Lord of the Flies Questions and Answers

William Golding

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting Lord of the Flies questions.

What is the historical context for Lord of the Flies?

Lord of the Flies was written by Nobel laureate William Golding (1911 – 1993) in the early 1950s and first published in 1954. The Hobbesian vision of young boys in the wilderness responded to a great degree to the horrors of World War II, and perhaps to the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union as well, addressing the question of how ordinary people can commit or be complicit in atrocities. The book offers the solution that cruelty and tribalism are inherent in human nature. 

How is Lord of the Flies related to The Coral Island?

It is often noted that The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean (1857) by R. M. Ballantyne, was a major literary influence in Golding’s writing Lord of the Flies, although Golding’s tale turns the juvenile-adventure genre into a dark exploration of human nature. 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. They build shelters and forage for food. Before they are overwhelmed with fear and “things are breaking up,” Golding’s castaways explore the island in the spirit of youthful adventure. Setting out on an expedition, “[a] kind of glamour was spread over them … they were conscious of the glamour and made happy by it.” Filled with excitement, they talk and laugh together in the “bright” air and work together to climb to the top of the mountain. As they stand on the summit, Ralph speaks for all as they survey the island spread out below: “This belongs to us,” he declares, unaware of what lies ahead when adventure becomes a nightmare.    

How does Lord of the Flies echo Joseph Conrad?

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.

How is Ralph a complex character?

As the boys’ chief, Ralph relies on logic in attempting to effect their rescue from the island. He understands the critical importance of keeping the signal fire burning, despite the hard work and self-discipline required to maintain it. Ralph represents the voice of reason in civilized society, and he is unable to understand the rejection of logical thinking by the other boys.

Ralph’s character, however, is more complex than that of a sensible leader who knows how to think. He criticizes Jack Merridew’s obsession with killing pigs, but when Ralph confronts a wild boar and wounds it with a spear, he feels elated. On two other occasions, Ralph joins the boys in acts of violence, most significantly when Simon is murdered during a frenzy of dancing and chanting. For Ralph to succumb to savage behavior suggests that bloodlust lies at the heart of man’s nature, controlled but never eradicated by the constraints of civilized society. Even Ralph is not immune to the darkest impulses of humanity, nor is he immune to the instinct to survive. Hunted by the murderous Jack and his tribe, Ralph runs for his life, “screaming, snarling, bloody,” driven into an animal state by a biological imperative far more powerful than human intellect.  

How does Ralph experience a loss of innocence?

Witnessing Ralph’s efforts to effect the boys' rescue, it is easy to forget that he is a child, one of the older boys, a “bigun,” but a child nonetheless. When he first realizes the absence of adults on the island, Ralph’s response reflects the immaturity of childhood. “No grownups!” he declares with delight.

As life on the island becomes more and more ominous, however, Ralph desperately wants the authority and protection of grownups. Ralph’s longing for the security he had known while living in a world of adults is reflected in the memories of home he revisits at night before falling asleep.

Ralph’s initial relationship with Piggy further emphasizes Ralph’s immaturity. At first, like the other boys, Ralph treats Piggy with disrespect and rejects him as an equal. As he matures, Ralph grows to understand and rely on Piggy. He recognizes in Piggy a good mind, more capable of reason than his own, and a courageous spirit that defies injustice.

Ralph’s maturity and its tragic implications are evidenced in the novel’s ironic conclusion. Standing on the beach under the gaze of a naval officer from the ship that has come to the boys’ rescue, Ralph’s appearance is deceiving. The officer sees before him a sobbing child with a “filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose,” but in Ralphs’s tears lies the reality of what he has become. He weeps not as a child but as a soul now familiar with evil, its manifestations and its horrendous consequences. He weeps “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”

Ralph suffers under the weight of metaphysical truth revealed, the knowledge of “mankind’s essential illness” imposed upon him by circumstances beyond his control and by events from which he will never be free. 

What does life on the island tell us about society?

