William Golding was born on September 19, 1911, in Cornwall, England. After graduating from Oxford, he worked briefly as an actor, then became a schoolteacher. When England entered World War II, Golding joined the Royal Navy. After the war, he resumed teaching and also began writing novels. His first and greatest success came with 1954's Lord of the Flies, after which he was able to retire from teaching and devote himself fully to writing. Although he never again attained the kind of popular and artistic success he enjoyed with Lord of the Flies, on the basis of that book he remained a respected and distinguished author for the rest of his life, publishing several novels and a play, The Brass Butterfly (1958). He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. William Golding died in 1993, one of the most acclaimed writers in England.
Lord of the Flies, which tells the story of a group of English boys marooned on a tropical island after their plane is shot down during a war, is fiction. But the book's exploration of the idea of human evil is to some extent based on Golding's experience with the violence and savagery of human beings during World War II. In exploring the breakdown into savagery of a group of boys free from the imposed moral constraints of civilization and society, Lord of the Flies dramatizes a fundamental human struggle: the conflict between the impulse to obey rules, behave morally, and act lawfully and the impulse to seek brute power over others, act selfishly, behave in a way that will gratify one's own desires, scorn moral rules, and indulge in violence. The first set of impulses might be thought of as the "civilizing instinct," which encourages people to work together toward common goals and behave peacefully; the second set of impulses might be thought of as the "barbarizing instinct," or the instinct toward savagery, which urges people to rebel against civilization and instead seek anarchy, chaos, despotism, and violence. The novel's structure and style are extremely straightforward. The book largely excludes poetic language, lengthy description, and philosophical interludes. The novel is also allegorical, meaning that characters and objects in the book directly represent the novel's central thematic ideas.
Because its story is allegorical, Lord of the Flies can be interpreted in many ways. During the 1950s and 1960s, many readings of the book connected it with grand historical, religious, and psychological schemes: the book was said to have dramatized the history of civilization, the history of religion, or the struggle among the Freudian components of unconscious identity—id, ego, and superego. Since the book does deal with fundamental human tendencies, there is a glimmer of truth in each of these readings, but it is important to remember that the novel's philosophical register is really quite limited—almost entirely restricted to the two extremes represented by Ralph and Jack—and is certainly not complex or subtle enough to offer a realistic parallel to the history of human endeavors as a whole. Every element of Lord of the Flies becomes meaningful in relation to the book's exploration of its particular philosophical conflict.
In the midst of a raging war, a plane evacuating a group of English boys from Britain is shot down over a deserted tropical island. Marooned, the boys set about electing a leader and finding a way to be rescued. They choose Ralph as their leader, and Ralph appoints Jack to be the leader of the hunters. Ralph, Jack, and Simon set off on an expedition to explore the island. When they return, Ralph declares that they must light a signal fire to attract the attention of passing ships. The boys begin to do so, using the lens from Piggy's eyeglasses to ignite dead wood, but they are more interested in playing than in paying close attention to their duties, and the fire quickly ignites the forest. A large swath of dead wood burns out of control. One of the youngest boys disappears, presumably having burned to death.
At first, the boys enjoy their life without grown-ups. They splash in the lagoon and play games, though Ralph complains that they should be maintaining the signal fire and building huts for shelter. The hunters have trouble catching a pig, but Jack becomes increasingly preoccupied with the act of hunting. One day, a ship passes by on the horizon, and Ralph and Piggy notice, to their horror, that the signal fire has burned out; it had been the hunters' responsibility to maintain it. Furious, Ralph accosts Jack, but the hunter has just returned with his first kill, and all the boys seem gripped with a strange frenzy, reenacting the chase in a kind of wild dance. When Piggy criticizes him, Jack hits him across the face.
Ralph blows the conch shell used to summon the boys and reprimands them in a speech intended to restore order. Yet there is a larger, more insidious problem than keeping the signal fire lit and overcoming the difficulties of hunting: the boys have started to become afraid. The littlest boys (known as "littluns") have been troubled by nightmares from the beginning, and more and more boys now believe that there is some sort of beast or monster lurking on the island. At the meeting, the older boys try to convince the others to think rationally: if there were a monster, where would it hide during the daytime? One of the littluns suggests that it hides in the sea, a proposition that terrifies the whole group.
