(This essay was published in South China Morning Post on 5 November 2014)
My children read Lord of the Flies, a dystopian novel by Nobel Laureate William Golding, when they were young. I also use the story in a course I teach at the University of Hong Kong entitled Law, Economy and the State to create a vision for my students of Hobbes’s conception of the state of nature. I recommend teachers and parents read this highly influential allegorical novel together with their children in the coming year.
Lord of the Flies offers a disturbing and sobering lesson on humanity. It takes place in the midst of a nuclear wartime evacuation when a group of boys, aged six to 12, ends up stranded without adult supervision on a tropical island.
Initially, they attempt to form a culture similar to the one they left behind. They elect a leader, Ralph, who strives to establish rules for behavior. Ralph asserts three primary goals: to have fun, to survive, and to maintain a smoke signal that could alert passing ships to their presence on the island.
But Ralph’s authority is challenged by Jack, who wants to be leader himself. Jack neglects his assigned duty of maintaining the smoke signal and starts to develop his own power base among the boys by offering them the prospect of playing the role of savages. They put on camouflaging face paint, hunt, and perform ritualistic tribal dances.
These adventurous activities symbolize violence and evil, and eventually they bring Jack and Ralph – and the forces of savagery and civilization that they represent – into open conflict. Two boys are killed and Jack takes control of all the others in the group apart from Ralph. They begin to hunt down Ralph but inadvertently set fire to all the forest on the island, which brings a nearby rescue boat to them. The novel ends with the boys weeping as they realize what they have done.
When Lord of the Flies was first released in 1954, Golding described it as “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.”
One of these defects concerns the desire to rule others. The schoolboys had sought unthinkingly to dominate those who were not of their group. They discovered within themselves the urge to inflict pain and they enjoyed the accompanying rush of power.
Ironically, by giving rein to their urge to dominate, the boys find themselves in the grip of a force they neither understand nor acknowledge. When confronted with a choice between Ralph’s civilizing influence and Jack’s self-indulgent savagery, most of the boys choose to abandon the values of the civilization that Ralph represents.
Another theme is the evil within. One aspect of the plot involves “the Beast” – in fact a dead parachutist who crashed on the island’s mountaintop. The boys see only the parachute fluttering, and assume this unknown entity is a threat and embodiment of evil. Yet Jack also unwittingly implicates himself as a part of the problem and a source of the boy’s fears when he utters “the Beast is a hunter.”
Golding demonstrates here that evil is not restricted to specific populations or situations. On the island, it is manifested among schoolboys in their deadly tribal dances, war paint, and manhunt; in the outside world, it plays out among adults as a nuclear war.
Golding’s point is that humankind’s work lies not in the impossible mission of eradicating evil, but in the struggle to keep it from becoming the dominant force in our lives. This same choice is made constantly all over the world, all throughout history. He conveys this universality by placing supposedly innocent schoolboys in the protected environment of an uninhabited tropical island where we see their savagery emerge – savagery that exists in everyone as a stain on, if not a dominator of, the nobler side of human nature.
Even Ralph participates at first in the savage behavior that he later condemns in the other boys. He represents a realistic picture of a humane person resorting to brutality under unusual circumstances.
The title of the novel is a literal translation of the Greek word Beelzebub, a term used for the Judeo-Christian idea of Satan. In 1982, Golding stated simply “The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief, sheer grief, grief, grief.”
One of the consequences of the Occupy movement has been to reveal the multiple contradictions in our society – economic, social, cultural, and political dimensions – and to express them in political terms, leading to polarization.
Society and human interactions cannot be reduced to politics alone, even if politics is always present. When all relations are drawn into the prism of politics, our humanity suffers because our compassion and empathy become numbed. We reduce others to mere instruments of our political views. We see only flaws in the humanity of those who do not share our views. But humans will always have flaws; politics cannot perfect our flaws and when it tries to do so, it is the scariest thing in the world.