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

Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

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Teaching Approaches

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Humanity in the State of Nature: In Lord of the Flies, Golding presents a group of young boys, some on the verge of adolescence, in a setting isolated from any civilization. When the boys gather, they immediately establish a hierarchy among themselves. As their fragile civilization collapses over the course of the text, some of the boys reject even the core values of their British upbringing: they forego the signal fire in favor of hunting, they stop wearing clothes, and they paint their faces. The closed environment of the island and the limited number of boys allows the text to explore the essence of human nature independent of external influences. 

  • For discussion: Once gathered on the island, how do the boys establish hierarchy among themselves? How does the hierarchy among the boys shift over the course of the text? What gives some an advantage in the social hierarchy, and what disadvantages others? Why? 
  • For discussion: Who is responsible for Simon’s death, and who is at fault? Is there a distinction between the two, and if so, why? 
  • For discussion: In which circumstances do the characters exhibit cruelty, and when do they show compassion? What are the consequences of each? 
  • For discussion: Some argue that Lord of the Flies is an allegory for the importance of law and order in restraining “primitive” human nature. Do you agree? To what extent is there moral ambiguity in the text? 

Questioning the Powers of Government: The driving interpersonal conflict of the novel centers around Ralph and Jack and the rivalry they develop. Elected chief by the boys, Ralph is predominantly concerned with maintaining a signal fire to catch the attention of any passing ship. Jack wants to hunt and provide meat for the boys. He views himself as the superior chief, challenges Ralph’s authority, and establishes a rival tribe with himself as leader, ruling through fear and violence. Considering the Cold War climate in which Golding was writing, some scholars approach the text as an allegory warning of the dangers of totalitarianism. 

  • For discussion: What objects symbolize law and order in the text? How do the individual characters react to these objects? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast Ralph and Jack. How does each achieve and hold on to power? What goals do they have at the beginning of the novel; at the end? What characteristics do they have in common? Which do you think is the better leader? 
  • For discussion: Compare and contrast the ways Ralph uses the hope of rescue as a rhetorical device and how Jack uses the Beast as a rhetorical device. How do these two persuasive techniques work on the other boys? 

Fear, Self, and Society: Much of Lord of the Flies has a suspenseful, menacing tone. Considering the boy with the birthmark who goes missing, the ever present threat of the Beast, the dead body falling from the sky, the violence of the pig hunts, and Roger’s propensity for torture, instances of fear serve a primary motif in the text. Because Golding’s approach to fear is so multifaceted, it becomes one of the central motifs in the text. 

  • For discussion: Ask students to consider which scene in the text is the scariest for them. Why? How does Golding develop a suspenseful, menacing tone? 
  • For discussion: What is the “Beast”? What does it represent? 
  • For discussion: Describe how the appearance of the dead parachutist develops the plot. How does each boy who discovers the body react? How do their reactions differ? 
  • For discussion: What are the boys the most afraid of? Does it shift across characters or as the plot develops? How so? 

Faith and the Human Experience: Lord of the Flies can be read as a Christian allegory. Golding creates a setting in the style of the Garden of Eden, a paradise free of civilization, to explore human nature. Simon’s narrative parallels that of Jesus Christ: an individual set apart from society, with unique insights into the spiritual world, is sacrificed. Further, over the course of the text, all the boys fear the Beast, which can represent existential angst or the infinite factors in life that are outside of anyone’s control. 

  • For discussion: In what ways does Simon differ from the other biguns? Why is he killed? 
  • For discussion: How do the boys mitigate their fear of the Beast? Why do they leave the sow’s head on a stake after they kill her? 
  • For discussion: Describe the conversation between Simon and the Lord of the Flies. What does Simon learn? How does this scene develop themes in the novel? 
  • For discussion: How does fear, as a motif, develop themes in the text? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Does the boys’ eventual rescue from the island make an argument for the power of civilization? Or is it an example of luck? How does their rescue affect the meaning of the story? 
  • Ask students to consider the civilized world the boys are from and the things they say about it. What seems to be happening? What elements of it intrude upon the island? How do these elements frame or contextualize the boys’ behavior and narrative? 
  • Early on, the boys start distinguishing “biguns” from “littluns.” What does this separation, and this use of language, suggest about social hierarchies and social worth? 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

Lord of the Flies Presents a Grim View of Human Nature: While Golding initially presents an idyllic island apart from civilization, this setting allows him to explore some of the darkest corners of the human psyche. Much of the text can suggest that there is inherent cruelty in establishing social hierarchies, that fear makes individuals susceptible to manipulation and coercion, and that humans have a propensity toward violence that law and order hold tenuously at bay. 