Not long after the meeting, an aircraft battle takes place high above the island. The boys are sleeping, so they do not notice the flashing lights and explosions in the clouds. A parachutist drifts to earth on the signal fire mountain. He is dead. Sam and Eric, the twins responsible for watching the fire at night, have fallen asleep, so they do not see him land. But when they wake up, they see the enormous silhouette of his parachute and hear the strange flapping noises it makes. Thinking the beast is at hand, they rush back to the camp in terror and report that the beast has attacked them.
The boys organize a hunting expedition to search for monsters. Jack and Ralph, who are increasingly at odds, travel up the mountain. They see the silhouette of the parachute from a distance and think that it looks like a huge, deformed ape. The group holds a meeting, at which Jack and Ralph tell the others of the sighting. Jack says that Ralph is a coward and that he should be removed from office, but the other boys refuse to vote him out of power. Jack angrily runs away down the beach, calling all the hunters to join him. Ralph rallies the remaining boys to build a new signal fire, this time on the beach instead of on the "monster's" mountain. They obey, but before they have finished the task, most of them have slipped away to join Jack.
Jack declares himself the leader of this new tribe, and organizes a hunt and violent, ritual slaughter of a sow to solemnize the occasion. They then decapitate the sow and place its head on a sharpened stake in the jungle as an offering to the beast. Encountering the bloody, fly-covered head, Simon has a terrible vision, during which it seems to him that the head is speaking. The voice, which he imagines to belong to the Lord of the Flies, says that Simon will never escape him, for he exists within all men. Simon faints; when he wakes up, he goes to the mountain, where he sees the dead parachutist. Understanding then that the monster does not exist externally but rather within each individual boy, Simon travels to the beach to tell the others what he has seen. But they are in the midst of a chaotic revelry—even Ralph and Piggy have joined Jack's feast—and when they see Simon's shadowy figure emerge from the jungle, they fall upon him and kill him with their bare hands and teeth.
The following morning, Ralph and Piggy discuss what they have done. Jack's hunters attack them and their few followers, stealing Piggy's glasses in the process. Ralph's group travels to Jack's stronghold, called Castle Rock, in an attempt to make Jack see reason. But Jack orders Sam and Eric tied up and fights with Ralph. In the ensuing battle, one boy, Roger, rolls a boulder down from the mountain, killing Piggy and shattering the conch shell. Ralph barely manages to escape a torrent of spears.
All night and throughout the following day, Ralph hides and is hunted like an animal. Jack has the other boys ignite the forest in order to smoke him out of his hiding place. Ralph discovers and destroys the sow's head in the forest; eventually, however, he is forced out onto the beach, where he knows the other boys will soon arrive to kill him. Ralph collapses in exhaustion, but when he looks up, he sees a British naval officer standing over him. His ship noticed the blazing fire now 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 saved, 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.
Ralph - The novel's protagonist, a twelve-year-old English boy. Marooned on a tropical island with a group of boys when their transport plane is shot down, Ralph is elected leader of the group and attempts to coordinate efforts to build a miniature civilization on the island. Ralph represents the civilizing instinct within human beings, as opposed to the savage instinct symbolized by Jack.
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Jack - The novel's antagonist, one of the older boys stranded on the jungle island. On the island, Jack is the leader of the hunters, but he longs for total power and becomes increasingly wild, barbarous, and cruel as the novel progresses. He is also adept at manipulating the other boys. Jack represents the instinct of savagery within human beings, as opposed to the civilizing instinct represented by Ralph.
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Simon - Simon is in some ways the only naturally "good" character on the island. He behaves kindly toward the younger boys and is willing to work for the good of their community. Moreover, because his motivation seems rooted in his deep feeling of connectedness to nature, Simon is the only character whose sense of morality does not seem to have been imposed by society. Simon represents a kind of natural goodness, as opposed to the unbridled evil of Jack and the imposed morality of civilization represented by Ralph and Piggy.
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Piggy - Ralph's lieutenant. A whiny, intellectual boy, Piggy's inventiveness frequently leads to innovation, such as the makeshift sundial, which the boys use to tell time. Piggy represents the scientific, rational side of civilization.
Roger - Jack's lieutenant. A sadistic, cruel older boy who brutalizes the littluns and eventually murders Piggy by rolling a boulder onto him.
Sam and Eric - A pair of twins closely allied with Ralph, Sam and Eric are always together and are often treated as a single entity by the other boys; they are frequently referred to as "Samneric." They are young and easily excitable, and are subject to manipulation and coercion by Jack and his cronies.
The Lord of the Flies- The name given to the sow's head impaled on a stake and erected in the forest as an offering to the "beast" after Jack's most brutal hunt. It comes to symbolize the primordial instincts of power and cruelty that take control of Jack's tribe.