The manner in which Golding begins the novel reminds readers that human beings are social animals who create societies to avoid facing the world alone. The first conversation between Ralph and Piggy focuses on their wondering if they are alone in this strange place, and the first action they undertake together is to sound the conch to contact others who might be nearby. Hearing the sound, the young survivors slowly come out of the jungle and join Ralph and Piggy on the beach; Jack Merridew appears with his choir of school boys, who have already reassembled. Until Jack challenges Ralph’s authority, fails to gain support, and declares that he is striking out on his own, the boys live, work, and play together, with the littluns forming their own society within the larger one. Human nature being what it is, Piggy predicts that Jack will return; Jack’s returning, however, proves to be unnecessary when some of the boys gravitate to him, creating a third society on the island.

The boys’ powerful need to live in proximity to other human beings and the distress of being rejected are seen most clearly in Piggy and Ralph. The physically unattractive and socially inept Piggy, despite the ways he is ridiculed and the number of times he is rebuffed, persistently attempts to function within the boys’ society on the island, often while complaining bitterly about the injustices he suffers at their hands. Piggy’s happiness and gratitude when he finds a friend in Ralph emphasize how much Piggy needs to be accepted as a member of the human community; even belonging within a society of two provides him with comfort and a sense of security.

Piggy’s pervading sense of isolation before Ralph befriends him is painful, but it is minor compared to Ralph’s fear and desolation when Jack succeeds in ostracizing Ralph, and Ralph’s only allies, Piggy and Simon, have been killed. Bereft of all human companionship, Ralph cannot endure the loneliness and isolation of the deserted beach. Despite his deadly confrontation with Jack and Jack’s tribe, Ralph is compelled to return to the Castle Rock where other human beings reside.

Ralph’s learning that Jack intends to unleash his hunters on him doesn’t mitigate Ralph’s need for human contact to avoid facing alone the unknown terrors of human existence. Instead of fleeing from the Castle Rock, Ralph chooses to remain, staying “not far from the tribe, so that if the horrors of the supernatural emerged one could at least mix with humans for the time being ….” Pursued by Jack and his tribe the following day, Ralph does not attempt to reestablish a relationship with the boys he had known; recognizing their murderous intent, he runs for his life. Only the instinct to survive, the novel suggests, overrides man’s nature as a social animal. 

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What is "mankind's essential illness"?

What Golding alludes to as “mankind’s essential illness” he doesn’t identify, leaving it to the reader to determine the nature of the darkness Simon recognizes in human beings. Literary critics frequently conclude that it is the presence of evil and that the novel expresses Golding’s view that man is evil by nature. How then can evil be defined in the context of the narrative? As a spiritual concept, the antithesis of goodness? As the chaos created by the savage, unrestrained Id of the human psyche? Specific passages in the novel support both interpretations. However, a scene in chapter 4 suggests that “mankind’s essential illness” can be defined another way, as well, based on the behavior of a littlun playing on the beach.

At the ocean’s edge, little Henry digs runnels in the sand with a stick and watches them fill with water; as the tide recedes, tiny sea creatures washed ashore are trapped in the shallow channels he has created. Fascinated with the “tiny transparencies,” he pokes the sand with his stick, directing them into the runnels where he wants them to go. Golding describes Henry’s behavior in a passage that implies the profound significance of his actions:

He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things. He talked to them, urging them, ordering them. Driven back by the tide, his footprints became bays in which they were trapped and gave him the illusion of mastery.

What drives Henry’s behavior is then underscored through literary parallelism. As Henry controls the creatures trapped at his feet, Roger controls him, surreptitiously throwing stones so that they land near Henry, prompting him to determine their source and confusing him when he can’t. Through this scene, another interpretation of “mankind’s essential illness” is suggested by the littlun’s actions, and it is validated by Roger’s. The darkness in human nature, their behavior implies, is man’s innate drive to dominate that which exists separate from the self. Moving in ever expanding circles, like the “spreading rings” in the water created by Roger’s throwing stones, it is the blind expression of human will that plunges the island into anarchy and the world beyond the island into war.