The literary parallels between Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, are inescapable. In both novels, living in isolation from society drives human beings into a savage state characterized by unspeakable acts, suggesting that being “civilized” is learned behavior that masks mankind’s true nature. When the constraints of society no longer hold the human animal in check, what Golding refers to as “man’s essential illness” is unleashed. Sigmund Freud identified it as the Id, the primitive force in the human psyche that demands the gratification of urges wired into human beings through biology.
Golding’s anarchist Jack Merridew and Conrad’s Kurtz, the ivory trader who creates his own kingdom deep in the Congo, both personify the Id. As Jack presides over a pig roast, wearing a garland of flowers and sitting on a makeshift throne, the boys at his feet, the image is reminiscent of Kurtz’s being worshiped by the natives at the trading company’s Central Station where he wields absolute power. Marlow, Conrad’s narrator, observes that “Mr. Kurtz lacked restraint in the gratification of his various lusts”; Jack, also, lacks restraint, becoming more and more savage in satisfying his lust to dominate life on the island until he bears no resemblance to his former civilized self, just as Kurtz dies bearing no resemblance to the man mourned by his fiancée in Brussels. Kurtz, Marlow says, is “hollow at the core”; so too is Jack, devoid of conscience and human empathy.
Echoes of Heart of Darkness are found throughout Golding’s novel. The sow’s head affixed to a spear mirrors the image of human heads impaled on pikes at Kurtz’s station. Roger’s hunting Ralph with a spear sharpened at both ends suggests that a similar fate awaits Ralph before he is rescued. As Simon converses with the horrible sow’s head, it smiles; when Marlow views one of the human heads in Kurtz’s collection, he observes that it is smiling.
In “Notes on Lord of the Flies,” published in the Penguin Putnam edition of the novel, E. L. Epstein points out the similarity between Simon’s vision of the sow’s head and Marlow’s description of Kurtz. “Simon imagines he is looking into a vast mouth,” Epstein writes, a mouth which Conrad describes as having “blackness within” that spreads. Feeling that he has been drawn inside the mouth, Simon loses consciousness. The passage, Epstein observes, echoes Marlow’s description of the dying Kurtz: “I saw [him] open his mouth wide—it gave him a weirdly voracious aspect, as though he wanted to swallow all the air, all the earth, all the men before him.” Golding, Epstein contends, “seems very close to Conrad, both in basic principles and in artistic method.” The conclusion of Lord of the Flies supports Epstein’s analysis: Ralph recognizes “the darkness in man’s heart” and weeps.