Golding, William

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Golding, William


(Full name William Gerald Golding) English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, poet, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticsm on Golding's Lord of the Flies (1954).


Declared by many scholars to be one of the most important literary works of the twentieth century, Lord of the Flies has become a classic and is often required reading for high school students. Although the book has been compared to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Golding's primary influence was the nineteenth-century children's classic The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific (1858) by R. M. Ballantyne. Golding's novel shares many situations, plot elements, and even character names with Ballantyne's work. The Coral Island relates the story of three boys stranded on a deserted island who rely on courage and resourcefulness to survive, and who emerge from the experience strengthened and matured. While Golding's tale is very similar, it is a darker, more foreboding, and ironic vision. Golding's conclusion is far from idyllic, and despite their rescue from the island, the ultimate survival of the boys in Lord of the Flies is not assured. Possibly rebuking the Victorian presentation of children as pure and innocent victims of adult society, Golding's children quickly strip themselves of all the trappings of a "civilized" world on the island and revert to savagery. Many scholars contend that through this novel, Golding was positing that customs commonly viewed as making up "civilization" in many cultures are merely an unnatural façade. Lord of the Flies also broke new ground in the young adult novel genre by utilizing poetic description and by borrowing ideas from the schools of modern anthropology and psychology. Although it can be read strictly as an adventure tale, Lord of the Flies contains strong themes and elemental symbolism that have prompted critics to debate the book's true meaning. Many commentators have viewed it as a religious, social, or political allegory.


Lord of the Flies takes place in the context of a large scale war. A group of schoolboys have been evacuated from Great Britain, but their airplane crashes, leaving them abandoned without adult supervision on an uninhabited island. The boys set about creating a society of their own, and although they begin with an attempt to mimic the democratic, moral, and rational examples they recall from the civilized world, the group gradually deteriorates into a cruel tyranny of the strong over the weak.

A power struggle evolves between the main protagonist, Ralph, and the head choirboy, Jack. Although Ralph is originally elected leader, Jack, appointed chief hunter, labors to obtain power and support from the other boys and to undermine Ralph's authority. The boys begin to obsessively fear a beast in the dark that is allegedly hunting them—a fear that Jack uses as a means of converting Ralph's supporters into hunters. Jack and his band soon begin to exhibit a savage delight in killing for meat that turns into bloodlust ruled only by an entity the boys create—an ultimate evil, the Lord of the Flies, also called Beelzebub. Simon, an epileptic who sees visions, attempts to unearth the truth behind this Beast, only to be murdered as he is attempting to share his discovery of reality. Ralph's friend Piggy desperately tries to maintain order, but his asthma, nearsightedness, and obesity make him a frequent target for teasing and torment. He is eventually pushed from a cliff to his death by the other boys. In the conclusion, Ralph becomes hunted by the boys who all now follow Jack, and he is saved only by the timely arrival of a naval officer on the beach who restores a veneer of social order to the group.


The primary theme of Lord of the Flies focuses on the instincts for self-preservation and the underlying human potential for savagery and cruelty. Leighton Hodson has asserted that the book is about "making people become self-aware and honest with themselves about the condition they find themselves in, and the kind of life they lead." Other scholars have commented that Lord of the Flies examines the concept that a society represents the traits of the individuals within it. E. L. Epstein has stated that "The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system."

Critics have focused on many symbols within the novel, but have interpreted the symbols in different ways. One school has viewed the book purely as social commentary addressing the nature of humanity. Other scholars have discovered a multitude of biblical and religious themes, including the fall of man, the betrayal of Cain, reflections of Egyptian mythology, and the evil inherent in mankind. Some commentators have interpreted the symbolism as political, as a statement against the rise of Nazism or a criticism of the failure of other social and political structures.

Another critical faction has recognized the universality of many of the ideas presented in the tale: fear; instinct; fascination with power; corruption. Such critics have analyzed the characters themselves and the capacity for evil within them. In his presentation of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Golding, Lars Gyllensten said, "Golding inveighs against those who think that it is the political or other systems that create evil. Evil springs from the depths of man himself—it is the wickedness in human beings that creates the evil systems or that changes what from the beginning is, or could be, good into something iniquitous and destructive."


Half a century after its publication, Lord of the Flies continues to elicit critical commentary and controversy. Initially, the book received mixed reviews and sold moderately well, but when issued in paperback in 1959 it became more accessible to students and sales increased. Teachers began to assign it for English literature classes with such frequency that it became part of the standard high school curriculum.

According to many critics, the characters in Lord of the Flies depict various aspects of society. Such scholars hold that Ralph represents civilization's inner turmoils, as he is conflicted about decisions he is forced to make. Piggy serves as a voice of reason, intellect, and order. Jack's nature is destructive, savage, and territorial and he possesses a wildness born of unleashed freedom. Simon symbolizes humanity's spiritual nature—he is brave, visionary, sacrificial. Many commentators have declared Simon as a type of Christ figure, maintaining that he is the only one on the island who fully understands what is going on and why.

Golding wrote numerous other novels, but none were embraced, celebrated, or studied more than Lord of the Flies. This novel, with a powerful and exciting narrative, stirring characterization, and deep, complex, and emotional themes is widely considered to be Golding's best work. Lord of the Flies has been praised for its structure, its ironic conclusion, and its function as fable and pure parable. It has been translated into many languages and was adapted into film in 1963 and 1990. In a 1960 study of Golding's works, C. B. Cox wrote, " Lord of the Flies is probably the most important novel to be published in this country in the 1950s. A story so explicitly symbolic as this might easily become fanciful and contrived, but Golding has mastered the art of writing a twentieth-century allegory … a gripping story which will appeal to generations of readers."


Lord of the Flies (novel) 1954

The Inheritors (novel) 1955

Pincher Martin (novel) 1955

Free Fall (novel) 1959

The Spire (novel) 1964

The Hot Gates: And Other Occasional Pieces (nonfiction) 1965

The Pyramid (novella) 1967

* The Scorpion God (novels) 1971

Darkness Visible (novel) 1979

Rites of Passage (novel) 1980

A Moving Target (essays) 1982

The Paper Men (novel) 1984

An Egyptian Journal (nonfiction) 1985

*Includes Clonk, Clonk, Envoy Extraordinary, and The Scorpion God.


C. B. Cox (essay date 1960)

SOURCE: Cox, C. B. "On Lord of the Flies. "In William Golding: Novels, 1954-67, edited by Norman Page, pp. 115-21. London: Macmillan, 1985.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1960, Cox analyzes the plot line, finding an underlying Christian motif.]

William Golding's Lord of the Flies, published in 1953, is a retelling in realistic terms of R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island. A group of boys, shot down during some kind of atomic war, are marooned on an island in the Pacific. In contrast to the boys in Ballantyne's story, who after a number of exciting adventures remember their time on the island as an idyllic interlude, the children in Lord of the Flies soon begin to quarrel, and their attempts to create an ordered, just society break down. On one level the story shows how intelligence (Piggy) and common sense (Ralph) will always be overthrown in society by sadism (Roger) and the lure of totalitarianism (Jack). On another, the growth of savagery in the boys demonstrates the power of original sin. Simon, the Christ figure, who tries to tell the children that their fears of a dead parachutist are illusory, is killed in a terrifying tribal dance. The Lord of the Flies is the head of a pig, which Jack puts up on a stick to placate an illusory Beast. As Simon understands, the only dangerous beast, the true Lord of the Flies, is inside the children themselves. Lord of the Flies is the Old Testament name for Beelzebub.

Lord of the Flies is probably the most important novel to be published in this country in the 1950s. A story so explicitly symbolic as this might easily become fanciful and contrived, but Golding has mastered the art of writing a twentieth-century allegory. In contrast to the medieval audience, the general reading public today does not believe that correspondences exist between the material and spiritual world, and they do not automatically expect every incident or object to have symbolic importance. No conventions of allegory exist, and the writer cannot introduce colours, animals, flowers or any of the other emblems which were available for the medieval writer. In these circumstances, many novelists have given objects an arbitrary symbolic meaning. In Iris Murdoch's The Bell, for example, there is no inherent reason why the bell under the lake should represent absolute values, and so her fanciful developments of plot to illustrate this meaning often appear rather forced. This type of allegory can fully succeed only if the literal sense is dramatically coherent in its own right, as in Camus's The Plague. There are other methods of writing twentieth-century allegory, of course, as in Kafka's use of fanciful situations to explore psychological and religious experiences; but if a story based on real life is used, then there must be no unlikely situations or fanciful embroidery. A modern audience will accept the underlying meanings only if they are conveyed in a completely convincing, true to life series of events.

To find an exciting, stimulating plot which is both dramatically credible and capable of allegorical interpretation is exceptionally difficult. The idea of placing boys alone on an island, and letting them work out archetypal patterns of human society, is a brilliant technical device, with a simple coherence which is easily understood by a modern audience. Its success is due in part to the quality of Golding's Christianity. He is neither puritan nor transcendentalist, and his religious faith is based upon his interpretation of experience, rather than upon an unquestioning acceptance of revelation. Although his four novels [sc. those written up to the time of Cox's essay—Ed.] deal with the depravity of man, he cares deeply about the condition of human life, and shows great compassion for men who suffer and men who sin. His religious sense does not make him turn from life in disgust, but proves to him the dignity and importance of human action. In development of plot, descriptions of island and sea, and treatment of character, he explores actual life to prove dramatically the authenticity of his religious viewpoint.

Lord of the Flies is a gripping story which will appeal to generations of readers. It is easy to despise the power of a good story, and to think of moral implications as an alternative to the obvious devices of surprise, suspense and climax. But to succeed, a good story needs more than sudden deaths, a terrifying chase and an unexpected conclusion. Lord of the Flies includes all these ingredients, but their exceptional force derives from Golding's faith that every detail of human life has a religious significance. This is one reason why he is unique among new writers in the '50s, and why he excels in narrative ability. Typical of the writers of the '50s is an uncertainty about human values, a fundamental doubt about whether life has any importance whatsoever. In contrast, Golding can describe friendship, guilt, pain and horror with a full sense of how deeply meaningful these can be for the individual. The terrible fire which kills the young children, the fear of Ralph as he is pursued across the island, and Piggy's fall to his death on the rocks make us feel, in their vivid detail, Golding's intense conviction that every particular of human life has a profound importance. His children are not juvenile delinquents, but human beings realising for themselves the beauty and horror of life.

This faith in the importance of our experiences in this world is reflected in Golding's vivid, imaginative style. He has a fresh, delightful response to the mystery of Nature, with its weird beauty and fantastic variety. The conch, which Ralph and Piggy discover in the lagoon and use to call the children to assemblies, is not just a symbol of order. From the beginning Golding does justice to the strange attraction of the shell, with its delicate, embossed pattern, and deep harsh note which echoes back from the pink granite of the mountain. When towards the end of the story the conch is smashed, we feel that sadness which comes when any object of exquisite beauty is broken. The symbolic meaning, that this is the end of the beauty of justice and order, is not forced upon us, but is reflected through our emotional reaction to the object itself.

In this way Golding expresses his passionate interest in both physical and moral life. His narrative style has an unusual lucidity and vitality because he never forgets the concrete in his search for symbolic action:

Now a great wind blew the rain sideways, cascading the water from the forest trees. On the mountain-top the parachute filled and moved; the figure slid, rose to its feet, spun, swayed down through a vastness of wet air and trod with ungainly feet the tops of the high trees; falling, still falling, it sank towards the beach and the boys rushed screaming into the darkness. The parachute took the figure forward, furrowing the lagoon, and bumped it over the reef and out to sea.

With admirable simplicity this passage conveys a multitude of effects. The incident is part of an exciting story, a surprising climax to the murder of Simon; at the same time the dead parachutist is the 'beast' to the children, a symbol of adult evil, which, by their own act of killing, they have shown to be part of themselves. But the passage achieves its strong emotional impact because it is so firmly grounded in physical awareness. Water cascades from the forest trees, the parachutist 'furrows' the lagoon. These precise words describe with physical immediacy a situation which is real and dramatically poignant. And the picture of the man treading the tops of the high trees recalls the mystery of human life, with its incredible inventions, and yet also makes us feel deep compassion for the ungainly feet, the horror of death.

The island itself is boat-shaped, and the children typify all mankind on their journey through life. In the opening scenes the island has the glamour of a new-found paradise. With the green shadows from the palms and the forest sliding over his skin, Ralph is overcome by wonder. He lolls in the warm water, looking at the mirages which wrestle with the brilliance of the lagoon. But soon the terrifying fire transforms the island, and illusion gives way to reality. In nightmares the children begin to be afraid that this is not a good island; they become accustomed to the mirages, 'and ignored them, just as they ignored the miraculous, throbbing stars'. The beauty of the earthly paradise grows stale to their eyes. At the end they leave behind them 'the burning wreckage of the island', whose loveliness has been degraded by their presence.

As his attempts to discipline the boys begin to appear hopeless, Ralph, on a search for the illusory beast, sees beyond the lagoon out to open sea:

The lagoon had protected them from the Pacific: and for some reason only Jack had gone right down to the water on the other side. Now he saw the landsman's view of the swell and it seemed like the breathing of some stupendous creature. Slowly the waters sank among the rocks, revealing pink tables of granite, strange growths of coral, polyp, and weed. Down, down, the waters went, whispering like the wind among the heads of the forest. There was one flat rock there, spread like a table, and the waters sucking down on the four weedy sides made them seem like cliffs. Then the sleeping leviathan breathed out—the waters rose, the weed streamed, and the water boiled over the table rock with a roar. There was no sense of the passage of waves; only this minute-long fall and rise and fall.

This creature becomes a part of Ralph's consciousness, a symbol of a reality he tries to avoid. As he watches the ceaseless, bulging passage of the deep sea waves, the remoteness and infiniteness of the ocean force themselves upon his attention. By the quiet lagoon he can dream of rescue, but the brute obtuseness of the ocean tells him he is helpless. It is significant that the two boys who are killed, Simon and Piggy, are taken back to this infinite ocean.

As the waves creep towards the body of Simon beneath the moonlight, the brilliantly realistic description of the advancing tide typifies all the beauty of the world which promises eternal reward to those who suffer:

Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose further and dressed Simon's coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange, attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapours, busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

Here we become aware of the Christian meaning underlying the story. For Ralph the sea typifies the insensitivity of the universe, but this is to see it from only one point of view. The multitudinous beauties of the tide promise that creation was not an accident; after our suffering and confusions are over, a healing power of great beauty will solve all problems. The advancing waves are like moon-beam-bodied creatures, gently washing the body of Simon free from all stain, and dressing him in pearls, silver and marble in token of the richness of his love for the other children. Instead of seeking to introduce ancient myths into the modern world, Golding creates his own, basing his symbols on the actual wonder of life itself. The intricate beauty of the waves is not merely a pleasing arrangement of light and matter, but an incredible manifestation of the wonder of creation, with a valid life in our consciousness. As Simon's body moves out to open sea under the delicate yet firm lifting of the tide, it seems impossible that his sacrifice has had no ultimate meaning.

The island, the sea and the sacrifice of Simon all show Ralph the truth of the human situation. His mind finds the burden of responsibility too great, and he begins to lose his power to think coherently: 'He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one's waking life was spent watching one's feet.' Jack's return to savagery, taking all the children with him, is portrayed with frightening realism. The lust for killing grows too strong, and Ralph's inadequate democratic machinery cannot keep it in check. Behind their painted faces, the children can feel a security, a lack of personal responsibility for the evil they perpetrate, and this desire explains the growth of Jack's prestige. When he tells them they will not dream so much, 'they agreed passionately out of the depths of their tormented private lives', and he is amazed by their response. Only the intelligence of Piggy is not tempted by the tribal dances, and his character is presented with great compassion. His fat, asthmatic body is a natural butt for children, and continual mockery has taught him to be humble and to enjoy being noticed even only as a joke. But he has a powerful belief in the importance of civilised order, and gradually Ralph learns to appreciate his value. His death is a poignant reminder of the unjust and cruel treatment given by society to so many good men.

Simon is perhaps the one weakness in the book. We see his friendship for Ralph, when he touches his hand as they explore the island, and his love of all people when he ministers to the dead body of the parachutist, but alone among the characters his actions at times appear to be motivated, not by the dramatic action, but by the symbolic implications of the story. At the beginning, when he withdraws at night from the other children, his motives are left uncertain. But the scene where he confronts the lord of the flies is most convincing. In this pig's head covered with flies, he sees 'the infinite cynicism of adult life'. He has the courage to face the power of evil, and, knowing that the beast is in all of them, he climbs the hill to find out the truth about the dead parachutist.

The whole story moves towards Simon's view of reality. The growth of savagery forces Ralph to make strange speculations about the meaning of human identity. When they hold an assembly at nightfall, he is surprised at the different effect made by the darkness:

Again he fell into that strange mood of speculation that was so foreign to him. If faces were different when lit from above or below—what was a face? What was anything?

He faces the possibility that there is no absolute perspective to human life, and that all experience may be meaningless. He longs to return to the world of adults, and the irony of this illusion is shown when, after a battle in the skies, the dead parachutist comes down 'as a sign from the world of grown-ups'. At certain stages of the story, Golding deliberately makes us forget that these are only young children. Their drama and conflict typify the inevitable overthrow of all attempts to impose a permanent civilisation on the instincts of man. The surprising twist of events at the end of the novel is a highly original device to force upon us a new viewpoint. The crazy, sadistic chase to kill Ralph is suddenly revealed to be the work of a semi-circle of little boys, their bodies streaked with coloured clay. But the irony is also directed at the naval officer, who comes to rescue them. His trim cruiser, the sub-machine gun, his white drill, epaulettes, revolver and row of gilt buttons, are only more sophisticated substitutes for the war-paint and sticks of Jack and his followers. He too is chasing men in order to kill, and the dirty children mock the absurd civilised attempt to hide the power of evil. And so when Ralph weeps for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the death of his true, wise friend, Piggy, he weeps for all the human race.

Bernard S. Oldsey and Stanley Weintraub (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: Oldsey, Bernard S., and Stanley Weintraub. "Beelzebub Revisited: Lord of the Flies. "In The Art of William Golding, pp. 15-40. New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1965.

[In the following essay, Oldsey and Weintraub approach Lord of the Flies as an allegory about good and evil.]

Lord of the Flies (1954), Golding's first novel and the one that established his reputation, is still most widely acclaimed as his major work. Not only has it captured a large segment of the popular and academic imagination (having the effect there of replacing J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye), but it has also attracted the greatest amount of critical attention directed toward Golding.

To date, that critical attention has proven various, specialized, and spotty. A remarkable "first novel" on any terms, Lord of the Flies has been praised on literary grounds much less often than as sociological, psychological, or religious tract, as "pure parable," fable, or myth.1 The terminology of Frazer and Freud are more often brought to bear upon the novel than the yardsticks of literary criticism. As literature, however, it has been—even while praised—called unoriginal and derivative, filled with "gimmickry," devoid of characterization, and lacking in logic.2 Only twice has it been blasted as insignificant art encased in bad writing.3

Certainly Lord of the Flies is derivative, in the sense that it falls well within the main stream of several English literary traditions. It is a "boys' book," as are Treasure Island, The Wind in the Willows, High Wind in Jamaica, and other books primarily about juvenile characters which transcend juvenile appeal; it is in the tradition of the survival narrative, along with Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, and even Barrie's Admirable Crichton; it is in the tradition—best exemplified by Conrad, Cary, and Greene in our century—that examines our culture by transplanting it harshly to an exotic locale where it prospers or withers depending upon its intrinsic value and strength; it is in the long tradition of anti-science writing in England, where authors for centuries have equated scientific progress with dehumanization; and it at least appears to be in the Nonconformist English religious tradition, which assumes mankind's fall from grace.

If all these traditions lead back to one key source of inspiration, it may be no accident. The traditions embodied in Lord of the Flies can be discovered in Gulliver's Travels—Swift's version of the primeval savagery and greed which civilization only masks in modern man. It seems no coincidence that we also find in Golding a Swiftian obsession with physical ugliness, meanness, and nastiness (sometimes bordering on the scatological), and with the sense of how tenuous is the hold of intelligence, reason, and humaneness as a brake upon man's regression into barbarism.

Eventually, of course, Golding must be judged according to his individual talent rather than tradition or polemical appeal. Other critical visits to his minor devil's island have been accomplished mainly at a distance, through special field glasses. Here we revisit the island armed only with the knowledge that Golding is essentially a literary man who uses scene, character, and symbol (not to mention an exceedingly fine style and some admittedly tricky plot methods) to achieve imaginative literary effects.

The scenic qualities of Lord of the Flies help make it an imaginative work for the reader as well as the author. Although Golding occasionally provides consolidating detail, he more commonly requires the reader to pull narrative and descriptive elements into focus. For example, he provides no end-paper map or block description of his fictional island. The reader must explore it along with the participants in the story and piece together a usable concept of time and place. What we learn in this way is just enough to keep the work within the realm of fiction, but not enough to remove it from the realm of allegory. And the essence of Golding's art resides exactly within the area of overlap.

Fable-like, time and place are vague. The Queen (Elizabeth?) still reigns, and "Reds" are apparently the vague enemy. It is the postcatastrophic near-future, in which nuclear war has laid waste much of the West. ("They're all dead," Piggy thinks. And "civilization," corroborates Golding, is "in ruins.") The fiery crash of the boys' plane upon a tropical island has been the final stage of their evacuation from England. The island seems to lie somewhere in the Indian or Pacific Ocean, probably on a line extending from England to Australia, which could well have been the planned terminus of their evacuation. Jack provides the clue for such geographical extrapolation when he speaks of Simon's seizures at "Gib." (Gibraltar) and "Addis" (Addis Ababa), as well as "at matins over the precentor."4

Shaped roughly like an outrigged boat, the boys' haven is a tropical island with a coral base. A mile out along one side runs a barrier reef, between which and the island lies a lagoon, on whose inward shore the boys hold their assemblies. At one end of the island there appears to be another, smaller island; but upon close inspection this is found to be attached by a rocky isthmus. Topographically, the island rises from low jungle and orchard land to a mountaintop, or ridge, with few or no trees. By way of food, it provides the boys with bananas, coconuts, an "olivegrey, jelly-like fruit," and wild pig, as well as crab and fish taken from the sea. At midday the island gets hot enough to produce mirage effects.

If there were an end-paper map for Golding's island, it would no doubt be marked to indicate these major points of interest: (1) the beach along the lagoon, where Piggy and Ralph find the conch, and where assemblies are held near a natural platform of fallen trees; (2) the mountaintop, from which the island is surveyed, where the signal fire is placed, and where eventually the dead parachutist is trapped by wind and rock; (3) the burned-out quarter mile, where the mulberry-faced boy dies in the first fire; (4) Simon's leafy bower, to which he makes mystic retreats and from which he views the ceremony of impaling the pig's head upon a stake; (5) the orchard, where the fruit is picked and where some of the "littluns" are "taken short," leaving behind their fecal trail; (6) the "castle" at the tail end of the island, rising a hundred feet from the sea, where the first search for the "beast" is made, and where Piggy is killed after Jack has made this bastion his headquarters; and (7) the jungle, with its hanging vines that recall snakes and "beasties," with its pig trails where Jack hunts and where Ralph is finally hunted.

When the details are extracted and given order under an analytical light, Golding's island looks naturalistic in specification. But matters are not at all that clear in the book. The location of the island, for example, is kept deliberately vague: it is sufficiently remote to draw only two ships in a month or so, yet close enough to "civilization" to be the floor above which deadly, and old-fashioned, air battles are fought miles high (the boys' plane itself has been shot down). The nearby air and naval war in progress, with conventional weapons, is somewhat out of keeping with earlier reports of utter catastrophe. Equally incongruous is the smartly attired naval officer and savior of the closing pages, whose jaunty mien is incompatible with catastrophe. Yet he is as important to the machinery of the allegory as the earlier crash, which is equally difficult to explain on rational grounds. During the crash the fuselage of the evacuation plane has apparently broken in two: the forward half (holding pilot and others, including more boys) has been cleanly washed out to sea by a conveniently concomitant storm; and the after-section (which makes a long fiery scar as it cuts through the jungle) tumbles unscathed children onto the island. As incompatible, obscure, askew, and unrealistic as these elements may be, they are no more so than Gulliver's adventures. And Golding's graphically novelistic character and topographic details, both poetic and naturalistic, tend to blur the fabulous qualities of the narrative's use of time and setting in its opening and close. Although it is enough to say that the fabulist must be permitted pegs upon which to hang his fable, it is Golding's richly novelistic elements of the telling that call attention to the subtle dissonance. Paradoxically—yet artistically—this very tension between realistic novel and allegorical fable imparts to Lord of the Flies some of its unique power.

Golding's characters, like his setting, represent neither fictional reality nor fabulistic unreality, but, rather, partake of the naturalistic and the allegorical at the same time. As a result, they emerge more full bodied than Kafka's ethereal forms, more subtly shaded than Orwell's animal-farm types, and more comprehensibly motivated than Bunyan's religious ciphers. Bit by bit we can piece together fairly solid pictures of the major figures in Lord of the Flies. And since a number of commentators have fallen into interpretative error by precipitously trying to state what these characters "mean," perhaps it would be best here to start by trying to state what they "are."

Ralph, the protagonist, is a boy twelve years and a "few months" old. He enters naïvely, turning hand-springs of joy upon finding himself in an exciting place free of adult supervision. But his role turns responsible as leadership is thrust upon him—partly because of his size, partly because of his attractive appearance, and partly because of the conch with which, like some miniature Roland, he has blown the first assembly. Ralph is probably the largest boy on the island (built like a boxer, he nevertheless has a "mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil"). But he is not so intellectual and logical as Piggy ("he would never be a very good chess player," Golding assures us), not so intuitively right as Simon, nor even so aggressively able to take advantage of opportunity as Jack. For these reasons there has been some reader tendency to play down Ralph as a rather befuddled Everyman, a straw boy of democracy tossed about by forces he cannot cope with. Yet he should emerge from this rites-of-passage bildungsroman with the reader's respect. He is as much a hero as we are allowed: he has courage, he has good intelligence, he is diplomatic (in assuaging Piggy's feelings and dividing authority with Jack), and he elicits perhaps our greatest sympathy (when hounded across the island). Although he tries to live by the rules, Ralph is no monster of goodness. He himself becomes disillusioned with democratic procedure; he unthinkingly gives away Piggy's embarrassing nickname; and, much more importantly, he takes part in Simon's murder! But the true measure of Ralph's character is that he despairs of democracy because of its hollowness ("talk, talk, talk"), and that he apologizes to Piggy for the minor betrayal, and that—while Piggy tries to escape his share of the guilt for Simon's death—Ralph cannot be the hypocrite (this reversal, incidentally, spoils the picture often given of Piggy as superego or conscience). Ralph accepts his share of guilt in the mass action against Simon, just as he accepts leadership and dedication to the idea of seeking rescue. He too, as he confesses, would like to go hunting and swimming, but he builds shelters, tries to keep the island clean (thus combating the flies), and concentrates vainly on keeping a signal fire going. At the novel's end Ralph has emerged from his age of innocence; he sheds tears of experience, after having proven himself a "man" of humanistic faith and action. We can admire his insistence upon individual responsibility—a major Golding preoccupation—upon doing what must be done rather than what one would rather do.

Ralph's antagonist, Jack (the choir leader who becomes the text's Esau), is approximately the same age. He is a tall, thin, bony boy with light blue eyes and indicative red hair; he is quick to anger, prideful, aggressive, physically tough, and courageous. But although he shows traces of the demagogue from the beginning, he must undergo a metamorphosis from a timidity-shielding arrogance to conscienceless cruelty. At first he is even less able to wound a pig than is Ralph, but he is altered much in the manner of the transformation of the twentieth-century dictator from his first tentative stirrings of power lust to eventual bestiality. Although Golding is careful to show little of the devil in Ralph, he nicely depicts Jack as being directly in league with the lord of flies and dung.5 Jack trails the pigs by their olive-green, smooth, and steaming droppings. In one place we are shown him deep in animalistic regression, casting this way and that until he finds what he wants: "The ground was turned over near the pig-run and there were droppings that steamed. Jack bent down to them as though he loved them." His fate determined, Jack is a compelled being; he is swallowed by the beast—as it were—even before Simon: "He tried to convey the compulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up." Jack's Faustian reward is power through perception. He perceives almost intuitively the use of mask, dance, ritual, and propitiation to ward off—and yet encourage simultaneously—fear of the unknown. Propitiation is a recognition not only of the need to pacify but also of something to be pacified. In this instance it is the recognition of evil. "The devil must have his due," we say. Here the "beast" must be mollified, given its due. Jack recognizes this fact, even if he and his group of hunters do not understand it. Politically and anthropologically he is more instinctive than Ralph. Jack does not symbolize chaos, as sometimes claimed, but, rather, a stronger, more primitive order than Ralph provides.

Jack's chief henchman, Roger, is not so subtly or complexly characterized, and seems to belong more to Orwellian political fable. Slightly younger and physically weaker, he possesses from the beginning all the sadistic attributes of the demagogue's hangman underling. In his treatment of the sow he proves deserving of his appellation in English slang. Through his intense, furtive, silent qualities, he acts as a sinister foil to Simon. By the end of the novel Golding has revealed Roger; we hardly need to be told that "the hangman's horror clung round him."

Simon is perhaps the most effectively—and certainly the most poignantly—characterized of all. A "skinny, vivid little boy, with a glance coming up from under a hut of straight hair that hung down, black and coarse," he is (at nine or ten) the lonely visionary, the clear-sighted realist, logical,6 sensitive, and mature beyond his years. We learn that he has a history of epileptic seizures—a dubious endowment sometimes credited to great men of the past, particularly those with a touch of the mystic. We see the unusual grace and sensitivity of his personality crop up here and there as the story unfolds until he becomes the central figure of the "Lord of the Flies" scene—one of Golding's most powerful and poetic. We see Simon's instinctive compassion and intelligence as he approaches the rotting corpse of the parachutist, which, imprisoned in the rocks on the hill in flying suit and parachute harness, is the only palpable "monster" on the island. Although Simon's senses force him to vomit with revulsion, he nevertheless frees it "from the wind's indignity." When he returns to tell his frightened, blood-crazed companions that, in effect, they have nothing to fear but fear itself, his murder becomes the martyrdom of a saint and prophet, a point in human degeneration next to which the wanton killing of Piggy is but an anticlimax. In some of the novel's richest, most sensitive prose, the body of Simon (the boys' "beast" from the jungle) is taken out to sea by the tide, Golding here reaching close to tragic exaltation as Simon is literally transfigured in death:7

… The beast lay huddled on the pale beach and the stains spread, inch by inch.

The edge of the lagoon became a streak of phosphorescence which advanced minutely, as the great wave of the tide flowed. The clear water mirrored the clear sky and the angular bright constellations. The line of phosphorescence bulged about the sand grains and little pebbles; it held them each in a dimple of tension, then suddenly accepted them with an inaudible syllable and moved on.

Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rainpitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose farther and dressed Simon's coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapors, busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

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.

