Two separate illustrations of an animal head and a fire on a mountain

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

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Sample Essay Outlines

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The following paper topics are designed to test your understanding of the novel as a whole and your ability to analyze important themes and literary devices. Following each question is a sample outline to help get you started.

  • Topic #1

    The characters’ loss of identity is a predominant theme of the book. Discuss each of the main characters’ loss of identity as the book progresses, and how this brings about the devastation that occurs in the book.

    I. Thesis statement: The main characters in Lord of the Flies
    experience a loss of identity throughout the book that eventually causes the devastation and death that prevail.

    II. Ralph
    A. His original view of the island as a paradise
    B. His leadership qualities and ideas
    C. Ineffective leadership
    D. Inability to remember his purpose
    E. His own minor digressions into savagery

    III. Piggy
    A. Piggy’s introduction and the significance of his naming
    B. The rejection and acceptance of his ideas
    C. Piggy’s changing relationship with Ralph
    D. Piggy’s symbolic descent into blindness

    IV. Jack Merridew
    A. Jack’s original role on the island
    B. Jack’s leadership qualities
    C. The gradual symbolic camouflage
    D. Jack’s twisted vision

    V. Roger
    A. Roger’s initial description
    B. Roger’s bizarre behavioral tendencies unfettered by civilized restraint
    C. Roger’s emerging role in Jack’s tribe

    VI. Conclusion: Why the characters’ loss of their civilized identities support Golding’s theory that the problems with mankind are inherent in man.

  • Topic #2

    Beelzebub, the demon of chaos, is also known as The Lord of the Flies. Though this is not referred to directly in the book, chaos, violence, anarchy, and destruction are central images in the book. Trace the characters’ relationships to The Lord of the Flies in the book, particularly as it is physically represented by the pig’s head impaled on a stick.

    I. Thesis statement: Each of the main characters in Lord of the Flies has a significant relationship with “the beast” on the
    island that is connected with the emerging scenes of violence on the island and their fates.

    II. Ralph
    A. Leader and champion of civilization
    B. Opposite of Jack
    C. Minor forays into violence, anarchy, or chaos
    1. Standing the boar’s charge and participating in the dance
    2. Fighting with Jack
    3. Forgetting his purpose
    D. Major forays into violence, anarchy, or chaos
    1. His role in Simon’s death
    2. Battling his attackers
    E. Ralph’s inability to destroy The Lord of the Flies
    1. His encounter with the skull
    2. Loss of control on the island

    III. Jack
    A. His increasing desire to hunt
    B. His decreasing desire for responsibility
    C. His increasing desire for power
    D. Denunciation of the conch
    E. Harbinger of anarchy
    1. His own tribe on Castle Rock
    2. His own brand of leadership
    3. The hunt for Ralph

    IV. Piggy
    A. Intellect vs. manual labor
    B. Frail belief in the conch
    C. Inability to accept chaos
    D. Victim of violence

    V. Simon
    A. Understanding the nature of the beast
    B. Discussions with the pig’s head
    1. Talking from within himself
    2. Falling into the pig’s mouth
    C. The inability to express the truth
    D. Looking into the face of the beast
    E. Victim of violence

    VI. Roger
    A. The emerging sadist
    B. Behavioral abnormalities
    1. Descriptions of his eager embracing of the collapse of authority
    C. Champion of anarchy

    VII. Conclusion: Sum up the boys’ relationships with “the beast” in terms of their fates.

  • Topic #3

    A subtle thematic device in the book is Golding’s use of point of view to establish character and motives. Trace the book’s shifting point of view in these terms.

    I. Thesis statement: Though Ralph is the main character of Lord of the Flies, and much of the story is told from his point of view, Golding also reveals his narrative through other characters, most notably Jack and Simon, as well as an omnipresent narrator. These separate views help to establish both character and theme.

    II. Ralph
    A. The novel’s predominant point of view
    B. Plain, descriptive prose
    C. Prose lapses into poetical visions

    III. Jack
    A. The hunter’s perspective
    B. Motivations for anarchy
    C. What kind of language?

    IV. Simon
    A. The poetical view of the island
    B. Character through vision
    C. Introspection

    V. Ralph, Jack, Simon
    A. The significance of the candle-buds

    VI. Omnipresent narrator
    A. Instances of
    B. Purpose of
    C. Prose style of

    VII. Conclusion: Even more than a narrative device, Golding’s shifting narration serves an integral function in the novel.

Lord of the Flies: Interpretations

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Lord of the Flies, William Golding's first novel, was published in London in 1954 and in New York in 1955. Golding was forty-three years old when he wrote the novel, having served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War. According to Bernard Oldsey, "The war appears to have been an important influence on him."

Lord of the Flies is deliberately modeled after R. M. Ballantyne's 1857 novel The Coral Island. In this story, a group of English boys are shipwrecked on a tropical island. They work hard together to save themselves. The only evil in the book is external and is personified by a tribe of cannibals that live on the island. The book offers a Victorian view of the world: through hard work and earnestness, one can overcome any hardship.

By giving his characters the same names as those in Ballantyne's book and by making direct reference to The Coral Island in the text of Lord of the Flies, Golding clearly wants readers to see his book as a response to the Victorian world view. Golding's view is a much bleaker one: the evil on the island is internal, not external. At the end of the book, the adult naval officer who invokes The Coral Island almost serves as Ballantyne's voice-"I should have thought that a pack of British boys— you're all British, aren't you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that." Golding's understanding of the world, colored by his own experiences in World War II is better represented by Ralph's weeping "for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy."

