(This essay was published in Hong Kong Economic Journal on 5 November 2014.)
My children read Lord of the Flies, a novel by William Golding, when they were young. Our family discussed the plot, the characters, and the themes in this dystopian novel. The story is also used in the 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.
Golding’s 1983 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded in part for this highly influential allegorical novel, in which he espouses a fatalistic view of humanity. The award was considered at the time “an unexpected and even contentious choice”. In 2008, the Times ranked Golding third on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945.” Lord of the Flies was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels, reaching number 41 on the editors’ list, and 25 on the readers’ list. It has been adapted to film twice in English, in 1963 by Peter Brook and 1990 by Harry Hook.
I find this story about an innocent group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island, who try to govern themselves with disastrous results, a disturbing read and ultimately a sobering lesson of humanity. I recommend teachers and parents read this novel together with their school children in the coming year.
In the midst of a nuclear wartime evacuation, a group of British boys find themselves stranded without adult supervision on a tropical island. The group is roughly divided into the “littluns,” boys around the age of six, and the “biguns,” who are between the ages of ten and twelve. Initially, the boys attempt to form a culture similar to the one they left behind. They elect a leader, Ralph, who, with the advice and support of Piggy (the intellectual of the group), 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.
Ralph and Piggy find a conch, which Ralph uses as a horn to call all the survivors to one area. The boys declare that whoever holds the conch shall also be able to speak at their formal gatherings and receive the attentive silence of the larger group.
However, some of the boys, led by Jack, did not vote for Ralph as their leader. Jack also wants to lead and he neglects his assigned duty of maintaining the smoke signal. Instead, he organizes his choir group into a party to go hunt for food.
The other main characters include Simon, a quiet dreamy boy, who is responsible for constructing shelters and feels an instinctive need to protect the “littluns,” and the overweight and bespectacled Piggy, who is Ralph’s only confidant but is quickly made an outcast by the older boys and becomes an unwilling source of laughs for the other children.
At first, the boys enjoy their life without grown-ups and spend much of their time splashing in the water and playing games. But the semblance of order quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turns idle. They give little aid in building shelters and begin to become paranoid, convinced that a mythical beast is roaming the island.
This fear exacerbates the conflict between Jack and Ralph — and the forces of savagery and civilization that they represent. Ralph insists that no such beast exists, but Jack, in a power struggle with Ralph, gains control of the discussion by boldly promising to kill the beast.
Then one night, an aerial battle occurs above the island and a casualty of the battle falls down with his opened parachute, ultimately landing on the mountaintop. The boys did not see the battle or the falling parachute, but they do see breezes occasionally inflate the parachute, making the body appear to sit up and sink back. This sight panics the boys as they mistake the dead body for the beast they fear.
Capitalizing on this panic, Jack calls Ralph a coward and demands his removal from office, but the boys refuse to vote Ralph out. Jack then forms a splinter group to hunt the “beast.” Eventually all but a few of the boys join him.
Jack’s followers are enticed by the protection his ferocity seems to provide, as well as by the prospect of playing the role of savages: putting on camouflaging face paint, hunting, and performing ritualistic tribal dances. These adventurous activities symbolize violence and evil.
Eventually, Jack’s group slaughters a pig and, as an offering to the beast, puts the pig’s head on a stick to solemnize the occasion.
Of all the boys, only the mystic Simon, likely an epileptic, has the courage to discover the true identity of the beast sighted on the mountain.
After witnessing the death of the pig and the gift made of her head to the beast, Simon begins to hallucinate. He envisions the pig’s head, now swarming with scavenging flies, as the “Lord of the Flies” and believes that it is talking to him. The pig’s head tells Simon that the boys themselves “created” the beast and claims that the real beast is inside them all. Weakened by his horrific vision, Simon loses consciousness.
Recovering later that evening, he struggles to the mountaintop and finds that the beast is only a dead parachutist. Attempting to bring the news to the other boys, he stumbles into the tribal frenzy of their dance. Perceiving him as the beast, the boys beat him to death. Ralph and Piggy feel guilty that they, too, participated in this murderous “dance.”
Jack and his band of “savages” decide to steal Piggy’s glasses to start a cooking fire at their abode on Castle Rock, leaving Ralph unable to maintain his signal fire. When Ralph, now deserted by most of his supporters, journeys with Piggy and two remaining supporters to find Jack’s tribe and request the return of the glasses, one of Jack’s hunters releases a huge boulder on Piggy, killing him and shattering the conch shell. Ralph manages to escape, but the other two boys are tortured until they agree to join Jack’s tribe.
The tribe undertakes a manhunt to track down and kill Ralph, and they start a fire to smoke him out of one of his hiding places, creating an island-wide forest fire. Ralph collapses in exhaustion, but when he looks up, he sees a British naval officer standing over him. The officer’s ship had noticed the fire raging in the jungle. The other boys reach the beach and stop in their tracks at the sight of the officer.
Amazed at the spectacle of this group of bloodthirsty, savage children, the officer asks Ralph to explain. Ralph is overwhelmed by the knowledge that he is safe but, thinking about what has happened on the island, he begins to weep. The other boys begin to sob as well. The officer turns his back so that the boys may regain their composure.
Problem of Evil
When Lord of the Flies was first released in 1954, Golding described the novel’s theme as “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.”
