If you like your medicine with a spoonful of sugar, you'd better find another book. (Unless this is required reading, in which case—we're sorry.) Golding takes a look at the worst, darkest side of human nature and reports back, with exaggeration and poetical bits thrown in for good measure. But that doesn't mean it's all doom-and-gloom. In Simon's death, for example, the tone is at first that of a silent observer noticing that "the crowd surged after it, poured down the rock, leapt on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore" (9.99). All those simple words like "rock," "beast," and "bit" describe the murder without any flinching (that's what makes it "unflinching").
By the end of the chapter, though, the narrator has shifted into musing speculation:
Somewhere over the darkened curve of the world the sun and moon were pulling, and the film of water on the earth planet was held, bulging slightly on one side while the solid core turned. The great wave of the tide moved farther along the island and the water lifted. Softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon's dead body moved out toward the open sea. (9.105)
From the brutal killing of a boy to the surprisingly accurate description of the moon's effect on the tides—this is a narrator who can do it all. He can even make a dead body floating out to sea sound beautiful.
This isn't Gilligan's Island. It's not even Lost. Jack's wildly superstitious and violent group of boys, who are willing to kill one of their own with their hands and teeth, is as far from ideal, or utopian, as you can get. In our book, that makes this dystopian literature. (Can't get enough dystopia? Check out George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World.)
This also isn't Treasure Island. Sure, Lord of the Flies is an adventure, as we see how well (or how poorly) the kids survive on their own. But despite its focus on suspense and physical danger, Lord of the Flies is not the rollicking kind of adventure narrative that you get in, say, Treasure Island. Nope, Lord of the Flies is much more interested in subtle commentary on warfare and human nature than on the kids' day-to-day efforts to survive on an isolated island.
This also isn't Survivor: Lord of the Flies. Jeff Probst isn't around to explain to us what challenges face Ralph, Piggy, or Simon, and people tend to get viciously murdered rather than voted off the island (even though Ralph does try to make it democratic). As such, it's an excellent example of literary fiction, a genre preoccupied more with characterization and symbolism than with plot or straight-out explanation.
And the focus on character development brings us at last to coming-of-age. As the boys around him freak out, we see Ralph develop from a smart, brave, fun-loving kid into a hunted man who preserves his moral perspective even as the island falls into chaos. He manages to survive long enough to be rescued without (totally) giving in to their hysteria, something we're pretty sure we couldn't manage. We're not totally certain that Ralph has gone from childhood to adulthood—we're not even really convinced that William Golding thinks that children and adults are so different—but he's definitely learned some hard lessons about human nature.
Let's get the easy part out of the way first: "the Lord of the Flies" is what Simon ends up calling the severed pig's head—presumably because it's covered in flies. So, calling the book Lord of the Flies brings the boys' primitive violence front and center.
Now let's break it down. "Lord" is a word of power, and the desire for power drives the book's central conflict: who gets to decide what the boys will do? "Flies," on the other hand, connote death and decay. Put them together, and you've got death and decay tied up with power and corruption. Nice.
Lastly, as if that weren't enough, "The Lord of the Flies" is also the popular translation of Beelzebub, who's either a demon or the devil himself, depending on how you like your mythology. And that makes us ask: is evil external to us, like a talking, decaying pig head? Or does Simon call the head "Lord of the Flies" because he sees it as a manifestation of the boys' nature—and possibly his own?
The end happens fast: Ralph is pretty convinced he's about to die, when all of a sudden he rolls (literally) into a British naval officer who promises to rescue them. When we meet the officer, we get a quick look at the boys from his perspective; they're not wild savages but "little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands"; Ralph needs "a bath, a haircut, a nose-wipe, and a good deal of ointment" (12.224, 12.228). But it's all, according to the officer, "fun and games" (12.218-219).
Ralph tries to explain, but he doesn't get far. The officer interrupts him, saying, "I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island" (12.247). (Coral Island? Check out our "In a Nutshell" to learn how Golding felt about that book.) In other words, he thinks that the group of boys is having a storybook adventure: no rules, no adults, and all fun. When Ralph starts weeping, the officer looks off into a "trim cruiser" resting in the distance (12.249), and that's when Golding hits us over the head—or, okay, taps us on the shoulder—with the real message: it's all savagery.
The officer represents civilization, but he also represents the horror of civilization: war. It might be cleaner—and the officer might not need his nose wiped—but it's no less savage. In fact, it might be more savage, because it hides behind "a white-topped cap […] a crown, an anchor, gold foliage" (12.215).