Analysis of Major Characters
Ralph - Ralph, a twelve-year-old boy marooned with a group of other boys on a deserted island, is the athletic, charismatic protagonist of Lord of the Flies. Elected the leader of the boys at the beginning of the novel, Ralph is the primary representative of order, civilization, and productive leadership in the novel. While most of the other boys are concerned with playing, having fun, and avoiding work at the beginning of the novel, Ralph sets about building huts and thinking of ways to maximize their chances of being rescued. For this reason, Ralph's power and influence over the other boys are extremely secure at the beginning of the novel. However, as the book progresses and the group succumbs to savage instincts, Ralph's position declines precipitously as Jack's station rises. Eventually, all the boys except Piggy leave Ralph's group for Jack's, and Ralph is left alone to be hunted by Jack's tribe. Ralph never seriously considers joining Jack's tribe in order to save himself.
Ralph's commitment to civilization and morality is very strong, and his main wish is to be rescued and returned to the society of adults. In a sense, this strength gives Ralph a moral victory at the end of the novel, when he casts the Lord of the Flies to the ground and takes up the stake it is impaled on to defend himself against Jack's hunters. Ralph understands, as Simon did, that savagery exists within all the boys, but he is determined not to let it overwhelm him.
For much of the novel, Ralph is simply unable to understand why the other boys would give in to base instincts of bloodlust and barbarism. The sight of the hunters chanting and dancing is baffling and distasteful to him. But when Ralph hunts a boar for the first time, he experiences the exhilaration and thrill of bloodlust and violence, and when he attends Jack's feast, he is swept away by the frenzy, dancing on the edge of the group and participating in the killing of Simon. This firsthand knowledge of the evil that exists within him, as within all human beings, is tragic for Ralph, and it plunges him into listless despair for several chapters. But this knowledge also enables him to cast down the Lord of the Flies at the end of the novel. Ralph's story ends semi-tragically; although he is rescued and returned to civilization, when he sees the naval officer, he weeps with the burden of his knowledge about humanity.
Jack - Jack, the strong-willed, egomaniacal boy who is the novel's prime representative of the instinct of savagery, violence, and power, is the antithesis of Ralph. From the beginning of the novel, Jack desires power above all other things; he is furious when he loses the election to Ralph and continually pushes the boundaries of his subordinate role in the group. Early on, Jack retains the sense of moral propriety and behavior that was instilled in him by society—he was the leader of the choirboys, after all. The first time he encounters a pig, he is unable to kill it. But Jack soon becomes obsessed with hunting and devotes himself to the task, painting his face like a barbarian and giving himself over to bloodlust. The more savage Jack becomes, the more he is able to control the rest of the group, which, apart from Ralph, Simon, and Piggy, largely follows him in casting off moral restraint and embracing violence and savagery. By the end of the novel, Jack has learned to use the boys' fear of the beast to control their behavior, giving Golding a chance to explore how religion and superstition can be used as instruments of power. Jack's love of authority and violence are intimately connected, as each enables him to feel powerful and exalted.
Simon - If Ralph stands at one end of a line, representing civilization, and Jack stands at the other end of the line, representing savagery, where does Simon stand? The answer is that, unlike all the other boys, Simon is not on the line at all; he stands on a different plane from every other character in the novel. Simon seems to represent a kind of innate, spiritual human goodness that is deeply connected with nature and, in its own way, as primal as Jack's evilness. The other characters in the novel abandon moral behavior as soon as civilization no longer imposes it upon them; they are not innately moral but have simply been conditioned to act morally by the adult world, by the threat of punishment for misdeeds. To an extent, even the civility of Ralph and Piggy is a product of social conditioning, as can be seen in their participation in hunt-dance. In the psychology of the novel, the civilizing impulse is not as deeply rooted in the human psyche as the savage impulse. Alone of all the children on the island, Simon acts morally not out of some guilt or shame but because he believes in its inherent value. He behaves kindly toward the younger children, and he is the first to realize the problem posed by the beast and the Lord of the Flies—that is, that the monster on the island is not some physical beast, but rather a savagery that lurks within each human being. This idea finds representation in the sow's head and eventually stands as the moral conclusion of the novel. The main problem of the book is the idea of inherent human evil. Against this, Simon seems to represent an idea of essential human goodness. Yet his brutal murder by the other boys indicates the scarcity of that goodness amid an overwhelming abundance of evil.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
Themes are the fundamental concepts addressed and explored in a literary work.