With his mysterious touch of greatness Simon comes closest to foreshadowing the kind of hero Golding himself has seen as representing man's greatest need if he is to advance in his humanity—the Saint Augustines, Shakespeares, and Mozarts, "inexplicable, miraculous."8 Piggy, on the other hand, who, just before his own violent death, clutches at a rationalization for Simon's murder, has all the good and bad attributes of the weaker sort of intellectual. Despised by Jack and protected by Ralph, he is set off from the others by his spectacles, asthma, accent, and very fat, short body. Freudian analysts would have Piggy stand as superego, but he is extremely id-directed toward food: it is Ralph who must try to hold him back from accepting Jack's pig meat, and Ralph who acts as strong conscience in making Piggy accept partial responsibility for Simon's death.9 Although ranked as one of the "biguns," Piggy is physically incapable and emotionally immature. The logic of his mind is insufficient to cope with the human problems of their coral-island situation. But this insight into him is fictionally denied to the Ralphs of this world, who (as on the last page of the novel) weep not for Simon, but for "the true, wise friend called Piggy."

How many children originally landed on the island alive we never learn; however, we do know that there were more than the eighteen boys whose names are actually mentioned in the course of the novel. Census matters are not helped by the first signal fire, for it goes out of control and scatters the boys in fright. Ralph, worried about the littluns, accuses Piggy of dereliction of duty in not making a list of names. Piggy is exaggeratedly indignant: "How could I … all by myself? They waited for two minutes, then they fell in the sea; they went into the forest; they just scattered everywhere. How was I to know which was which?" But only one child known to any of the survivors has clearly disappeared—a small unnamed boy with a mulberry-marked face. This fact lends little credence to Piggy's tale of decimation.

Of those who remain, at least a dozen of whom are littluns, a significant number come alive through Golding's ability to characterize memorably with a few deft lines. Only two have surnames as well as Christian names: Jack Merridew, already mentioned as Ralph's rival, and the littlun Percival Wemys Madison. Jack at first demands to be called, as at school, "Merridew," the surname his mark of superior age and authority. Percival Wemys Madison ("The Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, Hants, telephone, telephone, tele—") clutches vainly at the civilized incantation, learned by rote—in case he should get lost. And he is. His distant past has so completely receded by the end of the novel that he can get no farther in self-identification than "I'm, I'm—" for he "sought in his head for an incantation that had faded clean away." We learn little more about him, and hardly need to. Here again, in characterization, Golding's straddling the boundary line between allegory and naturalism demonstrates either the paradoxical power of his weakness as novelist or his ability to make the most of his shortcomings.

Whatever the case, Percival Wemys Madison epitomizes the novel and underlines its theme, in his regression to the point of reduced existence. In fact, most of Golding's characters suggest more than themselves, contributing to critical controversy as well as the total significance of the novel. In the years of exegesis since publication of Lord of the Flies, critical analysis has been hardening into dogmatic opinion, much of it allegoristic, as evidenced by such titles as "Allegories of Innocence," "Secret Parables," and "The Fables of William Golding."10 And even where the titles are not indicative (as with E. L. Epstein's Capricorn edition afterword, and the equally Freudian analysis of Claire Rosenfield),11 critical literature has generally forced the book into a neat allegorical novel. The temptation is strong, since the novel is evocative and the characters seem to beg for placement within handy categories of meaning—political, sociological, religious, and psychological categories. Yet Golding is a simply complicated writer; and, so much the better for the novel as novel, none of the boxes fits precisely.

Oversimplifying, Frederick Karl writes that "When the boys on the island struggle for supremacy, they re-enact a ritual of the adult world, as much as the college Fellows in Snow's The Masters work out the ritual of a power struggle in the larger world."12 Jack may appear to be the demagogic dictator and Roger his sadistic henchman; Ralph may be a confused democrat, with Piggy his "brain trust"; but the neatness of the political allegory is complicated by the clear importance of the mystical, generalization-defying Simon. Although Simon, who alone among the boys has gone up to the mountaintop and discovered the truth, is sacrificed in a subhuman orgy, those who have seen a religious allegory in the novel find it more in the fall of man from paradise, as the island Eden turns into a fiery hell, and the Satanic Jack into the fallen archangel. But Ralph makes only a tenuous Adam; the sow is a sorry Eve; and Piggy, the sightless sage, has no comfortable place in Christian myth. Further, it is an ironic commentary upon religious interpretations of Lord of the Flies that of an island full of choirboys, not one ever resorts—even automatically—to prayer or to appeals to a deity, not even before they begin backsliding. And the Edenic quality of the island paradise is compromised from the beginning, for, although the essentials of life are abundant, so are the essentials of pain, terror, and death: the fruit which makes them ill, the animals which awaken their bloodthirstiness and greed, the cruel war in the air above them, the darkness and the unknown which beget their fears.

As a social allegory of human regression the novel is more easily (perhaps too neatly) explainable as "the way in which, when the civilized restraints which we impose on ourselves are abandoned, the passions of anger, lust and fear wash across the mind, obliterating commonsense and care, and life once again becomes nasty, brutish and short."13 The island itself is shaped like a boat, and takes on symbolic proportions, not simply in the microcosmic-macrocosmic sense, but as subtle foreshadowing of the regression about to take place among the boys: "It was roughly boat-shaped.… The tide was running so that long streaks of foam tailed away from the reef and for a moment they felt that the boat was moving steadily astern." This sternward movement not only conjures up the regressive backsliding away from civilization that constitutes the theme of the novel, but is imagistically associated with Piggy's "ass-mar" and the general note of scatology—as with the littluns being "taken short" in the orchard—which prevails in this book on Beelzebub, lord of the flies and dung. Later, when Simon asks the assembly to think of the dirtiest thing imaginable, Jack answers with the monosyllable for excrement. This is not what Simon means at all: he is thinking of the evil in man. But the two concepts merge in Golding's imagination—covertly in Lord of the Flies and manifestly in Free Fall, which is a literary cloaca, full of that revulsion psychologists try to explain in terms of the proximity and ambiguity of the apertures utilized for birth and excreta.

Some critics who see the allegory of evil as just the surface meaning of the novel have been led into psychological labyrinths, where Jack appears as the Freudian id personified; Ralph the ego; and Piggy the superego, conscience of the grown-up world. But William Wasserstrom has dealt severely with Miss Rosenfield in this kind of interpretation; the experts have fallen out;14 and, besides, the Freudian ménage à trois fails to accommodate the vital Simon. Indeed, the problem in all attempts to explain Lord of the Flies as some kind of parable is that the novel is not a parable: it is too long, and lacks the point-by-point parallelism necessary to meet the definition. Nor, in the precise sense, is it a fable, since it deals primarily with human beings, since it does not rely upon folkloristic or fantastic materials, and since it does not provide the convenience of an explicit moral. It is allegoristic, rich in variant suggestions, and best taken at the level of suggestive analysis.

This novel has been taken, too, as a straight tale of initiation, with Ralph as hero—an interpretation to which the book's ending is particularly susceptible. Yet there is more to it than Ralph's facing a brutal adult world with a lament for his lost childhood and for the innocence he thinks has been stripped from him. What Ralph dimly fathoms, the naval-officer "rescuer" cannot possibly understand—that the world, in the words of Shaw's Saint Joan, is not yet ready to receive its saints, neither its Simons nor even its Piggys and Ralphs. Whether he means it or not Golding provides a hopeful note, for even at mankind's present stage of development Piggy and Ralph, the latter with shame, relapse only slightly toward the barbarism of their contemporaries (and that of the officer, who is engaged in a no less barbaric war "outside"); while Simon withstands the powerful regressive pressures completely. That these three represent three-quarters of the novel's major characters defeats any explanation of the novel in totally pessimistic terms.

Almost endlessly, the four major characters are thematically suggestive, and are usually identified in the book with certain imagery and talismanic objects: Jack with blood and dung, with the mask of primitive tribalism (imagistically he is in league with the Lord of the Flies); Piggy with pigs' meat (his physical sloth and appetite and eventual sacrifice), with his glasses, which represent intellect and science (though they could hardly coax the sun into making fire); Ralph with the conch and signal fire, with comeliness and the call to duty, with communal hope (all shattered when the conch dwindles in power and is finally shattered, and the signal fire dies out). Again, however, it may be Simon—not so thematically suggestive as the others—who provides the best clues to the un-Swiftian side of Golding's intentions, for we recall not only his mysticism, his intelligence, his fragility, but also his association with the bees and butterflies that hover sweetly and innocently (by comparison with the flies) about the island, and the tragic beauty of his transfiguration. Perhaps it is Simon who best suggests Golding's optimism in the face of his apparent allegory of regression. "The human spirit," writes Golding, "is wider and more complex than the whole of the physical evolutionary system.… We shall have … to conform more and more closely to categories or go under. But the change in politics, in religion, in art, in literature will come, because it will come; because the human spirit is limitless and inexhaustible." Just around the corner, he promises, are the Saint Augustines, Shakespeares, and Mozarts: "Perhaps they are growing up now."15

What can be said of Lord of the Flies eventually is that, in structure and narrative method, it is Golding's simplest novel. It lacks the ironic mystification of The Inheritors, which results from the necessity of working through primitive brains making simple and often erroneous "pictures" of situations. It escapes the often cryptic involvement, the sudden wrench of context, that come from the stream of consciousness and recall methods of Pincher Martin andFree Fall. But it is not an obvious novel, as sometimes claimed. It shares with his other books an ending technique that constitutes a reversal—a sudden shift of viewpoint. Here the timely arrival of the naval officer acts as no concession to readers demanding a happy ending. What we get instead of "gimmick" or conventional deus ex machina is a necessary change of focus: the boys, who have grown almost titanic in their struggle, are suddenly seen again as boys, some merely tots, dirty-nosed and bedraggled. And then a retrospective irony results, since the boys deserve to be thought of as titanic: if they have been fighting our battle, we realize—with both hope and dismay—that mankind is still in something of a pre-puberty stage. Thus Lord of the Flies ends as no act of hope or charity or even contrition. It is an act of recognition. The tone is peculiarly calm: Golding keeps his distance from his materials; he does not interfere or preach; and the material is made to speak for itself through a simplicity of prose style and a naturalistic-allegorical form. The vision of Golding is through both ends of the telescope.

Kenneth Burke has said that any novel is but the expansion of a single sentence, perhaps simply the expansion of a single gesture. In the same way, criticism of any writer is but the expansion of a single sentence definition. We place the author within a genus and then describe the differentia. We may eventually conclude that his work is sui generis, but the defining method helps us to this conclusion. Much the same thing is true if we try to place him by tracing his origins and the influences exerted on his work; and any analysis or evaluation of Golding's fiction must revolve around the compound question of originality and derivation, for although Golding has been called the most original English novelist of the last twenty or thirty years, it is becoming increasingly clear that his originality in prose is much like that of T. S. Eliot's in verse. Golding, in fact, stands as a remarkable example of how the individual talent operates within a strong tradition. Tradition (the English novelistic tradition primarily, but with elements derived from American, French, and Classical sources) leaves its mark on his work, but his work leaves its individual mark, and sometimes excoriatingly, on tradition. What has become apparent is that Golding is a literary counterpuncher. Put another way, he is a reactionary in the most basic sense of the word. Reacting strongly to certain disagreeable aspects of life and literature as he sees them, he writes with a revolutionary heat that is contained rather than exploded within his compressed style. Restoration rather than preservation is his aim: he would restore concepts of Belief, Free Will, Individual Responsibility, Sin, Forgiveness (or Atonement, anyway), Vision, and Divine Grace. He would restore principles in an unprincipled world; he would restore belief to a world of willful unbelievers.

From the outset of his career, Golding received critical recognition on the basis of his providing something new, something original (most early commentators put it down to his renovation of parable and fable as literary modes of serious expression). One early reaction to his work was that here at last the Home Counties had succeeded in bringing forth a voice capable of contending with the universal wilderness and the everlasting whirlwind. It might not be the voice of a Dostoevsky or Melville or Conrad or Camus, but certainly it was not the voice of still another angry young man. With each successive novel Golding seemed to be marking an end to all that—the novel of manners, the novel of social commentary—and thus to the great tradition as well. It was as though he were pointing at Howards End as a literary cul-de-sac.

Aside from his novels, which did their own attesting, Golding himself lent credence to the idea that he was indeed original, something of an experimenter in the making of modern myths.16 In a Third Programme radio discussion, for example, he expressed a wish to make each book say something different, and in a different way each time:

It seems to me that there's really very little point in writing a novel unless you do something that either you suspected you couldn't do, or which you are pretty certain nobody else has tried before. I don't think there's any point in writing two books that are like each other.…

I see, or I bring myself to see, a certain set of circumstances in a particular way. If it is the way everybody else sees them, then there is no point in writing a book.17

This self-portrait of Golding as literary experimenter is fairly accurate, but it needs expansion. In this connection, we should remember that he spent his first years at Oxford as a student of science before he switched emphasis to English literature. And there remains in his literary efforts something of the scientific stance—that of a white-coated experimenter working in the isolation of a laboratory, isolating in turn his literary elements on islands, promontories, and rocks, in closets, asylums, and prison camps. But in doing his experiments Golding inevitably has a finger stuck in someone else's lab book, along with a marginal note indicating what is wrong or at least what remains to be done. If we were allowed to expand Golding's statement about himself, we would have to—on the basis of what proves to be his practice—add this presumptuous comment: "I often see what others have been getting at, and disagree strongly. So I conduct counter-experiments with results that state: 'Not that way, but this.'"

All Golding's novels, products of his peculiar literary temperament and habit, are reactive experiments. The wonder is how habitual a process this has been. Piecemeal, several critics have nicely documented certain influences or stimuli affecting his work. Yet important instances have been left undiscovered, overlooked, underestimated. What remains to be said is that this reactive method of composition has become the modus operandi. It provides a key as to what Golding has derived from others and what he has provided that is original. Yet Golding has insisted, "But one book never comes out of another, and The Coral Island is not Lord of the Flies. " And, adamantly, that " one work does not come from another unless it is stillborn. "18 Nevertheless, with Golding the process may be, if he has created counter-experiments which are original fiction, not stillbirth but birth.

The process begins with Lord of the Flies, and here the critical documentation has been fairly solid. In separate essays Frank Kermode and Carl Niemeyer make it quite apparent that a strong connection exists between Golding's novel and one published almost exactly a century earlier, R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857).19 Golding reworks Ballantyne's basic situation, setting, and narrative episodes. Like Ballantyne in each respect, he isolates a group of English boys on a coral island that seems an earthly paradise, with a plentitude of fruit and coconuts. He introduces pig killings, cannibalistic tendencies, and the question of ghosts. He names three of his major characters Jack, Ralph, and Piggy in honor of Ballantyne's Jack, Ralph, and Peterkin Gay (the last might just as well be called Piggy, because in one instance, when he is off hunting pigs, Jack alludes to him with the phrase "When Greek meets Greek," the implication being, of course, when pig meets pig).

If Golding works closely to Ballantyne's outline, it is mainly to show by contrast to his own findings how inane the nineteenth-century experiment in youthful isolation was. Eventually the contrast shows through strongly. While Ballantyne's characters, for instance, are stout English lads who overcome evil introduced into their worldly paradise by natives and pirates, Golding's characters find evil within themselves and almost go under, until finally extricated by a deus ex machina. The officer who is the long arm of that godly machine underscores the difference between Golding's novel and Ballantyne's when he says with Old Boy naïveté: "Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island." Ralph looks at the officer dumbly, uncomprehendingly, and his look measures the distance between generations as well as the distance between the fictional visions of 1857 and 1954.

Knowing about Ballantyne's contribution to Lord of the Flies makes for a fuller and richer reading of the novel than might otherwise be obtained. To see how hollow a reading can result when the necessary connection is not made, one need simply read the French version, in which the English naval officer is made to speak for the benefit of an uninitiated audience: "L'officier l'encouragea du menton.—Oui, je comprends. La belle aventure. Les Robinsons …" The Swiss Family Robinson (and even Robinson Crusoe, if it is intended in the pluralization) will not do. (See Sa Majesté des Mouches, translated by Lola Tranec, Gallimard, Paris, 1956.) In ironic contrast to Lord of the Flies, Golding has written of The Swiss Family Robinson, "This is how children live when they are happy.… The days are endless and time has no meaning.… In the text, as ever, the children take a child's place. There is simply no possibility of juvenile delinquency. The [parental] guiding hand is gentle but adamant.…"20

As Kermode perceptively declares, the related books of Ballantyne and Golding can be used as documents in the history of ideas, Ballantyne's contribution belonging "inseparably to the period when boys were sent out of Arnoldian schools certified free of Original Sin,"21 ready to keep the Empire shipshape. Golding writes with a vivid sense of paradox, with the eyes of someone who has seen the Empire crumble and witnessed twentieth-century manifestations of Original Sin.

Although it has gone unnoticed or unmentioned in comparisons of Golding and Ballantyne, both authors use similar conclusions involving the technical assistance of the deus ex machina. Jack, Ralph, and Peterkin are in the clutches of savages near the conclusion of Coral Island; they believe they will never more see home, and await death, only to find their bonds severed, and themselves set free. A "teacher," who stands in the place of the naval officer in Lord of the Flies, acquaints them with the miraculous fact that their captor, chief Tararo, "has embraced the Christian religion." This is no less a miracle in its way than the appearance of the naval officer who arrives just in the nick of time to save Golding's Ralph. Religion also appears in Lord of the Flies in truncated form: as already mentioned, some of the boys are choir members, but no prayer is ever heard. Religion enters only by way of hindsight and moralistic impingement from the outside, as the reader considers a hidden theme. In The Coral Island, as we can see by the quite Christian ending, it plays a central, well-advertised part. Not only are Ballantyne's youths invincible Britons, as they often call themselves, but they have faith, in the usual sense of the word. The Ralph of that group could be speaking for them all when under difficult pressures he remembers his mother's parting homily: "Ralph, my dearest child, always remember in the hour of danger to look to your Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He alone is both able and willing to save your body and soul." This is exactly what Golding's children do not do. Golding made clear why in an interview in which he explained his approach to the efficacy of Coral Island morality:

What I'm saying to myself is "don't be such a fool, you remember when you were a boy, a small boy, how you lived on that island with Ralph and Jack and Peterkin." … I said to myself finally, "Now you are grown up, you are adult; it's taken you a long time to become adult, but now you've got there you can see that people are not like that." There savagery would not be found in natives on an island. As like as not they would find savages who were kindly and uncomplicated and that the devil would rise out of the intellectual complications of the three white men in the island itself.22

Although Golding does not provide easy answers to all the questions he raises in Lord of the Flies, it is clear that his religious answer is not Ballantyne's. The real savior in Lord of the Flies is not the naval officer, but Simon—and his voice goes unheeded, as once again the crucifixion takes place, this time without redemption or resurrection.


  1. See, for example, John Peter, "The Fables of William Golding," Kenyon Review, XIX (Fall, 1957), 577-92; Claire Rosenfield, "'Men of Smaller Growth': A Psychological Analysis of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, " Literature and Psychology, XI (Autumn, 1961), 93-101; and Edmund Fuller, "The Compelling Lure of William Golding," New York Herald Tribune Books, November 4, 1962, pp. 1, 3.
  2. Carl Niemeyer, in "The Coral Island Revisited," College English, XXII (January, 1961), 241-45, makes explicit Golding's use of R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, a boys' book published in 1857; and James Gindin, in "'Gimmick' and Metaphor in the Novels of William Golding," Modern Fiction Studies, VI (Summer, 1960), 145-52, tries to indicate how much of Golding's work is marred by "clever tricks."
  3. There is some adverse criticism of Golding, on the grounds of "gimmick" or philosophy, but Martin Green's "Distaste for the Contemporary," The Nation, May 21, 1960, pp. 451-54, seems egregiously harsh and willful, and R. C. Townsend's "Lord of the Flies: Fool's Gold?," Journal of General Education, XVI (July, 1964), 153-60, is a specious denigration of Lord of the Flies through a working out of proposed parallels with A High Wind in Jamaica, Golding coming off second best philosophically and stylistically each time. Kenneth Rexroth ("William Golding," The Atlantic, 215 [May, 1965], 96-98), like the French translator of Lord of the Flies, shows his failure to comprehend the book in his calling it merely a "carelessly documented" Swiss Family Robinson. All Golding's novels are "rigged," he adds.
  4. Lord of the Flies (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959). All subsequent references to the novel are to this edition.
  5. The Lord of the Flies is not only Beelzebub and the endless variations upon him, but, in Greco-Roman tradition, the all-mighty Zeus, described (for example, in Sartre's play The Flies) as "god of flie and death. The image has white eyes and blood-smeared cheeks." To the naïve Orestes, Sartre's Zeus explains that the carrion-attracted flies are "a symbol," representative of a need in "all those creeping, half-human creatures" called men: "They have guilty consciences, they're afraid—and fear and guilty consciences have a good savor in the nostrils of the gods. Yes, the gods take pleasure in such poor souls.… What, moreover, could you give them in exchange? Good digestions, the gray monotony of provincial life, and the boredom—ah, the soul-destroying boredom—of long days of mild content. Go your way, my lad, go your way. The repose of cities and men's souls hangs on a thread.…"
  6. Simon is usually thought of as being mystical or prophetic, but he is also as logical as any of the others, even Piggy.
  7. Any attack that concentrates on Golding's style should come to grips with the kind of writing used to depict this scene. Martin Green's article does not. Nor does Kenneth Rexroth's attempt at deflation (The Atlantic, op. cit.). Golding not only writes about Neanderthals, according to Rexroth, "he writes for them. His message is not unlike that of Jack London.… Golding's prose is almost as bad. In some ways it is worse, because it lacks specificity. In London there is a degree of sensual immediacy and passionate rhetoric unknown to Golding." Clearly, Rexroth has scanned Golding rather cursorily.
  8. William Golding, "On the Crest of the Wave," The Writer's Dilemma (London, 1961), pp. 42-51.
  9. Psychoanalytical articles thus far published fail to account for such behavior.
  10. John Peter's perceptive article has already been noted; see also Millar Maclure, "Allegories of Innocence," Dalhousie Review, XL (Summer, 1960), 145-56; and V. S. Pritchett, "Secret Parables," New Statesman, August 2, 1958, p. 146.
  11. Both Epstein and Rosenfield concentrate on the Freudian concept of id, ego, superego; but Epstein makes his most original analytical point with the Oedipal wedding night aspect of the sow's death. Golding has commented to an interviewer: "Yes, what is all this talk about Oedipal wedding nights, ids and egos? And to think I've never read Freud in my life. Someone wrote a terribly erudite article showing that Ralph was an id and Piggy an ego. Or was it the other way around? I was quite impressed, but the whole thing was simply untrue. I suppose I'm doing the same thing as Freud did—investigating this complex phenomenon called man. Perhaps our results are similar, but there is no influence." Bernard F. Dick, in "The Novelist Is a Displaced Person," College English, XXVI, 481.
  12. The Contemporary English Novel (New York, 1962), p. 258.
  13. J. Bowen, "One Man's Meat: The Idea of Individual Responsibility in Golding's Fiction," London Times Literary Supplement, August 7, 1959, p. xii.
  14. William Wasserstrom and Claire Rosenfield, "An Exchange of Opinion concerning William Golding's Lord of the Flies, " Literature and Psychology, XII (Winter, 1962), 2-3, 11-12.
  15. "On the Crest of the Wave," p. 51.
  16. See Frank Kermode's "The Novels of William Golding," International Literary Annual, III (1961), 13-14.
  17. As quoted by John Bowen, "Bending Over Backwards," Times Literary Supplement, October 23, 1959, p. 608.
  18. Dick, "The Novelist Is a Displaced Person," College English, XXVI, 481.
  19. See Niemeyer, op. cit., and Kermode, op. cit.
  20. "Islands," review of reprint editions of Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island, The Spectator, June 10, 1960, p. 844.
  21. Kermode, op. cit.
  22. As quoted in William Golding, by Samuel Hynes (New York, 1964), pp. 7-8.

F. C. Bufkin (essay date spring 1965)

SOURCE: Bufkin, F. C. " Lord of the Flies: An Analysis." The Georgia Review 19, no. 1 (spring 1965): 40-57.

[In the following essay, Bufkin envisions Lord of the Flies as reflective of the Christian myth of the fall of man with a plea for order to combat evil.]

William Golding's Lord of the Flies is about evil; and it recounts a quest for order amidst the disorder that evil causes. Golding has said that the theme of the novel "is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable." Theme and moral are worked out through an adaptation of the Christian myth of the Fall of Man, which has been overlaid with what may be termed the myth of the desert island. Since Golding is a serious student of Greek, and has stated that Euripides is one of his literary influences, it is not surprising that in Lord of the Flies the principal technical device he uses is irony. It, like the myth of fallen man, permeates the novel. The presence of the myth has been duly noted by critics but, though commentators have perceived and incidentally remarked on a wide variety of ironies in the novel, almost none, with the notable exception of John Peter, has so far recognized that Lord of the Flies, piercing through illusion and appearance to truth and reality, is essentially an ironical novel. Recognition of this is basic to any analysis of the work, providing as it does the key to both the author's development of theme and his handling of his subject-matter.

Indeed, of two of the major literary influences on Lord of the Flies, one, R. M. Ballantyne's adventure story The Coral Island, serves a chiefly ironical purpose. The exact nature of that influence has been established by Golding himself in an interview with Frank Kermode. Asked whether his novel is not a "kind of black mass version of Ballantyne," Golding replied that it is not: "I think," he said, "it is, in fact, a realistic view of the Ballantyne situation." When further asked "just how far and how ironically we ought to treat" the connection between the two books, Golding gave an illuminating reply about the origin of his novel:

Well, I think, fairly deeply, but again, not ironically in the bad sense, but in almost a compassionate sense. You see, really, I'm getting at myself in this. What I'm saying to myself is "don't be such a fool, you remember when you were a boy, a small boy, how you lived on that island with Ralph and Jack and Peterkin" (who is Simon, by the way, Simon called Peter, you see. It was worked out very carefully in every possible way[,] this novel). I said to myself finally, "Now you are grown up, you are adult, it's taken you a long time to become adult, but now you've got there you can see that people are not like that; they would not behave like that if they were God-fearing English gentlemen, and they went to an island like that." Their savagery would not be found in natives on an island. As like as not they would find savages who were kindly and uncomplicated and that the devil would rise out of the intellectual complications of the three white men on the island itself.

Ballantyne's book, to which Golding refers in this comment, is about an "agreeable triumvirate" of boys who are marooned on a coral reef in the South Seas: Ralph, the narrator of the story; Jack, their "king"; and Peterkin. Survivors of a "frightful" shipwreck during a "dreadful" storm, they explore the island, which they think must be "the ancient paradise," and, making the best of their situation, lead a happy and orderly life there, hunting hogs, eating fruit, and exploring. "There was, indeed," says Ralph, "no note of discord whatever in the symphony we played together on that sweet Coral Island; and I am now persuaded that this was owing to our having been all tuned to the same key, namely, that of love! Yes, we loved one another with much fervency, while we lived on that island; and, for the matter of that, we love each other still." This much of the plot is what Golding used; he neglected the later episodes that deal with pirates and cannibals. But it was just this much of the plot that must have seemed false, or unrealistic, to Golding.

Although neither appreciation nor understanding of Lord of the Flies is dependent upon familiarity with The Coral Island, the reader acquainted with Ballantyne's work can better see what Golding has done in his own novel. The person who knows both stories is aware of the contrast between them, and knows that the contrast is, in effect and purpose, ironical. It resides in the discrepancy between the falseness, or unreality, of his source, as Golding sees it, and the truth, or reality, of Lord of the Flies. Golding must surely have had this juxtaposition in mind, else he would not have so carefully duplicated in his own novel details from Ballantyne's.

A second major literary influence on Lord of the Flies, an influence that no critic has noted before, despite its almost glaring presence, is Paradise Lost. The epic and the novel have a common theme, the Fall of Man; and it is altogether feasible that Golding, in paralleling in Lord of the Flies situations highly similar to those in Paradise Lost, meant to enrich and to enlarge, by associative suggestion, the scope of his narrative.

The first of these parallels is the setting. Golding's island, like Milton's Eden, represents the original earthly paradise where occurs the Fall of Man. That the island is meant to represent this paradise is easily deduced from the following sentence: "The forest reechoed; and birds lifted, crying out of the tree-tops, as on that first morning ages ago." And it is quite possible also that the killing of the sow, to which the boys are "wedded in lust," may itself, since the passage is presented in terms of sexual intercourse, function as a symbolic, parodic re-enactment of the Original Sin:

… the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgment for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her.

These two passages may be said to deal with the natural aspects of the Fall—the natural world and, in it, man. Other passages paralleling incidents in Paradise Lost may be said, in contrast, to be based on the supernatural. In the one, Golding's boys represent the earliest man and his Fall in Eden; in the second, they represent the fallen angels, or devils, and the island is Hell. Golding makes clear that Jack and the choirboys are devils—fallen angels. Curiously, no critic has commented on why they are choirboys and not just ordinary schoolboys. Golding, having "worked out very carefully in every possible way this novel," certainly had a definite purpose in making them so. Even though the concept of angels as singers is both traditional and common, Golding points out the connection between the boys and angels explicitly. He says that "ages ago"—a repeated phrase connecting the singing boys and the singing birds of "that first morning"—the boys "had stood in two demure rows and their voices had been the song of angels." A double irony is at work here. The phrase means that the boys, who are devils, sang like angels and also that they sang songs of angels; that is, liturgic chants which, on the island, undergo pagan and savage metamorphosis into " Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in! " (which Golding terms a "chant" rising "ritually").

In Paradise Lost the angels fall from Heaven while war is raging there, and Golding has duplicated this situation, too; for the plane carrying the boys is attacked and shot down during a war. In fact, war is the very cause of their being there, just as it is the cause of the angels' fall from Heaven. Thus while the island the boys land on is an emblem of Paradise, it is ironically also an emblem of Hell, complete with the traditional fire (watching which, Piggy "glanced nervously into hell"). And there is also a presiding demoniac god, the Lord of the Flies—Beelzebub, the Prince of Devils.

Finally, in Lord of the Flies the boys, all of them, assemble, exchange names (perhaps a parallel to the roll-call of the infernal host), hold a council, elect a leader, and explore the island. These are the same acts, and they occur in the same order, that the fallen angels perform in Milton's Hell. Ironically, not Jack, who is "the most obvious leader," but Ralph, who is "no devil," is chosen. But since the movement of the plot is toward the emergence of evil in the boys and its gradual domination of them, it is, fittingly, not long before Ralph's position is usurped by Jack, who finally leads the now savage tribe of boys with their "anonymous devils' faces" and sits in the midst of them "like an idol." (This movement may be viewed, further, as a correspondence to Satan's securing of power in the world.)

