Lord of the Flies by William Golding is one of the most popular and endearing books of the twentieth century. In part a morality tale, in part an analysis of the human psyche, it is also a supremely interesting and exciting adventure story. All of these combined elements make the book a true classic and a perennial audience favourite. The book also demonstrates its significance to today’s audiences via the many references made of it in popular culture. Artists as divergent as U2, who named a song after one of the book’s chapters, through to the creators of cult TV drama ‘Lost’ pay testament to the value and resonance of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’.
Within its pages we see drama, tension, horror, cruelty and the extraordinary complexities that can occur when people are forced into unique situations. This encourages the audience to philosophically engage with the book and look more deeply into it to find answers to the questions it poses “That work was Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. The book was the first novel that caused me to reflect for longer than I read” (Dalrymple, T, 2005)
A plane crash strands a group of British schoolboys on an unknown island. In a society now shorn of traditional authority figures, it is up to the abandoned boys to establish some kind of working system to guide them through the dangers, inevitably inherent, in their new, unchartered existence. The difficulties they encounter lead to violence and separatism and death. At the beginning of the novel we are introduced to the key characters Ralph, Piggy and Jack. Ralph and Jack are almost immediately engaged in a struggle for power thus emphasising one of Lord of the Flies’ key features, which is its ability to effectively mirror adult situations. In this case it can be seen as indicative of a wider human inclination to become ‘top-dog’.
Lord of the Flies is a novel that is filled with tension and drama. Defeated by Ralph in the election battle, Jack instead turns his attention to other, more dynamically fierce pursuits and becomes in charge of an almost-crazed hunting division of boys, thus finding a way to both proclaim his importance and issue a challenge to the incumbent as he satisfies his thirst for power in gradually more ominous and violent ways.
The mandate for the group is created and the boys immediately decide to get on with the business of having fun and keeping the signal fire burning. Therefore, this child-like perspective of leadership values and what is important in society is a fascination component of Golding’s work and accounts for much of its popularity and subsequent critical analysis due to its deft mirroring of many of today’s mores and traditions.
A seemingly simple tale of schoolboys marooned on an island, Lord of the Flies has proven to be one of the most enigmatic and provocative pieces of literature ever published
Olsen, K (2000).
The other early principal character Piggy is almost immediately discounted by the boys due to his demeanour and appearance. This further emphasises the plot’s reflection of ‘real-life’ patterns of behaviour and attitude where the ethos is often seen to be ‘survival of the fittest’ as Piggy, less physically impressive and worldly-wise than the power brokers now operating on the island, is rejected “He is lacking in aggression, unwilling to adventure, cries easily, is not interested in competing ….. As a result of his shortcomings, he is more than at the bottom of the hierarchy of the boys stranded on the island” (Berseka, T, 2003). Once more, this facet of Golding’s work will engage with those who perceive contemporary society has an increasing penchant for populism and the triumph of aggression over civility.
Already made to feel anxious by the inherent aggression in Jack’s leadership style and his bloodthirsty proclivity for hunting pigs, the younger members of the fledgling society are also made to feel insecure by the rumours of a ‘beast’ stalking the island. This feral clamour for blood ultimately culminates in Piggy’s demise. Violence is shown to be a significant strategy in gaining power and influence, again echoing many such instances in the ‘real’ adult world.
Although based on the dynamics of a group of schoolboys, the novel confronts profound questions of innocence, evil and the fall of man, casting doubt on the possibility of any lasting social progress
Carter, R & MacRae, J, 2001
This bloodlust reaches its nadir when one of the few left serving under Jack’s more traditional leadership, Simon, is savagely murdered by Ralph’s off-shoot ‘tribe’ in an almost ritualistic fervour. This group are now distinctly separate and wilder than the others and are intoxicated by their own power. As Ralph himself is about to become the third victim, the boys’ fire is spotted by a patrolling British Navy ship which effects a rescue.
The somewhat ambivalent ending of Lord of the Flies further engages the audience by leaving them with unanswered questions and moral dilemmas. The leadership contest, the struggle for survival, the corrupting rush of power, the use of violence as a means to an end and the descent of the human species into an almost animalistic state raises questions relating to the very basic foundations of the human condition. What do their actions tell us about notions of respect for one another? How delicate is the balance between civilisation and savagery? How damaging is their loss of innocence? All of these questions serve to engage the reader in Golding’s classic text.
- Berseka, T, T. (2003), “The Changing Boys’ World in the 20th Century: Reality and “Fiction””, The Journal of Men’s Studies, vol. 11, no. 2, pp. 157
- Carter, R. & Macrae, J.(2001), The Routledge History of Literature in English: Britain and Ireland,Routledge, London
- Dalrymple, T. (2005), “Desert-Island Reading”, New Criterion, vol. 23, no. 6, pp. 1.
- Olsen, K. (2000), Understanding Lord of the Flies: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, Greenwood Press, Westport, CT.