Review: Lord of the Flies by William Golding

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The Lord of the Flies by William Golding book cover
Lord of the Flies (1954) is a dystopian novel by William Golding. Amidst a nuclear war, an aeroplane crash lands on a small, remote island. The only survivors are a group of English school boys who are forced to subsist with no help from adults, and scant resources. Ralph, a calm boy, is immediately voted leader by the rest, and establishes a democratic, egalitarian system, where each boy is expected to support the group, and decisions are made in large meetings, during which all are given a chance to voice their opinion (provided they hold the ‘conch’ – an impressive shell found on the beach). It seems the perfect system if the boys are to survive the island, but there are dissenting voices. Most notable amongst these is Jack, former leader of the choirboys. He cares less about the group, and more about the thrill of hunting and living independently, but with physically weaker members of the group, like the intelligent if sickly ‘Piggy’ and many younger boys, who would fail under this more brutal system, Jack lacks support early on. However, as fear rises on the island, the boys begin to talk of a beast who hunts them, and dull jobs like fire-building, and provisioning shelters, are not properly done by the majority. Eventually, the group splinters into two between the ideologies of Jack and Ralph, with each group going their own way. Deadly savagery descends, and as the novel develops it becomes clear that little of the civility the boys once knew will survive on the island.

World War II had a major impact on Golding. It revealed to him what he believed to be humanity’s true nature; that evil is innate and, while generally kept in check by social and civilising forces, has the potential to burst into extremes of violence such as the atrocities World War II involved. For Golding, the key was not to ignore this human propensity to violence, but to acknowledge it and begin to understand it. Only then could great crises like Auschwitz or Hiroshima be avoided in the future. Lord of the Flies is a parable then (any attempt to read it purely as realism is problematic), which considers the root of societal ills by tracing them back to this flaw (the innate propensity to destruction) in human nature. While the boys try many political systems on the island, all fail, and it appears clear that no structure of society can contain human nature, it is simply down to each individual to develop a self-awareness and moderate their own primal urges.

Having witnessed first-hand the horrors war can drive all men to, and lived through the dying days of the Empire, Golding shunned the idea of nationalism, and in Lord of the Flies he satirises colonial fiction, which raised the English above other races, and imbued them with special qualities. When the school boys are first marooned on the island, Jack is quick to buy into this simple-minded nationalism: "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." By the novel’s close, there will be little superiority left in either Jack or the English. By choosing a group of public school boys, Golding identifies the group perhaps most thought of as embodying the English qualities of rationality, sportsmanship, respectability, good breeding, nationalism, and innate good character, not to mention the innocence associated with childhood. In showing that these boys are no different to anyone else, he punctures any ideas of superiority, and establishes a truth about human nature that runs across all of society.

But the boys are not simply ‘bad’. Each has good qualities, which are, at times, utilised on the island: Ralph is calm and able to listen to others’ opinions, Piggy has plenty of knowledge and is more rational than most, and Simon – a superstitious boy – is the one most aware of the evil in the group but also the most willing to work for the group’s benefit. The fear that grips the boys – originating with the younger children – about a beast on the island shows how easily irrationality is accepted and allowed to shape a society. However, as much as this irrational fear is divisive, rationality fares little better in helping the group form a society. Indeed, there is a constant theme of the Apollonian and Dionysian aspects of life conflicting with one another. This struggle is not only between the boys (and the positions they represent) but also an internal struggle within each of them. That said, while there is a dichotomy of good and evil in each boy, it seems clear that when emotion rules rationality, acts of evil are committed.

In choosing to paint their faces late in the novel, Jack’s tribe cloak their individuality, and become part of a savage group, devoid of personal responsibility for their actions. It is not until the novel’s end that Golding refocuses the reader’s perspective, and allows one to see the boys not as savages but as boys once more, grubby from their “fun and games”. It’s a sobering reflection on the propensity of all humanity for cruelty, and its ability not to see it. Interestingly, though he takes the position that the line of good and evil runs through each individual, Golding chooses to narrate the novel from the third person, allowing no access to the internal machinations of any of the characters. Rather, one is left to piece together the abundant symbolism and clinically described plot, to arrive at the same conclusions about humanity as Golding does.

