Despite its later popularity, William Golding's Lord of the Flies was only a modest success when it was first published in England in 1954, and it sold only 2,383 copies in the United States in 1955 before going out of print. Critical reviews and British word of mouth were positive enough, however, that by the time a paperback edition was published in 1959, Lord of the Flies began to challenge The Catcher in the Rye as the most popular book on American college campuses. By mid-1962 it had sold more than 65,000 copies and was required reading on more than one hundred campuses.
The book seemed to appeal to adolescents' natural skepticism about the allegedly humane values of adult society. It also captured the keen interest of their instructors in debating the merits and defects of different characters and the hunting down of literary sources and deeper symbolic or allegorical meanings in the story—all of which were in no short supply. Did the ending of the story—a modern retelling of a Victorian story of children stranded on a deserted island—represent the victory of civilization over savagery, or vice versa? Was the tragic hero of the tale Piggy, Simon, or Ralph? Was Golding's biggest literary debt owed to R. M. Ballantyne's children's adventure story, The Coral Island, or to Euripides's classic Greek tragedy, The Bacchae?
Though the popularity of Golding's works as a whole has ebbed and grown through the years, Lord of the Flies has remained his most read book. The questions raised above, and many more like them, have continued to fascinate readers. It is for this reason, more than any other, that many critics consider Lord of the Flies a classic of our times.
Lord of the Flies became popular at the onset of the 1960s, a decade that witnessed an increase in both the number of teen-agers in America and the influence of their ideas. More than thirty years after the book's publication, the situation of many modern American young adults bears significant similarities to the crisis situation of the British schoolboys whose tale is the subject of the novel.
Like the characters in Lord of the Flies, contemporary young adults in urban environments must often fend for themselves in order to survive the rugged life of the streets. Young people everywhere sometimes have trouble finding trustworthy adult guidance, while peer pressure— which compels young people to lose an individual sense of identity and morality—is pervasive. In one respect, Lord of the Flies presents a step-by-step study of how peer pressure can lead adolescents away from the values they once embraced and the people they once respected.
When the young people of Lord of the Flies find themselves the only survivors of a plane wreck, they must adjust to living in a world without adult authority and rules. They must somehow find a new way to organize a society that will ensure physical survival and social justice. The boys in Lord of the Flies must confront forces of destruction on the island and in themselves that they cannot understand. As the book continues, their makeshift government disintegrates, giving rise to a brutal gang bent on destroying those boys who have tried to form a purposeful, just society. Violence becomes the order of the day, unleashing primitive instincts.