Study Guide

Lord of the Flies by William Golding in Semiotics

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Put together a bunch of schoolboys, no authority figures, and a deserted island, and what do you get? Not children playing nicely, that’s for sure.

Finding themselves stranded after a plane crash, the boys in this novel start off by thinking like good scouts: they know that they’ve got to set up a system of hunting for food, keep a fire going, tie the right knots, and so on. They also decide that it’s no good for them to spend their time shouting over one another and, because of this, decide to use a conch shell to designate who has the right to speak at any given time. Predictably, though, it doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand: think Lost meets The Hunger Games.

This novel is interesting from a semiotics viewpoint because of the role that signs play in conveying both its themes and the changes the boys go through as order and civilization crumble away. One example is the imaginary beast that becomes a source of fear (okay, we’re really in Lost territory here): it’s pretty natural that the boys’ imaginations should run wild given that they’re spending their nights on a deserted island. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t exactly be a picnic for most of us.

Still, this novel is also an allegory that reveals the savagery lurking beneath the surface of civilization. One of the boys, the deep-thinking Simon, makes this point himself, recognizing that the beast isn’t a scary monster roaming the forest but something within themselves. Quite the philosopher for a little guy, eh? Case in point: we can see that the beast seems more and more real to the boys as they themselves get more savage. Coincidence? We think not.

With fears running high, the boys do what anyone in their situation would do: ram a pig’s head onto a stick and offer it up to the beast. Er, we’re pretty sure that that’s not in the scouts’ handbook. Again, it’s Simon who reacts to the motif on a deep level, imagining that it’s speaking to him of the evil within the human heart.

That the term “Lord of the Flies” literally translates as Beelzebub (a powerful biblical demon who dabbles in Manga) doesn’t exactly help matters; in fact, the novel features lots of biblical parallels (the island itself suggests the Garden of Eden). The fire also serves an important function, not just on a practical level but because its status signifies the extent to which the boys are connected to the civilized world. Feeling the semiotics vibe yet?

As for the conch (probably the book’s most famous motif), it reaches crisis point near the end of the book, as we see in this moment with Ralph (who’s like the team captain), Jack (the class bully), and Piggy (everyone’s favorite punching bag):