The island is the perfect setting to allow the boys to both attempt to reach a politicised system of self-governance, and, ultimately, give in to their own savagery. The setting, and much of the novel’s structure, refers back to R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 adventure story, The Coral Island, in which a group of boys are marooned on an island. But where The Coral Island is a superficial story of fun and excitement, Lord of the Flies is something much darker, and this darker side of the story perhaps shares a closer literary link with The Bacchae. But Lord of the Flies is a parody of colonial tales like The Coral Island. The central characters are all named similarly to those in Ballantyne’s adventure, but here they are caricatures. In both cases, government structures are needed to quell the threat of savagery. But whereas in the nineteenth century, this savagery came from the colonised, in the twentieth it comes from within. The island and its climate, like the boys, has two faces – one which is far harsher, and another more full of promise and hope. Where colonial fiction like The Coral Island celebrated the proud face of a not always deserving Empire, Lord of the Flies stands for truth over illusion, for grim reality faced down rather than eschewed. Crucially, the boys in this adventure, unlike their forebears, tip into adolescence; a place of knowledge.

Amongst the central characters are used symbolically to place (seemingly) antithetical worldviews in opposition on the micro level. Piggy is the voice of scientific rationality, and Simon of spiritual intuition. Ralph represents democracy, Jack authoritarianism. Golding uses these symbols, playing them off against one another, to explore the root of evil and the failure of society. Ultimately, in one way or another, all fall to the Lord of the Flies, itself the ultimate symbol of evil on the island (Lord of the Flies being another name for Beezlebub, or Satan). While Jack’s authoritarianism leads to violence and discrimination, Ralph’s mistake – and the mistake of democracy generally – is to disregard the need to engage with the ‘dark side’ of our natures. Neither find a workable solution. Piggy’s rationality cannot overcome the savagery of the boys who give into their primal natures, and Simon is alone in recognising the Lord of the Flies for what it is, but too late, his intuition unable to save him.

Ralph’s attempts to organise a society where everyone is supported stands no chance in the face of the selfishness embodied by Jack’s tribe. The latter’s pervasive, exciting idea of reality is by far the more seductive of the two modes of living, and there is rarely any question that the boys will eventually side with the definiteness of absolute truth and savagery offered by Jack. Mid-way through a century of ‘Big Ideas’ the almost irresistible appeal of a powerful and singular idea couldn’t be more prescient. But there is a question of scale when it comes to evil too. Not every society ends in Auschwitz, so might it be too broad to say human nature is infinitely evil if not controlled? The boys come from a world where people are conditioned to violence and fear, protectionism, and the rest – what human nature amounts to in an unconditioned state is impossible to tell, but Golding had seen enough of human nature in our world to know that it was a good deal blacker than many would admit to at the time.

I must be honest and say I struggled to get too excited about this. I can't quite say why - sometimes you just don't click with a book, I guess. It's clever and honest, and important, but somehow I can't quite rave about it.


Useful Links
Reviews of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (UK)
Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (UK)
Reviews of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (US)
Film Adaptation of The Lord of the Flies on Amazon (US)

3 comments:

Stirling Newberry said...

You can read about it in our view, even if probably you do so. the reader has become that conclusion on his own.

Jackie Bailey said...

I read this recently and couldn’t get excited about it either. I think its lack of realism was a major problem for me. I can see why it is important, but it didn’t do anything for me.

Matthew Selwyn said...

Glad I'm not the only one Jackie :) I did wonder whether being brought up in a world that, in a lot of ways, acknowledges the things Golding writes about almost as a given, lessens the effect of what he's saying with the book. I'm always a bit hesitant to go down the 'different generation' line, but I wonder if there might be something to it here.