Two of Golding’s major literary influences in Lord of the Flies are R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In Ballantyne’s novel, three boys, two of whom are named Ralph and Jack, are shipwrecked on a deserted island, where they survive by relying on each other and their wits. Building a boat, they travel beyond the island, face numerous dangers courageously, and triumph. Before Ralph, the narrator, relates their adventures, he reminds readers that they are about to enter “regions of fun.” Lord of the Flies takes readers into entirely different regions of experience, but it adheres in many ways to elements in The Coral Island. Like Ballantyne’s novel, Lord of the Flies is a Robinsonade, the genre of adventure fiction established by Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Golding’s boys, like Ballantyne’s, experience a disaster that places them without adult supervision in a tropical paradise, a wild place far removed from civilization. However, Golding’s boys do not achieve a cooperative triumph; rather, they descend into deepening depravity.
The literary parallels between Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, published in 1899, are inescapable. In both novels, isolation from society drives humans into a savage state characterized by unspeakable acts, suggesting that being “civilized” is learned behavior that masks humankind’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 biological urges.
Echoes of Heart of Darkness are found throughout Golding’s novel. Golding’s Jack Merridew mirrors Conrad’s Kurtz, the ivory trader who creates his own kingdom deep in the Congo, and both personify Freud’s notion of the Id. As Jack presides over a pig roast, with the boys at his feet, the image is reminiscent of Kurtz 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. In another notable parallel, Marlow views one of the human heads in Kurtz’s collection and observes that it is smiling; similarly Simon converses with the horrible sow’s head, which smiles at him. The concluding passage of Lord of the Flies contains the most direct echo of Conrad’s novel: Ralph recognizes “the darkness in man’s heart” and weeps.