Summary of the Novel
Lord of the Flies is set at a vague point in the future during an atomic war. A planeload of British schoolchildren is shot down and marooned on a deserted island. There are no adults present.
As the story opens, the jungle on the island is severely scarred from the wreckage of the plane. Two boys, the fair-haired, charismatic Ralph, and the fat, asthmatic, thickly bespectacled Piggy, emerge from the jungle.
While they are swimming in a shallow pool inside a lagoon, Ralph discovers a beautiful conch shell. Piggy, slightly smarter, suggests he blow it as a signal for other survivors.
One by one, boys of varying ages from six to twelve appear from the jungle. Among them are several older boys, identical twins Sam and Eric (sometimes referred to as Samneric due to their lack of individual identity), the quiet but strange Roger, thoughtful Simon, and charismatic Jack Merridew, leader of the choir.
While absorbing the view, the boys come upon a wild piglet caught in some creeper vines. Jack takes out a large knife and prepares to kill the pig. He hesitates, and the pig escapes. Jack is upset by what he perceives to be Ralph’s condemnation of his hesitation. He silently vows to himself, “Next time there would be no mercy.”
Later, Ralph uses the conch to call another meeting. It is decided that whoever holds the conch shell will have the right to speak at the meetings. A small boy with a mulberry-colored birthmark obscuring half of his face receives the conch. He tells the others of a “beastie” that comes in the dark and wants to eat him. Some deny its existence, but Jack vows to hunt it when he and his hunters hunt pig for meat.
Next, the boys decide that they must make a signal fire on the mountain to attract ships to rescue them. They gather wood and use Piggy’s glasses to start the fire. In their exuberance and inexperience, they allow the fire to rage out of control and it consumes a large portion of the jungle. The small boy with the mulberry-colored birthmark disappears and is never seen again. It is implied he was killed in the fire.
Jack quickly learns the art of hunting, but still hasn’t gotten a pig. While he hunts, Ralph and Simon build poorly constructed shelters on the beach from palm trunks and fronds. Jack returns from his unsuccessful hunt, and he and Ralph clash over the decision to hunt or build the shelters.
Simon discovers a secret place in the jungle. It is a hollow completely obscured by creeper vines. He sits here, away from the others, and contemplates the beauty of the jungle.
As time passes, the boys begin to resemble less and less the civilized British schoolchildren they used to be. Their uniforms deteriorate and their hair grows long and ragged. A marked boundary begins to grow between the younger children (littluns) who play all day, and the older children (biguns) who seem to be growing divided as to their responsibilities.
Ralph, Piggy, Simon, Sam and Eric see the need for order and civilization, while Jack and his hunters become obsessed with the ideas of finding meat and protecting the littluns from the beast.
Jack introduces his hunters to the notion of camouflaging their features with red and white clay and black charcoal for hunting. This gradual masking of their identities allows them to become more ruthless and effective hunters.
Presently, the smoke from a ship passing the island is discovered, but Jack and the hunters, preoccupied with hunting, have let the signal fire they were tending go out. Jack returns from the hunt, triumphant over killing a pig and slitting its throat himself, only to be rebuffed by Ralph for neglecting the fire.
The boys clash on the matter, but eventually all share in consuming the meat. Ralph calls another meeting to deal with the situation involving the signal fire. Another littlun, Phil, speaks of his dreams of the beast. This again inspires Jack to lobby for the necessity of his hunters. He and Ralph argue again over the importance of the signal fire versus the meat. Jack declares his disgust and he and his hunters leave the meeting.
Ralph considers giving up being chief. Piggy, who fears Jack, tries to convince him not to.
That night, unseen by the castaways, there is a fight between aircraft ten miles in the sky over the island. A dead parachutist lands on the side of the mountain in a sitting position. The wind, catching in the parachute, makes the figure rock back and forth.