Initially, critics commented less on the novel as a work of art than on its political, religious, and psychological symbolism. For example, James Stern in a 1955 review for The New York Times Book Review wrote "Lord of the Flies is an allegory on human society today, the novel's primary implication being that what we have come to call civilization is at best no more than skin deep."

Indeed, many critics have argued that Lord of the Flies is an allegory. An allegory is a story in which characters, setting, objects, and plot stand for a meaning outside of the story itself. Frequently, the writers of allegory illustrate an abstract meaning by the use of concrete images. For example George Orwell in Animal Farm, uses animals and the barnyard as concrete representations of the Russian Revolution. Often, characters in allegories personify some abstract quality. In the medieval drama Everyman, for instance, the concrete character Everyman stands for all of humanity.

While it is possible to read Lord of the Flies as allegory, the work is so complex that it can be read as allegorizing the political state of the world in the postwar period; as a Freudian psychological understanding of human kind; or as the Christian understanding of the fall of humankind, among others.

As a political allegory, each character in Lord of the Flies represents some abstract idea of government. Ralph, for example, stands for the good-hearted but not entirely effective leader of a democratic state, a ruler who wants to rule by law derived from the common consent. Piggy is his adviser, someone who is unable to rule because of his own social and physical shortcomings, but who is able to offer sound advice to the democratic leader. Jack, on the other hand, represents a totalitarian dictator, a ruler who appeals to the emotional responses of his followers. He rules by charisma and hysteria. Roger, the boy who takes the most joy in the slaughter of the pigs and who hurls the rock that kills Piggy, represents the henchman necessary for such a totalitarian ruler to stay in power.

Such a reading takes into account the state of the world at the end of the World War II. For many years, leaders such as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt led democratic countries against totalitarian demigods such as Germany's Adolf Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini. Further, in the early 1950s, the world appeared to be divided into two camps: the so-called Free World of Western Europe and the United States, and the so-called Iron Curtain world of communist eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. At the time of the writing of Lord of the Flies, the world appeared to be teetering on the brink of total nuclear annihilation. Thus, by taking into account the historical context of Lord of the Flies, it is possible to understand the work as political and historical allegory, even as a cautionary tale for the leaders of the world.

Freudian psychological critics, on the other hand, are able to read Lord of the Flies as an allegory of the human psychology. In such a reading, each of the characters personifies a different aspect of the human psyche: the id, the super ego, and the ego. According to Freud, the id (located in the unconscious mind) works always to gratify its own impulses. These impulses, often sexual, seek to provide pleasure without regard to the cost. Jack's impulse to hunt and kill reaches its peak with the killing of the sow pig, a killing rife with sexual overtones. Jack never considers anything but his own pleasure; thus he can be considered an allegorical representation of the id. The superego is the part of the mind that seeks to control the impulsive behavior of the id. It acts as an internal censor. In Lord of the Flies, Piggy serves this role. He constantly reminds Ralph of their need to keep the fire burning and to take proper responsibility for the littluns. By so doing, he urges Ralph to control Jack. Piggy understands that Jack hates him, because he stands between Jack and his achievement of pleasure. Further, just as the superego must employ the ego to control the id, Piggy cannot control Jack on his own; he must rely on Ralph to do so. Finally, the ego is the conscious mind whose role it is to mediate between the id's demand for pleasure and the social pressures brought to bear by the superego. Freud calls this mediation process the reality principal; that is, the notion that immediate pleasure must be denied in order to avoid painful or deadly consequences. Ralph clearly fills this role. He attempts to control Jack and engage his energy for the tending of the fire. To do so requires him to put off the pleasure of the hunt in order to secure rescue. In a Freudian reading of The Lord of the Flies, Golding seems to be saying that without the reinforcement of social norms, the id will control the psyche.

Finally, it is possible to read Lord of the Flies as a religious allegory. In such a reading, the tropical island, filled with fruit and everything needed for sustenance, becomes a symbol of the Garden of Eden. The initial identification of the beastie as a snake also brings to mind the story of the Fall of Man. Indeed, it is possible to read the fall of the parachutist as the event which leads to the ouster from Eden of the boys. Further, Jack's identification with hunting and Ralph's identification with shelter as well as their natural antagonism appear to be allegorization of the Cain and Abel story. Indeed, it is only the intercession of the adult who comes looking for them which saves Ralph from murder. Many critics have attempted to read Simon as a Christ figure; he is the one boy who has the true knowledge which can save them. Like Christ, he is martyred. Unlike Christ, however, his death seems to have no significance for the boys; his knowledge dies with him.

More recently, critics have recognized the technical and artistic skill exhibited by Golding in Lord of the Flies. Especially notable is the way in which Golding fuses allegorical structure with strong, realistic descriptions, well-developed characterizations, and a coherent, fast moving plot. The description of the death of Piggy, for example, demonstrates Golding's skill with realistic, graphic prose:

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy's arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

Golding also provides strong characterizations. While it is possible to see each boy fulfilling an allegorical role, none of the characters (with the possible exception of Simon) functions solely as part of the allegory. This can perhaps best be seen in the development of Jack. During the first trip into the jungle, he is unable to kill the pig with his knife; by the end of the book he is hunting human quarry. Jack's growth from choirboy to murderer is accomplished with great skill.