At the end of the novel, Ralph grieves at the indelible mark of evil in each person’s heart, an evil he scarcely suspected existed before witnessing its effects on his friends and supporters. The schoolboys had sought unthinkingly to dominate others who were not of their group. They discovered within themselves the urge to inflict pain and they enjoyed the accompanying rush of power.
The same desire to rule others is shown in the way the smallest boys act out, in innocence, the same cruel desire for mastery shown by Jack and his tribe while hunting pigs, and in the backdrop of nuclear war being waged by the adults.
Ironically, by giving rein to their urge to dominate, the boys find themselves in the grip of a force they neither understand nor acknowledge. Simon has the revelation that evil isn’t simply a component of human nature, but an active element that seeks expression. It is what breaks up civilization.
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. They side with Jack for his charisma and way of life which, with the war paint and ritualized dance, seems like more fun.
Choosing Jack to lead them indicates a dangerous level of emotionally based self-indulgence on the part of the boys. They open themselves up to the possibility of violence because violence is triggered by emotion.
Golding also represents verbal communication as the sole property of civilization, while savagery is non-verbal or silent. For example, the jungle emanates a silence even the hunter Jack finds intimidating. The boys find silence threatening; they become agitated when a speaker holding the conch in assembly falls silent.
The conch plays a key role in this theme because it symbolizes not only the power to speak during assembly, but also the power of speech, an ability that separates humans from animals. Following the death of Piggy and destruction of the conch, “the silence was complete” as if Piggy provided the last bastion of human intellect or humanity on the island.
While the conch’s symbolic power remained alive to the boys, there was hope that they could continue with their small society peacefully and productively. With the loss of regulated discourse came the end of Ralph’s humane influence on the boys.
Golding depicts silence as tremendously threatening because death signifies absolute silence, and the end of all hope.
Golding wanted to illustrate the dark side of human nature and how each person possesses it. The boys conceptualize the source of all their worst impulses as a Beast, some sort of animal or possibly supernatural creature inhabiting the island. Yet Jack and his tribe also take on the persona of the Beast when they act on their animal impulses. There is no external Beast.
Simon’s revelation about the Beast comes upon him after he witnesses the pig’s death and beheading. As an observer instead of a participant, Simon is able to comprehend the brutality of the act.
When Simon hallucinates that the staked head is speaking to him, his perception of the other boys as the island’s true threat is confirmed. The “Lord of the Flies” confirms, “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 what they are?”
The pig’s head becomes covered with flies, creatures that lack the capacity to feel compassion for or empathy with the dead pig, occupied entirely by their need to eat and multiply. Jack lacks compassion for the littluns and the vulnerable Piggy. Soon his hunters lose their compassion as well, seeking only to hunt meat and increase the numbers of their tribe or kill those who will not join. For Golding, compassion is one of the key dividers between humanity and animality.
Jack provides more insight into the Beast’s identity when he asserts that “The beast is a hunter,” unwittingly implicating himself as part of the problem, a source of the boys’ fears. His lust for power and authority causes him to commit and encourage savage acts against his own kind — an accurate measure of his depravity. When he sat before his tribe, “power . . . chattered in his ear like an ape.” The figurative devil on his shoulder is his own animality, looking to master other creatures.
Golding pairs the devolution of Jack’s character with Simon’s hallucinatory revelation, to paint a complete picture of humankind’s dark side — that which the boys call the Beast.
Golding’s intent was to demonstrate that evil is not restricted to specific populations or situations. On the island, the beast is manifest in schoolboys, in their deadly tribal dances, war paint, and manhunt; in the outside world, that same lust for power and control plays out among adults as a nuclear war.
Prior to the war, some of the boys, such as the perpetually victimized Piggy, experienced the brutality of others on the playground, an environment often idealized as the joyous site of a carefree childhood.
Within civilized society, the Beast within expresses itself in various ways: through acceptable venues such as war; in unacceptable forms such as criminality, which carries punitive repercussions; or concealed in the maneuvers of politics and other nonviolent power plays.
Grief and the Lord of the Flies
In Lord of the Flies Golding illustrates that evil is present in everyone and everywhere; humankind’s work lies not in the impossible mission of eradicating it 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. Golding conveys this universality in his novel. He places supposedly innocent schoolboys in the protected environment of an uninhabited tropical island to illustrate that savagery is not confined to certain people in particular environments, but exists in everyone as a stain on, if not a dominator of, the nobler side of human nature.
Golding develops the theme that violence in modern society is institutionalized in the military and politics by having his characters establish a democratic assembly, which is greatly affected by the verbal aggression of Jack’s power plays, and an army of hunters, which ultimately forms a small military dictatorship.
At the end of Golding’s story, the reader has learned not that evil is confined to the militaristic Jack; the pacifist Ralph also participated in some of the brutal tribal activities. Neither has the reader learned that science or even simple common sense will save humanity from itself; Piggy is ridiculed throughout and then killed. Mystical revelations or visionary insight into the human condition will not save us; consider the fate of the saintly Simon.
Instead, the reader learns that evil lives in us all, and there is no proverb to remedy that situation. By invoking the complexity that underlies human nature, Golding’s tale presents a deep understanding of the human condition and portrays a complex moral lesson as well.
Human beings act in ways that frequently conflict with the values they consciously hold, as is the case with Golding’s protagonist Ralph. Because Ralph finds himself participating in the same savage behavior he condemns in the other boys, he presents 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 the novel, the pig’s head on a stick, covered in flies, is a horrific symbol of how far the violence can go. In 1982, Golding stated simply “The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief, sheer grief, grief, grief.”