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

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

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Golding’s Life and the Publication History of Lord of the Flies: William Golding was born in 1911 in rural England to a schoolteacher father and suffragette mother. His father encouraged him to pursue the sciences but after his second year at Oxford University, Golding switched his major from science to English literature. After graduating in 1935, he spent four years writing, acting, and directing plays for a small English theatre, years he would later refer to as “wasted.” In 1939, he followed in his father’s footsteps and became a schoolteacher. However, his career was interrupted in 1940 by the outbreak of World War II. Golding enlisted in the British Royal Navy and had significant combat exposure. After the war, he resumed teaching and began his career as a writer. Lord of the Flies was Golding’s fourth manuscript, but it was the first to be published, since its predecessors were rejected for being too derivative. Golding drew inspiration for Lord of the Flies from both his experiences in the war and his experiences as a schoolteacher. He earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 for his ability to “illuminate the human condition,” in the words of the Nobel committee. 

  • Though Lord of the Flies is often considered Golding’s first novel, he had previously written three other manuscripts that were all rejected for being too derivative. Upon deciding to pursue a more original approach, Golding took inspiration from his experiences in the war and his experiences as a teacher while writing Lord of the Flies, which was rejected 21 times prior to being picked up by Faber and Faber. 

Modernism in the Post-Atomic World: The early years of the 20th century marked a point of optimism in the development of civilization in Europe and the United States. The invention of the airplane made international travel easier and faster; antibiotics revolutionized medical science; electricity illuminated new possibilities for everyday life. This optimism collapsed in the wake of the world wars, which applied these modern inventions to war and exemplified the human capacity to use technology for mass destruction—first with poison gas and rapid-fire machine guns, later with the industrialized killing camps of the Holocaust and the destructive power of atomic weapons. The international destruction and overwhelming number of civilian deaths during World War II pushed many scholars and artists to question the natures of humanity and society. 

  • Post-War British Society: During World War II, many English cities were damaged, and supply shortages led to rationing. Meat, tobacco, gasoline, sugar, and fruit became luxuries, and the rebuilding process was slow. Ralph’s recognition of the boys’ deteriorating hygiene reflects the emphasis that post-war Britain placed on maintaining appearances. Jack’s obsession with hunting reflects the luxury that meat became in 1950s Europe. The backdrop of atomic war reflects the heightened anxieties sparked by the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which forced the world to recognize the destructive power of nuclear weaponry. Even the games the boys on the island play are infused with violence and war-like diction, exemplified when Ralph pretends to be a fighter plane coming to shoot Piggy. War infects all people, including children. 
  • The Cold War and Mutually Assured Destruction: After World War II ended, the wartime alliance between the Allied countries and the United Soviet Socialist Republic (USSR) dissolved. As Western Europe worked towards rebuilding from World War II, tensions between the United States and the USSR rose, resulting in the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. After witnessing the devastating impact of the atom bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it became clear that sustained nuclear war would result in complete annihilation of all parties. The climate was tense, and an atomic war like the one in which Golding sets Lord of the Flies was viewed as an imminent reality. The boys on the island model both the tense relationships of the Cold War and the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Ralph and Jack never directly exchange blows, instead fighting for influence over the other boys, just as the United States and USSR fought to install like-minded governments in other regions. As Jack hunts Ralph, his tribe burns down all of the fruit trees on the island and the fire burns out of control. Though not on the scale of nuclear annihilation, Jack ensures his own tribe’s destruction in his single minded quest to eliminate Ralph. 

Golding, World War II, and “the defects of human nature”: Lord of the Flies is heavily inspired by Golding’s time in the British Royal Navy and his time as a schoolteacher. He grew increasingly disillusioned with human nature during the war, coming to view humans, including himself, as inherently immoral. He believed that under the right circumstances, even children are capable of extreme cruelty. Nazi Germany was a strong influence on this belief, given that ordinary, civilized people participated in the atrocities committed during the Holocaust. By using adolescent British schoolboys as his subjects, Golding sought to illuminate the “defects of human nature” with regards to violence and cruelty. Lord of the Flies uses the boys’ actions to reveal that the same latent potential for cruelty exhibited in the worst episodes of history exists in all humans. 

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