If The Go-Between uses the child as a means of access to an adult world, William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, published the following year, portrays a world where adults are entirely absent. Yet paradoxically, the figure of the child is used here not to show us anything about the realities of children’s lives, but primarily as a means to make much broader metaphorical points about human society and civilization as a whole.
Lord of the Flies has enjoyed wide critical acclaim. It features regularly on lists of ‘100 best novels’, and its author William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. It has been adapted several times for the stage and radio, and there no fewer than three film versions, including a disappointing 1963 feature by the celebrated theatre director Peter Brook.
The novel tells the story of a group of British public schoolboys who find themselves marooned on an uninhabited tropical island after their plane has crashed. At first they enjoy the freedom the new situation offers them. They start organizing by holding democratic elections and blowing a conch shell to summon assemblies. Ralph is elected as leader, and Piggy, an overweight, short-sighted boy, who is constantly mocked by the others, becomes his main adviser. The boys begin by building shelters, and Ralph urges them to keep a fire burning, in the hope that it will attract attention from potential rescuers. Jack, an older boy who was defeated in the leadership election, increasingly resists Ralph’s authority. He becomes the leader of a group of hunters whom he incites to chase and kill wild pigs. This group comes to believe that there is a fearful beast living in the jungle, and some of them claim to have seen it, although in fact this is only the corpse of a parachutist and his floating parachute. Simon, a rather shy and disturbed boy, also sees the ‘beast’, but he implies that the real beast is ‘us’, something within. He gradually drifts towards insanity, and is brutally murdered by the hunters who mistake him for a wild pig. The conflict between Ralph and Jack escalates. Jack’s followers steal Piggy’s spectacles to use for lighting a fire, and when Ralph and Piggy go to ask for them back, they throw a boulder on Piggy, sending him hurtling off the cliff and killing him. Ralph escapes, fearing for his life, and Jack’s followers set fire to the jungle to smoke him out. Just as Ralph is about to be caught, the boys are rescued by a British navy officer.
Lord of the Flies traces the boys’ descent into what it calls ‘savagery’ in an almost schematic fashion. At the start, it seems that the ‘old life’ – the ‘rules’ and ‘taboos’ they have learned at home and school – still constrain the boys’ behaviour. When some boys start to throw stones at one of their number, they deliberately miss their target: ‘round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law’. However, these constraints are soon abandoned. Ralph and Piggy gradually lose faith in the value of meetings and orderly debate, as Jack and his followers begin to assume control. The boys are by no means ‘noble savages’, returning to some essential, natural childhood. Their savagery is characterized by a fear of the beast – the supernatural evil monster – that can only be overcome through the blood-lust of hunting and sacrificial rituals. Piggy’s belief in logical debate and his idea that ‘life’s scientific’ – and his faith in ‘grown-ups’ who ‘meet and have tea and discuss’ – are powerless to resist the slide into chaos.
As Jack’s followers move from hunting wild pigs to bullying the other children, they are described as a ‘tribe’: they put on war-paint, which offers them ‘liberation into savagery’; and they dance wildly as they shout blood-curdling chants. Jack comes to be seen as their ‘idol’ and ‘chief’. On his orders, they impale a pig’s head on a stake in the jungle as an offering to the beast, and when Simon finds it, decomposing and buzzing with flies, he is effectively driven mad (Beelzebub, the devil, is the literal translation of ‘the lord of the flies’). The scene is very reminiscent of that in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where Kurtz confronts ‘the horror’.
Lord of the Flies was written under the shadow of war and the threat of atomic destruction. The book makes little reference to the world beyond the island, yet a global conflict is clearly being waged in the skies overhead. Golding rather glosses over the reasons why the plane has crashed (or been shot down?) in the first place, although the boys suspect there has been a nuclear explosion. Meanwhile, the parachutist who drops onto the island – ‘a sign… from the world of grown-ups’ – has been part of an airborne battle fought ten miles above them. The navy officer who appears in the nick of time at the very end has come to their rescue, yet he will be taking the boys back to a world in which armed conflict is still continuing. Having effectively abandoned civilization in their time on the island, there is a bitter irony in the fact that they will be returning to a civilization that is described as being ‘in ruins’.
