Placing a group of English schoolboys on a deserted tropical island sets up a what-if situation. The novel presumes an atomic war that threatens to wipe out civilization and a small group of children managing to survive on a previously uninhabited island. Its asks whether such children will re-create the democratic civilization they have experienced during their short lives or instead, because of animal survival instincts, revert to some precivilized form of existence. Finally, if children do slough off the veneer of cultural and ethical standards of conduct, the novel raises the question of the conclusions to be reached concerning human nature.
Lord of the Flies, William Golding’s first published novel, apparently did not appeal to the many editors who rejected it. Once it was published in England, however, it achieved immediate success. In this work, the author expresses his feelings after having spent World War II as a naval officer and having witnessed the devastations of that war. These wartime experiences underlie his basic disillusionment with humanity, expressed in this fable of children losing their innocence and precociously assuming adult guilt. Although Golding continued to express his feelings and questions about the nature of existence in other novels, he never achieved the success of this early venture.
The power of Lord of the Flies stems in part from the credibility of the dialogue and conduct of the young characters. The complexity of the characters avoids the oversimplification that this parable-like story otherwise supports. Boys experimenting with behavior when there are no adults to set limits, seeing rock formations as a castle fortress, and seeking emotional support in friendships all appeal to the reader.
The plausibility of the futuristic conditions, in which life choices must be made by survivors of an atomic war, is maintained by the gradual change in the conduct of the boys. Although their initial choices support the democratic lifestyle they have experienced, they slip into swimming in the lagoon rather than helping to build shelters, into neglecting the fire in order to join in the hunt for meat, into submitting to Jack’s autocratic leadership, and finally into hunting another human being.
One of the catalysts Golding uses in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors (1955), his second novel, is refutation of the worldview expressed in an earlier and popular work. Lord of the Flies challenges the unrealistic outlook expressed in The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1858), by Robert Michael Ballantyne. That Victorian adventure novel features three boys marooned on an island with pirates and cannibals. The boys cheerfully maintain their Christian moral outlook and gentleman’s manners until they are able to escape. The Inheritors refutes H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History (1920), which expresses an optimistic belief in rationalism and progress.
Golding was awarded the 1983 Nobel Prize in Literature. The presenter of this award noted that “Golding’s novels and stories are not only . . . dark myths about evil and treacherous, destructive forces. They are also colorful tales of adventure, full of narrative joy, inventiveness, and excitement.”