Rescue? Not quite. The boys may be getting off the island, but they're just going to grow up into soldiers destroying another Eden—only this time, the Eden is the whole world; and the "fire" is an atomic bomb.
Lord of the Flies takes place on an uninhabited island in the Pacific Ocean, at an unknown—but probably 1950ish—year during a fictional atomic war. And what an island it is. We don't find out much about the scenery until the boys do, so we get the same thrill of exploration and satisfaction of discovery.
All we know when we start is that the boys have crash-landed into "the jungle" and Ralph is heading toward "the lagoon" (1.1). The shore of the lagoon is lined with palm trees, which sounds all pool cabana and pink-umbrella drinks. But don't be fooled by this false sense of security—there's a lot more to the island than relaxing waterside views. Ralph looks out over the lagoon towards a "coral reef" and, beyond that, the "dark blue" of the "open sea." Behind him is the "darkness of the forest proper" (1.50). Are you getting all this? We have a dark scary forest (danger), a bright "shimmering" lagoon (excitement), and a wide open sea (isolation).
When Ralph, Jack, and Simon get around to looking about, they head to the closest end of the island, only to find they can't see around the corner because there isn't one; rather, it's a gradual curve. They endeavor to climb the mountain, using a series of "pink rocks" that wind through "the looped fantasy of the forest creepers" and thinking that animals, not people, made this quasi-path. They come to an opening, and now that they are high above the rest of the island, excitedly push a rock that falls through the air and "smash[es] a deep hole in the canopy of the forest" (1).
(Click the map infographic to download.)
When the boys can finally see the whole island, they notice on the far side "another island; a rock, almost detached, standing like a fort, facing them." (This is the Castle Rock we'll see later, so get out your highlighters.) A reef encloses one side of the island, about a mile away from and parallel to "their beach."
That's right, "their" beach. Already they've started taking possession of the island. The boys have taken advantage of the naturally occurring structures on the island (reefs, mountains, platforms) and imposed their own system on it. Eventually they impose another human legacy on it: fire. The boys move seamlessly from working in harmony with the island to accidentally kind of, you know, burning it up. By the end of the story, the island isn't a deserted Eden; it's a populated dystopia—just like, we think Golding is saying, every beautiful, natural place that man settles.
Lord of the Flies is a standard on the middle school required reading list, but that doesn't mean it's kid stuff. Check out this passage:
A thin wail out of the darkness chilled them and set them grabbing for each other. Then the wail rose, remote and unearthly, and turned to an inarticulate gibbering. Percival Wemys Madison, of the Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, lying in the long grass, was living through circumstances in which the incantation of his address was powerless to help him. (5)
There's some tricky vocab here—like "gibbering" and "incantation." And there's also the way that the passage moves from a specific description (the wail of an animal) to the much more abstract point that Golding is making: out in the wild, things like addresses, names, and families just don't matter. Whatever animal that is gibbering out over your head doesn't care if you're Percival Wemys Madison or John Doe or Prince William.
Still, don't despair. You may have to pay attention, but it's not impossible. And if you read carefully, you just might find yourself learning something about your own human nature.
Much like the forbidding patch of jungle in which the book takes place (for more on that, see "Setting") the Lord of the Flies is ominous—but irresistible. Let's check out the paragraph where we hear the phrase "lord of the flies" for the first time:
Up there, for once, were clouds, great bulging towers that sprouted away over the island, grey and cream and copper-colored. The clouds were sitting on the land; they squeezed, produced moment by moment this close, tormenting heat. (8.210)
On the surface, this is a beautiful, poetic description, with "copper-colored" clouds and "bulging" towers. But if you read more carefully, these clouds don't seem so friendly after all. They're "squeeze[ing]" and "sitting on the land," not floating in the sky; and they "produced moment by moment this close tormenting heat." In other words, this vivid, detailed description produces an unmistakable sense of being stifled and oppressed, making real the tension of the moment that Simon sees the other boys kill the mother pig.
And let's check out that pig:
The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned. (8.210)
Gross. The natural setting here is gory and ominous; the pig's severed head transforms into the Lord of the Flies. Through Golding's lush detail, we understand the boys' natural savagery. But is it totally unpleasant? Why are the clouds attractively "cream and copper-colored"? Why do the flies "[tickle] under [Simon's] nostrils and [play] leapfrog on his thighs"?