  • What to do: Explain to students the historical context in which Golding was writing, in particular the extent to which World War II brought human civilization toward an existential crisis, as well as the lingering threat of atomic devastation during the Cold War. 
  • What to do: Invite students to consider the complexity of human nature and question whether or not humans are necessarily “good” or “evil.” Instead, have students consider humans as error-prone entities making a series of complex choices in a world of limited information. In particular, discuss the moral compromises that Ralph makes over the course of the text. 
  • What to do: Remind students just because Golding depicts human nature in a certain way doesn’t necessarily mean he is completely correct, or correct at all. Invite students to find examples of altruism or kindness in the text or in their lives. Further, emphasize the complexity of human nature: an individual can be capable of both great kindness and great cruelty. 

The Novel Is Comprised Entirely of British Males: Readers will notice the homogeneity of the characters in the text. Though Piggy is perhaps more of an outcast, all of the characters are upper-class British boys. There is a single adult in the novel, a male naval officer who rescues them, and some dialogue from Piggy’s aunt recited by Piggy himself. 

  • What to do: Ask students to consider the extent to which the homogeneity of the characters helps or hinders thematic development in the text. Does Golding truly illustrate human nature? Or does he illustrate the nature of elite British males? If he is choosing to single out upper-class British men, why might he consider it important to do so? 
  • What to do: Some consider the island setting in Lord of the Flies to be analogous to the Garden of Eden, and the boys’ descent into chaos analogous to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden. Examine creation myths from other cultures, comparing and contrasting what they seem to reveal about human nature to themes in Lord of the Flies
  • What to do: Engage students in creative writing exercises in which they rewrite a scene from Lord of the Flies with a more diverse cast of characters. Similarly, students can recreate scenes from the novel in different socio-historic milieus. 

Sexual Violence Is a Motif in the Text: As the violence in the text escalates, it takes on an increasingly menacing and sexualized nature. The scene in which the hunters kill the nursing sow is shown through language reminiscent of violent sexual assault. Students who explore Golding’s biography will also likely find his own admittance that, as a young adult, he attempted to rape a teenage girl. 

  • What to do: Remember to consider your students’ backgrounds and needs in addressing this text. This motif and especially the killing of the sow should be discussed with a proper content notice to avoid upsetting students. 
  • What to do: Ask students to consider the purpose of the sexual violence in the text and the extent to which it advances themes. 
  • What to do: Engage students in a feminist reading of the text. Perhaps the fact that the boys kill the one mother figure on the island is representative of that which their society is lacking: the authority of the feminine. Perhaps Golding’s novel reveals not the darkness of being human, but the darkness of masculinity. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Lord of the Flies

While the main ideas, character development, and discussion questions above are typically the focal points of units involving this text, the following suggestions represent alternative readings that may enrich your students’ experience and understanding of the novel. 

Focus on the novel’s “closed” environment. By situating the boys on an abandoned island, Golding professed to examine humanity’s true nature. However, this experiment ignores the socialization that all the boys had gone through prior to their time on the island. Discuss how their lives before the island—as boys, as Europeans— influence their behavior. 

Focus on the Apollonian and the Dionysian. While Lord of the Flies is commonly approached as a Christian allegory, it can be used to explore the duality of human nature as represented by the Greek gods Apollo and Dionysus (Bacchus) independent of the traditional good vs. evil focus. The former is associated with reason, creativity, and husbandry, the latter with pleasure, indulgence, and wild animals. 

Focus on psychoanalysis. Explore the ways in which different characters in the text enact different levels of the psyche, as described by Sigmund Freud. Introduce students to the terms ego, superego, and id and use them as an analytical tool for approaching the text. 

Focus on the conflict between humans and nature. The natural elements on the island are just as vivid and multifaceted as the characters. Compare different ways characters approach the limits of environment. 

Focus on how the biguns treat the littluns, particularly in light of the privilege and power the biguns wield over the littluns. Consider the legitimacy of the division between these two groups, what it reveals about the human instinct to divide society into social groups, and how this division functions in the text. Particularly, compare and contrast the types of work the biguns and littluns perform, as well as how they are influenced by events. 

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