Finally, Golding writes a fast-moving, suspenseful adventure story. The book moves quickly from the first days on the beach to the final hunt scene, reaching a feverish pitch that is broken abruptly by the appearance of the naval officer, just as it appears that Ralph will be killed. While the appearance of the adult, however, closes the action, it does not provide us with a happy ending. Indeed, at the moment of the climax of the adventure story, Golding suddenly reminds us of the allegorical nature of the book: the naval officer's cruiser is a weapon of war. Although we feel relief over Ralph's rescue, we suddenly understand that the adult world is little different from the world of the island, a place where men hunt and kill each other indiscriminately, a place where men can blow up the entire planet, our island in the sea of the universe.

Source: Diane Andrews Henningfeld, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1997. Henningfeld is a professor at Adrian College.

Teaching Rationale for William Golding's Lord of the Flies

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Lord of the Flies is William Golding's parable of life in the latter half of the twentieth century, the nuclear age, when society seems to have reached technological maturity while human morality is still prepubescent. Whether or not one agrees with the pessimistic philosophy, the idiocentric psychology or the fundamentalist theology espoused by Golding in the novel, if one is to use literature as a "window on the world," this work is one of the panes through which one should look.

The setting for Lord of the Flies is in the literary tradition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe and Johann Wyss's The Swiss Family Robinson, and like these earlier works provides the necessary ingredients for an idyllic utopian interlude. A plane loaded with English school boys, aged five through twelve, is being evacuated to a safe haven in, perhaps, Australia to escape the "Reds," with whom the English are engaged in an atomic war. Somewhere in the tropics the plane is forced to crash land during a violent storm. All the adults on board are lost when the forward section of the plane is carried out to sea by tidal waves. The passenger compartment, fortuitously, skids to a halt on the island, and the young passengers escape uninjured.

The boys find themselves in a tropical paradise: bananas, coconuts and other fruits are profusely available. The sea proffers crabs and occasional fish in tidal pools, all for the taking. The climate is benign. Thus, the stage is set for an idyllic interlude during which British fortitude will enable the boys to master any possible adversity. In fact, Golding relates that just such a nineteenth century novel, R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, was the inspiration for Lord of the Flies. In that utopian story the boy castaways overcame every obstacle they encountered with the ready explanation, "We are British, you know!"

Golding's tropical sojourners, however, do not "live happily ever after." Although they attempt to organize themselves for survival and rescue, conflicts arise as the boys first neglect, then refuse, their assigned tasks. As their "society" fails to build shelters or to keep the signal fire going, fears emanating from within—for their environment is totally non-threatening—take on a larger than life reality. Vines hanging from trees become "snake things" in the imaginings of the "little'uns." A nightmare amidst fretful sleep, causing one of the boys to cry out in the night, conjures up fearful "beasties" for the others. Their fears become more real than existence on the tropical paradise itself when the twins, Sam 'n Eric, report their enervating experience with the wind-tossed body of the dead parachutist. Despite Simon's declaration that "there is no beast, it's only us," and Piggy's disavowal of "ghosts and things," the fear of the unknown overcomes their British reserve and under Jack's all-too-willing chieftainship the boys' retreat from civilization begins.

In the initial encounter with a pig, Jack is unable to overcome his trained aversion to violence to even stake a blow at the animal. Soon, however, he and his choirboys-turned-hunters make their first kill. They rationalize that they must kill the animals for meat. The next step back from civilization occurs and the meat pretext is dropped; the real objective is to work their will on other living things.

Then, killing begins to take on an even more sinister aspect. The first fire the boys build to attract rescuers roars out of control and one of the younger boys is accidentally burned to death. The next death, that of Simon, is not an accident. He is beaten to death when he rushes into the midst of the ritual dance of the young savages. Ironically, he has come to tell the boys that he has discovered that the beast they fear is not real. Then Piggy, the last intellectual link with civilization, is killed on impulse by the sadistic Roger. Last, all semblance of civilized restraint is cast-off as the now-savage tribe of boys organizes itself to hunt down and kill their erstwhile leader, Ralph, who had tried desperately to prepare them to carry on in the fashion expected of upper middle-class British youth.

That Golding intended Lord of the Flies as a paradigm for modern civilization is concretely evident at the conclusion of the work. During the final confrontation at the rock fort between Ralph and Piggy and Jack and his tribe, the reader readily forgets that these individuals in conflict are not adults. The manhunt for Ralph, too, seems relative only to the world of adults. The reader is so inclined to lose sight of the age of his characters that Golding must remind that these participants are pre-adolescents: The naval officer who interrupts the deadly manhunt sees "A semicircle of little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in hand. . . ." Unlike that officer, the reader knows that it was not "fun and games" of the boys that the naval officer interrupted. The officer does not realize—as the reader knows—that he has just saved Ralph from a sacrificial death and the other boys from becoming premeditated murderers. Neither is the irony of the situation very subtle: The boys have been "rescued" by an officer from a British man-of-war, which will very shortly resume its official activities as either hunter or hunted in the deadly adult game of war.