The story of Lord of the Flies is told from the omniscient point of view. Golding as narrator shifts from one boy to another, among the major characters, telling each one's thoughts and decisions, explaining his motivations and reactions, or seeing a situation with his perspective; and at the very end he shifts away from the boys to their adult rescuer. Occasionally, at certain crucial times when the context of the novel calls for an objective, uninvolved voice to be heard as the voice of truth, Golding stands back from the action and comments unobtrusively on the situation. For the most part, however, the story develops through dramatic action and dialogue, not through authorial exposition and comment; and this method contrasts with the moralizing first-person narration of The Coral Island, which Golding is "correcting." He perhaps felt that readers familiar with the Ballantyne story would be aware of this contrast. Instead of telling, then, Golding is showing; and the difference in this technique is as significant as the contrast between the two writers' attitudes toward their material.

The omniscient point of view is another device for widening the scope of the novel, for obviously a part of the whole plan of the narrative is that the attitudes of each of the four principal characters—Ralph, Jack, Piggy, Simon—be included. This particular point of view—the omniscient—is, furthermore, appropriate and important to the novel in that it can control and unify both what happens on the island and what is happening in the world surrounding it. This fictional device is capable of producing an over-all irony that another device could hardly so economically and directly create. The identification of the dead parachutist, for instance, and the information about where he comes from and why, would be impossible without the omniscient point of view; and the kind of irony that derives from the contrast between the reader's knowledge of the true situation and the characters' ignorance of it would have been otherwise unobtainable.

One of the most arresting features of the structure of Lord of the Flies is that, though it develops as a chronologically straight narrative, it is actually bipartite, Chapters I-IX forming one part, the last three chapters (X-XII) forming the other. Thematically, an important point is subtly made by this division. The first part shows the boys in a state of innocence, and the second shows them in a primitive state of evil. What is not immediately perceived is that in the second part the boys are placed in situations almost identical to situations in the first part (notably those created by storm and by fire). In their changed state, however, the boys react to the situations entirely differently; and the second part thus functions as a concentrated, contrasting restatement of much of the material of the first part of the novel.

This contrast points directly to the theme of the novel: the loss of innocence is the acquisition of the knowledge of evil, which corrupts man and darkens his heart. Movement of plot from innocence to evil is thus thematically vertical, not horizontal; it is a re-enactment of the Fall and its consequences. In support of the theme Golding continually uses words of downward motion. The opening sentence itself sets in motion this running verbal motif: "The boy with fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock.…" The boys are "dropped" from the sky. The parachutist is a sign come "down from the world of grown-ups," and later his corpse "swayed down through a vastness of wet air … ; falling, still falling, it sank towards the beach.…" Simon, after his hallucinatory conversation with the Lord of the Flies, "fell down and lost consciousness" and, when killed, he "fell over the steep edge of the rock" and the orgiastically excited boys surged after him and "poured down the rock," whereupon "the clouds opened and let down the rain like a waterfall." Piggy, hit by the rock, "fell forty feet," and Ralph weeps for "the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." In the last episode of the novel the naval officer is introduced while "looking down at Ralph in wary astonishment." These are but a few of the many examples that run through the novel, suggesting the spiritual fall through words of physical action and direction.

This motif might actually be considered imagistic, one of the intricate network of interrelated symbols and images that, composing the texture of Lord of the Flies, enlarge and universalize its meaning. At least four such systems are prominent: cosmic symbols that transform the island into an emblem of the world, or universe, in miniature; symbols pertaining to order and reason and their opposites, supplemented by an ancillary group of head images; animal images that connote the degradation of the boys from the human to the bestial level; and "play" images that trace the ironical change from childhood games to deadly reality.

The cosmic symbolism is established at the beginning when the boys are dropped on an island in the Pacific Ocean. Golding draws on a long-established tradition by making the island "roughly boat-shaped"; and thus, as C. B. Cox has stated in elaborating on this fact, "the children typify all mankind on their journey through life." The island as a ship is, then, a symbol of the world in microcosm; it is to the boys, as first man, the Garden of Paradise or, as fallen angels, Hell. Thus boys are not only boys but men, Man, and angels.

Golding draws upon another traditional cosmic symbol, the storm, to reflect in the realm of nature the evil or chaotic doings in the world of man. A storm accompanies the confused landing of the boys on the island; and later another storm develops in gradual stages that parallel those leading up to the boys' feast and slaughter of Simon. On the day of these climactic actions "the sky, as if in sympathy with the great changes among them [the boys], was different … and so misty that in some places the hot air seemed white." After the slaughter of the sow, "high up among the bulging clouds thunder went off like a gun," and later "the thunder boomed again." In the next chapter, "over the island the build-up of clouds" continues, and when the boys eat their kill they do so "beneath a sky of thunderous brass that rang with the storm-coming." After Jack's sneering declaration that the conch no longer counts, "all at once the thunder struck. Instead of the dull boom there was a point of impact in the explosion." The thunder becomes more violent as the boys become more violent and wild in their dance; and the dark sky, also, becomes "shattered" by "blue-white scar[s]." Then at last, after Simon has been killed, "the clouds opened and let down the rain.…"

The island is further represented as microcosm through the presence of all the four elements—earth, air, fire, water. The storm itself represents a warring interplay of them all. The island—earth—is of course surrounded by the other three. But in addition earth is present as the clay with which the boys paint their faces. Fire is present as signal, hearth and comfort, and destructive force. And water and air are the elements from which the boys believe the beast comes. The dead airman, whom they finally think to be the beast, comes from the air but is carried away, by the wind, to the sea.

The three central symbols, in addition to fire (which is related to them), refer to concepts of order-and-reason and disorder-and-unreason. These, primary symbols pertaining to the quest for order that is necessary for life, are the conch and Piggy's glasses, and the pig's head. The conch, Golding makes clear, is a symbol of order and reason; it represents the voice of authority, at first heeded then flouted. Furthermore, it is an object of great beauty (a traditional attribute of order), having a "delicate, embossed pattern." (Ominously, the breakdown of order is foreshadowed by the remark made when the conch is first discovered: "Careful! You'll break it—") The conch is sounded for meetings, and at them only the holder of the conch has the right to speak. Toward the end of the novel Piggy and Ralph confront the others and make a final attempt to re-establish some form of order. Piggy, holding the conch, tries to appeal to the others' sense of reason; but he is greeted by booing. Then, "with a sense of delirious abandonment," Roger causes a great rock to crash down upon Piggy and, when it hits him, "the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist." In other words, order, rational behavior, and benevolent authority have been completely smashed on the island: the quest has failed.

Piggy's glasses, functioning similarly as the conch, are a symbol of reason, fittingly worn by the thinker of the group. One side of them is eventually broken in a scuffle following the failure of the passing ship to see any smoke on the island; later the remaining lens is stolen in a night raid led by Jack. The breaking and losing of the glasses indicates, symbolically, the breakdown of visionary reason. Piggy's resulting blindness corresponds to the darkness of eclipsing unreason. He is led, finally, by Ralph to the "fort" to try to recover from Jack the stolen lens, in a symbolic episode. But Piggy does not regain even his half-sight; instead he is thrown into the great final darkness of death, since during this scene he is killed.

The fates of the conch and of the glasses, like their functions, are thus related to each other—and to Piggy: all are ultimately broken. Both conch and glasses serve practical purposes (as Piggy does also) on the island; the conch preserves order and the glasses serve as the means for lighting the fire necessary to rescue. After order, concretized in the conch, is finally shattered, the remaining lens yet serves a further purpose: Jack and his cohorts use it to make the fire in their pursuit of Ralph. The fire not only smokes out Ralph but also attracts the attention of the passing cruiser. The misapplication—or iniquitous application—of reason is thus made, ironically, to serve the ends that right reason itself was unable to bring about.

The spiked pig's head is, of course, the symbol of paramount interest. The head is stuck on a stick as a placatory offering to the beast, which the boys mistakenly believe in their fear to be the dead parachutist; it is termed by Golding a gift for darkness. This object is the Lord of the Flies, and it is a repulsive sight: "dim-eyed, grinning faintly, blood blackening between the teeth." Its half-shut eyes are "dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life," and they assure Simon that everything is "a bad business." The butterflies desert the open place where "the obscene thing grinned and dripped," but the flies, "black and iridescent green and without number," swarm buzzingly around it. To Simon the object declares, "…I'm the Beast," and then continues:

"Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!… You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you? … I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?

The beast appeals to fear, not reason, and promises the disorder of pleasure. To Simon it says:

"I'm warning you. I'm going to get angry. D'you see? You're not wanted. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island! So don't try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else—"

The Lord of the Flies, then, is darkness—the embodiment and voice of evil and the demoniac. It is Beelzebub, lord of the flies and dung, the Prince of Devils. And it is the beast—the beast that is part of all men. The materialization of this devil coincides with the emergence of savage evil in the boys, revealed in the acts that they commit.

Cephalic imagery supports the theme of irrationality as evil and, importantly, the head, the center of reason, of each of the four major characters figures conspicuously in the plot. Through this imagery Golding depicts the breakdown of rational processes and rational control indirectly. Ralph stands on his head in moments of happiness or elation (which are few). This antic act he performs in the opening scene; as evil emerges and happiness disappears, Ralph significantly discontinues the act. Along with Piggy he is the main upholder of order on the island, and this inverted position of his is an anticipation of the routing of authority and the degradation of reason. Piggy's bespectacled head, the source of reasonable planning, breaks open after his fall—"His head opened and stuff came out and turned red." After this event right reason no longer exists; for this fall destroys the conch and, by splitting his head, kills Piggy. Jack's easy descent to savagery is indicated by his decoration of his face with colored clay; and when he smudges blood over his forehead the gesture is, as Claire Rosenfield has pointed out, a kind of pagan initiation "in which the hunter's face is smeared with the blood of his first kill." Thus Jack progresses, in descent, through the stages outlined by Piggy in his inquiry, "What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?" The human Jack, disguising his head, tends to appear, and then to act, like an animal; and then, after wiping blood on his head, he becomes, through the releasing of the animal urges within, totally savage. His painted face becomes a mask behind which he hides, "liberated from shame and self-consciousness." Simon's head undergoes pain and illusion during the episode of his colloquy with the Lord of the Flies. The change begins with a throb: "In Simon's right temple, a pulse began to beat on the brain." His head, having been tilted slightly up, now begins to wobble, and it seems to him that the Lord of the Flies "was expanding like a balloon." Through this experience Simon, the mystic and saint, arrives at the truth about the beast; and that his reason is intuitive, not really rational, is signalized by the fainting fit that affects his head. Moreover, Simon, as saint, is an obvious contrast to the Lord of the Flies as Prince of Devils. Just as the shiny filth-loving flies circle the dead pig's head, so the "strange, moonbeamed-bodied creatures with fiery eyes" in the sea—their effectiveness heightened by the lack of more specific identification—busy themselves halolike around Simon's head. Finally, Golding indicates the disorder through head imagery by describing the unkempt, ever-growing hair on all the boys' heads but Piggy's:

He was the only boy on the island whose hair never seemed to grow. The rest were shock-headed, but Piggy's hair still lay in wisps over his head as though baldness were his natural state, and this imperfect covering would soon go.…

The pig's head is, of course, the principal symbol in this category. It is the ironic antithesis of reason, since (being a head, the seat of reason) it appeals, through fear, to the emotions or passions. It speaks "in the voice of a schoolmaster" and teaches a diabolically perverted lesson. It has promised fun; but the fun of darkness leads to death. In the last chapter the pig's head has actually become the traditional symbol of death—a skull. The ingenuity of Golding's handling of both symbolism and irony is evidenced in his linking the opposites, conch and pig's skull, in this passage:

At length he [Ralph] came to a clearing in the forest where rock prevented vegetation from growing. Now it was a pool of shadows and Ralph nearly flung himself behind a tree when he saw something standing in the centre; but then he saw that the white face was bone and that the pig's skull grinned at him from the top of a stick. He walked slowly into the middle of the clearing and looked steadily at the skull that gleamed as white as ever the conch had done and seemed to jeer at him cynically. An inquisitive ant was busy in one of the eye sockets but otherwise the thing was lifeless.

The animal imagery is thus related to the symbolism of reasonunreason by means of the pig's head. The animal is, of course, distinguished from the human by the reasoning faculty, which it lacks; and a human's loss of this faculty reduces him to the bestial level. Through the use of animal imagery Golding is able to keep constantly before the reader the motif of degeneration, the changing from the reasoning human to the unreasoning animal state. Ralph explicitly tells the other boys, by way of warning, that "we'll soon be animals" and the prediction becomes a reality. (The animal imagery thus acts also as a fore-shadowing device.) The boys are associated as agents of evil with flies through the use of the words buzz and hum, for they buzz and hum at meetings. And, as if to prefigure their change, the children are depicted by animal images. They cast "bat-like" shadows, sit like "black birds," and run round "like insects." They howl and pant "like dogs," point like setters, and steam like seals. Even Ralph eats "like a wolf" and terms himself, Piggy, and Simon "three blind mice." Jack in particular is described with such imagery. As hunter, he becomes doglike, "down like a sprinter, his nose only a few inches from the humid earth," "on all fours." He is swallowed up by the animal "compulsion to track down and kill," and his laughter as a "bloodthirsty snarling." He is "ape-like," and Ralph terms him a "swine." Ironically, Piggy himself is compared to pigs, besides being mocked by a pig nickname. When struck and killed by the rock, he has "no time for even a grunt" and his "arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed." In the last chapter the animal imagery is climaxed. The chased Ralph thinks as a chased pig must think and, significantly, the boys hunting him become a pack of animals. (To the naval officer they are "a pack of British boys.") Golding makes this identification through the repetitive use of the word, in its several forms, ululate, which means to howl like a dog or a wolf. The angels' chant has now become the cacophonous cry of the hunters. The emergence of the animal is now universal.

The fourth system of imagery traces the transition from the "fun" of the boys' games to horrible reality—the "fun" predicted by the Lord of the Flies. These games are childish amusements at first—"a time when play was good and life so full that hope was not necessary and therefore forgotten"—but gradually they become tinged with cruelty and violence. Moreover, the majority of the boys cannot grasp the seriousness of such matters as maintaining the fire; building it is to them merely an opportunity for a "good time" and they fancy themselves reenacting Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons, and The Coral Island.

Soon they play at pig-hunting, and Robert, who gets hurt acting the role of pig, appreciates the difference between pretending and reality. "Oh, my bum!" he moans with "frightened snivels," and tells the others, while "still caressing his rump," "You want a real pig … because you've got to kill him." But to Jack this is "a good game." The episode is a foreshadowing of the killing of the sow and also of the murder of Simon, each episode of the sequence being more savage and more evil than the one preceding it.

Finally Jack declares an end to the good games after the others will not agree to his replacing Ralph as leader: "I'm not going to play any longer." Soon afterward Ralph too puts an end to play, for he has realized that "being rescued isn't a game"—although he has long before realized that the councils should "not be fun, but business."

After the murder of Piggy the innocent games have become a seriously evil reality. When Ralph is pursued, the boys only pretend to pretend; their avowed intention is to kill him. And they would have succeeded had the naval officer not appeared. He speaks as authority; yet what he says is one of the most tragically ironic lines in the novel: "'Fun and games,' said the officer." The imagery has run its course and has done so in a circle. Adult authority with its rules has restored order and ended the reality-game of the children. The situation has accordingly been returned to "normal"; but the purpose of Lord of the Flies is to show that boys are not so innocently "normal" as, when restricted by authority, they appear to be.

The balance of structure of Lord of the Flies is reflected in the balance of the four principal boys, and the imagery is employed as a means of characterization. Ralph and Jack, conflicting contrasts, represent the principles of good and evil; and Piggy and Simon, also contrasts but not conflicting, represent the principles of reason, logical and intuitive. The personalities of these boys are worked out carefully along these sharply marked lines.

Ralph has the requirements to be the hero and the representative of good. He has the traditionally fair hair of the good man, the attractive appearance, and the ability of genuine leadership. He is the largest as well as the oldest of the boys; and he "might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went." In addition, and importantly, he has a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaims him "no devil."

Yet Ralph, it should be noted, can possess only a limited goodness, since he is "ordinary bestial man," tainted with Original Sin. Like all the other boys he participates in the killing of Simon; but unlike them he is aware—and deeply bothered by the fact—that "that was murder." Nonetheless, Ralph is a boy of high standards and noble purpose, and he is the most forceful link with the authority of the adult world.

For this reason Ralph is the principal quester for order. He is not a thinker, but he possesses a practical intelligence, imagination, and reverence for order (he feels "a kind of affectionate reverence for the conch"). His great natural gift is to lead. And, though he must execute the plans that the more intelligent person (usually Piggy) might conceive, Ralph appreciates that "thought was a valuable thing, that got results."

Golding has developed Ralph more fully than any of the other boys. The reader learns that, when pleased, Ralph stands on his head; when agitated or worried, he bites his nails. His past is sketched: he remembers a cottage on the edge of the moors and, at the bottom of the garden, the wild ponies that came to the stone wall where he fed them sugar. His father is a commander in the Royal Navy. And Ralph is given to daydreaming.

Jack is his opposite. He is "the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill"; Ralph, "the world of longing and baffled common-sense." They are "two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate." Jack is tall, thin, bony: in a word, ugly. He is the evil man, the boy devil. He is associated with Satan through his red hair; his anger, rage, and cursing; and the snake and swine images applied to him. Of all the boys he is the most obvious leader, having been chapter chorister and head boy. He is arrogant and knows his own mind; and his forceful personality exerts itself through proud jealousy of Ralph's position as leader. Jack is the principal culprit in consciously disobeying, ignoring, and finally abrogating the rules that have been established for the benefit, and possible rescue, of all. The most feral, as well as the leading savage (the "Chief"), of the boys, he sets up his own laws. Demonic order thus replaces good order.

Piggy is, perhaps, the most visually vivid of the boys. He is fat, clumsy, wears heavy spectacles, and is asthmatic. He does not like to work. He is the thinker on the island; to him life is "scientific." The function of sticks, he believes, should be to make a clock (a sundial), not spears. He possesses, as Ralph says, intellectual daring and can discount certain matters "learnedly." Ralph recognizes, like a wise leader, this quality: "Piggy could think. He could go step by step inside that fat head of his, only Piggy was no chief. But Piggy, for all his ludicrous body, had brains." Thus Piggy and Ralph are complements, as Jack and Ralph are contrasts.

Piggy (along with Ralph and Simon) has much respect for decorum, that observance of proprieties established by social authority and reason. When he becomes "a-bubble" with excitement, the excitement is "decorous"; but even he can on occasion be "shocked out of decorum" and say "Nuts!" He warns the others that they cannot expect to be rescued if they "don't put first things first and act proper." Both his first appearance in the novel and his last are breaches of decorum. The first is humorous. Just after appearing and meeting Ralph, Piggy reveals that he is suffering from diarrhea ("Them fruit," he says) and must leave his new-found companion to crouch "down among the tangled foliage." His last appearance is pathetic. Knocked roughly to his death over a cliff, he twitches like a pig, the fat boy who disliked his name, Piggy.

Simon, according to Golding, is a saint. Small and skinny, with a pointed chin and very bright eyes, he is subject to epileptic fits. He is filled with compassion. He finds Piggy's glasses when they are, the first time, knocked off, and he is the littluns' favorite bigun. To the critics who find Simon the weakest aspect of the novel, an unconvincing portrait, Golding has answered:

What so many intelligent people and particularly, if I may say so, so many literary people find, is that Simon is incomprehensible. But, he is comprehensible to the illiterate person. The illiterate person knows about saints and sanctity, and Simon is a saint.

And then he continues:

You see, a saint isn't just a scapegoat, a saint is somebody who in the last analysis voluntarily embraces his fate, which is a pretty sticky one, and he is for the illiterate a proof of the existence of God because the illiterate person who is not brought up on logic and not brought up always to hope for the worst, says, "Well, a person like this cannot exist without a good God." Therefore the illiterate person finds Simon extremely easy to understand, someone who voluntarily embraces this beast[,] goes … and tries to get rid of him and goes to give the good news to the ordinary bestial man on the beach, and gets killed for it.

With an amazing exactness Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon all fit into Jung's classification of psychological types, set forth in Modern Man in Search of a Soul. These are sensation and intuition, which Jung terms essentially non-rational, and thinking and feeling, which he terms rational. He characterizes these types in this way: "When we think, it is in order to judge or to reach a conclusion, and when we feel it is in order to attach a proper value to something; sensation and intuition, on the other hand, are perceptive—they make us aware of what is happening, but do not interpret or evaluate it. They do not act selectively according to principles, but are simply receptive of what happens."

According to this scheme, Simon represents the intuition-type since intuition is "perception by way of unconscious contents and connections" and "points to the possibilities of the whence and whither that lie within the immediate facts." This definition helps clarify Simon's perception that the beast is "only us"; and it also helps explain Simon's conversation in delirium with the Lord of the Flies, his discovery of the true identity of the parachute-entwined "beast" on the mountain, and his going to the other boys to tell them about that discovery.

Jack represents the sensation-type, sensation being "perception through conscious sensory processes," that which "establishes what is actually given." Thus he sees pigs and wants to hunt them. When the littluns become afraid of the beast, Jack reassures them by declaring that, if one does exist, they will hunt it down and kill it.

Piggy is the thinking-type, the man of thought, not action. Ralph is the feeling-type: for "thinking enables us to recognize" the meaning of what is actually given, and "feeling tells us its value." These two, then, are both rational, according to Jung's scheme, and so are complementary. Ralph, for instance, has affection for the conch, but it is Piggy who first perceives its meaning: "We can use this to call the others. Have a meeting. They'll come when they hear us—" he says.

The effect of this comprehensive representation of the four psychological types of men is the creation of the impression that Lord of the Flies concerns not four principal boys in a cruel, violent, bloody story, but rather that the four are merely aspects of one, who is Man himself. Thus all four boys' points of view have been presented and combined by the omniscient narrator. And the devices of point of view and characterization integrate to turn the story of the novel into the Fall of Man and his experiences as he journeys, on the island-ship, through life in this world.

In Lord of the Flies Golding has thus created a picture of man's universal situation, "mankind's essential illness," and has traced the emergence of evil, the result of Original Sin, as man's common mortal inheritance. Like the first man, the boys land on the island in a state of innocence; but, like him, they gradually ignore the voice of authority and violate the rules that have been previously created—by state (king), church (God), family (father)—for order, mutual benefit, and happiness. Thus they enact, paradoxically, their "liberation into savagery": paradoxically, because their freeing is into a state of bondage to evil and undiscipline. Man, whether acting on the psychological, social, political, or Christian level, is most truly free when he is most truly disciplined. When law and rules, simultaneously the accouterments and the guardians of order, are discarded and the private, individual good takes control and precedence over the public, common good, things begin to fall apart, reason and common sense become baffled, and chaos ensues. Man, defying prescripted authority, whether divine or mundane, becomes corrupt; and the "understandable, lawful world," as a result of "intellectual complication," ceases to be a reality. It can only retreat into the memory, whence occasionally in some form—perhaps a daydream of feeding ponies over a wall in the bottom of a garden—it can be recalled.

Lord of the Flies depicts universal evil as a beast concept: the boys represent "ordinary bestial man." At first this concept exists in the littluns' subconscious, disturbing their dreams and begetting fear. They believe that the beast is a "snake-thing" and imagine that it goes abroad at night to eat them, turning, in the morning, "into them things like ropes in the trees." Thus the beast is a man-made, man-eating product of general superstition, ignorance, and darkness—out of which it comes and in which it operates. Gradually, however, this beast evinces more tangible proof of its existence; it appears to the children as "a dead man on a hill." But Simon discovers that they are mistaken. To him, the mystic whose knowledge is intuitive, the real beast is "only us"; and the Lord of the Flies, a true demonic and comminatory beast, confirms that this identity is correct. Evil, the beast, exists within men, and it is kept within by the authoritative restraints of laws, rules, and knowledge. This internal beast is the beast that cannot be hunted and killed; and this internal beast is the "reason why it's no go" and "things are what they are."

When released, the beast turns man into a savage, and reason is destroyed, both the intuitive type represented by Simon and the logical type represented by Piggy. Simon sees man as "at once heroic and sick." All men are sick because they are tainted with the universal disease of Original Sin, first contracted by Adam and passed to all his posterity. But men, though tragically not all, are also heroic in their struggle with this disease. Such men are Ralph, Piggy, and Simon. Simon, like the nursing sow, becomes in his death a sacrificial object to the beast, and the victim of the wanton evil and savagery unleashed in man. Men reject the common sense and reason that a few individuals like Ralph and Piggy try to force beneficially upon them. They also reject the divine truth that saints like Simon, if permitted to be heard, would disclose to them—the divine truth that would really free them from the illusive state of savage liberation. Simon, like his namesake Simon called Peter, seeks to bring truth (the "good news"—the gospel) about a "dead man on a hill" and, also like him, is martyred for the undertaking.

Yet man has the power to choose; he has free control and free exercise of his will. He can accept the real freedom of truth or he can accept the false freedom of savagery. But ironically, as Peter Green suggests, man "cherishes his guilt, his fears, his taboos, and will crucify any saint or redeemer who offers to relieve him of his burden by telling the simple truth." Thus, as Green has shown, Lord of the Flies states that "it is man who creates his own hell, his own devils; the evil is in him." Such is the message of the Lord of the Flies, echoing its own lord of darkness in Paradise Lost:

The mind is its own place, and in itself Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

Golding has commented:

"The whole book is symbolic in nature except for the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?"

At the end of Lord of the Flies Golding employs a technical gimmick by a sudden shift in perspective to make this implicative point. The gimmick shifts the reader's identity from boys to rescuer, and then, in the same way but taking the procedure one step further, the gimmick serves to identify the rescuer with the boys and so to sever the reader's identity with any character. Thus the reader is left, at the end, to look at the novel from the outside. The boys' rescuer, heroic and sick like them and all men, is himself now ironically but a boy, decorated with his official insignia just as the children are decorated with clay and charcoal; and he too is engaged in a war. The ending, therefore, is merely another beginning of this mythic story. The final view is then that of the author, the cosmic ironist: not of just an island of boys but of the world of men who pursue the beast and turn paradise into pandemonium.

Samuel Hynes (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: Hynes, Samuel. "William Golding's Lord of the Flies. "In Critical Essays on William Golding, edited by James R. Baker, pp. 13-21. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co., 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1968, Hynes discusses Lord of the Flies in light of Golding's influence on post-war literature.]

I am very serious. I believe that man suffers from an appalling ignorance of his own nature. I produce my own view, in the belief that it may be something like the truth. I am fully engaged to the human dilemma but see it as far more fundamental than a complex of taxes and astronomy.

William Golding wrote these words in reply to a literary magazine's questionnaire, "The Writer in His Age." The questionnaire raised the question of "engagement": should the writer concern himself with the political and social questions of his time? Golding's answer is unequivocal: the job of the writer is to show man his image sub specie aeternitatis. It is in this sense of engagement, not to the concerns of the moment but to what is basic in the human condition, and in the forms that this engagement has led Golding to create, that his uniqueness lies: he is the novelist of our time for whom the novel matters because of what it can mean, and what it can do.

In the note from which I quoted above, Golding described himself as "a citizen, a novelist and a schoolmaster." The latter term is no longer literally applicable, but there is still a good deal of both the citizen and the schoolmaster in the novelist. The citizen is concerned with "the defects of society"; the schoolmaster is concerned to correct them by proper instruction; the novelist finds the appropriate forms in which man's own nature may be embodied, that he may learn to know it. One consequence of this will-to-instruct is that Golding is an unusually disciplined, schematic writer; he thinks his novels out very slowly, and in careful detail (he wrote Lord of the Flies, he said, "as if tracing over words already on the page"), and he is willing, even eager, to discuss what they mean. Another consequence is his desire to have his works read with the same kind of conscious intelligence, and his distrust of irrational and intuitive views of literary creation. He clearly thinks of his novels as the expressions of conscious intentions that existed before the writing began. Indeed he has twice spelled out what those intentions were. This does not, of course, imply that they took the form of abstract moral propositions which were then clothed in plot; but it does suggest that for Golding the entire plan of the work, and the meaning of that plan, were worked out first—that he started with meaning rather than with character or situation. Golding's own glosses of the meanings of Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin have not seemed satisfactory to most readers—the teller in fact supports Lawrence's view of the creative process, and not Golding's; nevertheless, the fact that Golding thinks of his books as he does tells us something useful about the forms that they have taken.

There is no adequate critical term for that form. Golding himself has called his books both myths and fables, and both terms do point to a quality in the novels that it is necessary to recognize—that they are unusually tight, conceptualized, analogical expressions of moral ideas. Still, neither term is quite satisfactory, because both imply a degree of abstraction and an element of the legendary that Golding's novels simply do not have, and it seems better to be content with calling them simply novels, while recognizing that they have certain formal properties that distinguish them from most current fiction.

The most striking of these properties is that Golding so patterns his narrative actions as to make them the images of ideas, the imaginative forms of generalizations; the form itself, that is to say, carries meaning apart from the meanings implied by character or those stated more or less didactically by the author. "In all my books," Golding has said, "I have suggested a shape in the universe that may, as it were, account for things." To direct the attentions of his readers to that shape, Golding has chosen situations that isolate what is basic, and avoid both the merely topical and the subjective existence of the author. All but two of his novels employ a situation that is remote in time or space, characters who are radically unlike the author, and a narrative tone that is removed, analytical, and judicial. Consequently we must look for human relevance to the patterned action itself; if we "identify," it must be with the moral—with the conception of man and the shape of the universe—and not with this character or that one.

The forms that Golding uses carry implications both for the kind of action selected and for the kind of characters involved in it. Since Golding proposes to embody general truths in his novels, he is committed, one would think, to select those human experiences that can be viewed as exemplary, not merely as typical; it is not enough to propose that a fictional event might happen. To be justifiable in a Golding novel an event must also bear its shape of the patterned meaning. Consequently the novels tend on the whole to be short and densely textured, and the characters, while they are usually convincingly three-dimensional human beings, may also function as exemplars of facets of man's nature—of common sense, or greed, or will (one of Golding's most impressive gifts is his ability to make characters exemplify abstractions without becoming abstractions).

What we acknowledge if we choose to call Golding a fabulist is not that the total story is reducible to a moral proposition—this is obviously not true—but rather that he writes from clear and strong moral assumptions, and that those assumptions give form and direction to his fictions. But if Aesop and La Fontaine wrote fables, we need another term for Golding. We might borrow one from scholastic aesthetics, and call them tropological, meaning by this that the novels individually "suggest a shape in the universe," and are constructed as models of such moral shapes. Or if tropological seems too rarefied, moral models will do. The point, in any case, is to suggest the patterned quality of Golding's work, and to recognize the assumptions which that quality implies. Golding accepts certain traditional ideas about man and his place in the world: that mind, by meditation and speculation, may arrive at truth; that it may find in the past, meanings which are relevant to the present, and available through memory; that it may appropriately concern itself with metaphysics and with morals. Not all of these ideas are current now, certainly not in the avant-garde, and consequently Golding's work may seem, in the context of his time, more didactic and moralizing than in fact it is. For though Golding is a moralist, he is not a moral-maker, and his novels belong, not with Aesop's fables, but with the important symbolic novels of our century—with Camus's and Kafka's.

