Lord of the Flies Themes

The main themes of Lord of the Flies include savagery and civilization, nature, and loss of innocence. 

  • Savagery and civilization: Ralph and Jack represent the conflict between savagery and civilization. Jack eventually leads the boys in a savage attack on Ralph, whose primary goal was to return the boys to civilization.
  • Nature: Before the boys set the island on fire, it is harmonious and beautiful. The fire emphasizes the violence and destruction of mankind.
  • Loss of innocence: Ralph's despair at the end of the novel demonstrates the loss of innocence the boys undergo, as do the deaths of Simon and Piggy.

Overview

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 269

By Golding’s own account, Lord of the Flies is a novel of ideas. Golding uses the boys’ story as a means to explore the darkness and violence of human nature, and the ways in which civilization contains and suppresses that darkness. Thus, no discussion of Lord of the Flies is complete without a thorough examination of the novel’s themes.

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Appearance vs. Reality

Beneath the Edenic surface of the island lies a series of darker realities. Left to their own devices, the boys form a loose democracy. However, their democracy is more a game than a real, functional government... (Read more on Appearance vs. Reality)

The End of Innocence and Nature of Evil

One of the central themes of Lord of the Flies is that all humans, even innocent children, are inherently drawn towards evil. The boys begin as relative innocents who view war as a game and have little moral or social awareness beyond their upbringings... (Read more on the End of Innocence and Nature of Evil)

Inclusion vs. Exclusion

From the boys’ first meeting, the group contains clear lines of social stratification. The intersections of power and maturity are prevalent when looking at the differences between the littluns and the biguns. The littluns are objects... (Read more on Inclusion vs. Exclusion)

The Politics of Civilization vs. Savagery

One of the main themes present throughout Lord of the Flies is the nature of power and how humans acquire and use it. Stranded on the island, the boys quickly respond to the problems of gaining, exerting, and balancing power. Free of adult supervision... (Read more on the Politics of Civilization vs. Savagery)

Appearance vs. Reality

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 331

Beneath the Edenic surface of the island lies a series of darker realities. Left to their own devices, the boys form a loose democracy. However, their democracy is more a game than a real, functional government. Beneath the veneer of cooperation and shared purpose lies the irreverent turmoil of a group of boys who view voting as a “toy” and who elect Ralph as chief largely on impulse. Beneath the façade of camaraderie and fun lurk resentment, fear, and the inescapable darkness of the human heart. 

Face paint represents a clear alteration of appearance, but how that alteration in appearance relates to the boy's reality is more complicated. By one reading, the boys obscure their fear and immaturity by playing savage. As soon as the naval officer arrives, the boys are reduced to dirty, crying “little boys” once again. By another reading, they are reconciling their schoolboy appearances with their savage realities, embracing the darkness that Golding identifies at the heart of all humans. Similarly, the crisply uniformed adults are portrayed as harbingers of salvation, reason, and civilization. However, the truth is that the adults are embroiled in a violent war of their own. The ship that has come to rescue the boys is only transporting them into a war zone of a different kind. 

The phenomenon of the beast expresses the gap between appearances and reality. The beast takes on different forms, and only Simon is able to recognize its true form: the boys themselves. Rather than recognizing the reality that their own violent impulses are to blame for the destruction on the island, the boys externalize their guilt and fear in the form of a terrifying monster. Jack and his tribe’s delusions are so strong that they deny murdering Simon, insisting instead that the boy they killed was the beast in disguise. The dead parachutist serves as a symbolic reminder that the beast is inescapable, lurking both on the island and in the civilized world beyond it. 

The End of Innocence and Nature of Evil

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 582

One of the central themes of Lord of the Flies is that all humans, even innocent children, are inherently drawn towards evil. The boys begin as relative innocents who view war as a game and have little moral or social awareness beyond their upbringings. However, their naivety with regards to human nature cannot last; the presence of evil on the island quickly becomes undeniable. Golding posits that evil is an innate defect in human nature, an inescapable imperative that must be controlled and contained by an ethical society. Without the bounds of society to contain them, the boys are forced to confront humanity’s inherent evil. In doing so, they lose the innocence that allows them to view the world as good and just, instead succumbing to the “infinite cynicism of adult life.” 

