The Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of British schoolboys marooned on a pacific island after the aeroplane on which they are travelling crashes into the jungle. Isolated from society and freed from adult supervision, the characters in the story quickly lose their civilised manners and begin to act with surprising violence and savagery. Golding, who wrote the story while working as a teacher, held strong views on the nature of innocence and the power of civilisation to control ‘the beast’ of savagery within all people. His accurate portrayal of boys, drawn from his experience, together with the startling and ultimately pessimistic exploration of human nature, have given the book worldwide recognition together with a lasting influence on thinkers, writers and film-makers. The title is a translation of the Biblical name, Beelzebub, used for a god who expected human sacrifice.
Most discussions of the book centre around strongly polarised concepts that arise from the boys’ actions, for example: innocence and the loss of innocence; civilisation and savagery; and diversity and conformity. Then there are the ‘totemic’ objects that have come to be representative of bigger ideas: the conch; piggy’s glasses; and the beast. The resonance and power of the book is partly due to Golding’s willingness to write about events as shocking as murder, torture, bullying and hallucination and partly because of his willingness to explicitly discuss the morality with his narrative voice.
When first arriving on the island, the boys are made to seem almost entirely innocent. Despite the difference in behaviour from what we might expect from school children, due to the age of the book itself, we can observe this innocence best by contrasting it with the behaviour towards the end of the book. Two scenes to consider would be the very first, when Ralph and Piggy meet, and the climax in Chapter 11, Castle Rock, when Piggy is murdered.
At the start of the novel, the boys even dress like they are in the heart of civilised Britain:
‘The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties.’
Ralph in particular is described as healthily muscled, but ‘there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil.’ The word ‘devil’ only appears twice in the whole book, and although it might be light-hearted here at the start, the darkening tone means that later in Chapter 11 when we read of ‘the anonymous devils’ faces’ there is a real threat to the word.
In the final scene, the naval officer presumes that the mud-plastering and the dressing-up has been ‘fun and games’, but he is surprised by the response to his question ‘Nobody killed, I hope?’ Ralph’s tears are both a response to the ‘end of innocence’ and also a proof that he has lost his own innocence: like Adam after eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, he now has the ability to recognise when something will never return.
Civilisation and savagery
First Golding has the boys create a fair sort of system – an agreed leader, a symbol for democratic participation (the conch) and a shared need to draw the society together. The ‘assembly’, which even in 1954 would have had overtones of school gatherings, is a meeting that can’t survive alongside the desire to hunt, break and kill. The two are antithetical. Consider the scene in Chapter 5 when the assembly is first suggested, with the scene in Chapter 11 when Jack and his gang decry the rules and ‘law and rescue’. In one, the boys talk one at a time, punctuated by ‘murmurs’. In the other, the boys shout at the same time, interrupted by a ‘clamor’.
Some of the missing pieces of civilisation are the school uniforms which are quickly stripped off, but by the end most of the boys have also lost their long, civilised names. Ralph unwittingly betrays his friend by calling him ‘Piggy’ and encouraging others to see him as a victim, but he is not the only one to be degraded by his name. When a small boy is asked who he is by the naval officer, Golding writes:
Percival Wemys Madison sought in his head for an incantation that had faded clean away.
The long and upper-class name is merely a distant ‘incantation’ – something magical and never understood.
But it is the tragedy of Golding’s story that civilisation is actually ineffective at combating savagery. Samneric may be a good friend, but his support for Piggy and Ralph is weak. When Jack is confronting them, Golding mocks his character: ‘Samneric protested out of the heart of civilization. “Oh, I say!”’
Closely related to the loss of innocence, the loss of rules is somehow even more awful, perhaps because the boys need them so desperately.
Diversity and Conformity
There is a strong latent discussion of the place of the individual in society within the book, usually overlooked in favour of the simpler themes outlined above. Piggy has several traits that mark him out as different, and he is punished for his natural non-conformity by taunts and bullying throughout the story. But when Ralph insists upon the rules in the first assembly, Jack undoubtedly reacts against it because he wants the freedom to live differently. He loves the idea that he is free to do as he wishes, to ‘hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat—!”’ But he also needs the ideal of Ralph’s society to react against.
Ironically by the end of the book, the biggest crime that Ralph and his supporters have committed, in Jack’s eyes, is to refuse to join in with the new conformity: “
What d’you mean by it, eh?” said the chief fiercely. “What d’you mean by coming with spears? What d’you mean by not joining my tribe?”
Golding is observing that as the majority shifts, human morality can be entirely redefined.
The conch is mentioned 180 times in the book, first as ‘interesting and pretty and a worthy plaything’. Even after it has been destroyed by the same rock that kills Piggy, it is still mentioned five times as Ralph remembers it, now emblematic of everything ‘solemn’ and proper:
There was no solemn assembly for debate nor dignity of the conch.
The phrase associated with the shell is ‘I got the conch’. The simplicity of this is itself a warning: the boys think that authority can be bestowed by possession of a special object. However, the conch is meaningless without the respect for the ideal of the conch. In some ways the boys did an amazing thing to create this symbol that is heard ‘all across the island’ – and far beyond the book – but it is a fragile thing, easily broken.
Piggy’s glasses are also fragile, yet they control the fire and the power goes with it. The glasses are mentioned 42 times in the book, often described as ‘flashing’ in the steady tropical sunshine. They are a mark of Piggy’s vulnerability, an artefact of civilisation, a tool and a displacement activity (Piggy is forever cleaning them). Key scenes to consider are the second part of Chapter Two, when the fire is first lit, the end of Chapter Four, when one of the lenses is broken when Jack hits piggy, and the moment at the end of Chapter Ten when the boys realise why Jack and his hunters made their attack.
The beast is only an imaginary creature, yet the word appears 113 times in the book. To begin with, the boys talk of a ‘beastie’ – the diminutive suffix implying a childish, silly bogey – the fear of the ‘littluns’. However, the word ‘beastie’ doesn’t appear after Chapter Five. Although Simon identifies that the ‘beast’ may in fact be real, but be a part of ‘darkness of man’s heart’, this thought itself is too abstract for many of the boys, and Jack diverts attention with profanity.
After Jack kills a sow and makes an offering, Simon looking at the head of the pig speaks to and hears from a voice that Golding identifies as the Lord of the Flies. And although this voice says that it intends to ‘have fun’, this moment and the seriousness with which a reader chooses to take it really decides your reading of the whole book.
To write an essay response to the story it is essential that you really do hold an opinion and your own reaction. The simplest way is to consider this scene and to ask yourself, how real is this ‘beast’ within? Do I believe that Golding’s story is realistic, or purest fantasy?
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More GCSE analyses: Animal Farm and Of Mice and Men