Study Guide

Lord of the Flies Themes

  • Primitivity

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    If well-brought-up British boys become violent savages when left without supervision, maybe people really are just violent savages, covered up in clothes and caps. Or maybe just some people are violent savages (*coughRogercough*). Either way, Lord of the Flies asks us whether that primitivism is inferior—or if it's our natural and rightful state, and if it's not a little more honest than the clean, "trim" British navy, pretending to be all noble while fighting its own gruesome battles. It sounds like there's a little bit of the beast in all of us.

    Oh, and did you notice that "savage" is associated with coconuts and pig-killing—i.e., the life of a Pacific Islander? Golding is a man of his time, which means he's pretty casual about the racism that elevates Anglo "civilized" superiority. Sure, he questions whether Westerners are really all that civilized, but he doesn't question whether "savages" are really all that savage. Just something to keep in mind.

    Questions About Primitivity

    1. How does Piggy justify or explain Simon's death? Does he end up convincing himself that he's not really responsible for it?
    2. What is the most primitive, savage act committed in Lord of the Flies? What makes it so primitive or savage? (And doesn't it say something about the novel that this is a tough choice?)
    3. Whose fault is it that Simon and Piggy are killed? Is there a difference here between being at fault and being responsible for it?
    4. Who is the most savage character on the island? (Besides Roger.) Who is the most "civilized"? How do we know the difference?
    5. Does Golding ever question what it means to be "civilized" and "savage," or is he pretty comfortable with the categories?

    Chew on This

    By having Ralph and Piggy help kill Simon, Golding suggests that we all have something primitive in us.

    In Lord of the Flies, "primitive" and "savage" are always associated with negative characteristics, and "civilization" and "Britain" are always associated with positive characteristics.

  • Civilization

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    If some adult has ever snapped at you to be "civilized," then you probably know that "civilized" ends up referring to all kinds of arbitrary things: get your elbows off the table; say "please" and "thank you"; don't chew with your mouth open; don't flick spitballs at your sister. You know. Being "civilized" usually means not doing what comes naturally. At least, that's how Lord of the Flies seems to see it. What comes naturally is running around slaughtering pigs in war paint; and what's civilized is having names, addresses, meetings, and elected leaders. But those arbitrary markings of civilization might be the only things that make life worth living.

    Questions About Civilization

    1. Are Ralph and Piggy the only defenders of civilization on the island? What does "civilization" mean to them?
    2. Does Ralph end up giving up on civilization by the end?
    3. What are the differences between "savagery" and civilization? And is "savagery" actually the opposite of civilization? If not, then what is?

    Chew on This

    In Lord of the Flies, civilization is arbitrary but necessary; it's the only thing keeping us all from killing each other.

    Golding suggests that civilization is ultimately doomed to fail, because the beast in all of us will eventually break free.

  • Innocence

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    The boys of Lord of the Flies are stranded on the island at just the right age (between six and twelve, roughly) to drop the idealism of youth and face the real world. How convenient. And what better place to do so than an uninhabited island free of rules, restrictions, and adults? Their real world is less the soul-killing drudgery of a 9-5 job, property taxes, and a baby who won't sleep through the night than the savagery of untamed human nature—but it's a loss of innocence all the same, when we (and the kids) realize that there's nothing innocent about childhood, after all. The novel ends with its main character, Ralph, weeping for "the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart."

    Lord of the Flies Video >

    Questions About Innocence

    1. At what point in the novel does Ralph start thinking that mankind is inherently evil? Do other characters come to the same conclusion?
    2. Are the terms "mankind" and "man's heart" used interchangeably in this novel? What might be the difference between the two terms?
    3. When Ralph talks about the "darkness of man's heart," is this a cop-out? Do you think it's easier for Ralph to think man is inherently evil than realize that all the boys, including Ralph, have chosen to be violent and hurtful?
    4. Is Golding suggesting that children aren't actually innocent?

    Chew on This

    In Lord of the Flies, Simon is the only truly innocent character—which is why he's mercilessly slaughtered.

    The children become savage and animalistic over the course of the novel, but they're not actually evil. In fact, the more animalistic they become, the more innocent they are: like animals, they simply don't know better.