Golding, then, in Lord of the Flies is asking the question which continues as the major question haunting the world today: How shall denizens of the earth be rescued from our fears and our own pursuers—ourselves? While Golding offers no ready solutions to our dilemma, an understanding of his parable yields other questions which may enable readers to become seekers in the quest for a moral world. Even if one disagrees with Golding's judgment of the nature of human beings and of human society, one profits from his analysis of the problems confronting people today. . .

Golding is a master at his trade and Lord of the Flies has achieved critical acclaim as the best of his works. Indeed, a dictionary of literary terminology might well be illustrated with specific examples from this piece of prose. The development of the several focal characters in this work is brilliantly and concretely done. In addition, the omniscient narrative technique, plotting, relating story to setting and the use of irony, foreshadowing, and certainly, symbolism are so carefully and concretely accomplished that the work can serve as an invaluable teaching aid to prepare students to read other literature with a degree of understanding far beyond a simplistic knowledge of the surface events of the story. Golding's characterizations will be used in this rationale to illustrate these technical qualities of the novel.

A strength of Lord of the Flies lies in techniques of characterization. There are five major characters who are developed as wholly-rounded individuals whose actions and intensity show complex human motivation: Ralph, Jack, Roger, Simon and Piggy. A study of these characterizations shows the wide range of techniques for developing persona utilized by Golding and by other authors:

Ralph, the protagonist, is a rather befuddled everyman. He is chosen for leadership by the group for all the wrong reasons. Ralph does not seek the leadership role; he is elected because he is older (12 plus), somewhat larger, is attractive in personal appearance and, most strikingly, he possesses the conch shell which reminds the boys of the megaphone with which their late adult supervisors directed and instructed them. In the unsought leadership role Ralph demonstrates courage, intelligence and some diplomatic skill. On the negative side he quickly becomes disillusioned with the democratic process and without Piggy's constant urgings would have cast aside the chiefs role even before Jack's coup d'etat. Ralph also demonstrates other weaknesses as he unthinkingly gives away Piggy's hated nickname and, more significantly, he gets caught up in the mob psychology of the savage dance and takes part in the ritualistic murder of Simon. Thus, by relating causes and effects, Golding reveals Ralph's change from a proper British lad to group leader to his disenchantment and finally to his becoming the object of the murderous hunt by the boys who once chose him as their leader.

Jack, the antagonist, is developed as the forceful villain. Outgoing, cocky and confident, Jack marches his choirboys in military formation up the beach to answer the call of the conch. Jack is a natural leader who, except for his exploitative nature, might have been a congealing force for good. Instead, his lust for power precipitates the conflict with Ralph and Piggy's long-range planning for rescue. To attain leadership, Jack caters to boyish desires for ready delights and after he is assured that his choir boys will follow in this new direction, he resorts to intimidation to increase his following. In Jack, Golding has developed a prototype of the charismatic leader who gains adherents by highlighting the fears and fulfilling the ephemeral needs and desires of followers.

Roger, "the hangman's horror," is a stereotyped character who does not change. He readily sheds a thin veneer of civilization which has been imposed upon him by the authority of the policeman and the law. So easily his arm loses the restraints which had once prohibited him from hitting the littl'uns with tossed rocks to a point where he can kill Piggy on impulse. It is but one more small step for him to proclaim the ritual dance must end in killing and to premeditate the murder of Ralph.

Simon is the quintessential Christ-figure. A thin, frail little boy, subject to fainting spells, he alone has the mental acumen and the courage to go onto the mountain and disprove the existence of the "beast." He is martyred for his efforts by the group which no longer wishes to hear his "good news."

Piggy, the pragmatic intellectual, is of necessity the most steadfast in motivation. He is tied to civilization by his physical weaknesses. Overweight, asthmatic, and completely dependent for sight upon his spectacles, the life of the happy savage has no allure for him. Without the aids of civilization, such as eye glasses and allergy shots, he cannot long survive. Consequently, he must reject the ephemeral allures offered by Jack and steadfastly hold, and seek to hold Ralph, to maintaining the smoke signal, his only hope for the aid and succor of rescue. His steadfastness in this aim enables him to call up the uncharacteristic courage to make the last appeal to Jack and his tribe before the rock fort because "right is right." His plea is to no avail; the sadistic Roger releases the boulder which throws Piggy from the cliff to his death.

Another minor character, Percival Weems Botts, is developed as a stereotype to demonstrate the fragility of rote learning. This "little'un" who can only recite his name and address as a response soon forgets even that as all trappings of civilization are lost by the boys.

Thus, Golding's techniques of characterization afford superior examples of the writer's craft and apt material to use to help students learn to interpret authorial voice and to respond to a piece of literature as a level beyond the denotative.

Lord of the Flies has earned for itself and its author great critical acclaim. It has also been extolled by teachers for the excitement it can engender in readers and as a work in which the motivation of characters is readily understood by adolescent readers. Despite these accolades for the novel as a work of literary art and as a teaching tool, Lord of the Flies has on occasion aroused the ire of would-be censors.

Some have opposed the use of the novel in the classroom because of the use of "vulgar" language. Certain words, notably "sucks," "ass," and the British slang word "bloody," are used. It is patently obvious that there is no prurient motivation behind the author's choice of these words. Not one of these words is ever used outside of a context in which the word appears to be quite naturally the word the character would use. The choir boys may well sing like "angels," as is stated; nevertheless, these are perfectly normal pre-adolescent boys. Given the proclivities of such youth the world over, verisimilitude would be lost had they, amongst themselves, always spoken like angels.