Rather than portraying violence and evil as outliers, Lord of the Flies positions morality and reason as minority forces that must overcome the ghastly defects of human nature. The majority of the boys succumb to wickedness, painting their faces and exulting in violence. For the boys, the draw towards evil is strong and immediate, with savagery representing the path of freedom and individualism, whereas morality and reason require sacrifice and the privileging of communal priorities over individual desires. By portraying evil as the more attractive option to the boys on the island, Golding highlights the “essential illness” that plagues humanity: given free reign, humanity’s innate capacity for evil will always win out. 

Golding uses biblical symbols and motifs to reinforce both the nature of evil and the boys’ loss of innocence. The nature of evil is comprised of two major components: the knowledge of evil and the perpetration of evil. Jack is the leader of a church choir, whose “voices had been the songs of angels” when they arrived on the island. The arrival of innocent beings on an Edenic island evokes the biblical story of Adam and Eve, who were born innocent and with no knowledge of evil. They were tempted by a serpent into consuming fruit that gave them knowledge of good and evil, destroying their innocence. Similarly, the boys see a snake-like beast on the island and are forced to recognize the nature of evil, ending their innocence. 

While acknowledgement of evil is modeled through the Edenic narrative, perpetration of evil is represented by the Lord of the Flies. The choirs’ transformation from “angelic” children to violent savages mirrors the fall from grace of Satan, who is often depicted as a fallen angel and the incarnation of evil itself. The Lord of the Flies, the sow’s head that Jack’s tribe mounts on a stick, is named after Beelzebub, a figure often conflated with Satan, highlighting the boys’ loss of heavenly innocence and descent into evil. 

Knowledge of evil is positioned as incompatible with innocence. The nature of evil is corrosive, overwhelming any goodness or virtue that exists. The death of Simon, a Christ-like figure, plunges all of the boys into sin, and they spiral into chaos, savagery, and destruction. By the time the boys are rescued, they have burned down the fruit trees and rendered the island largely uninhabitable. By portraying the boys’ longed-for rescuer as the captain of a warship, Golding extends his theme to all of humanity. Within all humans there exists a pull towards evil, and it seems that only once the boys have been completely stripped of their innocence can they return to the ranks of the adult world. 

Essential Passage by Theme: Inherent Evil

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Last Updated on April 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1149

"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. "You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you? Close, close close! I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are the way they are?"

The laughter shivered again.

"Come now," said the Lord of the Flies. "Get back to the others and we'll forget the whole thing."

Simon's head wobbled. His eyes were half closed as if he were imitating the obscene thing on the stick. He knew that one of his times was coming on. The Lord of the Flies was expanding like a balloon.

"This is ridiculous. You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there—so don’t try to escape!”
Lord of the Flies, Chapter 8, p. 128 (Penguin: New York)

Summary

Jack and his hunters have killed a nursing sow. Although the pig in such a condition was essentially helpless, the boys feel victorious and brave in their prowess. As their descent from civilization to savagery advances, they succumb to tribal celebration by dancing over their kill. Rather than just taking the meat for food, they glory in this act as a prehistoric ritual of “appeasing the gods.” Severing the sow’s head, they impale it on a sharpened spear and set it up as an offering to the “Lord of the Flies.”

Hidden among the bushes is Simon, the resident “mystic.” He does not participate in this ritual but observes it with great interest. Even after the boys have left with their prize, Simon remains in his shelter. He sees the head as well as the entrails covered with flies.

Simon is subject to epileptic fits, something which keeps him on the fringes of the other boys. As he observes the head of the Lord of the Flies, he falls into a trance and imagines the head speaking to him, reminiscent of Jesus’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness. The Lord of the Flies calls him an “ignorant, silly little boy.” He belittles Simon in an effort to destroy his position as a self-choosing human being. He reminds Simon of his alienation from the others and threatens that even his standing with Ralph and Piggy is in jeopardy.