  • Rules and Order

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    Be honest. If you woke up tomorrow and every adult on the planet had vanished, what would you do? (For the adults out there: what if you woke up and every police officer and credit rating bureau on the planet had vanished?) Would you dutifully get out of bed, brush your teeth, and head to school to try to organize the remaining kids into a democratic society? Or would you turn on the TV, break out the Hot Cheetos, and have a Halo marathon (assuming the power grid was still working)?

    Yeah, we thought so. Cheetle isn't exactly war paint, but Golding's point holds: humans are basically corrupt and inherently evil. Rules and order keep people from their true, violent natures. Lord of the Flies tells us that, as soon as you put people outside of a system with punishments and consequences, they'll get busy destroying themselves. Rules may seem pointless, but they're the only things keeping us alive.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. Ralph's attempted system of law lasts about five minutes before breaking down. Does Jack take over with anarchy, or with his own system of laws? Is anarchy really just another system, no different than any other arbitrary set of values?
    2. What makes the system of laws disintegrate on the island? Whose fault is it?
    3. Sam and Eric teeter between Ralph's orderly camp and Jack's rebellious one. Are they good, law-abiding guys, or do they just end up being bad guys?
    4. Are there any "good guys" on the island? Or are there really any "bad guys?" Is there such thing as good vs. bad at all? Or are there just humans, and that's how we are, and we should all stop passing judgment?

    Chew on This

    In Lord of the Flies, rules and order are only as powerful as people agree they are.

    Golding suggests that rules and order are the only thing keeping civilization from breaking down.

  • Fear

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    In 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, new president of the United States, said that the "only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Okay, it's a little more eloquent than Piggy's "I know there isn't no fear," but the point is basically the same: the most dangerous thing on this planet is probably fear, especially fear of the unknown. (Need us to be a little more literal? The Cold War was a war of fear: each side was so afraid of the other starting nuclear war that they built up their nuclear capacity, until the entire world could have been blown away if someone's trigger finger had just jerked.) The boys in Lord of the Flies might be afraid of the beast, but that fear turns out to be more dangerous than any beast could possibly be. What they don't know is that they should really be afraid of each other—and of themselves.

    Questions About Fear

    1. What is "the unknown" in Lord of the Flies? Are there any "knowns" that the boys fear—like starving, or never being rescued?
    2. What is Simon afraid of?
    3. What do the littluns really fear when they talk about the beast? At what point in the novel do the boys fully accept the reality of the beast, and what is the catalyst?

    Chew on This

    Golding suggests that fear—of either the known or the unknown—is the most destructive human emotion.

    In Lord of the Flies, fear becomes paralyzing and unbeatable when the boys realize that there's nothing to be afraid of except fear.

  • Power

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    Congratulations! You've just been elected student body president. What's your first move—getting the mystery meat out of the school lunches, or staking your claim to the best parking spot? In Lord of the Flies, we learn that absolute power corrupts absolutely—but limited power might end up making leaders better. This is the difference between Ralph, who gets more mature in his role as chief, and Jack, who gets—savage. Let's make this really basic: if Ralph represents a democratic society ruled by power for the sake of law and order, then Jack represents an autocratic society governed by power for the sake of power. In Lord of the Flies, the desire for power breaks the boys' fragile civilization, causes strife and competition, and ends up destroying the pristine jungle.

    Questions About Power

    1. Why do the boys follow Jack's lead more readily than they do Ralph's? How are Jack's power tactics different than Ralph's?
    2. What's the point of having power on a deserted island, anyway? For Ralph? For Jack? For Roger?
    3. Ralph seems to realize that with great power comes great responsibility. Does this mean that Jack, by not taking real responsibility, isn't actually chief?

    Chew on This

    Lord of the Flies suggests that brute force is the worst type of power.

    In Lord of the Flies, the desire for power disintegrates the boys' group.