The sexual symbolism of the killing of the sow has also raised some puritanical brows. This violent scene is described in terms which might well be used to describe a rape. Such symbolism is fully justified, however, if the author is to be allowed to make his point that the motivation of the boys, casting away the cloak of civilization, is no longer merely securing food. Rather, they have moved from serving practical needs to an insane lust for working their will upon other creatures. The next step is the slaughter of their own kind.

Objection, too, has come upon that very point: children killing children. One must remind those who object to this violence that this piece of literature is a parable. Children are specifically used to show that even the innocence of childhood can be corrupted by fears from within. Those who would deny Golding this mode of establishing his theme would deny to all authors the right to make their point in an explicit fashion.

The most vociferous denunciation of Lord of the Flies has been vocalized by those who have misread the book to the point that they believe it deals with Satanism. The symbolism of the title, which is the English translation of the Greek word "Beelzebub," is surely being misinterpreted by such folk. In fact, theologian Davis Anderson states unequivocally that "Golding is a Christian writer." Anderson defines the central theme of Lord of the Flies as a statement of what it is like to experience the fall from innocence into sin and to experience damnation. Thus, a theologian sees the novel as one dealing with the Christian doctrine of original sin and of the rupture of man's relationship with God. Consequently, one who would attack this novel as an exercise in Satanism assuredly holds an indefensible premise.

Source: Paul Slayton, "Teaching Rationale for William Golding's Lord of the Flies," in Censored Books: Critical Viewpoints, Nicholas J. Karolides, Lee Burress, John M. Kean, eds., The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 1993, pp 351-57.


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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.”

The Coral Island Revisited

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One interested in finding about Golding for oneself should probably begin with Lord of the Flies. . . . The story is simple. In a way not clearly explained, a group of children, all boys, presumably evacuees in a future war, are dropped from a plane just before it is destroyed, on to an uninhabited tropical island. The stage is thus set for a reworking of a favorite subject in children's literature: castaway children assuming adult responsibilities without adult supervision. Golding expects his readers to recall the classic example of such a book, R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857), where the boys rise to the occasion and behave as admirably as would adults. But in Lord of the Flies everything goes wrong from the beginning. A few boys representing sanity and common sense, led by Ralph and Piggy, see the necessity for maintaining a signal fire to attract a rescue. But they are thwarted by the hunters, led by red-haired Jack, whose lust for blood is finally not to be satisfied by killing merely wild pigs. Only the timely arrival of a British cruiser saves us from an ending almost literally too horrible to think about. Since Golding is using a naive literary form to express sophisticated reflections on the nature of man and society, and since he refers obliquely to Ballantyne many times throughout the book, a glance at The Coral Island is appropriate.

Ballantyne shipwrecks his three boys—Jack, eighteen; Ralph, the narrator, aged fifteen; and Peterkin Gay, a comic sort of boy, aged thirteen— somewhere in the South Seas on an uninhabited coral island. Jack is a natural leader, but both Ralph and Peterkin have abilities valuable for survival. Jack has the most common sense and foresight, but Peterkin turns out to be a skillful killer of pigs, and Ralph when later in the book he is temporarily separated from his friends and alone on a schooner, coolly navigates it back to Coral Island by dead reckoning, a feat sufficiently impressive, if not quite equal to Captain Bligh's. The boys' life on the island is idyllic; and they are themselves without malice or wickedness, though there are a few curious episodes in which Ballantyne seems to hint at something he himself understands as little as do his characters. One is Peterkin's wanton killing of an old sow, useless as food, which the boy rationalizes by saying he needs leather for shoes. This and one or two other passages suggest that Ballantyne was aware of some darker aspects of boyish nature, but for the most part he emphasizes the paradisiacal life of the happy castaways. Like Golding's, however, Ballantyne's story raises the problem of evil, but whereas Golding finds evil in the boys' own natures, it comes to Ballantyne's boys not from within themselves but from the outside world. Tropical nature, to be sure, is kind, but the men of this non-Christian world are bad. For example, the island is visited by savage cannibals, one canoeful pursuing another, who fight a cruel and bloody battle, observed by the horrified boys, and then go away. A little later the island is again visited, this time by pirates (i.e., white men who have renounced or scorned their Christian heritage), who succeed in capturing Ralph. In due time the pirates are deservedly destroyed, and in the final episode of the book the natives undergo an unmotivated conversion to Christianity which effects a total change in their nature just in time to rescue the boys from their clutches.

Thus Ballantyne's view of man is seen to be optimistic, like his view of English boys' pluck and resourcefulness, which subdues tropical islands as triumphantly as England imposes empire and religion on lawless breeds of men. Golding's naval officer, the deus ex machina of Lord of the Flies, is only echoing Ballantyne when, perceiving dimly that all has not gone well on the island, he says: "I should have thought that a pack of British boys— you're all British aren't you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that—I mean—"

This is not the only echo of the older book. Golding boldly calls his two chief characters Jack and Ralph. He reproduces the comic Peterkin in the person of Piggy. He has a wanton killing of a wild pig, accomplished, as E. L. Epstein points out, "in terms of sexual intercourse." He uses a storm to avert a quarrel between Jack and Ralph, as Ballantyne used a hurricane to rescue his boys from death at the hands of cannibals. He emphasizes physical cruelty but integrates it into his story, and by making it a real if deplorable part of human, or at least boyish, nature improves on Ballantyne, whose descriptions of brutality—never of course performed by the boys—are usually introduced merely for their sensational effect. Finally, on the last page Golding's officer calls Ralph mildly to task for not having organized things better.