Before we get down to the details, we should address the fact that Lord of the Flies is one big allegory. Symbols aside, the boys as a whole can represent humanity as a whole. You can see where the pieces fall from there; the island is then the entire world, the boys’ rules become the world’s varying governments, two tribes are two countries, and so on. The boys’ fighting is then equivalent to a war. The only time we pull out of the allegory is at the very end of the novel, when the other “real” world breaks through the imaginary barrier around the island. Yet this is also the moment when the real message of the allegory hits home, when we can ask ourselves that chilling question, “But who will rescue the grown-ups?”
The conch is used in many scenes in Lord of the Flies to call the boys to order. No boy may speak unless he is holding the conch and once he is holding it, he cannot be interrupted. They boys have imposed this “rule of the conch” on themselves, and thus the conch represents society’s rules, politics, and speech. The conch is a big part of the boys choosing to vote for a chief, and it also allows anyone to speak when they hold it. Notice that, after the conch is broken in to a thousand pieces, Jack runs forward screaming that now he can be chief? The reason he couldn’t be chief before, at least not his kind of chief, is that the conch still allowed Piggy to quiet all the others boys down and demand they listen. With no conch, power is once again up for grabs, and Jack is feeling grabby.
Fire is used in several ways in Lord of the Flies. From the very beginning of the novel, Ralph is determined to keep a signal fire going, in case a ship passes near to the island. That’s fine until the first signal fire the boys light begins burning out of control, and at least one boy is missing (read: burned up). The fire thus becomes a symbol, paradoxically, of both hope of rescue and of destruction. Ironically, it is because of a fire that Jack lights at the end of the novel – in his attempt to hunt and kill Ralph – that the boys are rescued. What could that possibly mean, the fact that rescue equals destruction? It brings us back, as all these symbols do, to The Big Massive Allegory of the novel. If the boys’ world is just an allegory for the real world, then they’re not being rescued at all; they’re just going on to a larger scale of violence and, yes, that’s right, destruction. Hence, rescue equals destruction.
While the boys on the island revert to primitive ways with their hunting, nakedness, and face painting, there is still one symbol of advancement, of innovation and discovery. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about Piggy’s glasses. The boys find themselves at an utter loss for a way to start the fire. Jack mumbles something about rubbing two sticks together, but the fact is the boys just aren’t wilderness-savvy enough to do this. Because they aren’t equipped for roughin’ it for real, they have to rely on some remaining relics of their old world. So, of course, the glasses breaking mean they are in danger of losing touch with the civilized world they’ve left behind. With one lens broken, they’ve got one foot over the line.
But let’s also remember that the glasses are, in fact, a pair of glasses, primarily intended for looking through. Looking = vision, and vision = sight, and sight = a metaphor for knowledge. Piggy knows things the other boys don’t, like how to use the conch, and the necessity for laws and order. Part of the reason he gets so upset when they take his glasses is that, without them, he can’t see anything. “Seeing” is Piggy’s greatest attribute; it’s the one reason the boys don’t ostracize him completely; it’s the one way he’s useful. Without his glasses, then, he’s useless, something that no one wants to be.
The pighunts are used throughout Lord of the Flies to symbolize not only man’s capacity for destruction and violence, but the basic idea of bloodlust, mass hysteria, and ritual. In the most important pighunt scene, we are given a vivid description of the slaughter of a mother pig, and we see that the boys have taken on a new viciousness in their desire to hunt. This is no longer about just having meat to eat – the boys are obviously enjoying the power that they feel over the helpless animals and are excited by the blood spilling over their hands. Many critics describe this as a rape scene, with the excitement coming partly from the blood and partly from their newly emerging feelings of sexuality. As the story continues, we see the boys acting out this pighunt over and over, in a sort of ritual, using various boys to act as the pigs, and this “play-acting,” takes a horrifying turn when, in a frenzy of violence, Simon is beaten to death by the mob of excited boys.
In Lord of the Flies, the beast begins as a product of the boys’ imaginations. The smaller boys are afraid of things they see at night; rather than be blindly afraid of The Great Unknown, they give their fear a name and a shape in their minds. You can’t defeat a "nothing," but you can hunt and kill a "something."
The next evolution in the myth of the beast is the dead parachuting man. It’s no coincidence that the boys catch a glimpse of a dark, UNKNOWN object and immediately call it the beast; we wouldn’t be surprised if they were relieved to finally have seen the thing. It’s kind of like how the masters of horror films don’t actually show you the horror, because what you can imagine is worse than anything you could see. Of course, it’s interesting that Golding chooses to make this manifestation of the boys' fear a man -- and not just a man, but a solider coming in from the war. Not only that, but the parachuting man flies in, in response to Piggy’s request for a “sign” from the adult world. It’s ironic that the best the adults can come up with is a man dead of their own violence, and it hints at the allegory and the end of the novel.