Golding has founded Lord of the Flies on a number of more or less current conventions. First of all, he has used the science-fiction convention of setting his action in the future, thus substituting the eventually probable for the immediately actual, and protecting his fable from literalistic judgments of details or of credibility. A planeload of boys has been evacuated from an England engaged in some future war fought against "the reds"; after their departure an atomic bomb has fallen on England, and civilization is in ruins. The plane flies south and east, stopping at Gibraltar and Addis Ababa; still farther east—over the Indian Ocean, or perhaps the Pacific, the plane is attacked by an enemy aircraft, the "passenger tube" containing the boys is jettisoned, and the rest of the plane crashes in flames. The boys land unharmed on a desert island.

At this point, a second literary convention enters. The desert island tale shares certain literary qualities with science fiction. Both offer a "what-would-happen-if" situation, in which real experience is simplified in order that certain values and problems may be regarded in isolation. Both tend to simplify human moral issues by externalizing good and evil; both offer occasions for Utopian fantasies. Golding's most immediate source is R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island, a Victorian boys' book of South Sea adventure, but Ballantyne didn't invent the island dream; that dream began when man first felt the pressures of his civilization enough to think that a life without civilization might be a life without problems.

The relation of Golding's novel to Ballantyne's is nevertheless important enough to pause over. In Coral Island, three English boys called Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin are shipwrecked on a tropical island, meet pirates and cannibals, and conquer all adversities with English fortitude and Christian virtue. We may say that Coral Island is a clumsy moral tale, in which good is defined as being English and Christian and jolly, and especially an English Christian boy, and in which evil is unchristian, savage, and adult. The three boys are rational, self-reliant, inventive, and virtuous—in short, they are like no boys that anyone has ever known.

Golding regards Coral Island morality as unrealistic, and therefore not truly moral, and he has used it ironically in his own novel, as a foil for his own version of man's moral nature. In an interview Golding described his use of Ballantyne's book in this way:

What I'm saying to myself is "don't be such a fool, you remember when you were a boy, a small boy, how you lived on that island with Ralph and Jack and Peterkin.".… I said to myself finally, "Now you are grown up, you are adult; it's taken you a long time to become adult, but now you've got there you can see that people are not like that; they would not behave like that if they were God-fearing English gentlemen, and they went to an island like that." There savagery would not be found in natives on an island. As like as not they would find savages who were kindly and uncomplicated and that the devil would rise out of the intellectual complications of the three white men on the island itself.

One might say that Lord of the Flies is a refutation of Coral Island, and that Golding sets about to show us that the devil rises, not out of pirates and cannibals and such alien creatures, but out of the darkness of man's heart. The Coral Island attitude exists in the novel—Jack sounds very like Ballantyne's Jack when he says: "After all, we're not savages. We're English; and the English are best at everything." And the naval commander who rescues the boys at the end of the book speaks in the same vein: "I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you're all British aren't you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that—I mean—" But Jack and the commander are wrong; the pack of British boys are in fact cruel and murderous savages who reduce the island to a burning wreckage and destroy the dream of innocence.

The fable of the novel is a fairly simple one. The boys first set out to create a rational society modeled on what "grown-ups" would do. They establish a government and laws, they provide for food and shelter, and they light a signal fire. But this rational society begins to break down almost at once, under two instinctual pressures—fear and blood lust. The dark unknown that surrounds the children gradually assumes a monstrous identity, and becomes "the beast," to be feared and propitiated; and hunting for food becomes killing. The hunters break away from the society, and create their own primitive, savage, orgiastic tribal society. They kill two of the three rational boys, and are hunting down the third when the adult world intervenes.

This fable, as sketched, is susceptible of several interpretations, and Golding's critics have found it coherent on a number of levels, according to their own preoccupations. Freudians have found in the novel a conscious dramatization of psychological theory: "denied the sustaining and repressing authority of parents, church and state, [the children] form a new culture the development of which reflects that of genuine primitive society, evolving its gods and demons (its myths), its rituals and taboos (its social norms)." The political-minded have been able to read it as "the modern political nightmare," in which rational democracy is destroyed by irrational authoritarianism ("I hope," said V. S. Pritchett, "this book is being read in Germany"). The social-minded have found in it a social allegory, in which life, without civilized restraints, becomes nasty, brutish, and short. And the religious have simply said, in a complacent tone, "Original Sin, of course."

It is, of course, entirely possible that Golding has managed to construct a fable that does express all these ideas of evil, and that what we are dealing with is not alternative interpretations, but simply levels of meaning. The idea of Original Sin, for example, does have political, social, and psychological implications; if it is true that man is inherently prone to evil, then certain conclusions about the structure of his relations to other men would seem to follow. The idea of Original Sin seems, indeed, to be one of the "great commonplaces," one of those ideas which are so central to man's conception of himself that they turn up, in one form or another, in almost any systematic account of human nature. It describes one of perhaps two possible accounts of the nature of human behavior (Coral Island assumes the other one).

Since the novel is symbolic, the best approach would seem to be to examine first the "meaning" of each of the major characters, and then to proceed to consider the significance of their interactions. Ralph—in Coral Island the first-person narrator—here provides the most consistent point of view, because he most nearly speaks for us, rational, fallible humankind; Ralph is the man who accepts responsibility that he is not particularly fitted for because he sees that the alternative to responsibility is savagery and moral chaos. He tries to establish and preserve an orderly, rational society; he takes as his totem the conch, making it the symbol of rational, orderly discussion.

Ralph's antagonist is Jack, who represents "the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill," as Ralph represents "the world of longing and baffled common-sense." Between them there is an "indefinable connection"; like Cain and Abel, they are antithetical, but intimately linked together—man-the-destroyer confronting man-the-preserver. Jack is the hunter, the boy who becomes a beast of prey (and who uses kill as an intransitive verb, an act which is for him an end in itself). He is also the dictator, the authoritarian man-of-power who enters the scene like a drill sergeant, who despises assemblies and the conch, and who becomes in the end an absolute ruler of his tribe. He devises the painted mask of the hunter, behind which a boy may hide, "liberated from shame and self-consciousness," and by painting the boys he turns them into an anonymous mob of murderous savages, "a demented but partly secure society." Jack is the first of the bigger boys to accept "the beast" as possible, and the one who offers the propitiatory sacrifice to it; he is the High Priest of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies.

Associated with each of these antagonists is a follower who represents in a more nearly allegorical form the principal value of his leader. Piggy, Ralph's "true, wise friend," is a scientific-minded rationalist, who models his behavior on what he thinks grownups would do, and scorns the other children for "acting like a crowd of kids." He can think better than Ralph, and in a society in which thought was enough he would be supremely valuable; but on the island he is ineffectual; he is incapable of action, and is a physical coward. His totem is his spectacles, and with them he is the fire-bringer; but when Jack first breaks one lens and then steals the other, Piggy becomes blind and helpless, a bag of fat. His trust in the power and wisdom of grownups is itself a sign of his inadequacy; for if the novel makes one point clearly, it is that adults have no special wisdom, and are engaged in a larger scale, but equally destructive, version of the savage game that the hunters play. (When Ralph wishes that the outer world might "send us something grown-up … a sign or something," the adult world obliges with the dead parachutist, an image of terror that destroys Ralph's rational society.)

Beside or slightly behind Jack stands Roger, around whom clings "the hangman's horror." Roger's lust is the lust for power over living things, the power to destroy life. In the beginning he is restrained by "the taboo of the old life … the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law." Jack and the paint of savagery liberate Roger from these taboos, and "with a sense of delirious abandonment" he rolls the rock down the cliff, killing Piggy, his opposite.

One character, the most difficult to treat, remains. Simon, the shy visionary, perceptive but inarticulate, occupies a central position in the symbolic scheme of the book. It is Simon who first stammers that perhaps the beast is "only us," who sees the beast in terms of "mankind's essential illness," and who goes alone to confront both beasts, the grinning pig's head and the rotting airman, because, as he says, "What else is there to do?" Golding has described Simon as a saint, "someone who voluntarily embraces this beast, goes … and tries to get rid of him and goes to give the good news to the ordinary bestial man on the beach, and gets killed for it." He would appear to be, then, at least in Golding's intentions, the embodiment of moral understanding. If this is so, those symbolic scenes in which he appears will be crucial to an understanding of the novel.

I have said that one distinction between Golding's novels and allegory is that the novels are meaning-in-action, general truth given narrative or dramatic form by the creative imagination. In considering the meaning of Lord of the Flies, one cannot therefore stop at an examination of character—meaning must emerge from character-in-action. In the narrative action certain scenes stand out as crucial, and most of these announce their importance by being overtly symbolic. There is, for example, a series of scenes in which Jack's hunters evolve a ritual dance. On the first occasion, in Chapter 4, a child pretends to be the pig, and the hunters pretend to beat him. A chapter later the dance has become crueler, "and littluns that had had enough were staggering away, howling." After the next hunt Robert, acting the pig in the dance, squeals with real pain, and the hunters cry "Kill him! Kill him!" After the dance the boys discuss ways of improving the ritual: "'You want a real pig,' said Robert, still caressing his rump, 'because you've got to kill him.'

"'Use a littlun,' said Jack, and everybody laughed." In the final ritual dance, the sacrificial function is acknowledged; the boys' chant is no longer "Kill the pig," but "Kill the beast! " and when Simon crawls from the forest, the boys fulfill their ritual sacrifice, and by killing a human being, make themselves beasts ("there were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws"). Ironically, they have killed the one person who could have saved them from bestiality, for Simon has seen the figure on the mountaintop, and knows that the beast is "harmless and horrible."

Simon's lonely, voluntary quest for the beast is certainly the symbolic core of the book. The meaning of the book depends on the meaning of the beast, and it is that meaning that Simon sets out to determine. His first act is to withdraw to a place of contemplation, a sunlit space in the midst of the forest. It is to the same place that Jack and his hunters bring the pig's head, and leave it impaled on a stick as a sacrifice to the beast they fear. When they have gone, Simon holds hallucinatory conversation with the Lord of the Flies, Beelzebub, the Lord of Filth and Dung. The head, "with the infinite cynicism of adult life," assures Simon that "everything was a bad business," and advises him to run away, back to the other children, and to abandon his quest. "I'm part of you," it tells him (in words that echo Simon's own "maybe it's only us"), "I'm the reason why it's no go." Simon, apparently epileptic, falls in a fit. But when he wakes, he turns upward, toward the top of the mountain, where the truth lies. He finds the airman, rotting and fly-blown, and tenderly frees the figure from the wind's indignity. Then he sets off, weak and staggering, to tell the other boys that the beast is human, and is murdered by them.

How are we to interpret this sequence? We may say, first of all, that the beast symbolizes the source of evil in human life. Either it is something terrifying and external, which cannot be understood but must simply be lived with (this is Jack's version), or it is a part of man's nature, "only us," in which case it may be understood, and perhaps controlled by reason and rule. Simon understands that man must seek out the meaning of evil ("what else is there to do?"). By seeking, he comes to know it, "harmless and horrible." Thus far the moral point seems orthodox enough. But when he tries to tell his understanding to others, they take him for the beast, and destroy him in terror. Another common idea, though a more somber one—men fear the bearers of truth, and will destroy them. This has both political and psychological implications. A "demented but partly secure society" (read: Nazi Germany, or any authoritarian nation) will resist and attempt to destroy anyone who offers to substitute reason and responsible individual action for the irresponsible, unreasoning, secure action of the mass. And in psychological terms, the members of a "demented society" may create an irrational, external evil, and in its name commit deeds that as rational men they could not tolerate (the history of modern persecutions offers examples enough); such a society has to destroy the man who says, "The evil is in yourselves."

At this point, I should like to return to the argument that this novel is a symbolic form but not an allegory. One aspect of this distinction is that Golding has written a book that has a dense and often poetic verbal texture, in which metaphor and image work as they do in poetry, and enrich and modify the bare significances of the moral form. Golding's treatment of Simon's death is a particularly good case in point. At this instant, a storm breaks, the wind fills the parachute on the mountain, and the figure, freed by Simon, floats and falls toward the beach, scattering the boys in terror before passing out to sea. The storm ends, stars appear, the tide rises. Stars above and phosphorescent sea below fill the scene with brightness and quiet.

Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose farther and dressed Simon's coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapors, busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

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.

This is Golding's rhetoric at its richest, but it works. The imagery of light and value—moonbeam, pearls, silver, brightness, marble—effect a transfiguration, by which the dead child is made worthy, his death an elevation. In terms of allegory, this sort of metaphorical weighting would perhaps be imprecise and deceptive; in terms of a symbolic novel, it seems to me a legitimate application of a skillful writer's art.

In discussing the actions of Lord of the Flies I have again and again slipped from talking about boys to describing the characters as men, or simply as human beings. It is true that as the action rises to its crises—to the agon of Chapter 5, Simon's confrontation with the beast, the murders, the final hunt—we cease to respond to the story as a story about children, and see them simply as people, engaged in desperate, destructive actions. Consequently, Golding can achieve a highly dramatic effect at the end of the book by bringing our eyes down, with Ralph's, to a beach-level view of an adult, and then swinging round, to show us Ralph from the adult's point of view. The result is an irony that makes two points. First, we see with sudden clarity that these murderous savages were civilized children; the point is not, I take it, that children are more horrid than we thought (though they are), but rather that the human propensity for evil knows no limits, not even limits of age, and that there is no Age of Innocence (Ralph weeps for the end of innocence, but when did it exist, except as an illusion made of his own ignorance?). Second, there is the adult, large, efficient, confident—the "grownup" that the children have wished for all along. But his words show at once that he is a large, stupid Coral Island mentality in a peaked cap, entirely blind to the moral realities of the situation. He may save Ralph's life, but he will not understand. And once he has gathered up the castaways, he will return to his ship, and the grown-up business of hunting men (just as the boys have been hunting Ralph). "And who," asks Golding, "will rescue the adult and his cruiser?"

To return briefly to the question of levels of interpretation: it seems clear that Lord of the Flies should be read as a moral novel embodying a conception of human depravity which is compatible with, but not limited to, the Christian doctrine of Original Sin. To call the novel religious is to suggest that its values are more developed, and more affirmative, than in fact they are; Golding makes no reference to Grace, or to Divinity, but only to the darkness of men's hearts, and to the God of Dung and Filth who rules there. Simon is perhaps a saint, and sainthood is a valuable human condition, but there is no sign in the novel that Simon's sainthood has touched any soul but his own. The novel tells us a good deal about evil; but about salvation it is silent.

Jerome Martin (essay date March 1969)

SOURCE: Martin, Jerome. "Symbol Hunting Golding's Lord of the Flies. " English Journal 58, no. 3 (March 1969): 408-13.

[In the following essay, Martin examines the symbolic content of Lord of the Flies.]

Here's a wild exercise for the readers of William Golding's Lord of the Flies. No high school novel tempts students to read into a work instead of out from as does this. So, if you want to cure your symbol hunters, once and for all, involve them in the following exercise.

Duplicate for your students the following list of names, events, and items mentioned in the novel. Leave sufficient space next to each for the meaning of each symbol. Names: Ralph, Piggy, Johnny, Sam 'n Eric or Samneric, Jack, The Choir (Maurice, Simon, Roger, Robert, Henry, Harold, etc.), Percival Wemys Madison, Mulberry-color-birthmark boy, The Officer, Littluns. Events: Taking names, Standing on his head, Betraying Ralph, Blowing into the conch, Hunting pigs, Being saved. Items: Piggy's glasses, Black cloaks, Candle bushes, Knife, Original Sin, The conch, The Island, The Creepers, Spears and logs, Pigs, Fire, Castle Rock, The dead flyer, The Lord of the flies, Butterflies, Smoke, The Sea.

To establish an atmosphere of authenticity for what you will be saying later, announce to your students that William Golding is known to use the stylistic device of having the action of the surface story take place in a short span of time or in suspended time. (This is valid, for in Pincher Martin the flashbacks of Christopher Martin's experiences take place within seconds or less before his death. Also, in Free Fall, Samuel Mountjoy reflects on and establishes his re-oriented world in a closet, again through flashbacks.)

Next, direct the attention of the class to what Golding says is the theme of the novel: "The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature." If Golding is describing human nature, it is natural to ask, "When is human nature best studied?" The answer is, "Under a crisis or a trauma." Ralph is the main character, so he must be experiencing the crisis or trauma. We read that Ralph is "old enough, twelve years and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood."1 If your students can discover that this is the beginning of the puberty crisis, that is good. If they can't, you can tell them.

They should then be ready for the next leap. Announce that there is only one total character in the novel, Ralph. The others are facets of his total personality. Hopefully, your students will begin writing on the duplicated sheet of items. The young mind likes to have "answers" that he can write down.

One of the main tenets of current criticism is to look at the structure of a work and to see the interrelating parts. A symbol cannot represent one thing in a certain section of a work and then be changed later to stand for something else. With this in mind, you are ready to let your students discover what happens when literary works are read into. The reader creates a most elaborate and complex system of symbolic meanings. What follows may be read to the students or drawn from them through questions. As the meaning of each symbol is "revealed," the students are to jot it down.

Introducing the names in the Lord of the Flies is very significant. The boy experiencing puberty is Ralph who is physically mature for his twelve years and a few months: "You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went, but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil" (p. 8). Remembering that Golding wishes to establish human nature, we see that Piggy is next introduced. His words and actions reflect man's intellect and reasoning powers. He communicates in a way of imitating adults but with grammatically poor English, representing those who have read some truths about reality but have not made these their own through insight and/or experience. It is the job of the intellect to name things and to put labels on everything. This is exactly what Ralph tells Piggy to do, "Now go back, Piggy, and take names. That's your job. So long" (p. 21). This labeling is done in light of tradition and the wisdom of the ages, represented by Piggy's glasses. He rubs his glasses during crises and when making decisions. Piggy has asthma and can do no work, indicating that notional and conceptual knowledge is crippled without the experiential. It is for this reason that Piggy must be killed and washed out into the vastness and openness of the sea to become truly a meaningful facet of the whole person, Ralph. Even the dead flyer is washed out into the sea, the only hope of empty men.

Before puberty a child experiences relatively little conflict with the world or within himself. When Piggy questions, "Aren't there any grownups at all?" (p. 6), Ralph responds by standing on his head. This act, significantly, is done a few times at the beginning of the novel only, as Ralph sees the world through his youthful eyes.

Next on the scene is little innocent Johnny who is boyhood imagination, somewhat stilted, and for the time being satisfied by putting a pink thumb in his mouth. Later in the story Johnny cries over the images of the beastie.

With the intellect and the imagination established, Golding next presents Sam and Eric. Often written as one word, "Samneric" stand for Ralph's will. More than once they are locked in a struggling embrace because Ralph cannot always determine good from evil. They have hair like tow and are chunky and vital, but they are not completely developed as yet (p. 16). One of them reveals Ralph's hiding place and betrays him. Evil does betray the man.

Another important facet of the total personality to be established after intellect, imagination, and will is emotion. Coming down the beach, "marching approximately in step in two parallel lines" (p. 16) are the choristers. They are wearing black cloaks "from throat to ankle" denoting the subdued state of the emotions in the boy before puberty. When they are given permission to uncover, they emerge as powerful drives. This is seen when they begin to run wild to fetch wood for the fire and "their black caps of maintenance were slid over one ear like berets" (p. 34). Jack Merridew (Merry Andrew) depicts pride as the leader of the emotions. Maurice, next in size, "broad and grinning all the time" is joy. Roger is hate, often acting as lust, "a furtive boy whom no one knew, who kept to himself with an inner intensity of avoidance and secrecy" (p. 18). Everyone gets to know Roger since he later shows the others how to use their spears. It is Roger who kills Piggy. Bill, Robert, Harold, and Henry represent other emotions with an astonishing consistency of action and word.

There is one special member of this group whom Jack dislikes intensely because he is shy and "always throwing a faint." This is Simon, pure and simple love. On one of the first adventures, Ralph picks Simon to go with Jack and himself to investigate the island. Ralph remarks, "If Simon walks in the middle of us, then we could talk over his head." It is Simon who discovers at this time the candle bushes which symbolize church rituals. Jack slashes at one of them with his knife, and an aromatic scent spills over the three boys. Jack then remarks, "Green candles.… We can't eat them. Come on" (p. 27). Pride rebels here against the immaterial. If it isn't useful, it is valueless.

A little later we become aware of a boy with a mulberry-colored birthmark "warped out of the perpendicular by the fierce light of publicity, and he bored into the grass with one toe" (p. 31). In all his novels, Golding seems to be preoccupied with the idea of original sin. The blemished-one is Ralph's knowledge of original sin, since Piggy is very concerned about the stained boy. This boy is the first one who wants to know what Ralph is going to do about the snake-thing. With one hand on the shell, Piggy interprets what the boy with the mulberry-colored birthmark whispers, "He says the beastie came in the dark" (p. 31).

Another facet of Ralph's personality is Percival Wemys Madison, The Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, Hants, telephone, telephone.… He is memory. Percival and Phil, the emotion of fear, are the two who tell the others about the beast from the sea. At the end of the novel, Percival is greatly changed:

"I'm, I'm—"

"But there was no more to come. Percival Wemys Madison sought in his head for an incantation that had faded clean away" (p. 247). Ralph's memory has a different hierarchy of values after the experience of puberty.

The others in the novel, not given labels, are known by the generic title of "littluns." Human nature is too complicated to be able to label all its facets.

Early in the story Ralph points out and Piggy grabs a conch which becomes the symbol of order and authority. Ralph is the only one who is supposed to blow into the shell to create a loud blast calling all facets of the personality to attention. These assemblies, resulting from the call, are times of decision. "That's why Ralph made a meeting. So we can decide what to do" (p. 18), echoes Piggy. At another assembly, Jack remarks, "We'll have rules!… Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks 'em—." Since there is a close connection between authority and tradition, Piggy (intellect) shrieks in terror as Jack (pride) snatches the glasses from his face, "Mind out! Give 'em back! I can hardly see! You'll break the conch!" (p. 36), meaning that without tradition the mind is darkened, and one would have to start all over again investigating everything. Without tradition and authority, control and direction are impossible. Paradoxically, Piggy "sees" more after losing his glasses.

Later in the novel, Ralph asks Piggy what makes things break up. To this, Piggy, rubbing his glasses, replies, "I suppose it's Jack." Piggy tells Ralph that Jack hates reason (Piggy) but respects the person (Ralph), and if Ralph were to stand out of the way, Jack would hurt the next thing and that is reason (p. 129).

Your students are now ready to accept Golding's special stylistic feature: suspending time. Human nature is established, and the crisis is puberty. Consider that Golding is speaking of Ralph's experience as happening during one night while the boy is in a semi-dream world existence. The island would be the boy's bed. The mountain where the vision is clear would be his head, the bridge over to Castle Rock would be his neck, and the fortress of Castle Rock itself would be his body. The creepers would be his blankets.

When his father, the naval officer, enters Ralph's bedroom at the end of the novel and sees the blankets ajar and Ralph's "filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose" (p. 186), he asks Ralph, "Who's boss here?" Ralph, replies loudly, "I am." That statement then becomes the most important one in the entire novel. Ralph had experienced his first nocturnal emission. The bulk of the novel expresses the conflict one must go through before the total personality can emerge, with a certain loss of innocence, but still be boss.

Throughout the story, spears, logs, and sticks are the phallic symbol, and they become Jack's preoccupation as the leader of the hunters. These hunters, the emotions, are searching for pigs, material goods. Wanting to possess and to dominate, to kill and yet to have, the hunters allow the goods to become the end. While others concern themselves about rescue, Jack and his hunters have fun hunting for pigs with their spears. Jack dismisses the thought of a snake-thing because pride could merely destroy it. "There isn't a snake-thing. But if there was a snake we'd hunt it and kill it. We're going to hunt pigs to get meat for everybody. And we'll look for the snake too—" (p. 32).

It is fitting that Sam and Eric are the first to find a large log which can be used for the fire. Fire throughout the novel represents the drives of man toward good and evil. "The twins, Sam 'n Eric, were the first to get a likely log but they could do nothing till Ralph, Jack, Simon, Roger, and Maurice found room for a hand-hold. Then they inched the grotesque dead thing up the rock and toppled it over on top" (p. 35). Golding has chosen carefully the names of those who help in this experience: Samneric (good and evil), Ralph (the person), Jack (pride), Simon (love), Roger (lust), and Maurice (joy). The author concluded this paragraph: "Once more, amid the breeze, the shouting, the slanting sunlight on the high mountain, was shed that glamour, that strange invisible light of friendship, adventure, and content" (p. 35).

When Jack breaks away from Ralph, Piggy, Samneric, and Simon, he and the passions find security in Castle Rock. It is from this strong fort that Jack runs his activities and seeks the pleasure of pursuit for apparent goods. There was sufficient fruit on the island to satisfy all, but this wasn't enough for Jack. He continues the destructive hunt. Even Ralph is tempted to give up the idea of rescue and go hunting, but Piggy keeps reminding him about salvation.

Simon, who remains faithful to Ralph, plays a very important part in the novel. It is he who feeds the "littluns" the choicest fruit which they cannot reach. And after the children have followed him and have had their fill, Simon suffers the arrow of the sun until the sweat runs from his pores (p. 123). He goes down on his knees three times in saving decaying man from his entanglements to tell the truth (of the dead flyer who has fallen from the sky) to the others (p. 136). But Simon is killed by those whom he wished to save, and he too is washed out into the openness of the sea. Whereas Simon is sacrificed for the group (society), Piggy is sacrificed to make Ralph whole. Of course, then we ask if the following passage is not the symbol of the resurrection of the body: "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 constellation, Simon's dead body moved out toward the open sea" (p. 142).

Before he is killed, however, Simon has his bout with the devil, the lord of the flies, the one who would like to lie about what Ralph is experiencing in puberty. Through his deceit, Beelzebub (god of insects) tries to take control. He does not want Ralph to be master of himself. Simon knows what it could be, but it is the devil who colors all red, not green. In this light, the statement, "Passions beat about Simon on the mountaintop with awful wings," makes sense. Butterflies (the symbol of beauty; in Greek: life, spirit, and breath) have frequently been present when Simon has communicated with nature, but they desert the place where the head of the pig is forced onto the stick sharpened at both ends. One end is jammed into a crack of mother earth; the other holds the head of the lord of lies. The mouth of the beast is dark, a blackness that Simon experiences spreading (p. 133). The heart of darkness wants no part of love or true meaning. So the Lord of the Flies says, "I'm warning you. I'm going to get angry. D'you see? You're not wanted. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island! So don't try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else—" (p. 133). The way that the devil is to get ultimate control is through man's total pursuit of pleasure through materialism. Jack tries to make Simon eat of the meat of materialism, but Simon gives of his portion to Piggy, helping him experience both good and the sharing of things. "Simon, sitting between the twins and Piggy, wiped his mouth and shoved his piece of meat over the rocks to Piggy, who grabbed it. The twins giggled and Simon lowered his face in shame" (p. 68). Also, when Piggy loses his glasses, Simon finds them. Thus does love try to help reason.

Several other symbols have been well worked into the story. When the boys are investigating the "beast" on the mountain, they see a creature which moves as the wind blows it—the dead, hollow, decaying flyer. It is fallen man in a state of helplessness, moving as if alive. This figure has to be cleansed and washed by the rains of baptism before moving out to the sea.

Another symbol is Ralph's "shutter coming down," a flickering in his brain when he momentarily wonders about going with the others to hunt with spears. Should he go with the others to have fun, or should he be concerned about being saved? The symbol of salvation is smoke.

As the novel progresses, the forces divide, and decisions are to be made. Simon tells Ralph that things will be all right no matter what Ralph has to go through. Simon says, "You'll get back to where you came from" (p. 103). Ralph is discovering himself and asks Simon, "How do you know?" Simon replies, "I just think you'll get back all right."

Towards the end of the story, Ralph is hunted by all the forces which Jack controls. In his escape from the hunters, Ralph comes upon the skull of the pig which is mounted on the stick. He knocks off the head and wrenches the stick from the earth. "Ralph drew his feet up and crouched. The stake was in his hands, the stake sharpened at both ends, the stake that vibrated so wildly, that grew long, short, light, heavy, light again" (p. 183).

Piggy had been killed, and the conch smashed into a thousand pieces. Samneric had been tied up and then made to join the tribe. Bill (hope) is changed, Robert (desire) is satisfied with meat, and Ralph himself is hungry. Sam gives Ralph some meat. "If there were light—" remarks Ralph.

Roger is carrying death in his hands, so Ralph tries to think. He had never gone against reason (Piggy); made fun of, yes, but never violated. And yet, "he was beginning to dread the curtain that might waver in his brain, blacking out the sense of danger making a simpleton of him" (p. 181).

Finally, Ralph experiences what he doesn't totally understand or want. The security of boyhood is gone, and he tries to cry for mercy while warding off what comes. Through the entire semi-dreamworld state, Ralph has experienced his first nocturnal emission. He is no longer a boy. His experience has been one of awesome mystery. He now sees the power of the passions of man and realizes how all drives must be directed if one is to emerge as a full personality.

Now your students see what reading into a novel leads to. If the above exercise doesn't cure your symbol hunters, you may wish to have them play the game further by seeing Golding's first novel, The Inheritors as man's first crisis, birth (man becoming conscious of his consciousness); the Lord of the Flies as the puberty crisis; Pincher Martin as the adolescent crisis; Free Fall as the adulthood crisis; and The Spire as the spiritual crisis. It's all great fun, but your students are sure to get to the point. Or maybe both you and your students might find it all fits. Who knows?


1. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York City: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1959), p. 8. Subsequent references to the novel will be to this paperback edition and will be incorporated into the text.

Arnold Johnston (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Johnston, Arnold. " Lord of the Flies: Fable, Myth, and Fiction." In Of Earth and Darkness: The Novels of William Golding, pp. 8-20.

[In the following essay, Johnston discusses the merits of Lord of the Flies as a modern myth.]

Lord of the Flies deals, ostensibly, with a group of English schoolboys who, in the process of being evacuated by airplane from the dangers of a nuclear war, find themselves alone on a tropical island after their plane crashes. The boys, ranging in age from about six to thirteen, are faced with the problem of survival on the uninhabited island while attempting to attract the attention of passing ships and planes.

The problem of physical existence solves itself—the island is rich in fruit and game and the climate is favorable. The real problem that arises among the boys involves their own inner nature, and emerges most directly from a clash between those who wish to keep a fire burning on the island's mountain to attract rescuers and those who wish to hunt and indulge in what at first seems to be the natural inclination of children toward unrestrained play. The conflict begins in apparent childish innocence, and reaches its climax in acts of shocking brutality that carry far-reaching implications of guilt.

Golding has summed up the theme of Lord of the Flies as follows:

The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature.1

As I have mentioned, Golding feels that evil arises from man's essential being, and he attempts to demonstrate his thesis in this self-consciously symbolic work which shows civilization totally unable to contend with man's apparently natural and voracious propensity for savagery. A systematic probing into the question of man's inherent good or evil is, without doubt, one of Golding's major concerns; and in the course of this study I shall attempt to show that his apparent preoccupation with the problems of survival (Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, Pincher Martin ) is an important key to understanding both his philosophy and his techniques.

