“Lord of the Flies” by William Golding was first published in 1954 and instantly became controversial. The coming-of-age story tells of a group of British schoolboys stranded on a desert island after a plane crash during a major war. It’s by far Golding’s best-known work.
As the boys struggle to survive, they devolve into violence. The book becomes a commentary on human nature that shows mankind’s darkest undertones.
The novel is sometimes considered a companion piece to J.D. Salinger’s coming-of-age story “The Catcher in the Rye.” The two works can be viewed as flip sides of the same coin. Both have themes of isolation, with peer pressure and loss featured heavily in the plots.
“Lord of the Flies” is one of the most-read and most popular books for high school and college students studying youth culture and its influences.
Concerned with order and doing things in a properly British and civilized way, Piggy is doomed early in the story. He tries to help keep order and grows distressed when the boys can’t even manage the basic task of building a fire.
“They used to call me Piggy!” (Chapter 1)
Before this statement, Piggy tells Ralph, “I don’t care what they call me so long as they don’t call me what they used to call me in school.” The reader might not realize it yet, but this does not bode well for poor Piggy, who becomes a symbol of knowledge in the narrative. His weakness has been identified, and when Jack, who leads one of two groups that form on the island, breaks Piggy’s glasses soon after, readers have already started to suspect that Piggy’s life is in danger.
Ralph and Jack Battle for Control
Jack, who becomes the leader of the “savage” group of boys—contrasting with Ralph’s anointing as a more rational leader—can’t conceive of a world without British dominance:
“We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” (Chapter 2)
The conflict between order and savagery is a central point of “Lord of the Flies,” and this passage represents Golding’s commentary about the necessity and the futility of trying to impose a structure on a world inhabited by people ruled by base instincts.
“They looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate.” (Chapter 3)
Ralph represents order, civilization, and peace, while Jack—ironically, the leader of a disciplined boys choir—stands for disorder, chaos, and savagery. When they meet, they are always wary of each other, as evil against good. They do not understand each other.
“He began to dance and his laughter became a bloodthirsty snarling.” (Chapter 4)
This description of Jack shows the beginning of his decline into savagery. It’s a truly disturbing scene and sets the stage for the brutality that’s to come.
“All this I meant to say. Now I’ve said it. You voted me for chief. Now you do what I say.” (Chapter 5)
At this point, Ralph still has some semblance of control as the group’s leader, and the “rules” are still somewhat intact. But the foreboding here is clear, and it’s obvious to the reader that the fabric of their little society is about to tear apart.
The following exchange came between Jack and Ralph, starting with Jack:
“And you shut up! Who are you, anyway? Sitting there telling people what to do. You can’t hunt, you can’t sing…”
“I’m chief. I was chosen.”
“Why should choosing make any difference? Just giving orders that don’t make any sense…” (Chapter 5)
The argument displays the larger dilemma of earned power and authority versus power that is bestowed. It can be read as a debate between the nature of democracy (Ralph was chosen leader by the group of boys) and a monarchy (Jack assumed the power he had coveted and decided was rightfully his).
The Beast Within?
As the doomed Simon and Piggy try to make sense of what’s happening on the island, Golding gives us yet another moral theme to consider. Simon, another leader, ponders:
“Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us.” (Chapter 5)
Jack has convinced most of the boys that a beast lives on the island, but with the world in “Lord of the Flies” at war and considering Golding’s status as a war veteran, this statement seems to question whether humans, either “civilized” adults or savage children, are their own worst enemy. The author’s answer is an emphatic “yes.”
As the novel nears its conclusion, Ralph, running from the boys who have descended into anarchy, collapses on the beach. When he looks up, he sees a naval officer, whose ship has come to investigate a massive fire on the island started by Jack’s tribe. The boys have finally been rescued:
“The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” (Chapter 12)
Ralph weeps like the child he no longer is. He has lost more than his innocence: He has lost the idea that anyone is innocent, either in the war that surrounds them but remains unseen or in the small, ad hoc civilization on the island where the boys created a war of their own.
The military officer reproaches the boys who have slowly assembled on the beach for their warlike behavior, only to turn and look at his own warship standing off the island’s coast.