This is the point where we start getting some real insight into the beast, via Piggy, who says the beast is just fear, and via Simon, who insists that the beast is “only us.” This is an interesting comment, since the beast is literally “only us:” it’s a person that fell from the sky. In fact, when the twins list off the horrible attributes of the creature they saw, they reveal that it has both “teeth” and “eyes.” Yes, that’s right, most people have teeth and eyes. So Simon is correct in more ways than just one. Even more interesting yet is the moment when Ralph and Jack discover the dead man and think of it as a “giant ape.” What have the boys started to prove except that man is nothing more than a giant ape himself?
But while the beast is in fact literally a man, that’s not what Simon means when he says that it is “only us.” He’s talking about the beast being the darkness that is inside each and every one of us. If this is true, then, as the Lord of the Flies later suggests, it is absurd to think that the beast is something “you could hunt and kill.” If it’s inside all of us, not only can’t we hunt it, but we can never see it, never give it form, and never defeat it.
When Simon has his meditation-scene with the pig’s head, the Lord of the Flies says to him, “I’m the beast.” This makes his other words literally true; you can’t hunt and kill the beast, because they’ve already hunted and killed the pig and it’s still talking to you. Even later, when Ralph smashes the skull, he only widens its smile, “now six feet across” as it lies “grinning at the sky.” This thing just won’t die, and it torments Ralph so much because it “knows all the answers and won’t tell.”
Now to Ralph, that’s a rather silent devilish pig’s head, given that four chapters earlier it was talking with Simon. It seems that the Lord of the Flies gave over its knowledge to Simon, but only to Simon. In his death, then, Simon took that wisdom with him. What wisdom are we talking about? Simon already knew, it seems, that the beast was simply the darkness of man’s heart, but the talking pig’s head actually confirms it, telling him “I’m part of you […] close, close close.”
All right, we told you we could blame Ralph’s moments of savagery on his hair. Well, we were lying. What we meant to say was that Ralph’s hair was a symbol for his growing savagery. That shaggy mop eventually has a life of its own. The narrative always makes a point of telling us that it’s in Ralph’s face, that he wishes he could cut it, that it makes him feel dirty and uncivilized. We know the hair has to be a big deal because the very first words of the novel are, “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down…” Getting your hair cut is one of the perks of civilization, many of which Ralph and the others have had to give up. It also reminds us that the boys have been on the island for quite a while now; this is no mere weekend getaway. Lastly, there’s something horribly disturbing about his hair just growing, growing, with no way to stop it and the assumption that it will simply go on forever, much like the boys’ growing violence and the increasingly savage occurrences on the island.
Clothing is another relic of the old world that falls by the wayside in this new one. Clothes can be ominous, as when Jack and his choir boys appear to be one long, dark creature as they travel in a pack wearing their black choir robes at the beginning. At first, the boys need to wear their clothing to avoid getting sunburned (meaning they’re not yet ready for the full island lifestyle), but they’re soon running around in loin-cloths or less, their skin and their minds having adapted to the surroundings. We even see Ralph go from “the fair boy” to being downright “swarthy.” Change is in the wind, as is a dead parachuting man from the skies above.
From the moment the boys land on the island, we begin to see signs of destruction. Over and over we are told of the “scar” in the scenery left by the plane. The water they bathe in is “warmer than blood.” The boys leave “gashes” in the trees when they travel. The lightning is a “blue-white scar” and the thunder “the blow of a gigantic whip,” later a “sulphurous explosion.” Now, if you’re trying to answer the big question of whether the boys are violent by nature or were made violent by their surroundings (the island), you could argue that 1) because the island is already so steeped in violence (think the thunder and lightning), the boys couldn’t help but become part of its savagery when they arrived; or that 2) the boys put scars and gashes in the land from the get-go, suggesting they are inherent bringers of destruction and the island is the Eden they destroy.
The narrator in Lord of the Flies moves back and forth omnisciently between different scenes and thoughts. Take Chapter Eight, for example, where in the space of a few pages we get Jack hunting, "happy and [wearing] the damp darkness of the forest like his old clothes" (8.181); and Simon watching the flies swarm "black and iridescent green" on the pig's head; and then Piggy "flush[ing] pinkly with pride" when he understands that Jack is accepting him (8.265). Three different characters; three different places on the island.