Lord of the Flies falls into that hardy genre of accounts of shipwreck and survival on tropical islands: Robinson Crusoe, The Swiss Family Robinson, The Coral Island, and so forth. Golding particularly wishes the reader to associate his novel with Ballantyne's The Coral Island. The two main characters in both books are named Ralph and Jack, and the relationship between the names of Ballantyne's Peterkin and Golding's Simon needs little elaboration. Then, too, there are two direct references to The Coral Island in Golding's book, one near the beginning—

"It's like in a book."

At once there was a clamour.

"Treasure Island—"

"Swallows and Amazons—"

"Coral Island—"

and one near the end—

The officer nodded helpfully.

"I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island."2

Frank Kermode and Carl Niemeyer, in separate essays, discuss at some length Golding's use of The Coral Island as an ironic parallel to his own novel, pointing out the difference between Golding's vision of human nature and what Niemeyer calls the "cheerful unrealities" of Ballantyne.3 And Golding himself, in the interview with Kermode, had this to say of his book's connection with The Coral Island:

What I'm saying to myself is, "Don't be such a fool, you remember when you were a boy, a small boy, how you lived on that island with Ralph and Jack and Peterkin.… Now you are grown up,…you can see people are not like that; they would not behave like that if they were God-fearing English gentlemen, and they went to an island like that." Their savagery would not be found in natives on an island. As like as not they would find savages who were kindly and uncomplicated and that the devil would rise out of the intellectual complications of the three white men on the island itself.4

Golding's remark about kindly, uncomplicated savages stacks the anthropological cards a bit heavily against civilized man, and ignores a number of basic facts about primitive cultures. Of course, Lord of the Flies doesn't allow the reader any "real" savages with whom to compare the boys, as Golding's artistic sense evidently told him to avoid confusing the central human issue with such anthropological quibbles. However, the aforementioned remark does underline Golding's moralistic bias, and points toward a more serious charge that might be leveled against the novel: that his authorial presence is often overly obtrusive, either in didactic interpositions or, more seriously, in unconvincing manipulation of his characters.

In this connection Lionel Trilling says that Golding succeeds in persuading the reader that the boys' actions result from the fact that they "are not finally under the control of previous social habit or convention," but adds that he "should not have credited this quite so readily of American boys who would not … have been so quick to forget their social and moral pasts."5 For my part, I am unable to see why Mr. Trilling is unwilling to carry his pertinent critical comment to its logical conclusion, without involving himself in speculations about the relative acculturation processes in Britain and the United States. Had he pursued his doubts to an expression of dissatisfaction with the credibility of the boys, he would have been on firmer ground, since there are several points at which Golding's manipulations of narrative and dialogue do ring false.

Two interrelated but discernibly distinct threads are evident in Lord of the Flies. One is the actual narrative, detailing meticulously the boys' descent into savagery; the other is the gradually developed symbol of the "Beast" that is first suggested by the wholly natural night fears of the "littluns" and that eventually becomes the object of worship by the boys-turned-savages. The Beast is an externalization of the inner darkness in the children's (man's) nature, and its ascendancy is steady, inexorable, as is the path to savagery, increasing in intensity with each new regression on the part of the boys. But despite his often brilliant handling of this apposite motivating symbol of the book, it is especially during scenes involving the Beast that Golding becomes particularly intrusive.

At one point, for instance, when the assembled boys are discussing the problem of the Beast, Piggy (the pragmatic rationalist) explains: "''Course there isn't a beast in the forest. How could there be? What would a beast eat?'" (p. 77). And the answer, supplied by the chorus of boys, is "'Pig!'"—to which the unmistakable voice of Golding (by way of reminding the reader just what his symbol represents) can be heard to add, "'We eat pig'" (p. 77). And a few pages later Simon, the convulsion-afflicted mystic, says of the Beast: "'What I mean is … maybe it's only us'" (p. 82). This rather subtle interpretation of human nature from a small boy demonstrates further that Golding is so intent on his moral message that he will not hesitate to make the youngsters dance to his tune.

This assembly scene is central to the novel's development in that it marks the last point at which "civilized" rules and procedures can be said to dominate the boys' words and actions. Grounds for the breakdown of the rules are furnished by dissent among the representatives of order (Ralph, Piggy, and Simon), as Piggy, with his unimaginative rationalist's intelligence, answers Simon's observation with a resounding "'Nuts!'" Even among the "civilized," communication is lacking, and when Jack—leader of the forces of disorder—shouts "'Bollocks to the rules!'" chaos and darkness are ushered in (p. 84).

However, Golding cannot let the matter of the Beast rest here, and after the assembly has dispersed, Ralph, shaken, turns to Piggy and asks, "'Are there ghosts, Piggy? Or Beasts?'" And here the ventriloquist's lips can be seen to move, as Piggy answers: "''Course there aren't.… 'Cos things wouldn't make sense. Houses an' streets, an'—TV—they wouldn't work'" (p. 85). Although beautifully camouflaged in boyish diction, the implication that a boy of about ten can reason that the existence of supernatural phenomena challenges the validity of natural law is simply too much to swallow.

A major objectification of man's inner Beast appears in the shape of a pig's head on a stick that Jack and his "hunters" leave as an offering for the Beast. Unknown to the hunters, Simon has been nearby during the killing of the pig, having hidden himself in some bushes at the onset of one of his fits. He is then left alone with the head, thus setting the scene for the most self-consciously symbolic incident in the book. At this point the significance of the book's title becomes evident, as the head, swarming with flies, enters into an imaginary conversation with Simon, a conversation in which Golding, speaking through this grotesque agent, removes any doubts that might still have lingered in the reader's mind with respect to the novel's theme or the source of the evil described therein:

The Lord of the Flies spoke in the voice of a schoolmaster.

"This has gone quite far enough. My poor, misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?"

There was a pause.

"I'm warning you. I'm going to get waxy. D'you see. You're not wanted. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island! So don't try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else—"

Simon found he was looking into a vast mouth. There was blackness within, a blackness that spread.

"—Or else," said the Lord of the Flies, "we shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?"

(p. 133)

The above scene, which places perhaps the greatest strain on the reader's credulity, may be defended as the book's clearest indication that human guilt is pervasive, including even the "good" characters, Ralph and Piggy. However, by comparing this strained encounter between Simon and the head with the scenes immediately preceding and following it, one may see that Golding makes his point there just as clearly and much more effectively.6

The killing of the pig by Jack's hunters is a case in point. The pig-hunting of former days has been relatively innocent, but to fully dramatize the deep inner evil that takes possession of the boys after they accept the Beast as their god, Golding depicts more than a mere killing. Conjuring up the most shocking imagery he could use to show the degeneration of these preadolescents, he describes the slaughter of a mother sow in terms of a sexual assault.7 How better to portray the children's loss of innocence (since children are no strangers to killing) than by picturing them as perpetrators of an Oedipal violation?

… the sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood.…

Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear wherever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgment for his spear and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her.

(p. 125)

The vividness of this scene makes it both a powerfully realistic component of the essential story and a major contribution to the novel's symbolic scheme. The episode involving Simon and the head, however—especially the "conversation"—is difficult to view in other than symbolic terms, marking it as another nagging flaw in a book that—whatever its thematic concerns—seems committed from the outset to creating believable boys on a believable island. Actually, the mere physical presence of the pig's head, the Lord of the Flies, would have served well without the didactic pronouncements, since "lord of the flies" is a translation of the Hebrew Ba'al zevuv (Beelzebub in Greek), implying quite effectively that the head is representative of man's "inner devil."

In any event, the most successful symbolic portrayal of the Beast as man appears earlier in the novel in the form of a dead airman whose parachute carries him in the night to the top of the mountain, where, tangled in the complication of strings, he becomes lodged in a sitting position, the upper half of his body alternately rising and falling as the breeze tightens and slackens the lines. Sam and Eric, the twins, are horrified by this grisly figure when they come to tend the fire, and when a subsequent expedition (headed by Ralph and Jack, but notably excluding Simon and Piggy) climbs the mountain to confirm the twins' garbled report, the following powerful passage shows the Beast impressed forever on the minds and hearts of the boys:

Behind them the sliver of moon had drawn clear of the horizon. Before them, something like a great ape was sitting asleep with its head between its knees. Then the wind roared in the forest, there was confusion in the darkness and the creature lifted its head, holding toward them the ruin of a face.

(p. 114)

This is the experience that accelerates the deterioration of civilized procedures, bringing confusion to the final assembly and committing Jack fully—in a parody of his initial appearance as leader of the choir, or perhaps an oblique commentary on the ritualistic mind—to high priesthood in the dark new religion. And it is to determine the truth of this experience and the nature of the so-called Beast from Air that Simon, after his ghastly interview with the head, courageously ascends the mountain, where he frees the wasted body "from the wind's indignity" (p. 135).

Simon, whom Golding has called quite explicitly a "Christfigure," comes down from the mountain to carry the truth to the others, but—still weak from his recent attack—he stumbles instead into a ritual reenactment of the pig-killing and is killed by the frenzied and fear-maddened boys, who ironically mistake him for the Beast.8 And here Golding's sweeping indictment of humanity becomes most nearly complete, for Ralph and Piggy, lured by the prospect of food, have temporarily joined with the hunters and take part, albeit unwittingly, in the murder of Simon. And here, too, at the moment of Simon's death, in the midst of a storm that thunders within as well as around them, the boys are visited by the spectre of human history, embodied in the form of the dead airman. Dislodged from atop the mountain and carried again into the air by the winds, the grotesque figure of the decaying parachutist plummets to the sands, scattering the terror-stricken boys, and sweeps far out to sea. The beach is left desolate save for the small broken body of Simon, which follows the parachutist into the sea:

Along the shoreward edge of the shallows the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes. Here and there a larger pebble clung to its own air and was covered with a coat of pearls. The tide swelled in and over the rain-pitted sand and smoothed everything with a layer of silver. Now it touched the first of the stains that seeped from the broken body and the creatures made a moving patch of light as they gathered at the edge. The water rose farther and dressed Simon's coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble. The strange attendant creatures, with their fiery eyes and trailing vapors, busied themselves round his head. The body lifted a fraction of an inch from the sand and a bubble of air escaped from the mouth with a wet plop. Then it turned gently in the water.

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.

(p. 142)

The amount and kind of description devoted to Simon's death is ample indication of his saintly role even without Golding's identification of him as a Christ-figure.

All of the obvious parallels to Christ are there—from Gethsemane to Golgotha—and one may easily identify Simon's story with that of many a martyred mystic.9 But why are they there? Why is Simon there? Is Golding merely speaking with the voice of moral and religious orthodoxy? As his subsequent novels have shown, Golding is not to be labeled so easily. But in those novels one sees a consistent preoccupation with the artist or artist-figure, someone actively engaged in interpreting the human condition: Tuami, the tribal artist in The Inheritors; Christopher "Pincher" Martin, the penultimate actor in Pincher Martin; Sammy Mountjoy, the guilt-torn painter in Free Fall; Dean Jocelin and Roger Mason, creative force behind, and architect of, The Spire; Oliver, the confused would-be musician in The Pyramid; and Matty Windrove, the naive prophet of Darkness Visible.

Viewed in this light, Simon's habitual isolation from the other boys, his obvious inability to communicate to them the "truths" that he grasps intuitively, and finally his death at their hands, reflect the all-too-frequent fate of the artist in society. Of course, all that can be said of the artist's role may be applied to that of the religious or mystic; but again and again in his later works, Golding demonstrates that the nature of his unorthodoxy is its basis in that highly eclectic form of mysticism called art. Like many artists before him, he sees the artist as priest, as interpreter of life's mysteries and possible savior of mankind. Unlike many of his predecessors, though, Golding faces squarely the historical fact that the artist—like other saviors—has met with little success. And in this first novel, Simon should be recognized as the first of Golding's "portraits of the artist," embodying both his pride in the high calling and his frustration at the artist's inability to defend himself against the weaknesses of others, or to transcend his own human frailties. Even more important to a reading of his works as a whole is the realization that, for Golding, the artist is representative of humanity at large, and that Golding finds in creativity the source of man's strength and weakness, his good and evil.

In any case, the aftermath of Simon's death is the last point at which Lord of the Flies can be said to picture the existence of a calm and ordering vision. Total disintegration of the civilized forces follows swiftly, beginning with the theft of Piggy's glasses—the source of fire and symbol of intellectual power—by Jack and his hunters, and proceeding through Piggy's murder by the brutal Roger to the final hunt for Ralph, who is to be decapitated and sacrificed like a pig to the Beast.

The description of Piggy's death provides an informing contrast to that of Simon's, showing quite clearly, though subtly, Golding's antirationalist bias:

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy's arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

(p. 167)

One notes here the same studious reportage of physical fact as in the passage quoted earlier. But this time Golding concentrates on matter-of-fact particulars, eschewing the angle of vision that might place Piggy's death in universal perspective: whereas Simon is described in language befitting a dead saint, Piggy is pictured as a dead animal. Of course, Piggy's actions immediately before his murder are brave in conventional terms; but his rationalist's faith in order and human perfectibility, ironically undercut throughout the book, seems nowhere more misguided than in this scene (p. 166). The mystic's intuitive recognition that good and evil coexist within man is the spark of his divinity; but the rationalist's denial of such intangible forces chains him forever to the material world of earth and organism.

After Piggy's death, Ralph finds himself being hunted by the other boys. But at the book's climactic moment, just as the "savages" are about to descend on Ralph, a "rescuer" appears in the person of a British naval officer. And at once, in a passage laden with irony, the shrieking painted savages become "a semicircle of little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands … standing on the beach making no noise at all" (p. 185). The officer, confronted with this scene of filth and disorder, rebukes the boys lamely (as Lionel Trilling might have noted): "'I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you're all British, aren't you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that—'" (p. 186). And Ralph, the book's Everyman, representative of the world of "longing and baffled commonsense" (p. 65), is left to weep "for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy" (pp. 186-87).

Several early critics and reviewers of Lord of the Flies assailed the book's ending as too neat, if not actually as a question-begging compromise with lovers of happy endings.10 However, a reflective reading shows that the "rescue" is no rescue at all: throughout the novel Golding is at pains to point out that the major human predicament is internal; the officer solves Ralph's immediate problem, but "the darkness of man's heart" persists. Practically, of course, as Golding says, in a book "originally conceived … as the change from innocence—which is the ignorance of self—to a tragic knowledge … If I'd gone on to the death of Ralph, Ralph would never have had time to understand what had happened to him."11 And on a more sophisticated thematic level he observes, "The officer, having interrupted a manhunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?"12

Returning to the Simon-Piggy contrast discussed earlier, one might also note that it is Piggy, the misguided rationalist, for whom Ralph sorrows, not Simon, the "saint." Besides subtly underscoring Golding's concern for the fate of the artist-mystic, this fact seems to indicate that Ralph's tragic experience has not finally brought him to the sort of self-knowledge that can save him as a man.13 The implications for humanity at large are clear and unencouraging. Thus, although the officer seems to suggest a deus ex machina, one will be hard pressed to find a happy ending here.

On a broader front, the plot of Lord of the Flies has been attacked as both eccentric and specious, either too far removed from the real world or too neatly microcosmic to be true.14 The first of these charges, that of eccentricity, may be put aside for the time being. After all, removing one's setting and characters from the larger sphere of civilization has long been an acceptable, if not honorable, practice in almost every literary genre and tradition, as witness the success of Melville and Conrad, whose isolated fictional worlds remain real in both their concrete details and their human significance. The source of the objection seems to be predisposed literary tastes, rather than more rigorous aesthetic standards—preference for the novel as typical history, rather than symbolic vision. However, the related charge—that Golding oversimplifies complex truth through manipulation of his microcosmic world—is on firmer ground. And in speaking to this point, one must necessarily return to John Peter's identification of Golding as a fabulist, as well as to Golding's own wish to be seen as a "myth-maker."

The main concern, then, of both opponents and supporters of Lord of the Flies is whether or not it functions adequately on its primary, or "fictional," level; or more simply, is the story told convincingly? Peter, in "The Fables of William Golding," assails the novel for its "incomplete translation of its thesis into its story so that much remains external and extrinsic, the teller's assertion rather than the tale's enactment before our eyes." And indeed, I have detailed several instances of such didactic obtrusions, including some aspects of character and action that seem more concerned with theme than credibility. However, I would qualify Peter's observation rather strongly, noting that such instances seem more vulnerable to the charge of being extraneous than of betraying Golding's "incomplete translation" of his thesis, which is more than adequately communicated by the rest of the novel.

And what of the rest of the novel? Is it merely a skeleton of thesis incompletely fleshed by concrete detail? Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor are highly emphatic in answering this question: "Physical realities come first for Golding and should stay first for his readers."15 They devote a long first chapter in their study to a demonstration of the "complex physical truth" of Lord of the Flies, concentrating heavily on the naturalistic clarity and inclusiveness of Golding's description, and arguing that his symbolic representations are often so reflective of life's complexities as to be actually ambiguous, perhaps even too ambiguous to be seen symbolically at all. This latter point is a bit extreme: Golding's main symbolic intentions are clear enough in the novel, even without the many explicit comments he has made since its publication. However, Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor may be excused their overstatement, since so much attention has been paid to the novel's symbolism that its objective vehicles have been too often deemphasized, if not forgotten.

And here, Golding's style becomes a major concern. As Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor demonstrate, Golding's descriptive prose carries the burden of his meaning and—coupled with the inexorable narrative of the boys' descent into chaos—provides the reader with a naturalistically concrete and complex surface world against which to view the symbolic drama. One need only note passages already quoted—the killing of the sow, the deaths of Simon and Piggy—to be convinced that the realities of Lord of the Flies live in the flesh, as well as in the abstract, comprising a universe not oversimplified, but paradoxically diverse, in which beauty and ugliness, good and evil, precariously coexist. The main features of Golding's best description are scientific accuracy and objectivity, combined with a felicitous use of simple adjectives and verbs that can transform his tersely pictured scenes into powerful evocations of transcendent beauty or obsessive ugliness. One thinks here of the extremes of such effects before the sow-killing, when "she staggered into an open space where bright flowers grew and butterflies danced round each other and the air was hot and still" (p. 125), and after, when "the pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw" (p. 128). Without doubt, Golding's world exists compellingly on its primary level: its strained moments seem more like surface blemishes than structural defects, blemishes that catch the eye because of their dissimilarity to the skillfully woven fabric of the whole.

As for Golding's stature as a maker of myth, one must grant him a considerable measure of success. Certainly, if myth "comes out from the roots of things" and evokes age-old and recurrent human patterns, Lord of the Flies is much closer to myth than to simple fable. One may trace its literary roots alone back through the more immediate past (The Coral Island), to the ancient past (The Bacchae), and on a broader plane one may easily see in the story echoes and parallels from both the political and social dynamics of contemporary civilization (the rise of Fascism, anti-intellectualism) and the religious and philosophical foundations of Western culture (the Old Testament, the Fall, the New Testament, the Crucifixion, as well as nineteenth-century rationalism). Indeed, the very profusion of suggestive patterns in the novel should demonstrate that here is no simple allegorical reworking of the materials of The Coral Island, and that irrespective of Golding's initial plans, Frank Kermode properly observes: "In writing of this kind all depends upon the author's mythopoeic power to transcend the 'programme.'"16 And in this first novel, William Golding displays "mythopoeic power" of an impressively high order. The flaws, the didactic interjections and manipulations remain. But, all in all, one may compare Golding to a puppet master who has wrought his marionettes meticulously and beautifully and led them skillfully through a captivating and frightening drama, while only occasionally distracting the audience by the movement of his strings.

Leah Hadomi (essay date spring 1981)

SOURCE: Hadomi, Leah. "Imagery as a Source of Irony in Golding's Lord of the Flies. " The Hebrew University Studies in Literature 9, no. 1 (spring 1981): 126-138.

[In the following essay, Hadomi examines Golding's use of images for the purpose of irony in Lord of the Flies.]

Irony, the constant evasion of generally accepted cultural assumptions and expectations, is a major principle of structure in Lord of the Flies. In this novel expectations are deliberately aroused in order to be undermined, so that the reader has constantly to readjust his choices in order to construct an appropriate reading.

In the process of reconstructing meaning Allemann's1 terms may prove to be useful. He uses the term "Spieletemente" (play elements) within the "Ironische Spielraum" (ironic playground). The ironic playground lies between the foreground of visible reality and its background. The play elements shifting between the background and the foreground negate the previous meaning of the utterances or situations of the foreground.

The ironic playground in Lord of the Flies works on two levels. First, the level of "Circumstantial Irony", where the ironic playground consists of general cultural and literary expectations, from which an ironic light is thrown on the work as a whole. Second the level of "Internal Irony", mediated mainly by metaphor.2

Circumstantial Irony is based on the tension between outward cultural presumptions and the rhetorical effect of the novel. As critics have amply observed, there are several allusions in the text to R.M. Ballantyne's romance The Coral Island.3 Beyond this specific literary reference lies the broader area of Utopia in the general sense of the word; the shift from reality into nowhere, the attempt to create a desirably way of life, a harmonious carefree existence.4 Utopia in the sense developed by Northrop Frye, namely the idea of a social organization based on rituals rationally explained, is also undermined in the novel.5 There are other wishful ways of existence pertaining to Utopia such as the pastoral locus amoenas and the Land of Cockaigne dream which are hinted at.

All these specifically literary and generally Utopian expectations are aroused in Lord of the Flies, then negated. The world of the novel is an observe Coral Island. The famous English democratic liberalism which the Choir boys bring to the island, is completely destroyed when aggressive instinctive forces are released. The pastoral element evoked by being close to harmonious nature during the first phase is also negated when nature turns out to be treacherous. The Cocknay Land's total satisfaction of sensual hedonistic needs is feasible on the island since there is an abundance of fruit, water and shelter, but, it turns out, what was expected to guarantee ultimate satisfaction of needs proves to be insufficient as aggressive and erotic drives demand their satisfaction.

To sum up, the ironic playground which creates circumstantial irony consists of general cultural beliefs or myths which are aroused and implied in the text at the outset, then prove to be incompatible with the narrative events as they develop. The social-rational Utopian notion, the pastoral world and the Cocknay Land dream are all denied. All expectations of Innocent Childhood in nature, including the myth of the Noble Savage, are exposed, unmasking the Wild Man who "has come to stand as a symbol not only for what we have lost in becoming civilized, but mainly for what we have repressed".6 Finally, the Utopian dream is turned totally upside down—the desired social organization turns into a totalitarian state and the rational approach to human problems crumbles before irrational human desires. Utopia has become Dystopia.

Internal Irony is the playground where metaphors serve as play elements. I propose to examine the metaphors in Lord of the Flies in the light of Wayne Booth's analysis in the Rhetoric of Irony. According to Booth, both modes, the metaphoric and the ironic, share a dynamic, volatile, unstable character. The difference between them, however, is that "the powerful shock of recognition essential to irony is secondary or muted or perhaps sometimes even non-existent in metaphor".7 Moreover, images used metaphorically evoke additional meaning; but when used ironically they create a continuum of subtraction and reversal. In Lord of the Flies the ironic potential in metaphor is released and realised in peculiarly effective ways.

Three familiar figurative clusters recur in the novel: the clothing-nakedness cluster, the cluster centered around firesight and the dominant man-animal cluster.8 These figurative clusters, being structurally related among themselves as well as to other formal elements of the novel, are theme carriers with ironic overtones. The clothing imagery is a commentary on the validity of cultural coverage; the sight imagery reflects man's attempt to comprehend the covert and concealed truth under the coverage; and the man-animal cluster relates to the problem of human nature fluctuating between animality and spirituality. The complexity inbuilt in these figurative paradigms enriches the irony of Lord of the Flies, 9 through symphonic variations and interrelations.

The clothing-nakedness cluster carries the truth-appearance theme. Clothing suggests false disguise and trickery which must be penetrated in order to disclose inner authenticity; Nakedness implies man unprotected against cosmic and human enemies, but revealed in his inner truth. In Lord of the Flies clothing is only one form of disguise, others being masks, names and attitudes towards norms and institutions. These different types of disguise serve both as protective physical measures against nature and as psychological measures to conceal man's unscrupulous drives from others and even from himself.

Each of the clusters has a covert thematic meaning, yet as a result of compositional placement this meaning is questioned, doubted and even negated. This instability produces an ironic effect. The relation of the clothing-nakedness cluster to the overall structure of the novel does not present a clear dichotomy between naked truth and false appearances; ironically, it points at the moral paradox whereby naked truth asks for covering by cultural robes because human existence is impossible in a state of total exposure. The boys stranded on the island adapt themselves to the physical conditions of the island and start shedding their clothes. They become more and more naked—stripped not only of clothes but of names, duties, rights and even memories of the adult world. By stripping down to essentials, their inner "truth" is supposed to be revealed, yet they immediately start anew the process of self covering. Here unstable irony eventuates as naked truth retreats again into false appearance.

In the first chapters of the book there is constant emphasis and elaboration concerning clothing: school-sweaters, shirts and trousers, pullovers, wind-breakers, belts and badges. Parallel to the exposure of their naked bodies, and the tearing off of both actual and mental clothes, they lay themselves more and more open to their savage drives.10 Indeed the more clothed they are, the more they turn out to be vulnerable to latent, undisciplined desires. The choir boys are rather overdressed when arriving on the island. They wear robes, caps, badges and even silver crosses, and with it the "different garments they carried in their hands". When they approach, their observers "saw that the darkness was not all shadow but mostly clothing" (p. 20). It is they, the dressed-up choir boys, who discard their clothes the most rapidly and equally rapidly approach savagery. The cultural appearance turns out indeed to be a sheer screen for their true inner nature; but the latter is hardly cheering.

Moreover, the shedding of their garments does not in fact lead to the revelation of their true nature; each stage reached calls for a further retreat, and the putting on of another type of disguise: the masks which they paint on their faces which still retain the features of humanity. It is this new disguise which helps release a brutal aggression and egotism in the process of "liberation into savagery" (p. 191).

To become truly "stripped and inimical creatures" (p. 206) they have to put on masks. In order to become "liberated from shame and self consciousness" (p. 69) they must cover their nakedness. The shedding of clothes, then, calls for further covering, and one type of disguise is, ironically, exchanged for another.

Another variation on the notion that nakedness needs coverage may be noted with regard to the Sameric twins. The twins represent the average person who conforms to existing conditions and goes along with the majority. They cling to external, socially conceived morality in whatever form it takes. Their lack of inner individual integrity is suggested by their mechanical, repetitive way of speech, as well as by their frightened, wavering behaviour. The twins do not wear masks to the very end of the story. Even when they join Jack's masked majority, Ralph observes "you two are not painted" (p. 207). Yet we know that their naked faces have certain peculiarities; their profiles are blurred and seem "to be provided with not quite enough skin" (p. 20). In this case lack of coverage appears to be a sign of incomplete individuality or identity.

Naming (identity) enters the clothing-nakedness cluster as a further element. Percival's mechanical, compulsive chanting of "name-address-telephone" which he later abandons indicates that naming has no function in the new conditions, it is merely a socially determined habit, like clothing. Jack, the only boy whose family name is mentioned and who tries to hold on to it, wondering "Why should I be Jack? I am Merridew" (p. 22), is the very one who leads the others into becoming a nameless crowd of savages. Roger, who does not disguise his sadism, is described as exercising "a nameless authority" (p. 201). Names, like clothing, enter the dialectic of disguise, concealing and revealing a naked and anonymous savage truth.

Since without names social relations are impossible, names prove to be a necessary cultural emblem both of individuality and of moral responsibility. To be nameless is to be exposed to alienation and hostility. The boys killed in the crash of the airplane are anonymous, thus their death is easily ignored; the death of the little "strawberry marked" boy, although name-less, individually "marked", draws more attention and has to be "flinched away from memory" (p. 94); the death of the boy Simon, individualized by a name, causes a constant feeling of guilt. Ralph, reporting to the officer on the number of deaths, mentions "Only two"—those named Piggy and Simon—and ignores the nameless ones. The importance of naming as a mark of personal human responsibility is part of Ralph's and Piggy's attempt to organize the children into a community. The failure of this effort at naming is part of the deterioration into savagery.

The clothing-nakedness cluster is moreover linked not only to social norms and institutions, but also to the technical and scientific achievements of the adult world outside the island. When children pray for a "sign" (p. 103) from the adult world, the message comes in the form of the dead parachutist: man wrapped up in mechanical devices aimed to save him, but ironically strangling him in his own technical inventions. Simon understands this and sees in the figure "the mechanics of this parody" (p. 161), the parody of technical achievements disguising moral nakedness. The supposedly rational and institutionalized world is in reality a "civilization that was in ruins" (p. 68), in the throes of deadly warfare. Even "rescue", in the final episode of the book, appears in the form of an overdressed and amply uniformed naval officer who represents simultaneously the accepted norms of cultural order and the insignia of the war that looms in the background.

Ralph seems to be aware of the ironic contradiction involved in the nakedness-clothing antinomy. He realizes that humanity preys on itself while disguising its cannibalism in different ways, and yet he continuously longs for clothes, names and norms. He hopes at least for a temporary "pax" as a compromise. In the process of learning "to adjust his values" (p. 85), though carefully keeping his and his followers' "faces" clean, Ralph wonders about the problem of appearance and reality: "If faces were differentlit from above or below—what was a face? What was anything?" (p. 85).

The fastest reach of this cluster is the ironic or mimetic disguise of the narrative itself. The fabula as a whole sets out wearing a mask, pretending to be a novel that will describe the good life of children on an island as a microcosm of a possible human existence. In the first episode the boys express their hope to relive a literary world on their island: "Here at last was the imagined but never fully realized place leaping into real life" (p. 16). In the last episode the officer tries to convince himself that what he witnesses is "Like the Coral Island" (p. 223). The truth revealed under the literary disguise of the Ballantynelike child Utopia is that of a sceptical, disillusioned, dystopian reality. The literary convention of the Utopian dream is exploded by a dystopian nightmare.

The second image cluster to be discussed is the sight-fire group. This cluster carries the theme of man's way of looking at the world. It seems that here, too, there is an equivocal message; on the one hand, man has the inclination and ability to bring catastrophe upon himself. On the other hand he has the potential capacity to "see" and assert the endurance of values by which the catastrophe can be understood, defined and, perhaps, confined.

The three "seeing" heroes in the novel possess different but complementary aspects of the ability to see. Piggy possesses mainly knowledge, Simon understanding, and Ralph wisdom. But each one of the above is incomplete.

Piggy, with his "flashing glasses", has a stereotyped rational approach to reality. For him "Life is scientific, that's what it is" (p. 92); he "sees" in the progressive-scientific-technical-democracy of the adult world a way of life to be imitated. His rationalistic approach to life is rigid. He does not observe changing conditions around him, but adheres stubbornly to dogmatic solutions not applicable in the here and now. Piggy's rationality is based on defective vision, on being "spectacled"—and without these "specs" he becomes completely helpless, relying solely on Ralph's more pragmatic wisdom. The theft of Piggy's glasses to kindle the fire is, ironically, reminiscent of the Promethean theft of fire (p. 161).