The boys, thinking it is the beast, argue over whether or not to approach it. The boys, led by Ralph with an angry Jack in tow, travel to the mountainside to see the beast. Jack sees the natural bridge to the island’s outcropping. He decides that the separate island, joined to the main island by a rock ledge, would make a great fort. It contains many rocks that could be rolled onto the approach path to kill enemies. He and Ralph argue again, and Jack verbally denies any further loyalty to the conch and its power.
The boys’ continued expedition to the figure on the mountain is interrupted when the boys flush a boar. Ralph wounds it when it charges him. The boar escapes, but they celebrate the encounter with another primitive blood lust dance in which Robert, pretending to be the pig, is beaten by the hunters who are overly excited by the dance. Ralph’s bravery in the face of the boar’s charge is forgotten.
As the day wanes, most of the boys have returned to the shelters, but Ralph, Jack, and Roger have pressed on and apprehensively approach the figure. The wind causes it to move and the boys see its decaying face in the darkness. They all flee.
At the next meeting, Jack and Ralph question each other’s bravery on the mountain. Jack convinces his hunters to separate themselves from the rest.
Following Piggy’s suggestion Ralph, Simon, and Samneric try to maintain a signal fire down off the mountain, away from Jack and his hunters. Jack orders his hunters to kill a pig for a feast, hoping that the roasting meat will draw the others’ loyalty away from Ralph. They kill a pig and he orders them to mount its head on a stick as a sacrifice for the beast.
Simon, who had been in his hiding place, contemplates the head of the boar that the hunters had unknowingly impaled near him. He imagines a conversation with the head, and begins to see in it the source of evil on the island. He has an epileptic seizure. He awakens, and the head again reveals itself to him as the symbol of anarchy on the island. Simon has a second seizure.
Simon awakens again and climbs the mountain to view the figure of the dead parachutist that the boys believe is the beast. He discovers that it is harmless, and that the true nature of what the boys should fear, the real beast, is symbolized by the pig’s head. He returns to tell the others.
Meanwhile, Jack and his hunters roast the pig, and the others, including Ralph and Piggy, join the feast. Ralph and Jack argue again and most of the boys side with Jack this time. Ralph tries to convince them that they need shelters, but Jack distracts them by commanding another blood lust dance. The boys become so swept up in the dance that Simon, emerging from the forest, is mistaken for the beast. All the boys, marginally including Ralph and Piggy, beat him to death. The tide sweeps his body out to sea.
Back at the shelters, Ralph, Piggy, and Samneric contemplate their roles in Simon’s death. That night, Jack and his hunters attack them and steal Piggy’s glasses for a fire.
The next day, Ralph, Samneric, and Piggy approach Castle Rock, where Jack’s tribe has gathered, to demand the return of Piggy’s glasses. Ralph wants to reestablish the power of the conch.
He and Samneric approach the hunters while Piggy and the conch stay on the stone bridge. Jack and Ralph argue again while the hunters take Samneric prisoner. Roger releases a rock they had rigged to guard the bridge. It falls on Piggy, smashes the conch, and plunges Piggy over the edge to his death.
Ralph escapes and the hunters hunt him. He hides near Castle Rock but only manages to learn that Roger has tortured Samneric into joining the hunt. Samneric now fear Roger, the sadist, more than Jack.
Eventually, the hunters corner Ralph in Simon’s old hiding place. They flush him from concealment with a fire. Ralph manages to escape to the beach with the hunters right behind.
He comes face to face with a shocked naval officer. A battle cruiser has docked in the lagoon, drawn by the smoke from Jack’s fire. The officer is appalled at the savage condition of the children. Ralph assumes responsibility for what appears to be poor leadership. Ralph begins to weep for the three dead children and the castaways’ loss of innocence.
Jack emerges onto the beach without his hunting camouflage or weapons. Only Piggy’s broken glasses on his belt give any indication of his previous savagery.