Simon is unable to respond to the voice. The Lord of the Flies confronts him, “Aren’t you afraid of me?” Simon denies this, stating at last that he is nothing more than a “pig’s head on a stick.”

The Lord of the Flies switches tactics, saying, “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” He reveals his true self to Simon, who has known all along that the Beast was part of each one of them. As the Lord of the Flies says, he is the “reason why it’s no go.”

The Lord of the Flies then attempts to dismiss the whole thing, encouraging Simon to forget what he knows and go back to the others. When Simon ignores this suggestion, the Lord of the Flies angrily reminds him that when Simon does return to the group he will not escape.

Analysis

Simon functions as the spiritual heart of the novel, the inner message that William Golding was trying to relate in the story. Golding wanted to portray the inherent evil that lies in the human heart. Despite the belief that man was born good and it is only society that drives him to do wrong, Golding’s experiences in World War II convinced him that, without some type of standard, mankind will descend into savagery.

Ralph symbolizes civilization itself, accompanied by Piggy, who is the intellect or power of reason. Through them a semblance of government was erected on the island. Yet that government failed. The reason is related through the character of Simon and his encounter with the Lord of the Flies. No system of government, no matter how logical or well-ordered, can exist without the ethical nature of the individual citizens. No law will be effective unless that law is already written in the hearts of the people. Self-government must come before political government.

The message that is given to Simon by the Lord of the Flies exemplifies this. The Beast (evil) is in each one. Previously Simon had stated the same thing, though he was roundly ignored.

The Lord of the Flies is implicitly regarded also as the lord of the island. It is his domain, exemplified by the herds of pigs that run wild and provide food for the boys. Thus the Lord of the Flies uses food—survival itself—as the bait to lead the boys to evil. Ralph and Piggy see this even before the Lord of the Flies speaks to Simon. Rescue will come from “out there,” from the world of grown-ups. The sea is seen as a benevolent place that will protect them. It is dismissed that the Beast could come from the ocean. Only rescue, in the form of a ship, will come from the water. They themselves were led to the island not from a shipwreck, but a plane wreck. The dead parachutist comes from the air, not the sea. The sea is benevolent because it isolates the island and its evil. After their deaths, both Simon and Piggy are washed gently out to sea rather than being left to decay on the island.

But in the end, the notion that the ocean will be their protection from evil is also proved wrong. The Beast (evil) resides in the heart of a human being. Though rescue does indeed come, and comes from the ocean, it is not a rescue into paradise. The officer who finds the boys jokingly asks, “It is a war?” Thinking that the boys were merely playing, he is shocked to find that it was no game. He rebukes them by saying that British boys should have “been able to put up a better show than that.” Yet, as he looks at the boys dressed in war paint and carrying spears, he himself is dressed in a military uniform and carrying a gun. He is coming from a world that is not the peaceful grown-up world that Piggy and Ralph imagined. It is a world at war, ravaged by nuclear weapons. After all, the island only mirrored the outside world. Not only on the island, but in every place where human beings reside, the Beast resides in their hearts, and this is the reason it is “no go.” It is this realization that causes Ralph to break down and sob, crying 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 realizes that he is not rescued at all. He is going from evil into evil.

Inclusion vs. Exclusion

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 302

From the boys’ first meeting, the group contains clear lines of social stratification. The intersections of power and maturity are prevalent when looking at the differences between the littluns and the biguns. The littluns are objects of scorn for most of the biguns, who view them as annoying and, in extreme cases, disposable. Jack’s proposal that a littlun be used as a pig in a mock-hunt is met with laughter and cheers, and even Ralph finds himself hoping the beast “prefers littluns.” This attitude highlights the dangers faced by those in the lower rungs of society, often at the hands of those in power. 