Compared with The Midwich Cuckoos, to be considered in the following post, Lord of the Flies contains very little overt philosophical speculation. Yet the story is laden with such heavy-handed symbolism that it is hard to read it as much more than a schematic moral parable. While there are some elements of realism in the book’s portrayal of English 1950s schoolboys (Golding was a teacher at the time he wrote it), this is over-ridden by the self-conscious allegory. Thus, Ralph is the good democratic politician, who is worthy but rather dull. Occasionally indecisive and unconfident (he sometimes forgets why it is necessary to keep the fire alight), he needs the rational brain of Piggy to support him. The conch, which he uses to call assemblies and to regulate who is allowed to speak, is symbolically shattered by Jack’s followers as they assume control; and they later steal and smash Piggy’s glasses, which symbolize wisdom (and also help to light the fire). Jack, meanwhile, is impatient with ‘talk’. He represents brute physical power, and eventually becomes a quasi-fascist dictator: ‘power lay in the brown swell of his forearms; authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape’. His followers leave the fire (symbolizing the hope of survival and a return to civilization) to extinguish itself; although as light gives way to darkness, they later set fire to the jungle, causing uncontrollable destruction.
The ideas of childhood and adulthood are also invoked here. Piggy frequently voices the perspective of ‘grown-ups’ against what he calls the ‘crowd of kids’. What would grown-ups do in such a situation, he asks; what would grown-ups think of them? Grown-ups, he argues, would carry on, while kids simply give up. Yet it is Simon who expresses the ultimate ‘lesson’ of this parable: the beast, he argues, is within us. Human beings, Golding implies, are essentially and innately ‘savages’. At the very end of the book, Ralph 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’. Golding appears to have seen his story in almost fundamentalist, religious terms. As he wrote in a later reflection on the book:
Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous… I looked round me for some convenient form in which this thesis might be worked out, and found it in the play of children.
Perhaps the most obvious literary precedent for Lord of the Flies is R.M Ballantyne’s Coral Island, a children’s classic first published in 1858. The book is mentioned a couple of times in Golding’s novel, and in some ways Lord of the Flies can be seen as a sardonic, dystopian version of Coral Island, or even a parodic inversion of it. The naval officer who appears at the very end says he is disturbed by the fact that the children have not behaved in a very ‘British’ way: it has not been a ‘jolly good show, like the Coral Island’. Where Ballantyne’s children follow the Victorian moral code, and create a rational social order, Golding’s manifestly fail. While Lord of the Flies reaffirms the need for rationality and the rule of law, it ultimately despairs of humanity’s ability to withstand savagery.
The fact that Lord of the Flies lends itself so easily so this kind of literary explication might well account for its lasting popularity in educational settings. The book is routinely assigned as a required text in secondary schools, and at one point became known as ‘The Lord of the Campus’ in US universities. There are countless study guides available, and the internet is chock-full of student essays and video presentations dutifully explicating the symbolism, outlining the narrative structure, and sketching the characters. The book also seems to provide excellent material for intense moralistic debates about the inherent evil of humanity. Children learn that civilization is precarious, that evil is inherent, and that achieving goodness is a struggle. (Is the beast within? Discuss.)
Perhaps ironically in light of this, the book has also been banned from some schools. In some instances, the objections appear to be political: the book has been condemned as racist (Jack’s followers are described at one point as ‘painted Indians’ and ‘niggers’) and accused of reflecting contempt for indigenous peoples (through its portrayal of ‘savages’). More implausibly, it has also been accused of misogyny, in that it has no female characters; and of ‘ableism’ in its portrayal of Piggy. However, most objections appear to come from Christian teachers who are concerned about the violence, ‘inappropriate’ language (the word ‘bollocks’ appears once) and the book ‘sending the wrong message’ through its unpalatable view of human sinfulness. In turn, these arguments provide further fodder for improving educational tasks: there are numerous student essays and videos online debating whether or not the book should be banned.
Even so, it is debatable whether Lord of the Flies really speaks to children, or whether its author was even interested in doing so. It might provide an accessible means of teaching basic literary analysis, and even a platform for some rather fatuous moral debates. It is possible that younger readers might ‘identify’ with Ralph or Piggy, perhaps. Yet ultimately, children provide merely a ‘convenient form’ for Golding’s broader philosophical concerns: the fact that all the characters in the book are children hardly seems to matter.