  • Identity

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    Halloween is a lot tamer than it was when people dressed up to scare away ghosts, but the idea is the same: disguising yourself lets you get away with things that you can't do in your Levis and American Apparel hoody. The boys in Lord of the Flies aren't dressing up as sexy Freddy Krueger, but they're still disguising themselves. They begin painting their faces with clay so the pigs won't see them, but the paint quickly becomes a way for them to feel better about their atrocious acts. With the paint on, they no longer have names or identities of their own; they're nameless creatures that kill and murder without consequence. Without a "self" to control, there's no need to control themselves.

    Questions About Identity

    1. What does the face-painting have to do with the boys becoming more violent? Does it happen before or after the boys start to become more "savage" and "primitive"?
    2. Are the boys reverting to their true identities on the island, or leaving their true identities behind as they become more primitive?
    3. How does Simon identify the pig's head? What does he mean when he thinks that the head is "the Lord of the Flies?" Does he even know?

    Chew on This

    Without the masks that Jack and his hunters painted on their faces, Jack would have never attained his position of power on the island.

    Ralph combats his fear by dehumanizing the boys in his mind.

  • Religion

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    Lord of the Flies can be read, at least in part, as a religious allegory. It features the character Simon as a Christ-figure who is killed by the other boys. Following this train of thought, the island can be seen as the Garden of Eden, before it was corrupted by mankind and his evil activities (as represented by the beast) (the “snake-thing”). On a less complex level, there are many generally religious or superstitious images in the novel: Jack as the god, garlanded and sitting on a log as he presides over his feast, the name “the Lord of the Flies,” the rituals that the boys engage in as they replay the pig hunts over and over, and the sacrifice that they leave for the beast. The pig head, impaled on a stake, seems to be a kind of god itself. Scholars disagree as to whether the novel argues for Christianity and civilization, in opposition to “primitive” rituals, or whether Lord of the Flies criticizes any kind of religion, organized or no.

    Questions About Religion

    1. If Simon can be seen as a Christ-figure in Lord of the Flies, what Biblical characters might Ralph and Jack be compared to?
    2. What is the difference between religion and superstition in Lord of the Flies?
    3. Is Simon aware of all the religious symbolism that we claim he’s associated with?

    Chew on This

    The pig hunts that the boys perform in Lord of the Flies are presented as religious ritual; in this way, Golding critiques organized religion.

  • Wisdom and Knowledge

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    Knowledge in Lord of the Flies is more about awareness and wisdom than anything else. There are certain important truths that some characters are privy to and others are not. The characters that are “in the know” seem to have possession of these truths innately, as though by some spiritual means. The boys left in the dark are simply at odds with their more savvy counterparts; they fail to understand these wiser children (like Simon) and instead of trying to learn from them, violently lash out at them. It seems, then, that the wisest boys are sacrificed, made martyrs for the very key knowledge they possess. The irony is that, by killing these knowing boys, the naïve characters are keeping themselves in the dark.

    Questions About Wisdom and Knowledge

    1. Who’s the most intelligent boy on the island? Who is the wisest? What’s the difference?
    2. How do the boys feel about Simon? Are they fearful? Confused? Intimidated?
    3. What do the boys learn during their island getaway?

    Chew on This

    In Lord of the Flies, ignorance always brings destruction.

    In Lord of the Flies, knowledge always brings destruction.

  • Youth

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    The island is strictly pre-teen, with no messy hormones to make things even worse. Maybe some of the boys have peach fuzz—we bet Jack does—but in general, these are little boys playing little boy games. Only the games aren't so innocent. Lord of the Flies asks a crucial question: are kids really innocent, or do even six-year-olds have the beast inside? On the one hand, it's hard to say—we only get to know the biguns, so it's possible that the six-year-olds are still innocent. On the other hand, everyone eats the pig, and everyone helps kill Simon. It's not looking good for human nature.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Are the children innocent? Are they corrupted by the island and their situation, or do they bring their own darkness?
    2. Has Ralph grown up by the end of the novel? Or does weeping show that he's still a child?
    3. Which characters act the most like adults? What does "adulthood" seem to mean?

    Chew on This

    In Lord of the Flies, children are just as savage and bestial as adults.

    Golding suggests that very young children are still innocent, until society and civilization corrupt them.