Simon and Piggy represent different types of outsiders. Whereas the littluns are shunned as a group, Simon and Piggy are excluded on an individual basis. Piggy is an object of ridicule due to his corpulent appearance and his fixation on rules and order in a society that is unraveling towards chaos. Simon is an outcast somewhat by choice, seeking out solitude and seeing the world through a different lens. His peculiar personality leads the other boys to view him as “batty,” enhancing his isolation. The dangers of an isolated individual are made evident through the deaths of Simon and Piggy, both of whom were vulnerable because of their exclusion from the group. 

The hunt for Ralph at the end of the novel reflects how mob mentality results in the dehumanization of those deemed “outsiders.” Ralph is hunted like an animal and denied his humanity on account of being an outcast. Because of Jack’s jealousy and resentment, there is no place for Ralph in the tribe, so he is forced to fend for himself. Ultimately, he is saved only by the arrival of the naval officer, whose presence forcibly reinstates civilization, along with its value of inclusivity. 

The Politics of Civilization vs. Savagery

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

One of the main themes present throughout Lord of the Flies is the nature of power and how humans acquire and use it. Stranded on the island, the boys quickly respond to the problems of gaining, exerting, and balancing power. Free of adult supervision and faced with the mechanics of surviving as a society within the island environment, they devise both a system of social order and a means of asserting control over the landscape. In the social sphere, two methods of distributing power come to the forefront: a democracy, led by Ralph, advised by Piggy, and mediated by the conch shell; and an autocracy, constructed by the tyrannical Jack, supported by Roger, and governed by fear. As the novel unfolds, political power seeps from democracy to autocracy as Jack begins his own tribe and lures more and more boys away from Ralph’s reasoned rule. 

The relationship between autocracy and democracy is further explored through the conflict between civilization and savagery, order and chaos, which plays out most evidently in the conflict between Ralph and Jack: Ralph represents civilization and order; Jack, savagery and chaos. When the boys arrive on the island, they assert the importance of rescue and unanimously desire to return to the civilized world, electing Ralph as chief and maintaining a signal fire. However, Golding’s thesis while writing Lord of the Flies was that humans are naturally inclined towards chaos, hedonism, and savagery. Ralph and Piggy’s democratic society is quickly overwhelmed by the fear and inherent savagery in the boys, who prefer the immediate gratification of hunting and playing over building shelters or maintaining a fire. 

Ralph and Jack also respond to the threats of the landscape in different ways, offering different political solutions to their collective situation. Ralph’s power comes from democratic ideals and shared purposes, such as the signal fire. Jack manipulates the boys’ negative feelings and offers them a chance to fight back against their fears through hunting. Unlike Ralph, who attempts to rationalize the beast, Jack recognizes the potential of fear as a tool for controlling the other boys, and he takes full advantage. This recognition establishes the relationship between emotions and power, which Jack uses to turn himself into a successful demagogue. As the novel progresses, Jack’s fear-based rhetoric gains more and more influence. Whereas power was originally derived from cooperation and democracy, fear becomes the primary source of power on the island. 

There is the power struggle, too, between the boys and their environment. They discover early on that they can alter the landscape, accidentally sending the jungle up in flames. The hunting of pigs offers another arena in which the boys, particularly Jack, can exert dominance. The subjugation of nature becomes an outlet through which the boys express their frustrations and feelings of powerlessness. Even the littluns savor their newfound dominion over the natural world, highlighting the universal desire for power and control. 

Throughout Lord of the Flies, Golding aligns civilization and order with good and savagery and chaos with evil, portraying Ralph and Piggy as reasonable and sympathetic and Jack and his tribe as violent and destructive. However, even Ralph and Piggy, the allegorical representatives of democracy and reason, succumb to their more savage instincts when they take part in the murder of Simon, the allegorical representative of morality and goodness. The implication is that civilization and order are merely façades behind which savagery and chaos reign supreme. The atomic war happening in the “world of grown-ups” further emphasizes this idea, as the longed-for civilization is plagued by the same violence and brutality that overtakes the boys on the island. Even though the boys are rescued by grown-ups, the question remains as to whether “civilization” is truly civilized.

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