"It was like that at first," said Ralph, "before things—"

He stopped.

"We were together then—"

The officer nodded helpfully.

"I know Jolly good show. Like The Coral Island."

Golding invokes Ballantyne, so that the kind but uncomprehending adult, the instrument of salvation, may recall to the child who has just gone through hell, the naivete of the child's own early innocence, now forever lost; but he suggests at the same time the inadequacy of Ballantyne's picture of human nature in primitive surroundings.

Golding, then, regards Ballantyne's book as a badly falsified map of reality, yet the only map of this particular reality that many of us have. Ralph has it and, through harrowing experiences, replaces it with a more accurate one. The naval officer, though he should know better, since he is on the scene and should not have to rely on memories of his boyhood reading, has it, and it seems unlikely that he is ever going to alter it, for his last recorded action is to turn away from the boys and look at his "trim" cruiser, in other words to turn away from a revelation of the untidy human heart to look at something manufactured, manageable, and solidly useful.

Golding, who being a grammar-school teacher should know boys well, gives a corrective of Ballantyne's optimism. As he has explained, the book is "an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature." These defects turn out, on close examination, to result from the evil of inadequacy and mistakenness. Evil is not the positive and readily identifiable force it appears to be when embodied in Ballantyne's savages and pirates. Golding's Ralph, for example, has real abilities, most conspicuous among them the gift of leadership and a sense of responsibility toward the "littluns." Yet both are incomplete. "By now," writes Golding, "Ralph had no self-consciousness in public thinking but would treat the day's decisions as though he were playing chess." Such detachment is obviously an important and valuable quality in a leader, but significantly the next sentence reads: "The only trouble was that he would never be a very good chess player. " Piggy on the other hand no doubt would have been a good chess player, for with a sense of responsibility still more acute than Ralph's he combines brains and common sense. Physically, however, he is ludicrous— fat, asthmatic, and almost blind without his specs. He is forever being betrayed by his body. At his first appearance he is suffering from diarrhoea; his last gesture is a literally brainless twitch of the limbs, "like a pig's after it has been killed." His further defect is that he is powerless, except as he works through Ralph. Though Piggy is the first to recognize the value of the conch and even shows Ralph how to blow it to summon the first assembly, he cannot sound it himself. And he lacks imagination. Scientifically minded as he is, he scorns what is intangible and he dismisses the possibility of ghosts or an imaginary beast. "Cos things wouldn't make sense. Houses an' streets, an'— TV—they wouldn't work." Of course he is quite right, save that he forgets he is now on an island where the artifacts of the civilization he has always known are meaningless.

It is another important character, Simon, who understands that there may indeed be a beast, even if not a palpable one—"maybe it's only us " The scientist Piggy has recognized it is possible to be frightened of people, but he finds this remark of Simon's dangerous nonsense. Still Simon is right, as we see from his interview with the sow's head on a stake, which is the lord of the flies. He is right that the beast is in the boys themselves, and he alone discovers that what has caused their terror is in reality a dead parachutist ironically stifled in the elaborate clothing worn to guarantee survival. But Simon's failure is the inevitable failure of the mystic—what he knows is beyond words; he cannot impart his insights to others. Having an early glimpse of the truth, he cannot tell it,

Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind's essential illness. Inspiration came to him.

"What's the dirtiest thing there is?"

As an answer Jack dropped into the uncomprehending silence that followed it the one crude expressive syllable. Release was like an orgasm. Those littluns who had climbed back on the twister fell off again and did not mind. The hunters were screaming with delight.

Simon's effort fell about him in ruins; the laughter beat him cruelly and he shrank away defenseless to his seat.

Mockery also greets Simon later when he speaks to the lord of the flies, though this time it is sophisticated, adult mockery:

"Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill," said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter.

Tragically, when Simon at length achieves a vision so clear that is is readily communicable he is killed by the pig hunters in their insane belief that he is the very evil which he alone has not only understood but actually exorcised. Like the martyr, he is killed for being precisely what he is not.

The inadequacy of Jack is the most serious of all, and here perhaps if anywhere in the novel we have a personification of absolute evil. Though he is the most mature of the boys (he alone of all the characters is given a last name), and though as head of the choir he is the only one with any experience of leadership, he is arrogant and lacking in Ralph's charm and warmth. Obsessed with the idea of hunting, he organizes his choir members into a band of killers. Ostensibly they are to kill pigs, but pigs alone do not satisfy them, and pigs are in any event not needed for food. The blood lust once aroused demands nothing less than human blood. If Ralph represents purely civil authority, backed only by his own good will, Piggy's wisdom, and the crowd's easy willingness to be ruled, Jack stands for naked ruthless power, the police force or the military force acting without restraint and gradually absorbing the whole state into itself and annihilating what it cannot absorb. Yet even Jack is inadequate. He is only a little boy after all, as we are sharply reminded in a brilliant scene at the end of the book, when we suddenly see him through the eyes of the officer instead of through Ralph's, and he is, like all sheer power, anarchic. When Ralph identifies himself to the officer as "boss," Jack, who has just all but murdered him, makes a move in dispute, but overawed at last by superior power, the power of civilization and the British Navy, implicit in the officer's mere presence, he says nothing. He is a villain (are his red hair and ugliness intended to suggest that he is a devil?), but in our world of inadequacies and imperfections even villainy does not fulfill itself completely. If not rescued, the hunters would have destroyed Ralph and made him, like the sow, an offering to the beast; but the inexorable logic of Ulysses makes us understand that they would have proceeded thence to self-destruction.