One of the littluns cannot remember his own name. The officer, embarrassed by what he mistakenly perceives to be Ralph’s undignified relief at rescue, turns away and stares at his warship in the lagoon.
About William Golding
As a child and adolescent William Golding like others in the innocent years before the War, had a fundamentally simple conception of the world. In a generic mode of thinking, during the years before the massive cruelty, devastation, and destruction wrought by World War II the prevailing concept of man and society included two basic viewpoints: man was essentially good and society was inherently evil. Golding's belief in this concept can be seen in his childhood reading choices, which included adventure stories like Tarzan of the Apes, Coral Island, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea. These stories featured good and pure men in their struggle against the evils of society.
Golding's opinions toward mankind and society changed with the course of the war. He fought during World War II as a member of the Royal Navy. His experience included clashes with enemy naval vessels as well as participation in the Walcheren and D-Day operations. He witnessed firsthand the terrible destructive power of man operating during war, essentially outside the restrictive limits of society. With war as his tutor, he began to view man, instead, as a creature with a very dark and evil side to his nature. Lord of the Flies, as well as Golding's other works, essentially explores the dark side of what Golding felt was the true nature of man: evil.
The critical notes by E.L. Epstein, following the text in the edition of the book used for this study guide, contain an informative interpretation of the story’s central image, integral to understanding the allegorical implications of the novel:
The central symbol itself, the “lord of the flies” [physically represented in the novel by the pig’s head Jack’s tribe mounts on a sharpened stick, and abstractly represented by the boy’s gradual descent into anarchy and violence] . . . is a translation of the Hebrew Ba’alzevuv (Beelzebub in Greek). It has been suggested that it was a mistranslation of a mistransliterated word which gave us the pungent and suggestive name for the Devil, a devil whose name suggests that he is devoted to decay, destruction, demoralization, hysteria, and panic and who therefore fits very well in Golding’s theme.
In a historical sense, Lord of the Flies has been present in literature, literally and figuratively, since Loki, the god of mischief in Norse mythology, and in works as diverse as Dante’s “Inferno” and the modern works of Stephen King and other contemporary horror authors. Chaos and destruction have even reigned supreme at times in the modern world. Consider Adolph Hitler and the nightmare reign of the Third Reich, forces that Golding himself fought against, as a prime example of this. But since the embodiment of evil in literature has largely been reduced to an amusing conceit, Golding had to approach his presentation of Beelzebub on a more figurative level. Having witnessed himself the evil that man is capable of, he took a more symbolic approach to presenting what author Anthony Burgess called, “[The] most stinking and depraved of all the devils.” In Lord of the Flies:
The Devil is not presented in any traditional religious sense; Golding’s Beelzebub is the modern equivalent, the anarchic, amoral, driving force that Freudians call the Id, whose only function seems to be to insure the survival of the host in which it is embedded or embodied, which function it performs with tremendous and single-minded tenacity.
On speaking of the same central image in the novel, Stephen Medcalf writes, “The book dares to name the beast, the evil in man’s heart, as the beast.” Shaped by brute experience, and his dashed conceptions of the good world, Golding’s Lord of the Flies is, therefore, a study of man’s willing (and inevitable) descent into the heart of darkness, fueled by his own fear, and guided by his own inwardly twisted nature.
Considering Golding’s own experiences with chaos, fear, death, and destruction on a massive scale during World War II, and his own altered moral philosophy and loss of innocence, it is no surprise that he has chosen to examine their origins in Lord of the Flies.
Golding claims to have written Lord of the Flies as a response to the novel Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean, by R.M. Ballantyne. According to Major 20th Century Writers:
These two books share the same basic plot line and even some of the same character names (two of the lead characters are named Ralph and Jack in both books). The similarity, however, ends there. Ballantyne’s story, about a trio of boys stranded on an otherwise uninhabited island, shows how, by pluck and resourcefulness, the young castaways survive with their morals strengthened and their wits sharpened. Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, is “an allegory on human society today, the novel’s primary implication being that what we have come to call civilization is, at best, not more than skin-deep,” as James Stern explains in a New York Times Book Review article.