Civilization and Savagery - The overriding theme of the novel is the conflict between two competing impulses that exist within all human beings: the instinct to live by rules, act peacefully, follow moral commands, and value the good of the group on the one hand; and the instinct to gratify one's immediate desires, act violently to obtain supremacy over others, and enforce one's will on the other. These two instincts may be called "the instinct of civilization" and "the instinct of savagery," as one is devoted to values that promote ordered society and the other is devoted to values that threaten ordered society. The conflict might also be expressed as order vs. chaos, reason vs. impulse, law vs. anarchy, or in any number of other ways, including the more generalized good vs. evil. Throughout the novel, the instinct of civilization is associated with goodness, while the instinct of savagery is associated with evil.
The conflict between the two instincts is the driving force of the novel, explored through the dissolution of the young English boys' civilized, moral, disciplined behavior as they accustom themselves to a wild, brutal, barbaric life as savages in the jungle. Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel, which means that its main ideas and themes are frequently represented by symbols. Appropriately, the conflict between civilization and savagery is represented most directly by the novel's two main characters: Ralph, the protagonist, represents order and leadership, while Jack, the antagonist, represents savagery and the desire for power.
In the novel's presentation of human psychology, different people experience the instincts of civilization and savagery to different degrees. Piggy, for instance, has no savage feelings, while Roger seems barely capable of comprehending the rules of civilization. But, generally, the novel portrays the instinct of savagery as far more primal and fundamental to the human psyche than the instinct of civilization. Moral behavior, in Golding's view, is often merely a forced imposition of civilization, rather than a natural expression of human individuality. When left to their own devices, the novel seems to argue, people will become cruel, wild, and barbaric. This idea of innate human evil is central to Lord of the Flies, and finds expression in several important symbols, most notably the beast and the Lord of the Flies. Only Simon seems to possess anything like a natural, unforced goodness.
Loss of Innocence- As the boys on the island progress from well-behaved, orderly children who hope to be rescued to cruel, bloodthirsty hunters who have no desire to return to civilization, they naturally lose the sense of innocence that they possessed at the beginning of the novel. The painted savages in Chapter 12 who have hunted, tortured, and killed animals and human beings are a far cry from the simple children swimming in the lagoon in Chapter 3. But Golding does not portray this loss of innocence as something that is done to the children; rather, it results naturally from their increasing contact with the innate evil and savagery within themselves. Civilization, in other words, can mitigate but never wipe out the innate evil that exists within all human beings. The loss-of innocence-theme is represented symbolically by the forest glade in which Simon sits in Chapter 3: at first, it is a place of natural beauty and peace. But when Simon returns later in the novel, he discovers the bloody sow's head impaled upon a stake in the middle of the clearing. The paradise has been disrupted by the bloody offering to the beast, a powerful symbol of innate human evil disrupting childhood innocence.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Christian Iconography- Lord of the Flies is often described as a retelling of Christian parables. While that may be an oversimplification, the book does echo certain Christian images and themes. Christian iconography is not explicit or even directly symbolized in the novel; instead, it functions as a kind of subtle motif in the novel, adding thematic resonance to the main ideas of the story. The island itself, particularly Simon's glade, functions as a kind of Garden of Eden that is gradually corrupted by the introduction of evil. The Lord of the Flies may be seen as a symbol for the devil, since it works to promote evil among mankind. Further, because Simon is the character who arrives at the moral truth of the novel, and because he is killed sacrificially as a consequence of having discovered this truth, his life has certain strong parallels with that of Jesus Christ. His conversation with the Lord of the Flies also parallels the confrontation between Christ and the devil in Christian theology.
However, it is important to remember that the parallels between Simon and Christ are not complete, and to read the novel as a pure Christian allegory would overstate the case and thereby reduce the range of possible readings. For one thing, Simon lacks the supernatural connection to the divine that is the main characteristic of Jesus. Simon is wise in many ways, but he is not the son of God, and his death does not bring salvation to the island. Rather, his death plunges the island deeper into savagery and moral guilt. For another, Simon dies before he is able to tell the boys what he has discovered, while Christ was killed only after spreading his moral philosophy. In this way, Simon (and the novel as a whole) echoes Christian ideas and themes without developing precise parallels with them. Because Lord of the Flies uses its religious motifs to enhance its moral theme, Christian iconography is an artistic technique in the book, but it is not necessarily the primary key to interpreting the story.