Then everything includes itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite;
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.

The distance we have travelled from Ballantyne's cheerful unrealities is both artistic and moral. Golding is admittedly symbolic; Ballantyne professed to be telling a true story. Yet it is the symbolic tale that, at least for our times, carries conviction. Golding's boys, who choose to remember nothing of their past before the plane accident; who, as soon as Jack commands the choir to take off the robes marked with the cross of Christianity, have no trace of religion; who demand to be ruled and are incapable of being ruled properly; who though many of them were once choir boy's (Jack could sing C sharp) never sing a note on the island; in whose minds the great tradition of Western culture has left the titles of a few books for children, a knowledge of the use of matches (but no matches), and hazy memories of planes and TV sets—these boys are more plausible than Ballantyne's. His was a world of blacks and whites: bad hurricanes, good islands; good pigs obligingly allowing themselves to be taken for human food, bad sharks disobligingly taking human beings for shark food; good Christians, bad natives; bad pirates, good boys. Of the beast within, which demands blood sacrifice, first a sow's head, then a boy's, Ballantyne has some vague notion, but he cannot take it seriously. Not only does Golding see the beast; he sees that to keep it at bay we have civilization; but when by some magic or accident civilization is abolished and the human animal is left on his own, dependent upon his mere humanity, then being human is not enough. The beast appears, though not necessarily spontaneously or inevitably, for it never rages in Ralph or Piggy or Simon as it does in Roger or Jack; but it is latent in all of them, in the significantly named Piggy, in Ralph, who sometimes envies the abandon of the hunters and who shares the desire to "get a handful" of Robert's "brown, vulnerable flesh," and even in Simon burrowing into his private hiding place. After Simon's death Jack attracts all the boys but Ralph and the loyal Piggy into his army. Then when Piggy is killed and Ralph is alone, only civilization can save him. The timely arrival of the British Navy is less theatrical than logically necessary to make Golding's point. For civilization defeats the beast. It slinks back into the jungle as the boys creep out to be rescued; but the beast is real. It is there, and it may return.

Source: Carl Niemeyer, "The Coral Island Revisited," in College English, Vol. 22, No 4, January, 1961, pp. 241-45.

Critical Evaluation

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William Golding’s work has always been somewhat controversial, with many critics hailing him as a literary giant and others decrying what they see as a tendency to create contrived, manipulative works laden with heavy-handed symbolism. Golding’s reputation grew slowly. In 1955, when Lord of the Flies was first published in the United States, few readers had ever heard of him, and the book (which had been rejected by twenty-one publishers) sold only a handful of copies. Four years later, however, when a paperback edition appeared, sales of the work began to increase, promoted by word of mouth. Not long afterward, Lord of the Flies became required reading in many secondary schools and colleges, prompting interest in the author’s subsequent work. In 1983, Golding received the Nobel Prize in Literature.

Born in Cornwall, England, in 1911, Golding attended Oxford University, changing his major from science to literature halfway through, and then, after publishing a book of poetry, became caught up in World War II. He spent five years serving with the Royal Navy, emerging as a lieutenant and embarking on a teaching and writing career. He wrote novels and novellas, poetry, plays, essays, and travel articles.

Lord of the Flies remains Golding’s best-known work. It is a superficially simple but densely layered tale that has been labeled, among other things, a fable, a myth, an allegory, and a parable. On the surface, it is an adventure story. A group of schoolboys await rescue on a deserted island, meanwhile exploring, hunting, and finally warring with one another. In Golding’s hands, the story becomes a parable that probes the nature and origin of evil.

The point of departure for Lord of the Flies is a nineteenth century boys’ novel titled The Coral Island (1858), by R. M. Ballantyne. In Ballantyne’s story, a group of shipwrecked British schoolboys (two of whom share their names with Golding’s main characters) manage to create on their deserted island a fair replica of British civilization. Golding’s view of human nature is less sanguine. His is a view that accepts the doctrine of original sin but without the accompanying doctrine of redemption. People in a state of nature quickly revert to evil, but even in a so-called civilized state, people simply mask their evil beneath a veneer of order. After all, while the boys on the island are sinking into a state of anarchy and blood lust, their civilized parents and teachers are waging nuclear war in the skies overhead.