Golding’s view of civilization and the pure innocence of youth, however, was quite different from Ballantyne’s. Having witnessed the grand scale of death and destruction in World War II, Golding described the theme of his own highly allegorical novel Lord of the Flies as “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” He no longer agreed with Ballantyne’s hypothesis that the proper English civilized way of life was good and Christian, and that evil was its antithesis: un-Christian and savage. According to author Anthony Burgess (A Clockwork Orange), Golding’s characters, unlike Ballantyne’s, are inherently evil. Without the restraints of civilization they, “will choose chaos rather than order. The good intentions of the few are overborne by the innate evil of the many. Instead of a boy-scout camp, we get young savages—painted, naked, gorging on pigflesh, given to torture, murder, human sacrifice to false gods.”
List of Characters
Jack Merridew—Tall, bony, “ugly without silliness,” red-haired, freckled. He is the leader of the choir who turns into a savage hunter. He rivals Ralph’s leadership. His name is from the Hebrew word meaning “one who supplants.” His character believes in authoritarian rule through fear, manipulation, and intimidation.
Piggy—He is asthmatic and obese. He wears thick eyeglasses or is otherwise mostly blind. He stays near Ralph and constantly but ineffectually tries to maintain order and follow rules. His name implies a relationship between himself, pigs the boys hunt, and slaughter on the island.
Ralph—The novel’s protagonist. His name comes from the Anglo-Saxon word meaning “counsel.” Twelve years old. Fair-haired and athletic in build. Naturally charismatic, he is initially elected chief of the island by popular majority vote and attempts to run the island democratically. He rivals Jack for leadership.
Roger—A member of the choir. Slight and furtive, keeps to himself, intense and secretive. Referred to as “the dark boy.” His name comes from the German word for “spear.” As the story progresses he becomes very sadistic. Allied to Jack.
Sam and Eric (Samneric)—Identical twins. “Tow-haired,” “bullet-headed,” “chunky and vital.” They are initially allied to Ralph but Roger tortures them into submission to Jack.
Simon—A boy of about nine years of age. His name is Hebrew for “listener.” Initially described as pallid, he is quiet, introspective, and prone to epileptic seizures. A member of Jack’s choir. He has black hair and a low, broad forehead, and is later described as deeply tanned. Allied to Ralph.
Other boys mentioned briefly are identified as Biguns and Littluns, except for Willard, a character only referred to sketchily. Biguns are the older children, and Littluns the younger.
Bill, Robert, Harold, Walter—Biguns. Choir members.
Henry—Littlun. Distant relative of the birthmarked boy.
Johnny—Littlun. Six years old. Sturdy and fair, “naturally belligerent.” The first to respond to the conch’s call.
Maurice—Bigun. A choir member. Broad and grinning. Second in size to Jack.
Naval officer—First person from the rescue ship to encounter the boys.
Parachutist—Killed in an airfight over the island, his dead body parachutes onto the mountain and is mistaken for “the beast.”
Percival Wemys Madison—Littlun. Mouse-colored and unattractive. Very small. Cries at the mention of “the beast.”
Phil—Littlun. Confident. Tells others of his dream of “the beast.”
Small boy with a mulberry-colored birthmark on one side of his face—Six years old. He is the first to mention “the beast.” It is suggested that he perished in the first mishandled signal fire.
Stanley—A vaguely described member of Jack’s tribe.
Willard—Member of Jack’s tribe. Beaten for some unknown offense.
Estimated Reading Time
Lord of the Flies contains 12 chapters ranging in length from nine to 23 pages, with an average length of 15 pages. Each chapter can probably be read in 45 to 60 minutes. A range of 10 to 15 hours should be allowed for reading time of the novel.