Simon is the boy with "eyes so bright" (p. 60); he possesses visionary insight and empathy, as his "gaze was held by that ancient, inescapable recognition" (p. 152). He is the one who sees and understands the essence of the Lord of the Flies, but his message is not recognized or accepted by others. He is considered "queer" and "funny" and, ironically, is himself mistaken twice for a beast and eventually serves as a scapegoat for others' inner fears. Simon, who understands the meaningful undercurrent of human activity, has neither the ability to communicate his understanding nor the power to bring about change.

Ralph can neither "see" like Simon nor is his vision as rational as Piggy's. He is aware of his cognitive limitations, knowing that he "can't think, not like Piggy" (p. 85). Yet his way of seeing is intelligent, observant and flexible. Seeing teaches him that man is capable of losing his essential humanity and may revert to his beastlike nature.

All three "seers" blunder when the complexity of experience becomes too overwhelming. Piggy loses his life when the reality of the hunters destroys his "specs" as well as himself. Simon is wrongly taken for a beast and killed while trying to transmit his vision about the nature of the beast. Ralph, being a leader, confronts the divergence between seeing and doing. He constantly tries to apply his value system to circumstances but he finds "himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one's waking life was spent watching one's feet" (p. 83). His effort to close the gap between values and the demands of survival causes a growing fear of insanity.11 Ralph "dreads the curtain" (p. 217) that foils his ability to comprehend the difference between good and bad. Thus the three "seeing" figures are all restricted in their vision and in their ability to interpret the phenomena of human existence. They are, as Ralph ironically summarizes: "Three blind mice" (p. 101).

The sight image is complexly clustered with the fire image. Fire, in its Promethean dimension, is the symbol of culture and rationality; it is also a natural and pragmatic source of light and heat; but here it also symbolises, dialectically, the volcanic animalism in human nature. Piggy and Ralph constantly urge that the fire be watched and preserved for their eventual "rescue" to civilization, even if this means giving up immediate gratification. Jack and the hunters, on the other hand, use the fire for hedonistic, morally myopic purposes.

The covert contradiction inherent in the image of fire as both a spiritual and poetical value creates irony. Ralph acknowledges the benefits of the material use of fire and is aware of its "double function" (p. 179), but the short range pleasure derived from fire almost makes him abandon its long range spiritual value for "rescue" and forget that there is "Something overwhelmingly good about it" (p. 180). But fire becomes simply an instrument of destruction when used by Jack and his followers.

The unstable many-sidedness and ambivalence of the sight-fire cluster becomes clear in the episodes when the "fire-smoke-rescue" sign gets out of bounds. In the first episodes the guards of the fire are diverted from their task by their hunting impulses and the fire either gets out of control, devouring the fruits of the island, or they let the fire die out, so that the passing ship does not see the rescue sign. In the last episode they indulge in the man-hunt and set fire to the island but, ironically, this is the way that leads to the rescue. This places man's ability to "see" the way to being rescued in doubt, just as the clothing-nakedness cluster threw doubt upon the regenerate nature of man.

The major theme carrier in the novel is the third, the beast-man cluster. The imagery concretizes and focuses the problem "What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?" (p. 99). The cluster progresses from the perception of similarity between man and animals, to a projection of animal qualities onto himself, to a process of increasing identification between man and beast, till the final human-beast equation.

In the first part of the novel, in which the boys still make an effort to comply with their cultural inheritance, the bestial side of human nature only lurks below the surface. Recurrent animal similes are used to signify mainly some outward physical similarity between beast and man: human shadows are "bat like" (p. 20), the boys are moving "insect-like" (p. 31) or "ape-like" (p. 53), panting "like dogs" (p. 46) and resting "like cows" (p. 58). As the boys reel into bestiality these types of simile almost disappear and the beast is recognized to be within. Animality is what emerges from under the surface, behind the coverings and disguises.

This process develops by stages. At first the slogan "We want meat" expresses simply a desire to satisfy human hunger and even the Lotus eaters are not immune to this craving. The animal is still related to as a means of physical gratification. The next stage already involves a calling forth of the inner "Beastie". This emerges when they indulge in the memories and the knowledge "that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink" (p. 76). The hunting and killing of animals becomes much more effectively intensified as aggressive and erotic emotions are projected on the animal: "the sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her" (p. 149). When they offer the sow's head as a gift for the "Beastie" the animal has ceased to be an instrument, and animality has become an end in itself. The climax of identification with bestiality is Simon's scapegoatlike sacrifice. Here their regressive drives, unconscious fears and subdued guilt feelings find an outlet on a human being whom they consider as "the beast disguised" (p. 177). Piggy's seemingly contradictory statement that "I know there isn't no beast—not with claws and all that, I mean, but I know there isn't no fear either" (p. 92) is ironically contradicted and affirmed at once as in the ritual killing of Simon, the illusory Beast, as he "…leaped on the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore. There were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws" (p. 168).

The inquiry the novel conducts into the nature of man is symbolically revealed in the image-progress which leads finally to that equation of man-beast which is epitomized in the paradigmatic Lord of the Flies. It is when their vision has penetrated beyond its veils that the direction is reversed. The supposed "Beastie" turns toward the boys and as "the creature lifted its head holding towards them the ruin of a face" (p. 136) they realize, ironically, that the beast is really a man. The equation seems to be complete: it now encompasses both the man-animal and animal-man relationship. As they succumb to their primitivism, the feared animal turns out to be themselves. The supposedly hierarchic moral order which differentiates between man and animal is catastrophically collapsed.

But the equation is not complete. Man's nature is subject to violation and apparently conquerable by chaos, yet ultimately able to understand and reassert itself. Behind the ritual scapegoating there is the figure of Simon, the compassionate "seer", the one who releases the body of the parachutist from its pathetic bondage. Simon "sees" the truth about the beast and heroically tries to deliver his message to the others. "What else is there to do?" (p. 160). The two heroic human figures, the parachutist and Simon, are those that are, ironically, constantly seen by the others as beasts. Both are unable to communicate their identity, but by their unsuccessful effort, reveal the human situation as at once "sick" and "heroic".

The three main image clusters of the novel thus reflect the irony that evolves from man's limited capacity to see through disguises and to fully recognize the ambivalence of the human situation. Ironic transformations in all three imagery clusters intimate the limitations of man's vision and the instability of his moral nature.

There are obviously many links between the internal metaphoric sources of irony and the external or circumstantial sources. Yet, it may perhaps be added that Booth's variable of "covertness" (p. 6) on which the clothing-nakedness cluster is based, is an ironic play-factor mainly referring to The Coral Island. The variable of "instability" (pp. 240-241) to be found in the sight-fire cluster shares its playground mainly with the rational-social Utopia, while the variable of "infiniteness" (pp. 253-277) exemplified in the man-animal cluster, the scope of which is no less than the coexistence in nature of good and evil, ironically plays with the hedonistic land of Cockaigne or Fools' Paradise notion.

In spite of its epistemological scepticism and its powerful realization of human depravity, the novel seems nevertheless to offer an affirmation of values. Although "the rescue" is dubious, return to adult culture is the only possibility for man who may become mature enough to grasp and use it, as Ralph hopefully will. Ralph, after his arduous experience, learns and expresses this message. Though rescued, Ralph knows that the tension between the human and the bestial cannot be resolved—and so he "wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart" (p. 223). Ralph's reflection echoes a typical twentieth century existentialist irony, which views moral problems as indeterminate if not insoluble and yet amenable to nothing other than this recognition itself.


  1. Beda Allemann, Ironie und Dichtung (Stuttgart: Neske, 1956), pp. 1-35.
  2. Görar Hermenen, "Intention and Interpretation in Literary Criticism", New Literary History, 7 (1975), p. 75.
  3. For a comparison between the two works see Stephen Medcalf, William Golding (London: Longmans, 1975) and Carl Niemeyer, "The Coral Island Revisited", College English, XXII (1961), pp. 241-245.
  4. Darko Suvin, "Defining the Literary Genre of Utopia: Some Historical Semantics, Some Genology, A Proposal and a Plea", Studies in the Literary Imagination, 6 (1973), pp. 121-145.
  5. Northrop Frye, "Varieties of Literary Utopias" Daedalus 94 (1965), p. 223-247.
  6. For the development of the "Wild Man" image in western civilization and literature see Hayden White, "The Forms of Wildness: Archaeology of an Idea" The Wild Man Within, eds. E. Dudley and M.E. Novak (Pittsburgh; University of Pittsburgh Press, 1972), p. 298 (passim).
  7. Wayne C. Booth, A Rhetoric of Irony (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 22.
  8. For archetypal aspects of these symbols see Carl G. Jung, Symbols der Wandlung (Zürich: Rascher, 1952), pp. 297, 567 ("pig"); pp. 300, 452, 728-729 ("animal"); pp. 40-41, 182, 222, 737 ("fire") and Man and his Symbols (London: Aldus Books, 1964), pp. 45, 236-238 ("masks"); p. 207 ("Animals" as symbol of self); pp. 282-283 ("pig"); p. 78 ("fire"). See also: J.E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1971) and Roy Willis, Man and Beast (New York: Basic Books, 1974).
  9. A discussion of the symbolism in Lord of the Flies from a philosophical point of view can be found in Ralph Freedman, "The New Realism: The Fancy of William Golding", Perspective 10 (1958), pp. 118-128.
  10. For the mimetic aspect of "clothing" see Mark Kinkead—Weekes and Jan Gregor, William Golding (London: Faber, 1967), pp. 15-67.
  11. This probing of the limits of Human endurance facing moral disintegration is reminiscent of King Lear. The three discussed image clusters of fire/sight, clothing and man/animal also appear in King Lear. The range and depth of the poetic vision of the two works is very different, yet the recurrent imagery shows some similarity between the two works. John Peter, "The Fables of William Golding", Kenyon Review, Vol. XIX (1957), pp. 577-592. mentions Golding's references to King Lear, both explicit and implicit, in his novel Pincher Martin.

Bernard F. Dick (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Dick, Bernard F. "The Anarchy Within." In William Golding, pp. 6-29. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1987.

[In the following essay, Dick provides a analysis of the novel including its place in Golding's body of work, the influence of on him of Euripides Bacchae and R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, and status of Lord of the Flies as a modern classic.]

Barefoot Boys

In 1857 Ballantyne published The Coral Island, something of a children's classic in England, in which three boys are shipwrecked on an unidentified Pacific island—Ralph Rover, the fifteen-year-old narrator; Jack Martin, "a tall, strapping broad-shouldered youth of eighteen, with a handsome, good-humoured, firm face"; and Peterkin Gay, "little, quick, funny, decidedly mischievous, and about fourteen years old."1 The lads live in "uninterrupted harmony and happiness," presumably without the aftereffects of original sin, although faint, post-lapsarian rumblings can be heard in some of their activities, especially in Peterkin's butchery of an old sow to get leather for "future" shoes. These intimations of mortality are muted, however, since Victorian schoolboys do not kill for pleasure. Cannibals are also encountered, but heathen bloodletting can be overlooked. At the end of the novel, just as the boys think they will be devoured by savages, they are released into the hands of their deus-ex-machina teacher who announces that "through the great goodness of God you are free!" (310). The natives embrace Christianity, and all is well.

To a generation that has witnessed two world wars, Ballantyne's resolution is laughable. One is tempted to repeat Judge Brack's feeble reaction to Hedda Gabbler's suicide, "People don't do things like that," and to consign The Coral Island to the bedtime reading of the very young, the very old, or historians of ideas.

Golding clearly intended Lord of the Flies (1954) as a realist's answer to The Coral Island: "You see, really, I'm getting at myself in this [novel]. What I'm saying to myself is, 'Don't be such a fool, you remember when you were a boy, a small boy, how you lived on that island with Ralph and Jack and Peterkin.… Now you are grown up, you are adult; it's taken you a long time to become adult, but now you've got there you can see that people are not like that; they would not behave like that if … they went to an island like that."2

Golding's protagonists are also named Ralph and Jack; Peterkin becomes the overweight Piggy. Simon is an independent creation, although Golding for some unknown reason has claimed that Simon was inspired by Peterkin, perhaps meaning that the name of Peterkin evoked that of Simon Peter of the New Testament—two names deriving from one. Along with an indeterminate number of other boys ranging in age from six to twelve, they are abandoned on a South Sea island after being evacuated from Britain during a nuclear war. Like the Ballantyne trio, they also hunt pigs; but none of the Victorian boys would ever have sodomized the animal with a spear, since sexual defilement is apparently a vice peculiar to the post-Ballantyne age. Moreover, there is no "uninterrupted harmony and happiness" on Golding's coral island; the rules that Ralph thought would transform the motley group into a model utopia are irrevocably broken when the desire to hunt supersedes the need for a continually burning fire, shelter, and sanitation. The hunters don war paint, killing or absorbing all the others except Ralph who, in his refusal to revert to savagery, becomes a pariah, and is hunted down and smoked out of hiding. Fortunately, a navy cruiser spots the smoke, and Ralph and the remnants of the group are rescued after their initiation into adulthood.

Lord of the Flies introduces a structural principle that has become Golding's hallmark—a polarity expressed in terms of a moral tension: the rational (fire-watchers) pitted against the irrational (hunters) in Lord of the Flies ; one species destroyed and supplanted by another that is supposedly fitter (The Inheritors ) ; fallen humanity defying God (Pincher Martin ) ; science at odds with humanism (Free Fall ) ; the vision versus the reality (The Spire ) ; the mystic juxtaposed with the nihilist (Darkness Visible ) ; the classical sensibility giving way to the romantic (Rites of Passage ) ; the creative writer pursued by the academic hack (The Paper Men ).

Although the polarity is moral, the resolution is literary. Golding expresses his moral vision through traditional literary themes (odyssey, quest, journey to self-knowledge) and characters (castaways, over-reachers, repressed clergymen, writer-celebrities), incorporating them into a narrative that ends conventionally (rescue, fulfillment, death, anagnorisis), if disturbingly. In Lord of the Flies Golding starts from what might be called the "island premise." All island literature is essentially similar in the sense that cast-aways can live either in harmony or anarchy. And like all drama, island literature is potentially tragic or comic, depending upon the author's vision. The "abandoned child" theme can produce Sophocles' Oedipus the King or Oscar Wilde's Importance of Being Earnest; the theme of the individual challenging authority can result in Sophocles' Antigone or Garson Kanin's Born Yesterday; each, whether tragedy or comedy, is a valid elaboration of an archetypal situation. Since there is tragic potential in the comic, and seeds of comedy in the tragic, it is the author who determines the outcome. Ballantyne chose order; Golding chaos.

Island literature usually depicts three types of characters—children (The Coral Island), adults (Robinson Crusoe), or a combination (The Swiss Family Robinson). Following his source, Golding adheres to the first. As a novelist, he must offer some explanation for the absence of adults: "He [the pilot] must have flown off after he dropped us."3 Thus far there is nothing unique about the situation except for the peculiarly modern use of a nuclear war to account for the evacuation.

The next events follow directly from the island premise. Piggy discovers a seashell ("the conch"), which Ralph uses as a trumpet to summon the others who are dispersed throughout the island. Last to appear is "something dark"; the amorphous blackness becomes an "it," then a "creature," and finally a party of boys—Jack Merridew and his choir. Jack immediately reveals his impatience with talk, asserting his claim to be chief because he was chapter chorister. It is Ralph, however, who wins, and the society splits into two halves: the fire-watchers and the choir turned hunters. From this point on, the plot can take only one course. Golding has imposed his own template on The Coral Island, and the lines zigzag, refusing to coincide with Ballantyne's.

The factionalized society in Lord of the Flies is not so much a case of antithesis as of polarization. Ralph seems to be the hero, although a close reading can prove otherwise. At the beginning, however, he has heroic potential. Ralph is fair-haired, with "a mildness … that proclaimed no devil." Jack, on the other hand, is satanic; his hair is red (a color often associated with Old Nick), he is dressed in black, and his eyes stare ahead. Furthermore, he is ugly and prone to anger. Jack is hardly the "handsome, good-humoured" lad he was in his Victorian incarnation.

An unspoken animosity stemming from their opposite natures arises between the two boys; it manifests itself in impatience, angry outbursts followed by sullen silence, and occasional attempts at coalescence. But these are only temporary solutions to an antagonism so ancient that neither Ralph nor Jack can fathom it. Later, Ralph asks the inevitable question "Why do you hate me?" There is no answer; there can be none with adolescents who do not realize they are embodiments of forces they do not understand, much less can name. Having read neither the Greeks nor Nietzsche, they do not know they are the embodiments of the Apollonian and the Dionysian, respectively.

Two Worlds, Two Wisdoms

During his self-imposed exile from contemporary life, Golding immersed himself in Greek literature, devoting a considerable amount of time to studying E. R. Dodds's edition of Euripides' Bacchae.4 The Bacchae is a landmark of Greek tragedy; to paraphrase Pope, to know the Bacchae is to know the Greeks; and to know it in Dodds's edition with its detailed introduction and exhaustive notes is to know it as thoroughly as any contemporary can.

The Bacchae, probably Euripides' last play and the most complex of the Greek tragedies, dramatizes the impact of the worship of Dionysus on the city of Thebes. To the ancient Greeks, Dionysus was the god of animal potency, the mythological incarnation of the life principle; it was Dionysus who gave life to plant, animal, and human. He could inspire his votaries to frenzy, perhaps even to human sacrifice. Dionysus symbolizes the elemental in animal and human nature; as such, he cannot be ignored, for to inhibit emotional expression is to deny humankind a natural form of worship. Dionysus can be gentle when he is propitiated, but when he is rejected, he exacts a terrible vengeance. His opposite is Apollo, who personifies the civilizing arts—healing, poetry, music, law, and order. Identified with light, he illuminates rather than beclouds the mind.

In The Birth of Tragedy out of the Spirit of Music, Friedrich Nietzsche made his famous distinction between the Apollonian and the Dionysian, attributing all art to the tension and interplay between these forces. Initially, Apollo and Dionysus are at odds with each other; Apollo represents the god in humankind, Dionysus the brute. Apollo favors the individual; Dionysus appeals to the group. Apollo invites us to enter a dream world, like Homer's Olympus, where we can find refuge from reality. Dionysus, on the other hand, pulls away the veil of illusion, revealing the world as it is in all its savagery. Ultimately, the Apollonian manages to master the Dionysian so that art is able to assume some form and order; yet at the center of all great art is Dionysian wisdom, knowledge bred of suffering. At the beginning of The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche tries to be impartial, yet it is obvious that he favors the Dionysian; without the Dionysian, real art, tragic art (to Nietzsche, the highest form) is impossible. While no art form is exclusively Apollonian or Dionysian, Nietzsche considers some predominately Apollonian (epic, painting, sculpture, pre-Wagnerian opera) and others largely Dionysian (music, lyric poetry, tragedy, Wagnerian opera). He concedes that in tragedy Apollo provides the form, but it is Dionysus who provides the content.

Lord of the Flies can be read in the light of the Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy. In fact, this interpretation has been standard ever since Golding declared his debt to Greek tragedy, especially to the Bacchae, in which Euripides immortalized the age-old conflict between mind and heart, reason and emotion, showing that the way up and down is not the same, as Heraclitus believed, but rather that both paths must continually cross without superseding each other.5 In the Bacchae, Pentheus, king of Thebes, is rooted in a frigid intellectualism that does not allow for the irrational. When the worship of Dionysus sweeps through the country, claiming Pentheus's mother, Agave, and the high priest Teiresias as followers (not to mention Cadmus, the city's founder), Pentheus is still unyielding; he refuses to acknowledge the new religion, even though Cadmus and Teiresias caution him that he must at least give it a hearing. Dionysus himself warns Pentheus; in a startling scene the god appears before him as a bull, one of the animal forms in which Dionysus was worshiped. Pentheus can only gape at the metamorphosis, unaware that he is in the presence of the god he is persecuting. When Dionysus induces Pentheus to observe the Bacchants at worship, he suggests that Pentheus wear women's clothes to escape detection. It is a logical suggestion; Dionysus's chief votaries are women, and male worshipers are expected to wear the fawnskin and carry the ivy-garlanded thyrsus. At the height of the ritual, Dionysus reveals the presence of Pentheus, who is observing from high up in a fir tree. Goaded by a frenzy that makes them oblivious to moral laws, the women hunt him down and dismember him. Triumphant, Agave, still under the Dionysian influence and thinking that she holds the head of a lion (another of Dionysus's sacred animals), appears with her son's head on a thyrsus. Although there is a break in the text at verse 1329, it is clear from the plot summary attached to certain manuscripts and from the final scene, that Dionysus appeared at the end of the play and banished Agave from her native Thebes.

Both Lord of the Flies and the Bacchae portray a bipolar society in which the Apollonian refuses or is unable to assimilate the Dionysian. Just as Pentheus's refusal to admit Dionysian worship polarizes Thebes, Ralph's inability to understand the hunters, whose Dionysian character is underscored by their being black-clad choristers, polarizes the island. Both drama and novel contain three interrelated ritual themes: the cult of a beast-god, a hunt as prefiguration of the death of a scapegoat-figure, and the dismemberment of the scapegoat. Golding deviates from Euripides in only one respect. Logically, Ralph, the Pentheus figure, should be the scapegoat; but Golding assigns this role to Simon, one of the choristers, who has clairvoyant powers. Ralph is allowed to live with his newfound knowledge of "the darkness of man's heart." Otherwise Golding has adhered to the ritual pattern of agon or struggle between king and rival (Pentheus and Dionysus, Ralph and Jack), pathos or suffering (Pentheus, Ralph), and sparagmos or dismemberment (Pentheus, Simon, replacing Ralph, as scapegoat).

The Boy Bacchants

Euripides depicts a Dionysus who retains the original characteristics of a beast deity incarnate in the form of bulls, lions, wild goats, and fawns. Since these animals were regarded as habitations of the god, they were often torn apart by the Bacchants, who would eat their flesh to achieve communion with Dionysus. As human and animal, Dionysus is both hunter and hunted. Thus beast-hunt imagery pervades the Bacchae (verses 101, 137, 436, 920, 1017, 1188 ff.). In Lord of the Flies the obsession with the hunt transforms the hunters into a group that functions conjointly but without personal identity; they had "the throb and stamp of a single organism." Their choral refrain " Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! " suggests the "hunt, kill, prey" of the Bacchae. In the drama, Pentheus's death is prefigured by the Bacchants' attack on a herd of cattle that they dismember. In Lord of the Flies the wanton killing of a sow prefigures the death of Simon. The sow's head is impaled on a stick (a reminiscence of Pentheus's head on the thyrsus) and is offered as a trophy to the imaginary beast the boys believe is lurking on the island. When Simon accidentally interrupts the reenactment of the pig hunt, he is mistaken for the beast and killed; when the Bacchants spot Pentheus in the fir tree, they drag him down under the delusion that he is the beast and then dismember him.

Both Pentheus and Simon are pitted against elemental forces that are their direct opposites. Pentheus alone sees Dionysus in animal shape, but he can neither recognize the god nor understand that his own intellectualism must be complemented by irrational yet necessary passions. Only Simon hears the cynical message of the "Lord of the Flies," the spirit of evil personified by the pig's head, assuring Simon that "everything was a bad business." Although Simon is an epileptic whom even Ralph considers "cracked" and whose seizures annoy Jack, he could have explained to the group—had he lived—about a natural proclivity to evil that can subvert harmony and order. Pentheus dies ignorant of his nature and that of humankind; Simon dies with a knowledge that he can never articulate.

Another point of similarity between Euripides and Golding is the deus-ex-machina ending of both works. At the end of the Bacchae, Dionysus appears to foretell the fortunes of all. A more human epiphany occurs at the end of the novel when a naval officer comes to the rescue, thereby resolving the action. In view of the previous bloodshed, however, Golding's ending is as ironic as Euripides'; it is also less obvious. Euripides' ending is a deus ex machina in the literal sense of the god's descending from a crane, but not in the conventional sense of outside intervention in order to resolve the plot. In the Poetics, Aristotle allowed for such an ending if the action could not be resolved in any other way. The Bacchae, however, does not involve outside intervention because Dionysus is not outside the action; he is very much a part of it. In fact, he is a character in his own play. The naval officer is external to the action; he is a deus ex machina like Heracles in Sophocles' Philoctetes or Apollo in Euripides' Orestes, neither of whom appears until the end.

In Philoctetes and Orestes, mortals have allowed the action to get so out of hand that divine intervention is necessary. But so have the boys in Lord of the Flies; hence the "god from the machine." Although Golding called his own ending a "gimmick,"6 thus introducing a word that would plague him, his "gimmick" is certainly as legitimate as the one in Bertolt Brecht's Three Penny Opera, in which the Victorious Messenger arrives just in time to save Macheath from the gallows, although in Brecht's play the audience is warned that real-life messengers are rare.

Like Brecht, Golding has a reason for using an exmachina ending. First, he wishes to parody Ballantyne's ending of The Coral Island, which is true gimmickry; second, he wishes to capture the uneasiness the Greeks must have felt in watching the Bacchae when that play, which was unfolding logically, suddenly took its irrational turn. Readers disturbed by Golding's ending might find comfort in knowing that the Greeks found Euripides' sense of denouement equally discomfiting: "I have always felt that the Athenians must have been deeply shocked by the deus ex machina. Here they had been watching a play with a beginning, a middle, and instead of an ending, one has a god coming down resolving everything."7

A Dionysian Is Made As Well As Born

Among the many instances of Golding's debt to Euripides is his reproduction of the Dionysian-Apollonian agon which, like that in the Bacchae, is depicted as a clash not so much of wills as of extremes. The Bacchae is an account of a Dionysian worship whose excesses are seen not as the result of ecstasy or orgiastic ritual but as a reaction to Apollonian intolerance. In the prologue, Dionysus makes it clear that he is punishing Thebes for growing so enlightened (no doubt because of Pentheus's rationalism) that it has denied his divinity by refusing to recognize his mother, Semele, as Zeus's consort. To vindicate his godhead as well as his mother's honor, Dionysus adopts a course of action—mass conversion—that will leave no doubt as to his parentage.

Although Dionysus is an alien god whose worship began in Asia Minor before spreading to Greece, he insists on his due. So does Jack Merridew in Lord of the Flies, and precisely because he comes from an alien tradition. What sets Jack apart from the others is his educational background: Jack comes from a cathedral school where he was a prefect and probably a scholarship student, which his being chapter chorister seems to suggest. Just as the Bacchants had their distinctive attire (fawnskin, thyrsus), Jack and his choristers wear black caps with silver badges and black cloaks emblazoned with silver crosses. Since Jack considers himself unique, he demands to be chief, claiming among his other attributes that he can sing C-sharp. Thus he appears to be a true son of Dionysus, who favored song over speech. Unlike the others who use first names, Jack introduces himself by his last name, thus disassociating himself from Apollonian individuation in favor of Dionysian group identity.

Like Euripides, Golding implies that a moderate Dionysianism can be beneficial to society while an immoderate Apollonianism can be fatal. Ralph is an incipient Pentheus, rational but immature. Pentheus ridicules Dionysus for his long hair, which he cuts to make the god conform to the Greek ideal of manhood. While Pentheus's immaturity is that of a book-burner and witch-hunter, Ralph's is that of an adolescent. Ralph squeals with glee and turns somersaults; he calls his friend, whose real name he never attempts to learn, "Piggy," although he knows how much the boy hates it. Both Pentheus and Ralph are obsessed with what is "good"; Ralph applies the term to almost everything including the island ("it's a good island"). Since Ralph claims to possess "the good," he can legislate for those who lack it. While both Pentheus and Ralph claim to be natural rulers, neither offers much proof of leadership. Dionysus does all but admit who he is to Pentheus, even causing an earthquake and staging a prison escape; still, Pentheus does not recognize him. Ralph thinks he is on an island; Piggy knows he is on one. Ralph has no idea what the conch is; he thinks it is a stone. Piggy corrects him and shows him how to use it. Had Piggy been slimmer and not afflicted with asthma and myopia, he might have been elected chief.

Initially, Jack seems far more qualified to govern than Ralph. First, he is more logical. He does not "think" he is on an island; he tries to determine whether the place on which he has landed is completely surrounded by water. When Ralph wonders if the tracks on the island were made by humans, Jack must tell him they were made by animals. Jack is just as concerned about being rescued as Ralph; he also agrees on the need for rules. When Ralph proposes they build a fire to attract any ships that might be in the vicinity, Jack shouts approval. Yet neither Ralph nor Jack knows how to make a fire; each is embarrassed at being unable to provide what the situation requires. At least Jack does not ask if anyone has a match, as Ralph does. Jack also knows how a fire can be started: by using Piggy's specs as a burning glass.

By having Jack discover how to create fire, Golding deepens the nature of the agon: it is not only a clash between the Apollonian and the Dionysian but between the true and the false Prometheus. Jack, not Ralph, is the real Prometheus, the true fire-bearer. The dark god becomes the culture hero. The mythic inversion is ingenious, especially if one remembers that "Prometheus" literally means "Forethought."

A similar inversion occurs in the case of Piggy's glasses. On one level, the glasses are a symbol of political insight. As an inadequate leader, Ralph depends on Piggy's judgment. Like the other relationships in the novel, theirs also is paradoxical. Ralph must "see" through eyes that themselves need corrective lenses. Although Piggy's vision is imperfect, even with glasses, it is all Ralph has. While the lenses remain intact, Ralph can at least go through the motions of statesmanship; but the smashing of one of the lenses diminishes Piggy's effectiveness, and the theft of the other by the hunters renders Piggy useless and Ralph helpless.

On another, equally complex level, the glasses are a means of creating fire to which Ralph assigns an Apollonian function: rescue/reason, in the sense that reason must prevail if rescue is to come. Jack takes a more pragmatic view of fire; while he is the first to agree that rules are necessary and is willing to have part of the choir act as fire-watchers, he also regards fire as a means of roasting meat. Ralph seems oblivious to the cooking properties of fire; he would have everyone eat fruit, with an occasional crab, even though fruit causes diarrhea. Yet even Ralph succumbs to the temptation: twice he eats the meat that the hunters have cooked. When Ralph castigates the others for defecting because they wanted meat, Jack must remind him that he has a bone in his hand. The Dionysian can be even more perceptive than the Apollonian.

In Golding's fiction, just when one meaning seems to have been established, another arises to compete with it; just as one paradox is resolved, another takes its place; just as the ultimate irony seems to have been reached, it is no longer ultimate. For example, if fire symbolizes civilization, as well as the means of returning to it, rescue is in vain because civilization is in the process of being destroyed. Moreover, fire may be an Apollonian symbol of rescue, but a Dionysian has made rescue possible by using fire to smoke Ralph out of hiding, thereby accomplishing what Ralph could not: to attract a passing ship. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of fire is that it is not a "small" Apollonian fire, the kind Piggy wanted, that effects the rescue; and it is not the fire on the mountain that Ralph wanted (and that, under the circumstances, would have been futile). It is a vast Dionysian fire, one that sets the jungle ablaze; only a fire raging out of control could generate enough smoke to attract attention.