The novel’s central symbol, the pig’s head around which flies buzz, which the boys dub the Lord of the Flies, is an allusion to Beelzebub, one of the most loathsome and repulsive of the false gods assailed in the Old Testament. Here, Beelzebub is represented by the rotting head of the sow killed by Jack Merridew and his hunters (choir members) in a frenzy of bloodletting that, in the language used to describe it, has sexual overtones. As Simon realizes, however, the beast, the Lord of the Flies, represents something anarchic and evil in the very core of human nature, not—as in the Bible and religious folklore—a demon separate from humanity but capable of taking possession of one’s soul. Although human beings are gifted with at least a glimmer of intelligence and reason—represented in the novel by Piggy and Ralph, respectively—the power of evil is sufficient to overwhelm any opposition.

Lord of the Flies bears a close resemblance to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902); each involves a journey by representatives of one of the supposedly most civilized nations of the world into a darkness that lies at the very core of the human self. The irony in Lord of the Flies is even more pointed, however, in that Golding’s entire cast of characters consists of children—traditional symbols of innocence (“trailing clouds of glory” from their heavenly home, William Wordsworth claims). That they are British public schoolboys only adds to the irony in that perhaps the chief goal of the British public school is to instill in its charges a sense of honor and civil behavior. Indeed, the boys’ first impulse is toward order: Jack Merridew, later to become the most barbarous of them all, enters the novel marching his choir members along in two parallel lines.

Golding’s story unfolds amid a dense web of symbols, including the conch shell, which represents the fragile hold of rule and order and which is finally smashed to bits when Piggy is killed. Piggy’s spectacles, too, symbolize the weakness of intellect and (as a tool for making fire) the loss to humanity when intellect is quashed by superstition and irrationality. The beast, the parachutist, the fire, the killing of the sow—all assume symbolic significance in the novel, justifying the label of allegory that is often applied to this work.

Critical Overview

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Lord of the Flies has attracted an immense amount of both favorable and unfavorable criticism. Most vehement among the latter critics are Kenneth Rexroth, whose essay in the Atlantic Monthly castigated the author for having written a typical "rigged" "thesis novel" whose characters "never come alive as real boys." In the same camp is Martin Green (1960), who criticizes Golding's early works, including Lord of the Flies, as "not importantly original in thought or feeling." Otherwise admiring critics like James R. Baker have claimed that the popularity of the book peaked by the end of the 1960s because of that decade's naive view of humanity and rejection of original sin.

Among critics who admire Lord of the Flies, there is remarkable disagreement about the book's influences, genre, significant characters, and theme, not to mention the general philosophy of the author. Frank Kermode's early essay, excerpts of which appear in Baker & Ziegler's casebook edition of the novel, examines R. M. Ballantyne's Victorian boys' adventure story The Coral Island as Golding's primary influence. He interprets Golding's book as a powerful story, capable of many interpretations, precisely because of the author's "mythopoeic power to transcend" his own allegorical "programme." Bernard F. Dick, while acknowledging The Coral Island's influence, builds on Kermode's observation that the book's strength is grounded in its mythic level by tracing the influence of the Greek dramatists, especially Euripides whose play The Bacchae Golding himself acknowledged as an important source of his thinking. Dick notes that The Bacchae and Lord of the Flies both "portray a bipolar society in which the Apollonian [represented by Ralph] refuses or is unable to assimilate the Dionysian [represented by the hunters]." Dick finds fault with the author's having profound thoughts come out of the mouths of children, especially Simon. The critic recognizes, however, that this flaw grew out of Golding's decision to model his characters on the children in Coral Island. Nevertheless Dick is an overall admirer of Golding's craft in producing a work whose "foundation . . . is mythic" yet which is perhaps most accurately called a "serious parody."

Using a psychoanalytic approach to the novel, Claire Rosenfield (1961) finds yet another source for Golding's ideas in psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's Totem and Taboo. Golding claimed in an interview that he had read "absolutely no Freud." Even so, Rosenfield's close reading argues that Golding must have been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Freudian ideas. Rosenfield reminds us that according to Freud, gods and devils are basically human processes projected into the outer world. Specifically, "Ralph is a projection of man's good impulses from which we derive the authority figures—whether god, king, or father. . . . Jack becomes an externalization of the evil instinctual forces of the unconscious." Piggy, whose knowledge of science, thinning hair, and respect for adults make him the most adultlike child on the island, is both a father figure and a symbol of the progressive degeneration of the boys from adults to animalistic savages.

The abundance of possible critical stances on Lord of the Flies is summarized by Patrick Reilly in his chapter "The Strife of Critics" from his study "Lord of the Flies": Fathers and Sons. Reilly notes that the book "has been read as a moral fable of personal disintegration, as a social fable of social regression, as a religious fable of the fall of man." One critic is sure that civilization is victorious in the book, while another scoffs at the very idea that the book ends happily.

Reilly himself puts Golding's work squarely in the tradition of the "dark epiphany" as used in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Both authors work under the notion that man is so thoroughly corrupted that his redemption as a species is hopeless, however gallant and inspirational individual attempts may be. Thus the reader of Golding at the end of book is left wondering how, if the world has been destroyed by atomic war, the captain and his ship will be rescued after he has rescued the boys. Reilly, however, does find hope in the figure of Simon, whose slow death ennobles him as a "hero, saint, martyr," in contrast to Piggy's quick dispatch and equally sudden disappearance. Thus the darkness within man as a whole in the story is balanced by the "brightness within" individual hearts, and Reilly concludes that "if we cannot be certain of salvation, perhaps it is enough to sustain us if we know that the darkness need not prevail."

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