What's the point of all the omniscience? It lets us (and the narrator) stay objective. We might have a slight bias toward Ralph, but in general we just see things happening without the filter of a particular character's judgment. We can be right inside the events, seeing Jack as a terrifying, painted chief; or we can be way up high and objective, seeing Jack as a stupid-looking little boy in a crazy black hat.
When their plane crashes, the boys who were on board find themselves on a strange island where they have never been before. Needless to say, this is a new situation for them. They're stoked to be the boss of themselves, but not so stoked to be stuck here forever.
The boys are having a great time running around naked and establishing a system of rules and order and that's going to last about five minutes before the spears and body paints come out.
Ralph realizes that governing a group of wild boys is about as much fun as it sounds, and he goes head-to-head with Jack over such important issues as "fire" vs. "pig." On top of it all, he has to deal with everyone's irrational fears. It's lonely at the top—especially when no one will listen to reason.
And we've moved steadily to murder and chaos. Simon and Piggy are killed, the island is blazing, and Ralph is on the verge of being killed himself. Pretty nightmarish.
At the last minute, Ralph rolls onto the beach and looks up to see a Naval officer standing over him. This would be a thrilling escape if it weren't for the fact that the boys are going back to a world as bad as the one they're leaving.
We start out post plane crash, on an island full of boys ranging from ages 6 to 12, and not an adult in sight.
This is going to end well.
Well, they start with a good faith effort: Ralph and Piggy find the conch and call a meeting, kicking off the set-up of discovering the island and the other characters: What are their names? Who's going to be chief? Which one is actually evil incarnate?
Fire! No, shelters! No, pig-hunting! Oh, we set the island on fire. And missed a passing ship. There's conflict, all right: Ralph wants to make a signal fire, Piggy is all about the shelters, and Jack is looking for blood. The boy vs. boy conflict sets up the Big Ideas conflict of the book: is it human nature to create (fire, shelters, civilization) or destroy (hunting and killing)?
Even if the boys manage not to starve, burn themselves up, or die of exposure, there's still (in their minds) a good chance they'll get eaten by the beast. But the beast is more than a creature—in fact, he's not a creature at all. The beast is man's inherent darkness. Talk about complicated. As the talking pig's head so eloquently informs us, the beast isn't something that can be hunted and killed.
Any time, in any novel, when there's a Bacchic frenzy of tribal dancing, naked painted boys, and hallucinatory murder, it's the climax. This is the climax of action (murder), the psychological climax (talking, prophetic, and evil severed head), and the emotional climax (fear, disgust, and excitement all in one).
Ever since Chapter 6 when the catapult (the "bastion") shows up, we've been waiting for the other rock to drop. And it does—on Piggy. Ralph takes off through the forest, and we're biting our nails wondering if he'll make it out alive, or if the boys are all just going to end up slaughtering each other.
The denouement lasts roughly 5 seconds, when Ralph opens his eyes to see the naval officer and we realize that he's going to be okay—well, at least, alive. We're not looking forward to the therapy bills.
Ralph seeing an adult is the "phew" moment after the suspense, but just as we're breathing a sigh of relief, Golding hits us with a Message: the adult is a naval officer, and the world is at war. Okay, maybe there are no rotting pig heads on sticks—the toll of modern warfare is much worse. No happy endings here, folks.
Solving Quadratic Equations by Factoring
The boys arrive on the island, realize that no adults are present, and start organizing. Ralph is elected chief, but Jack takes over the group of hunters. The seeds of conflict are sown.
Jack is obsessed with killing a pig for them to eat. Ralph is obsessed with keeping the signal fire going in. Everything devolves into chaos and anarchy: Piggy's glasses are half-broken; Jack and his hunters kill a mother pig in a gory rape/murder scene, leaving its head impaled on a stake as a gift for the beast; Simon names the pig's head "the Lord of the Flies" and has a vision in which it speaks to him.
Basically, we're about as far from Ralph's vision of a deserted island Congress as we can get.
When Jack pulls most the boys away from Ralph onto "his side," they become more and more violent and savage—so savage that they beat Simon to death in a frenzy of violence before murdering Piggy and chasing Ralph through the jungle… right into the arms of the British Navy.
The Coral Island was a classic 1857 "Europe can better the world through conquering it and forcing Christianity upon everyone" book. Golding read it when he was a wee boy, considered it racist, and fashioned Lord of the Flies as a response to Ballantyne. While the boys in The Coral Island encounter evil "primitives" (read: natives) and find a happy ending by burning "the false Gods" of the inhabitants, the white boys in Lord of the Flies realize that they're evil themselves. Golding argues that darkness is internal and inherent, not something you can attribute solely to those with a different skin color than you.