Self-multiplying ambivalence is the way Golding has chosen to illustrate his theory of evil. Although evil is indigenous to the species and impervious even to the waters of baptism, it remains dormant until the right set of circumstances activates it. Just when one thinks reason will prevent evil from occurring, reason breaks down because those supposedly endowed with it either fail to exercise it or are not as rational as they seemed to be. Yet Golding is not really a fatalist, much less a Calvinist or an exponent of the Heidelberg Catechism. Fate and free will coexist in his universe. Evil is bound to erupt, but it requires, like T. S. Eliot's objective correlative, an event or a situation to precipitate it; a situation that humans cause themselves and for which there is a human explanation.

The crucial event in Lord of the Flies is not Jack's losing the election; that would be too easy. Jack's defeat did not turn him from a potential Apollonian into an incorrigible Dionysian. Jack lost the election because his manner alienated the others, who perceived him as a martinet or as a prefect who might bully them as their prefects had in school. They thought that Jack would also call them by their surnames as their teachers did. Ralph is less threatening; he can sound like an adult yet act like a child, insisting on rules as well as on having fun.

Interestingly, Jack is gracious in defeat; he is even cooperative. In a rare moment of magnanimity, Ralph asks Jack what role he wants to play in the newly formed society. Jack immediately chooses the role of hunter for himself and the choir; it is a wise decision since the boys need something to eat besides fruit. Jack sees an opportunity for himself and his choir to perform a meaningful function: they will kill pigs and provide the community with meat. What Jack does not know, however, is that Ralph regards the hunter as an inferior. Although Ralph has given Jack his choice of role, he determines how Jack will play it. By downgrading the hunter, Ralph exalts himself, thereby becoming a Pentheus and forcing the choir to become Dionysians.

Learning the Part

Becoming a Dionysian is a gradual process. There are times when the Dionysian seems so accommodating that coalescence appears possible. Ralph and Jack smile at each other when Ralph asks Jack his preference; they smile at each other again while gathering wood. But smiles are deceptive as well as evanescent. Ralph smiles at Simon when the latter predicts his rescue, but it is the smile of one whose spirits have been elevated. That the one who elevated them is "cracked" is irrelevant. There are also moments when some of the Dionysian rubs off on the Apollonian. After his encounter with a charging boar, Ralph participates in the reenactment of the incident, becoming so caught up in the drama that "the desire to squeeze and hurt was over-mastering" (142). Jack and Ralph are doubles, a favorite Golding device in which one character is the reverse of the other and the extreme opposite in terms of qualities. What they have in common is a plan for survival and an ability to take control of a situation, although in both respects Jack has an edge on Ralph. What causes the rift between them, and what widens the rift into an abyss, is Ralph's monolithic view of fire, which adumbrates his relationship with Jack. By limiting the function of fire to rescue and by regarding it as a panacea, Ralph excludes all other possibilities for its use. When Jack tries to tell Ralph about the dark urges he experiences while hunting, Ralph admonishes him not to forget the fire; "You and your fire!" is Jack's frustrated retort.

Gradually, ineluctably, Ralph is turning Jack into a Dionysian. Although Jack chooses the role of hunter, Ralph makes him live the part, not realizing that the myth requires the hunter also to be the hunted; just as the hunter stalks his prey, Dionysus stalks the hunter. Jack tries to explain this paradox to Ralph, who is too preoccupied with the fire to care: "'If you're hunting sometimes you catch yourself feeling as if—' He [Jack] flushed suddenly. 'There's nothing in it of course. Just a feeling. But you can feel as if you're not hunting, but—being hunted; as if something's behind you all the time in the jungle.… Ralph looked at him critically through his tangle of fair hair. 'So long as you and your hunters remember the fire—'" (67-68).

The hunter is a role Jack can play, although he must grow into it; he is not typecast. The first time Jack sees a pig, he is unable to kill it. Since Ralph is both director and writer of his utopian scenario, he criticizes Jack's performance: "You should stick a pig.… They always talk about sticking a pig." As the son of a naval commander, Ralph apparently heard about pig-sticking in colonial India. Pigsticking was the equivalent of bear-baiting, if one is to believe Noel Coward, who, in one of his songs, told of the Briton who "took to pig-sticking / in quite the wrong way." Barry England dramatized the wrong way in his drama Conduct Unbecoming, in which a group of officers, for whom pig-sticking was subliminated sodomy, attempted the same with a woman.

A pig is slain in Lord of the Flies; it is also sodomized with a pointed stick. Again, and this is something that can only be appreciated in retrospect, Golding is implying that anyone can take to pig-sticking in the wrong way. Even the British empire has its dark side, which is suddenly, and tragically, illuminated when one of the boys calls for the sow's degradation: "Right up her ass!" (168).

As repellent as the incident is, it is still a scene in a drama that originated with Ralph, except now the plot has gotten out of hand. None of the boys is a natural pig-sticker any more than a natural murderer. If there is a defect in the species, in the fullness of time and under the proper circumstances, it will be revealed. Golding is quite clear on this point; he is not caught on the horns of the nature-versus-nurture dilemma, because he believes that nature is defective, and therefore everything associated with it, including its institutions, is defective also. Within the child are the seeds of evil that will eventually flower.

In Lord of the Flies, however, it is a child who waters the dark bloom and brings another's evil to blossom. Although Jack chose the role of hunter, Ralph specifies how he will play it: as Dionysian hunter. That particular role is foreign to Jack; he must rehearse it. Jack goes down on all fours, "his nose only a few inches from the humid earth" (61). He practices crouching, slithering, crawling; yet still he has not learned the part. What forces him to master the role and then play it to the hilt is Ralph's refusal to forgive him and the hunters for letting the fire go out. Ralph, on the other hand, cannot master his role because it is beyond his capabilities; he might be the president of a school club but not the governor of an island. Ralph could possibly command a ship, like his father; but an island is not a ship, only a microcosmic ship of state, of which Ralph proves a poor captain.

Ralph also does not seem to like his role. In a telling moment, when both boys are on the verge of speaking openly, Ralph blurts out: "You want to hunt! While I—" (69). Ralph is insecure in his part, and the reason, Golding intimates, is that he is neither qualified for, nor suited to, it. It is also a role for which his class has not prepared him.

Class Consciousness on Coral Island

Golding has often remarked that, among other things, Lord of the Flies is about British society and particularly about class structure.8 Like other interpretations, this one must be extricated from a narrative that has been skillfully woven. Although Golding tells the reader virtually nothing about most of the boys, he does provide—comparatively, at least—a good deal of background information about Ralph. We know, for instance, that he was a naval officer's son; Jack's parentage, on the other hand, is unknown. In a significant and usually ignored episode in chapter 7, Ralph dreams about the Dartmoor cottage where he lived with his parents. The cottage is especially meaningful to him because it was his last real home, after which his father's reassignments resulted in continual relocation. Even at twelve, Ralph can recall "a succession of homes." The Dartmoor cottage is doubly significant because "mummy had still been with them and Daddy had come home every day." Clearly, after Ralph had been packed off to school, Mummy was no longer with them, and Daddy did not come home every day since there was apparently no home to come to. Constant uprooting produced in Ralph a desire for stability and a need to stay in one place; hence he restricts the boys to the shore. His father instilled in him a sense of regimentation and a respect for order; hence he insists not on rules but on "more rules." More than what, one might ask, since Ralph has not yet formulated any rules. Ralph thinks in terms of excess: not rules, but more rules because one cannot get enough of them. His vaulting Apollonianism is even more evident when he calls for "more wood" for the fire which then proceeds to burn out of control. Ideally, Ralph should be a skipper where his sphere of influence would be limited to the confines of the vessel, and his penchant for assigning tasks and restricting activity might pass for maritime ability.

It is not coincidental that the island is boat-shaped: "it was roughly boat-shaped, humped near this end with behind them the humbled descent to the shore" (38). In a later and more intricate novel, Rites of Passage, Golding uses a ship, on which a white line separates the afterdeck from the quarterdeck, as a microcosm of British society. Even when he was writing Lord of the Flies, Golding was thinking of a ship as a metaphor of social stratification where the "class" in which one chooses to travel is dependent on one's social and economic background. Ralph behaves like a first-class passenger; because he feels superior to Piggy, whose parents are dead and whose aunt owns a candy store, he can order him about ("Get my clothes," he demands). Because Ralph attaches no importance to being a chorister or a prefect, he can be intolerant of Jack.

Ralph even extends his notions of class consciousness to the island which, topographically, lends itself to stratification. Ralph favors the shore; the hunters, the jungle. Once the boys discover that the peninsula is a natural fortress, they take possession of it and dub it Castle Rock. By the end of the novel, the entire island has been polarized, from the Apollonian shore to the Dionysian tip.

Although it may seem that Golding has grafted the class-consciousness theme onto the novel, it should be remembered that the same theme appeared in one of his sources. In the Bacchae, Euripides emphasizes that one of the most appealing features of Dionysian worship is its leveling of all distinctions. Dionysus is egalitarian; his appeal is to the masses. Apollo is elitist, and so is Ralph. Apollo was served by priests and priestesses. Similarly, Ralph requires a cabinet, yet it consists of one person—Piggy—whom he takes on as advisor. He ignores Jack who would have made a splendid defense minister. Simon could have been spiritual leader/high priest, but he is "batty" and "cracked." Furthermore, Simon cannot articulate his insights in the kind of direct speech Ralph requires.

Golding's island is a dystopia in which the classes do not cooperate for the common good. Instead of being chief of state, Ralph devolves into a minister of sanitation, preoccupied with shelter and exasperated by the boys' indifference to hygiene. Instead of being a defense minister, Jack reverts to a tribal warrior, emulating King Kong and Tarzan. Instead of being a peacemaker, Simon withdraws to a secluded part of the island inhabited by butterflies. It may be a fitting place for one so spiritual, since the Greek word for spirit, psyche, means both soul and butterfly. Ascetic withdrawal, however, accomplishes nothing when a world is in chaos. Yet this is Golding's point: evil is so endemic that its effects are everywhere, even in the actions of the good; we are on a good island, but it is an island where a leader cannot achieve the good by creating harmony among the classes. Thus Ralph, Piggy, Jack, and Simon go their own ways, along with what they symbolize. Piggy realizes Ralph's limitations as a leader and votes for him with reluctance. Piggy cannot function as a prime minister because he cannot help Ralph remove the one obstacle that stands in the way of unity: his antagonism toward Jack. But the main reason why Piggy cannot help Ralph is that Piggy himself is part of the problem. Jack loathes Piggy for his prissiness and for Ralph's reliance on him; from Jack's point of view, he is the one on whom Ralph should rely. Ideally, a dyarchy should have been established, but that would have been impossible since Ralph wanted to be chief. One would think Simon might have been able to help; as a chorister, he is part of Jack's world and should understand the sense of oneness that grows out of choral song. Simon, however, prefers solitude and Ralph's company to Jack's—understandably, since Jack has little patience with him and finds his fainting spells wearisome. There can therefore be no moral resolution, only a literary one—a deus ex machina; the situation has moved out of human bounds into the domain of the deity who alone can end the war between spirit and matter.

Beelzebub, Prince of Devils

Eventually, one must confront the meaning of the title which, like all of Golding's symbolism, derives from the narrative itself. "Lord of the Flies" is a translation of Beelzebub, the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew Ba'alzevuv, which in Judaism and Christianity denotes the principle of evil personified: the Devil, Satan, Mephistopheles. Golding equates the Lord of the Flies with the demonic force latent in humankind, a force so hideous, he notes, that fly-covered excrement would best represent it.

Evil is also an abstraction; it is a privation, the absence of the good. A novel, even an allegorical one, cannot portray abstraction. Thus Golding embodies evil in something concrete—in an animal's head swarming with flies. First the "littluns" insist a beast is lurking on the island. Ralph, Jack, and Simon consider their fears groundless, the product of their fitful imaginations. But when a dead paratrooper lands on the mountain top, bobbing up and down like a grotesque puppet, even Jack is forced to revise his opinion, thinking that the corpse is the beast, or rather a manifestation of the beast that, like Dionysus, can assume different forms. The boys can do nothing about the corpse-beast since they are afraid of approaching it; but they can try to appease it. Since they conceive of the beast as an animal, they make an animal offering to it; since pigs are plentiful on the island, their choice of offering has been made for them. This pig, however, is different from the first one that was slain: this pig is female. The attack has overtones of rape; the slaying culminates in defilement and decapitation.

In chapter 8, the hunters spot a sow and her young. The heat of the afternoon acts as an erotic stimulant; the animal's being female is an incentive for a rape-like assault; its being a mother is an invitation to perversity. The sow's screams intensify their desires the way the cries of a rape victim may excite a rapist instead of deterring him. The boys become "wedded to [the sow] in lust," with Jack becoming the chief bridegroom. While the others jab at the sow, Jack mounts her, "stabbing downward with his knife." Whether or not this is an oedipal wedding night, as one critic described it,9 is debatable. It is, however, bestiality that stops short of intercourse—a stick driven into the sow's anus substituting for penetration. It is also scapegoating; an animal becomes an outlet for desires previously repressed but now unleashed upon a creature that cannot retaliate.

Dark of the Moon

As a classicist, Golding was familiar with Robert Graves's White Goddess, one of the most important studies of the mythmaking process ever written and one that is especially relevant to a discussion of Lord of the Flies. The White Goddess is the personification of the female in all her aspects, contradictory as they may be: maiden/crone, regenerator/destroyer, virgin/whore, human/animal. She was worshiped in a variety of forms, including the moon, and could even transform herself into animals such as the sow; hence the pig was sacred to the White Goddess. Understood as an avatar of the goddess, the sow in Lord of the Flies symbolizes both matriarchy and maternalism. Her presence has a negative effect on the boys who regard the sight of a mother with her young not as an image of domestic harmony but as a threat to their freedom. The sow suggests family, without which society, culture, and civilization are impossible. But family and all it represents is precisely what the boys have rejected, and anything that evokes the familial is repugnant to them, because they have chosen anarchy. They also associate family with Ralph, who tries to unite them, who imposes rules, and who preaches right and wrong. Ralph, then, is no different from the sow; everything he stands for—order, work, reprimands—has maternal overtones. Thus when the hunters declare Ralph an outlaw, Roger, Jack's sadistic lieutenant, sharpens a stick at both ends, planning to inflict the sow's fate on Ralph. And if the sow's death is paradigmatic, Ralph's death would also have included ritual sodomization as a fitting punishment for men who implement feminine values.

Since the stick had been sharpened at both ends, Ralph's head would have been impaled on one end like the sow's and offered to the beast. In the boys' Dionysian unconscious, the sow is both the beast (or a form of the beast) as well as an offering to the beast. Such duality, although it may seem contradictory, was consistent with the Dionysian religion in which both the god and his votaries were prey and predator, hunted and hunter. The Bacchants hunted Dionysus, who, in turn, hunted them. They hunted the god in his animal form; when they found his avatar, they often dismembered it and ate the raw flesh.

The slain animal was offered to Dionysus, as happens at the end of the Bacchae when Agave returns to Thebes, thinking she has killed a lion and planning to make a feast of its remains. Since gods die and are reborn, and since their animal forms are self-perpetuating, the paradox is resolvable: one can kill the god and then eat the god, thereby acquiring some of his power. The god lives on in his worshipers as well as in his animal incarnations. The pig in Lord of the Flies represents the same kind of Dionysian ambivalence: it is beast and beast-offering, sacramental meal and sacrificial victim.

That Golding intended the pig to be equated with the beast is evident from three incidents in the novel. First, there is the slaying of the sow and the impaling of its head, both of which are witnessed by Simon. When the hunters leave, Simon looks up at the head whose eyes assure him that "everything was a bad business" (170). Although the head has not spoken, Simon construes its look as an expression of despair in humanity; hence, his reply "I know that." Endowed with prophetic insight, he also knows the meaning of what he has seen: the beast and its offering are synonymous. While the Bacchants make the same connection, there is a major difference between their killing of the Dionysian animal and the hunters' killing of the sow. The Dionysian animal is not evil because what the animal represents—the god—is good. The sow, however, is evil because, to the hunters, everything she represents is evil. Although the sow's head is offered to the beast, it is still part of the beast; if the beast is evil, the head is the apotheosis of evil—the Lord of the Flies.

When the boys reenact the slaying, they chant: " Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! " (187). They think of the pig as related to the beast in some way, but are too immature to understand how complete the identification is. Yet neither the slaying nor its reenactment has produced the desired effect of emotional liberation. The Bacchants experience release because they feel no guilt in slaying the sacred animal. The hunters, however, feel guilt but repress it. They enjoy only a temporary cessation of fear; the orgasm of violence has not assuaged their anxieties. If it did, the beast would be dead or at least appeased, and Simon would not have been mistaken for it. By ritualizing the slaying, the boys are acting out of guilt and fear, like the brothers in Freud's Totem and Taboo who kill the primal father and, to salve their conscience, establish a yearly ritual commemorating his death.

The final association of pig with beast occurs when Simon journeys to the mountain and discovers that the arch-beast is really a dead paratrooper. The paratrooper's body is also covered with flies. Just as the boys projected evil into the sow, with the result that its head became the Lord of the Flies, so too have they demonized the paratrooper, who was as unthreatening as the sow. Evil, then, is born in fear and nurtured by guilt. It exists within us; when it is unleashed, it breeds like flies, befouling whatever it alights on and swarming over what it has befouled. Just as humankind creates its ogres, so have the boys who made a pig's head emblematic of what was within them.

Evil is double-edged; it has a conscious and an unconscious dimension. History has made us conscious of its existence; yet evil can be ahistorical, originating in the unconscious as fear of the unknown. Simon realizes that the beast reflects humankind's ambivalence toward evil as a force both outside and within the self; he knows that the "beast was harmless and horrible" (181). Yet these are also the characteristics of irrational fear (harmless) and its effects (horrible). Simon senses that this "news must reach the others as soon as possible." When he descends the mountain to bring the others the good news, he recalls Moses coming down from Mount Sinai with the covenant. Moses found the Israelites worshiping a golden calf; Simon finds the hunters reliving the pig hunt. Simon becomes both the ritual intruder and the beast because, in their perversion of the Dionysian ceremony, the boys cannot make a distinction: each is evil, each must be destroyed. In the death of Simon, Golding makes a subtle but important change in his retelling of the Bacchae. While Pentheus was also intruder and beast, he was not both simultaneously. First, he was the unholy witness to the rites; later, in his mother's delirium, he was the beast of Dionysus. With a cast of children, Golding cannot stage a mad scene as Euripides did for Agave, nor can he have the boys come to a realization of what they have done. That would defeat his purpose; the boys will never know what they have done because, unlike the Bacchae, there is no god to come down and tell them. Only Ralph knows, and he must live with that knowledge for the rest of his life.

In the death of Simon, Golding has also made his definitive statement about the beast: the beast is other. Whatever one fears, whether it is mythic like ogres and bogeymen, or real like countries and ideologies, it is not-I, beast, and ultimately evil. First, it was the pig; then Simon; next Piggy; and if it were not for the Royal Navy, Ralph. All the deaths occur because the victims are perceived as other; all the deaths are variations on pig-slaying. Simon enters the hunters' circle while they are chanting, " Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! " Ralph was to suffer the sow's fate and by the same instrument. Piggy not only dies with limbs twitching "like a pig's after it has been killed" (223); Roger kills him the same way he speared the sow—by applying leverage to a rock which comes crashing down on Piggy.

Simon alone receives a requiem from the author, which may suggest Golding's fondness for his character or perhaps his fondness for The White Goddess, which helps to explain the novel's ambivalence. Both the fire-watchers and the hunters are, in some way, under the influence of the White Goddess: the hunters under her malefic form—Hecate, the moon in the underworld, the dark of the moon; the fire-watchers under her benign form—Diana, the moon goddess of the sky. When Simon is killed, the Moon officiates at his obsequies, wrapping him in a shroud of beams: "The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble" (190). That the most poetic part of Lord of the Flies follows a brutal murder is again evidence of Golding's debt to Graves, who also saw poetry coming out of ritual murder: "No poet can hope to understand the nature of poetry unless he has had a vision of the Naked King crucified to the lopped oak, and watched the dancers, red-eyed from the acrid smoke of the sacrificial fires, stamping out the measure of the dance, their bodies bent uncouthly forward, with a monotonous chant of: 'Kill! kill! kill!' and "Blood! blood! blood!'"10

The hunters' chant in Lord of the Flies is less monotonous, but the sentiments are the same; so is the source.

Flawed Classic or Classic Flaws ?

Few first novels have been so powerfully conceived or so well written as Lord of the Flies; still, it is not without flaws. Its faults, however, are more attributable to the subject matter than to Golding's handling of it. Once Golding chose The Coral Island as his point of departure, he had no other choice but to use children as characters; once he merged The Coral Island with the Bacchae, he had no other choice but to make some of the children killers. Obviously, this was what Golding wanted. Children suited his moral purpose: as a potential adult, the child is as capable of anything—including evil—as the adult; if the child is shown to be naturally capable of evil, evil is endemic to the race.

Still, children have always posed a problem to the novelist, because they cannot disentangle cause and effect. The author must do it for them, explaining what would otherwise be dramatized or only inferable. In order to account for Simon's insight into the nature of evil, Golding makes him a visionary and a saint. Ballantyne did not have this problem since there was no Simon in The Coral Island. In creating Simon, Golding fell into a trap. Simon's realization of "mankind's essential illness" and his ability to visualize it as excrement are not characteristic of a child; nor are they necessarily characteristic of a saint. Traditionally, saints have been more attuned to God than to Satan; their knowledge of Satan was based on their knowledge of God: by understanding one, they understood the other. Simon, however, gives no evidence of understanding God, let alone His opposite.

At the end of the novel, Ralph weeps for "the darkness of man's heart." Yet Ralph is twelve, and what he knows about the darkness of the heart, despite what he has witnessed on the island, is minimal compared to what Anne Frank knew. In spite of everything, Anne believed people were essentially good. Ralph cannot even say they are intrinsically evil. In fact, he says nothing; he merely weeps.

Golding has given Ralph an adult's feelings and a hero's tragic awareness, while at the same time insisting Ralph is just a boy. But then, everyone on the island is a boy, including the savages. Just before their rescue, suddenly and cinematically, as in a dissolve, they revert to what they were when they landed on the island: kids. Golding, who often shifts point of view, presents them in the end from the perspective of the naval officer who knows nothing of their Dionysian behavior and sees Jack not as a Bacchant but as "a little boy with a black cap."

Ralph and Simon are by no means models of consistency. The last line of the novel has Ralph weeping for the darkness of the heart, the loss of innocence, and "the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy." Yet there was nothing about Ralph's behavior to indicate that he ever found Piggy wise or a friend. Piggy was an ally; to think of him as Ralph's friend is to ignore Ralph's early derision of him.

Simon's character is the novel's chief weakness. Simon is an amalgam of various types and strains. Like his namesake in the nursery rhyme, he is simple; he strikes others, including Ralph, as peculiar. He is also a Cassandra, whose prophecies are doomed to be ignored. To give him a spiritual aura, Golding inflicts him with what the ancients called the sacred disease—epilepsy. Simon is the classic case of one whose clairvoyance is compensation for physical suffering.

Simon has also been called a Christ-figure, not so much because he evokes Christ (his obviously Christian qualities are shared by saints) as because he is a sacrificial victim. Certainly no child in literature has been saddled with such a multimythic personality. Furthermore, he is also Golding's mouthpiece, for it is Simon who expresses, however inarticulately, the author's philosophy of evil. Simon alone confronts the Lord of the Flies, from whose gaze he intuits "an ancient, inescapable recognition"—namely, that "everything is a bad business." Simon knows that the reason for the dissolution of the island community, and for evil in general, is humankind's bedeviled nature. But that knowledge is itself destructive; once Simon admits it ("I know that"), there is no hope. The butterflies desert his covert, and the flies start swarming on him, as if he bears the mark of the beast—which he does, since he is later identified with it. To Golding, knowledge of evil brings evil on the knower, no matter how innocent that person may be.

In case anyone has missed the point, Golding adds another encounter between Simon and the pig's head in which the head speaks: "'You knew didn't you? I'm part of you?… I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?'" (177) This time Simon faints because the "ancient, inescapable recognition" has been expressed so unequivocally.

The incident is gratuitous; it is as if Golding, uncertain that his readers would get the message, decided to enunciate it so there would be no misunderstanding. To do so, he uses a child; from a critical standpoint, he "uses" a character—a character who has already relayed the message to readers sensitive enough to comprehend it. It seems that Simon is Golding's scapegoat as well as the hunters'.

The incident is gratuitous for another reason. Simon's awareness of evil is made evident early in the novel. Like Ralph and Jack, Simon knows there is no beast; "maybe it's only us" (111) he suggests. To clarify his suggestion, he asks timidly, "What's the dirtiest thing there is?" Jack answers in a word of "one crude expressive syllable." The monosyllabic word is obviously "shit," which, at the time, Golding was too circumspect to use. In the context, periphrasis is out of place, but Golding later made up for his reticence, growing more explicit with the times.

The logic is elementary but depressing; if humans are the beast, then humans are shit—something Sweeney Todd, "the demon barber of Fleet Street" in Stephen Sondheim's eponymous musical drama, believes, for that is how he justifies avenging himself on the world.

The scene in which Simon made his suggestion, supplemented by the first encounter with the pig's head, would have been sufficient; together, they establish the two basic metaphors for evil: flies and excrement, so that the Lord of the Flies is the Lord of Dung, and what is true of the lord is true of his servants. Moreover, excrement is ubiquitous on the island. Eating fruit causes diarrhea, and the island is dotted with feces. The island, like everything in the novel, is a parody—a parody of the first garden, Eden, where the first sin was committed. The fruit is tainted by the first sin whose effects the boys, like all humanity, have inherited. The excrement they leave behind is a vestige of the primal sin.

It is precisely this kind of symbolism that has made Lord of the Flies such a teachable novel, to the extent that one can ignore Simon's unsatisfying characterization. The novel is a perfect illustration of the way the literal and metaphorical levels of a work complement each other since, in Lord of the Flies, the metaphorical level is a deepening of the literal. For those who find mythopoesis tough going, there are always the characters who are such identifiable types that, as one student observed, they could be found at camp.11 For those capable of going beyond symbolism into irony and ambivalence, Golding facilitates the transition by using irony to underscore the symbolic action. The fire that was made by the reflection of light from Piggy's glasses goes out when Jack kills his first pig. When Jack prays for a sign from heaven, his prayer is answered in the form of the dead paratrooper. Finally, there are summary lines like "the dirtiest thing there is" and "I'm the reason why it's no go" which, as the novel moved into secondary school, were a godsend to students who had to locate the novel's central thought or the author's philosophy.

Lord of the Flies also affords an opportunity to test Golding's own interpretation of the novel and to decide whether one trusts the tale or the teller. In a 1962 lecture at the University of California at Los Angeles, Golding turned critic and interpreted the dead paratrooper as history that "won't lie down."12 No doubt he meant that the paratrooper was another instance of humankind's irrational fears projected onto an object—a harmless object, at that. Golding apparently forgot that the paratrooper does lie down—literally—and can be laid down symbolically. Simon disentangles the parachute lines so the corpse does not jerk up and down; after Simon's death, the rain washes the corpse out to sea. Simon manages to get the corpse to "lie down," thus showing that the irrational can be put to rest; unfortunately, he never had the chance to announce his discovery to the others. Apparently even authors can misinterpret their work.

Finally, Lord of the Flies remains an excellent introduction to fable, myth, and allegory since it embodies features of each, although strictly speaking, it is none of them. It is a work whose foundation (or to use a favorite Golding word, cellar) is mythic; it has the moral purpose of fable and the symbolic linkings of allegory. It also has certain features in common with antiallegory, as defined by Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism. Antiallegory is a peculiarly modern form that inverts the imagery of traditional allegory, so that instead of being exemplary and doctrinal, the imagery becomes ironic and paradoxical. Thus antiallegory is the reverse of classical allegory, which teaches that human nature is perfectible; anti-allegory teaches the opposite, or, to use the words of the pig's head, that "it's no go." Antiallegory is merely another way of saying serious parody, which is perhaps the most accurate designation for the novel.


  1. Robert Michael Ballantyne, The Coral Island (London: 1858), 25-26. Subsequent references in the text are to this edition.
  2. "The Meaning of It All," Books and Bookmen, October, 1959, 10. For parallels between Ballantyne and Golding, see Carl Niemeyer, "The Coral Island Revisited," College English, 22 (January 1961): 241-45.
  3. Lord of the Flies (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), 12. Subsequent references in the text are to this edition.
  4. Euripides, Bacchae, ed. with introduction and commentary by E. R. Dodds, 2d ed. (London: Oxford University Press, 1960). Golding knew this edition "better than [his] own hand."
  5. For the Euripidean influence, see Bernard F. Dick, " Lord of the Flies and the Bacchae, " Classical World, 57 (January 1964): 145-46; Robert J. White, "Butterfly and Beast in Lord of the Flies, " Modern Fiction Studies 10 (Summer 1964): 163-70.
  6. "The Meaning of It All," 10. Golding's explanation is, however, quite sensible: "Now, look, I have a view which you haven't got and I would like you to see this from my point of view. Therefore, I must first put it so graphically in my way of thinking that you identify with it, and then at the end I'm going to put you where you are, looking at it from the outside." 7. Dick, "'A Novelist Is a Displaced Person,'" 481.
  7. James R. Baker, "An Interview with William Golding," Twentieth Century Literature 28 (Summer 1982): 136.
  8. E.L. Epstein, "Notes on Lord of the Flies, "in Lord of the Flies (New York: Capricorn Books, 1959), 254.
  9. Robert Graves, The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth (New York: Noonday Press, 1966), 448.
  10. "Lord of the Campus," Time, 22 June 1962, 64.
  11. "Fable," in The Hot Gates, 96.

L. L. Dickson (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Dickson, L. L. " Lord of the Flies. "In The Modern Allegories of William Golding, pp. 12-26. Tampa: University of South Florida Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Dickson dissects the allegorical structure of Lord of the Flies.]

Of Golding's nine novels, Lord of the Flies is most clearly an allegory. It has been criticized as both too explicit1 and too ambiguous.2 Walter Allen's skepticism is typical: "The difficulty begins when one smells allegory."3 More accurately, Golding's Lord of the Flies combines the best features of realistic and allegorical fiction; the novel allows for "the simultaneous operation of the factual and the fabular."4

The tension between realistic novel and allegorical fable is established in the setting for the action in Lord of the Flies: the isolated island provides an appropriate stage for the survival story of the deserted boys, but also suggests a universal, timeless backdrop for symbolic action. Golding creates a microcosm, a procedure common "to the great allegorists and satirists," and then "examines the problem of how to maintain moderate liberal values and to pursue distant ends against pressure from extremists and against the lower instincts."5 The protagonist's ironic "rescue" by a naval officer, who is himself engrossed in the savage business of international warfare, reveals that the chaotic island-world is but a small version of a war-torn adult world. The novel does not imply that children, without the disciplined control of adults, will turn into savages; on the contrary, it dramatizes the real nature of all humans. The nightmare world, which quickly develops on the island, parallels the destruction of the outside world through atomic warfare. The dead parachutist, whom the boys mistake for the Beast, is a symbolic reminder of the human history of self-destruction; the parachutist is literally and figuratively a "fallen man."

