the natural world is made to seem conscious
Golding's language enlivens inanimate – and even dead – things on the island.
The original design for the first edition of Lord of the Flies