At first, the island world is compared to Eden: the boys "accepted the pleasure of morning, the bright sun, the whelming sea and sweet air, as a time when play was good and life so full that hope was not necessary and therefore forgotten."6 But this setting is simultaneously sinister and hostile. The boys are scratched by thorns and entrapped by creepers. "The ground beneath them was a bank covered with coarse grass, torn everywhere by the upheavals of fallen trees, scattered with decaying coconuts and palm saplings. Behind this was the darkness of the forest proper and the open scar" (p. 6). Eventually the island becomes a burning hell: "Smoke was seeping through the branches in white and yellow wisps, the patch of blue sky overhead turned to the color of a storm cloud, and then the smoke bellowed around him" [Ralph, the protagonist] (p. 233). The island is a microcosm from the adult world; indeed, "you realize after a time that the book is nothing less than a history of mankind itself."7

The personified agents in Lord of the Flies are developed in all the four ways discussed in the first chapter. First, the analogy through nomenclature is the most obvious method by which the characters take on additional dimensions. Golding's novel represents an ironic treatment of R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, a children's classic that presents the romantic adventures of a group of English schoolboys marooned on an Edenlike South Sea island. By mustering their wits and their British courage, the boys defeat the evil forces on the island: pirates and native savages. Not only is Golding's island literally a coral island (p. 12) where the boys "dream pleasantly" and romantically, but there are specific references to Ballantyne: "'It's like in a book.' At once there was a clamor. 'Treasure Island—' 'Swallows and Amazons—' 'Coral Island—'" (p. 37). At the conclusion of the novel, the dull-witted naval officer who comes to Ralph's rescue makes an explicit comparison: "Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island" (p. 242). Golding uses the same names for his main characters as Ballantyne did. Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin Gay of The Coral Island become Golding's Ralph, Jack, and Simon ("Simon called Peter, you see. It was worked out very carefully in every possible way, this novel"8). Golding's characters, however, represent ironic versions of the earlier literary work, and their very names, inviting comparison to Ballantyne, add ironic impact to the characterization.

The change of Peterkin's name to Simon better supports that character's function as a "saint" figure in Golding's novel. Obviously Piggy's name contributes to the symbolism: Piggy will become identified with a hunted pig, and eventually will be killed too, as the boys' savage hunt turns to human rather than animal victims. When Piggy falls to his death, his arms and legs twitch "like a pig's after it has been killed" (p. 217). Jack's name is a variant of John, the disciple of Christ, and indeed Jack is an ironic distortion of the religious connotations of his name, in the same manner as is Christopher Martin, the egocentric protagonist of Golding's third novel.

Second, the characters in Lord of the Flies become allegorical agents through the correspondence of a state of nature with a state of mind. The more the boys stay on the island, the more they become aware of its sinister and actively hostile elements. The description of the pleasant Coral Island fantasy world quickly dissolves into images of darkness, hostility, danger. The boys accept "the pleasures of morning, the bright sun" and the unrestricted play, but by afternoon the overpowering sunlight becomes "a blow that they ducked" (p. 65). Though dusk partly relieves the situation, the boys are then menaced by the dark: "When the sun sank, darkness dropped on the island like an extinguisher and soon the shelters were full of restlessness, under the remote stars" (p. 66).

The boys' attitude of childish abandon and romantic adventure changes to a much more sober one when the possibility of a beast is introduced. At that point the island is transformed into a dark haven for unspeakable terrors. The boys' increasing apprehension about their immediate physical safety parallels the gradual awareness that is taking shape in the minds of Simon, Piggy, and particularly Ralph, concerning the real evil of the island. The boys mistakenly project their own bestiality on an imaginary animal roaming the island, but Simon hesitantly speculates, "maybe it's only us" (p. 103). The others do not understand. They look into the blackened jungle for signs of the beast's movement. The darkness is "full of claws, full of the awful unknown and menace" (p. 116). Simon's inner vision, however, tells him that it is the human being who is "at once heroic and sick" (p. 121). When Simon confronts the Lord of the Flies, the pig's head on a stick, it tells him (but really he tells himself), "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!… You knew, didn't you? I'm part of you?" (p. 172). The hostile island and its dark mysteries are only a symbolic backdrop reinforcing the images of savagery, bestiality, and destruction that describe, and reveal, the boys themselves.

A third method by which the characters assume allegorical significance is through the implicit comparison of an action with an extrafictional event. James Baker was the first to point out similarities between Euripides' The Bacchae and Golding's novel. The mistaken slaying of Simon recalls Pentheus's murder at the hands of the crazed bacchantes of Dionysus. Pentheus's pride and his inability to recognize Dionysus's powers lead to his downfall: "This same lesson in humility is meted out to the schoolboys of Lord of the Flies. In their innocent pride they attempt to impose a rational order or pattern upon the vital chaos of their own nature.… The penalties (as in the play) are bloodshed, guilt, utter defeat of reason."9

Both the novel and the play contain a beast-god cult, a hunt sequence, and the dismemberment of the scapegoat figure.10 Though Simon is the clearest equivalent for Pentheus, Piggy and finally Ralph are cast in similar roles. Piggy is destroyed, though not dismembered, by Jack's forces. Ralph is chased by frenzied hunters but is "saved" (by a deus ex machina process similar to that of the end of Euripides' play) from the prospect of beheading. Ralph fittingly becomes Golding's version of Agave. The boy, like Pentheus's mother, mistakenly takes part in a killing and then must live sorrowfully with the knowledge of his, and all humanity's, capacity for blind destruction.

The actions that help establish parallels to religious events emphasize biblical analogues. Ralph's first blowing of the conch, proclaiming survival after the crash on the island, recalls the angel Gabriel's announcing good news. Inasmuch as the boys' "survival" is quite tentative, however, the implied comparison to Gabriel is ironic. Simon's fasting, helping the little boys, meditating in the wilderness, going up on the mountain—all these actions solidify the Christ parallel. The recurring pattern of falls—the falling parachutist, Piggy's fall to his death, the destruction of the conch in the same fall, Ralph's tumbling panic at the end of the novel—emphasizes the fall of humankind motif.

The extrafictional events pertaining to classical mythology or to Christ's passion enlarge the surface action with additional symbolic meanings.

The fourth and final technique for intensifying allegorical agents concerns the manifestation in an action of a state of mind. In Lord of the Flies a series of hunts, for either pigs or humans, symbolically demonstrates the boys' gradual deterioration into savages. Moral order is corrupted and the end result is chaos. William Mueller has established convincingly that "the book is a carefully structured work of art whose organization—in terms of a series of hunts—serves to reveal with progressive clarity man's essential core."11 Mueller identifies six "hunts," but there are at least nine separate instances where this symbolic act occurs: (1) the first piglet, "caught in a curtain of creepers," escapes when Jack is mentally unable to kill the helpless creature (p. 32); (2) a second pig eludes the hunters, much to Jack's disgust (p. 55); (3) Jack is successful the next time, and the hunters conceive the ritual chant of "Kill the Pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood" (p. 78); later Maurice briefly pretends to be the pig (p. 86); (4) during a mock ceremony that gets out of hand, Robert plays the role of the pig, in a scene that sinisterly foreshadows the transition from nonhuman to human prey (pp. 135-36); (5) after another successful hunt, the boys smear themselves with animal blood, and Maurice plays the pig while Robert ritually pokes him with a spear, to the delight of Jacks's hunters (pp. 161-63); (6) Jack and Roger play hunter and pig respectively, as Piggy and Ralph "find themselves eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society" (p. 181); (7) Simon is mistaken for the beast and is torn to pieces; (8) Piggy is killed by Roger, who acts "with a sense of delirious abandonment" (p. 216); (9) and finally Ralph is the object of the last murderous hunt.

The two fundamental patterns by which allegorical action is resolved are those of "progress" and "battle." The journey motif is first established by the plot circumstances of the opening chapter. A group of boys has been taken by airplane from a warthreatened England to a safer territory, but in the process their plane is attacked and they have been dropped to safety on a deserted island. Their thwarted flight is mentioned in the opening exposition. Though their physical, outer journey has ended, they soon begin a more recondite "journey." Through their quest for the beast, they (or at least Simon and Ralph) discover the real beast, humanity's own predilection for evil.

The structure of Lord of the Flies provides for a gradual revelation of insight, as Ralph sees his friends slowly turn into beasts themselves. The significance of the final scene, in which the naval officer reestablishes an adult perspective, is not what James Gindin once contended: "a means of cutting down or softening the implications built up within the structure of the boys' society on the island."12 The officer's presence does not reaffirm that "adult sanity really exists," nor is it merely a gimmick that "palliates the force and the unity of the original metaphor."13 On the contrary, it provides the final ironic comment: Ralph is "saved" by a soldier of war, a soldier who cannot see that the boys have symbolically reenacted the plight of all persons who call themselves civilized and yet continue to destroy their fellow humans in the same breath.

The irony of this last scene is consistent with Golding's sarcastic treatment of Ballantyne, and it also emphasizes the universality of Ralph's experience. There is no distinction between child and adult here. The boys' ordeal is a metaphor for the human predicament. Ralph's progress toward self-knowledge culminates in his tears: "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" (p. 242). Because Piggy represents the failure of reason, the use of "wise" offers a further irony.

The battle motif is developed in both physical confrontations and rhetorical "combat." Initially, the pig hunts are ritualized tests of strength and manhood, but when the hunters eventually seek human prey (Simon, Piggy, and finally Ralph) the conflict is between the savage and the civilized; blind emotion and prudent rationality; inhumanity and humanity; evil and good. This conflict is further established in the chapter entitled "The Shell and the Glasses," when Jack's hunters attack Ralph's boys and steal Piggy's glasses. Jack carries the broken spectacles—which have become symbolic of intellect, rationality, and civilization—as ritual proof of his manhood and his power over his enemies: "He was a chief now in truth; and he made stabbing motions with his spear" (p. 201). In the "Castle Rock" chapter, Ralph opposes Jack in what is called a "crisis" situation: "They met with a jolt and bounced apart. Jack swung with his fist at Ralph and caught him on the ear. Ralph hit Jack in the stomach and made him grunt. Then they were facing each other again, panting and furious, but unnerved by each other's ferocity. They became aware of the noise that was the background to this fight, the steady shrill cheering of the tribe behind them" (p. 215).

More subtle forms of "battle"—debate and dialogue—are dramatized in the verbal exchanges between Jack and Ralph. Golding emphasizes their polarity: "They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate" (p. 62). Later when Jack paints his face and flaunts his bloodied knife, the conflict is heightened: "The two boys faced each other. There was the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill; and there was the world of longing and baffled commonsense" (p. 81). When Ralph does not move, Jack and the others have to build their fire in a less ideal place: "By the time the pile [of firewood] was built, they were on different sides of a high barrier" (p. 83). Different sides of the wood, different continents, different worlds—all these scenes intensify the symbolic as well as physical conflict. Here we encounter "a structural principle that becomes Golding's hallmark: a polarity expressed in terms of a moral tension. Thus, there is the rational (the firewatchers) pitted against the irrational (the hunters)."14

In both chapter 2, "Beast from Water," and chapter 8, "Gift for the Darkness," the exchange of views about whether there is a beast or not "becomes a blatant allegory in which each spokesman caricatures the position he defends."15 Ralph and Piggy think that rules and organization can cure social ills, and that if things "break up," it is because individuals are not remembering that life "is scientific," rational, logical (p. 97). Jack hates rules, only wishes to hunt, and believes that evil is a mystical, living power that can be appeased by ritual sacrifice (p. 159). Simon feels that evil is not outside but rather within all human beings, though he is "inarticulate in his effort to express mankind's essential illness" (p. 103). He uses comparisons with excrement and filth to describe his notion of human inner evil.

Simon's confrontation with the pig's head on a stick, the Lord of the Flies, is another instance of allegorical dialogue. At first, Beelzebub seems to triumph: Simon is mesmerized by the grinning face (p. 165); he is warned that he is "not wanted," for Simon is the only boy who possesses a true vision of the nature of evil; and finally he faints (p. 172). However, Simon recovers, asks himself, "What else is there to do?" (p. 174), discovers the dead parachutist, and then takes the news about the "beast" to the rest of the boys. The entire scene with the pig's head represents the conflict that is occurring within Simon's own consciousness. The Lord of the Flies is only an externalization of the inner evil in all humans. Later when Ralph comes upon the pig's head, "the skull [stares at] Ralph like one who knows all the answers and won't tell" (p. 22). Though Ralph does not understand the significance of the pig, he does feel a "sick fear." In desperation he hits the head, as if breaking it would destroy the evil on the island. However, the broken pig's head lies in two pieces, "its grin now six feet across" (p. 222). Rather than being destroyed, it ironically has grown. In the final pages of the novel, when Ralph is desperately fleeing from the hunters, he runs in circles and retraces his steps back to the broken pig's head, and this time its "fathom-wide grin" entirely dominates the burning island.

Four patterns of imagery reinforce the symbolism in Lord of the Flies. Images pertaining to excrement, darkness, falling, and animalism help define the human capacity for evil and savagery.

The many references to excrement, and also to dirt, underline thematically the vileness of human nature itself. As the boys' attempts at a sanitation program gradually break down, the inherent evil in human nature is symbolically manifested in the increasing images that refer to dung: "the two concepts merge in Golding's imagination—covertly in Lord of the Flies and manifestly in Free Fall, which is a literary cloaca, full of that revulsion psychologists try to explain in terms of the proximity and ambiguity of the apertures utilized for birth and excreta."16

Images associated with excrement (and more generally, dirt) are used in a negative sense, depicting human corruption. The conch makes "a low, farting noise" (p. 15). Johnny, the first "littlun" Ralph and Piggy meet, is in the act of defecating (p. 16). Pig droppings are closely examined by Jack's hunters to determine how recently the pig has left a particular place; the temperature of feces has become the central subject of interest (pp. 54 and 132). Ralph slowly loses his battle against filth: "With a convulsion of the mind, Ralph discovered dirt and decay, understood how much he disliked [his own long, dirty hair]" (p. 88). Even when Piggy tries to clean his glasses, the attempt is in vain (p. 11). He is appalled at the increasing filth on the island: "'We chose those rocks right along beyond the bathing pool as a lavatory.… Now people seem to use anywhere. Even near the shelters and the platform. You littluns, when you're getting fruit; if you're taken short—' The assembly roared. 'I said if you're taken short you keep away from the fruit. That's dirty'" (p. 92).

Weekes and Gregor recognize the realistic level of description here—eating nothing but fruit does indeed bring on diarrhea—but they add, "The diarrhea might seem to invite allegorical translation—the body of man is no longer fit for Eden."17 At one significant point, the inarticulate Simon tries to think of "the dirtiest thing there is" (p. 103) in order to describe the fallen human condition, and Jack's answer, "one crude expressive syllable," reaffirms the metaphor of excrement, which prevails throughout the novel. The area near the decaying, fallen parachutist is "a rotten place" (p. 125). When the pig's head is mounted on the stick, it soon draws a "black blob of flies"; it is literally a lord of the flies, as well as figuratively Beelzebub, from the Hebrew baalzebub, "lord of flies." Sometimes this name is translated "lord of dung." By the end of the novel, Ralph himself has been reduced to a dirty, piglike animal.

Golding uses light-dark contrasts in a traditional way: the numerous images of darkness underline the moral blackness of the boys' crumbling society. The normal associations with the sinister, with death, with chaos, with evil are suggested by this imagery. Decaying coconuts lie "skull-like" amid green shadows (p. 7); Jack's choirboys are clothed in black; the beast is naturally associated with the coming of night (p. 39); the "unfriendly side of the mountain" is shrouded in hushed darkness (p. 48). Roger is described as a dark figure: "the shock of black hair, down his nape and low on his forehead, seemed to suit his gloomy face and make what had seemed at first an unsociable remoteness into something forbidding" (p. 68).

With a Hawthornesque touch, Golding describes the subtle change that has come over all the boys' faces, after the group has become largely a hunting society: "faces cleaned fairly well by the process of eating and sweating but marked in the less accessible angles with a kind of shadow" (p. 130). Jack is described as "a stain in the darkness" (p. 142). Generally, the coming of night turns common surroundings into a nightmare landscape of imaginary horrors: "The skirts of the forest and the scar were familiar, near the conch and the shelters and sufficiently friendly in daylight. What they might become in darkness nobody cared to think" (p. 155).

Images of light and brightness are identified with spirit, regeneration, life, goodness. The description of Simon's dead body as it is carried out to sea suggests transcendence: "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" (p. 184). The contrast between the bright, gaudy butterflies and the black flies on the pig's head emphasizes the symbolic conflict between good and evil used throughout the novel. The bright butterflies are drawn to the sunlight and to open places (p. 64); they surround the saintly Simon (p. 158); they are oblivious to the brutal killing of the sow: "the butterflies still danced, preoccupied in the centre of the clearing" (p. 162). In this particular instance, they remind the reader of those indifferent seagulls in Stephen Crane's "The Open Boat"—simply a part of nature, not threatened by the environment, and a mocking contrast to the violent predicaments that human beings either perpetuate or suffer. But the butterflies represent a more positive force, and significantly they desert the open space dominated by the grinning pig's head.18

Golding's obsession with the fallen human state permeates the imagery of Lord of the Flies. The opening chapter is typical. Ralph appears amid a background of fallen trees. He trips over a branch and comes "down with a crash" (p. 5). He talks with Piggy about coming down in the capsule that was dropped from the plane. He falls down again when attempting to stand on his head (p. 25). He pretends to knock Simon down (p. 28). In addition to the descriptions of the fallen parachutist, Simon's fainting spells, Ralph's "nightmares of falling and death" (p. 229), and his final collapse at the feet of the naval officer, the act of falling is closely associated with the idea of lost innocence. Ralph weeps for "the end of innocence … and the fall through the air" of Piggy.

Animal imagery reinforces the boys' transformation into savages and subhumans. Predictably, evil is associated with the beast, the pig's head, or a snake, but as the story progresses, the boys themselves are described with an increasing number of animal images.

The boys' disrobing early in the novel at first suggests a return to innocence, but as the hunters become more and more savage, their nakedness merely underscores their animalism. Sam and Eric grin and pant at Ralph "like dogs" (pp. 17 and 46). Jack moves on all fours, "dog-like," when tracking the pig (p. 53); during the hunt he hisses like a snake, and is "less a hunter than a furtive thing, ape-like among the tangle of trees" (p. 54). Ralph calls him a "beast" (p. 214). Piggy, whose very name suggests an obvious comparison, sees that the boys are becoming animals; he says that if Ralph does not blow the conch for an assembly, "we'll soon be animals anyway" (p. 107). Without his glasses, Piggy laments that he will "have to be led like a dog" (p. 204). When he dies, his body twitches "like a pig's after it has been killed" (p. 217). Simon, hidden in the shadows of the forest, is transformed into a "thing," a "beast," when the narration shifts to the other boys' view (pp. 182-83).

Ralph's transformation is slower than the others, but it is clearly discernible. Early in the novel, he viciously accepts the hunters' raw pig meat and gnaws on it "like a wolf" (p. 84). He is caught up in the savage ritual when Roger plays the pig (p. 181); he is part of the unthinking gang that murders Simon. When Piggy is killed, Ralph runs for his life and obeys "an instinct that he did not know he possessed" (p. 217). In the last chapter, Ralph is little more than a cornered animal. Ironically he sharpens a stick in self-defense and becomes a murderous hunter himself: "Whoever tried [to harm him] would be stuck, squealing like a pig" (p. 231). We are told that he "raised his spear, snarled a little, and waited" (p. 233). Ralph's transformation is both shocking and saddening. Alone in the forest, he brutally attacks the first adversary he meets: "Ralph launched himself like a cat; stabbed, snarling, with the spear, and the savage doubled up" (p. 234). When Ralph is trapped in the underbrush, he wonders what a pig would do, for he is in the same position (p. 236).

Related to these animal images is the continual reference to the word savage. In Lord of the Flies the distinction between civilized human being and savage becomes increasingly cloudy and a source of further irony. Early in the novel Jack himself proclaims, "I agree with Ralph. We've got to have rules and obey them. After all, we're not savages" (p. 47). Piggy asks more than once, "What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?" followed by the double irony, "What's grownups going to think?" (p. 105). The painted faces of the hunters provide "the liberation into savagery" (p. 206), an ironic freedom to destroy society; and the animal imagery contributes to this idea.

Several "levels" of meaning operate in Lord of the Flies, apart from the surface narrative. First, from a particular psychological viewpoint, the tripartite organization of the human psyche—ego, id, superego—is dramatized symbolically in the characters of Ralph, Jack, and Piggy, respectively. The conflict between Ralph, the level-headed elected leader of the boys' council, and Jack, the self-appointed head of the hunters, corresponds to an ego-id polarity. Ralph realistically confronts the problem of survival and works out a practical plan for rescue. Jack is quick to revert to savagery, dishonesty, violence. Piggy, the fat, bespectacled rationalist, reminds Ralph of his responsibilities, makes judgments about Jack's guilt, and generally represents the ethical voice on the island. Since Piggy does not acknowledge his own share of guilt for Simon's death, Oldsey and Weintraub conclude that this inconsistency "spoils the picture often given of Piggy as superego or conscience. "19 However, the many times Piggy reminds the weakening Ralph of what must be done far outweigh this one reversal.

A second level of symbolism emerges from the archetypal patterns in the novel. The quest motif is represented by Ralph's stumbling attempts at self-knowledge. His is literally an initiation by fire. Ironically the knowledge he acquires does not allow him to become an integrated member of adult society, but rather it causes him to recoil from the nightmare world he discovers. He is a scapegoat figure who must be sacrificed as atonement for the boys' evils. Simon and Piggy are also variants of the scapegoat symbol. Simon is most clearly the saint or Christ figure. The Dionysian myth is also reworked, as the boys' blindness to their own irrational natures leads to their destruction. As James Baker has observed, Euripides' Bacchae "is a bitter allegory" of not only the degeneration of society but also of essential human blindness: "the failure of rational man who invariably undertakes the blind ritual-hunt in which he seeks to kill the threatening 'beast' within his own being."20

On still another level, Lord of the Flies accommodates a political allegory in which Ralph represents democracy and Jack totalitarianism. Golding has often stressed the impact of World War II on his own life and his change from an idealist who believed in human perfectibility, to a more skeptical observer who had discovered a dark truth "about the given nature of man."21 In his most explicit statement about the effect of the war on his estimation of humanity and its political systems, Golding says:

It is bad enough to say that so many Jews were exterminated in this way and that, so many people liquidated—lovely, elegant word—but there were things done during that period from which I still have to avert my mind lest I should be physically sick. They were not done by the headhunters of New Guinea, or by some primitive tribe in the Amazon. They were done, skillfully, coldly, by educated men, doctors, lawyers, by men with a tradition of civilization behind them, to beings of their own kind.… When these destructive capacities emerged into action they were thought aberrant. Social systems, political systems were composed, detached from the real nature of man. They were what one might call political symphonies. They would perfect most men, and at the least, reduce aberrance.

Why, then, have they never worked?22

Such statements not only define Golding's own social background but also illuminate his use of the microcosmic island society in Lord of the Flies.

Golding's own comments about Lord of the Flies continually focus on the potentials and the limitations of the democratic ideal. Though he supports a democratic doctrine, he recognizes its weaknesses: "You can't give people freedom without weakening society as an implement of war, if you like, and so this is very much like sheep among wolves. It's not a question with me as to whether democracy is the right way so much, as to whether democracy can survive and remain what it is."23 By giving up all its principles, the island society of Lord of the Flies demonstrates the inefficacy of political organizations that attempt to check human beings' worst destructive instincts. It is only by first recognizing these dark powers that democracy can hope to control them.

The fourth level of meaning is the moral allegory, which focuses on the conflicts between good and evil, and encourages philosophical or theological interpretations. Golding is defining the nature of evil. Whether it is embodied in a destructive, unconscious force, a mistaken sacrifice that unsuccessfully atones for the boys' collective guilt, or a dictatorial power opposing the democratic order (corresponding to the psychological, archetypal, and politico-sociological levels, respectively), the problems of moral choice, the inevitability of original sin and human fallibility, the blindness of self-deception create a fourth level of meaning in the novel.

The island is not only a stage on which characters must make crucial moral decisions but also a microcosm for the human mind, in which ethical conflicts similarly occur. Because Golding believes that "a fabulist is always a moralist," he assigns a significant pattern of imagery to Ralph, "the fair boy" (p. 5), who unties the "snake-clasp of his belt" (p. 7). Ralph possesses a "mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaims no devil" (p. 7); he rallies the boys to the open, sunlit part of the island; his conch sounds a Gabriellike note unifying (if only temporarily) his followers. Jack, on the other hand, is identified with darkness and violence: when his band of choirboys first appears, it is described as "something dark," like a "creature" (p. 19); the black caps and cloaks hide their faces; Jack's red hair suggests a devilish element; his impulsive decision to be a hunter and kill pigs foreshadows his demonic monomania for destruction; when he first meets Ralph, Jack is sun-blinded after coming out of the dark jungle.

However, because Golding complicates the characterization and shows Ralph to be susceptible to evil forces and at times paradoxically sympathetic to Jack, the reader recognizes ambiguities not easily compatible with a neat but rigid system of symbols. If Lord of the Flies "teaches" through its moral allegory, it is the lesson of self-awareness: "The novel is the parable of fallen man. But it does not close the door on that man; it entreats him to know himself and his Adversary, for he cannot do combat against an unrecognized force, especially when it lies within him."24


  1. See Douglas Hewitt, "New Novels"; Francis E. Kearns, "Salinger and Golding: Conflict on the Campus," p. 139; Howard S. Babb, The Novels of William Golding, p. 19.
  2. Margaret Walters, "Two Fabulists: Golding and Camus," p. 23. Walters criticizes Lord of the Flies for its "deliberate mystifications" paradoxically combined with "crude explicitness."
  3. Walter Allen, "New Novels."
  4. Clive Pemberton, William Golding, p. 9. For a detailed study of the close relationship between fantasy and realism in the modern novel, see Patrick Merla, "'What Is Real?' Asked the Rabbit One Day." A similar view is expressed by James Stern, "English Schoolboys in the Jungle": "Fully to succeed, a fantasy must approach very close to reality."
  5. Phillip Drew, "Second Reading," 79.
  6. William Golding, Lord of the Flies, p. 65. Subsequent references are to this edition, and hereafter page numbers will be indicated in the text.
  7. Wayland Young, "Letter from London," pp. 478-79.
  8. Golding and Kermode, "Meaning," p. 10.
  9. Baker, Golding, p. 9.
  10. Bernard F. Dick, William Golding, p. 31.
  11. William Mueller, "An Old Story Well Told: Commentary on William Golding's Lord of the Flies, " p. 1203.
  12. James Gindin, Postwar British Fiction, p. 198.
  13. Ibid., p. 204. For other adverse criticism of Golding's "gimmick endings," see Young, "Letter," p. 481, and Kenneth Rexroth, "William Golding."
  14. Dick, Golding, p. 21.
  15. Baker, Golding, p. 10.
  16. Bernard S. Oldsey and Stanley Weintraub, The Art of William Golding, p. 30.
  17. Mark Kinkead-Weekes and Ian Gregor, William Golding: A Critical Study, p. 25.
  18. Also see Robert J. White, "Butterfly and Beast in Lord of the Flies, " in which he identifies the butterflies with the Greek word for butterfly, psyche, meaning "soul."
  19. Oldsey and Weintraub, Art, p. 22.
  20. Baker, Golding, p. 7. Also see Dick, Golding, pp. 29-33: " Lord of the Flies can also be read in the light of the Dionysian-Apollonian dichotomy" (i.e., the conflict between the irrational and rational worlds).
  21. Granville Hicks, "The Evil that Lurks in the Heart," p. 36.
  22. Golding, Hot Gates, pp. 86-87.
  23. Keating and Golding, "Purdue Interview," pp. 189-90. Also see Douglas M. Davis, "A Conversation with Golding," p. 28; Maurice Dolbier, "Running J. D. Salinger a Close Second," p. 6.
  24. Mueller, "Old Story," p. 1206.

John F. Fitzgerald and John R. Kayser (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: Fitzgerald, John F., and John R. Kayser. "Golding's Lord of the Flies: Pride as Original Sin." Studies in the Novel 24, no. 1 (spring 1992): 78-85.

[In the following essay, Fitzgerald and Kayser examine Egyptian influence on Golding's novel.]

"Just as the mathematicians say the rainbow is an appearance of the sun embellished by its reflection into a cloud, so the present myth is the appearance of a reality which turns the mind back to other thoughts."

—Plutarch—Isis et Osiris

In "Fable," William Golding avers that Lord of the Flies is a multilayered work and open to various interpretations.1 The novel has been plausibly interpreted as a Christian parable2 and Greek tragedy, and less plausibly with reference to neo-Freudian, Jungian, and Marxian concepts.3 In what has become the authoritative interpretation of Lord of the Flies, James R. Baker and Bernard Dick, who base their respective arguments on textual evidence and Golding's professed admiration for Greek tragedy,4 conclude that the form and substance of Golding's myth owes much to Euripides's Bacchae.5 Both Baker and Dick argue that Lord of the Flies is an allegory on the disintegration of society due to a tragic flaw in human nature: man fails to recognize, and thereby appease, the irrational part of his soul.

Ralph at the end of the novel, on the precipice, stares uncomprehendingly into the irrational darkness of his soul. He cries for the loss of innocence. He cries for the loss of his rational friend Piggy, who also denied the irrational. The boys have committed the sin of Pentheus, according to Baker, by trying to impose "in their innocent pride" an order on the "vital chaos of their own nature."6 Their attempt took the form of a parliamentary government, and it failed. They regress into barbarism. The plight of the boys becomes an allegory for the plight of modern man, who denies and fears the irrational. Mankind's essential illness is irrational fear.

But such a conclusion does not adequately account for Golding's emphasis on "off-campus history",7 the concept through which he explores the meaning of Lord of the Flies. Indeed, Dick candidly admits that he is "vexed" by Golding's emphasis.8 Off-campus history, which Golding distinguishes from academic history, is characterized by prejudice for and pride in one's own. The partisan and the sport-fan alike are moved by the fortunes of their heroes; their passion for their own agitates them and clouds their judgment, whereas the scholar's objectivity inures him to partisan passions. Fear, the dead parachutist, and the various other manifestations of the beast are symbols of off-campus history and point to the vital core of this fabulist's tale.

No interpretation of Lord of the Flies, however, has sought an Egyptian influence. Yet Golding's interest in ancient Egypt and the Osiris myth is well documented.9 This myth apparently left an indelible impression upon Golding, and its influence reverberates in the symbolism of Lord of the Flies. But most importantly, an Osirian interpretation illuminates man's fallen nature, while explaining the importance attached by Golding to off-campus history. The "trite, obvious and familiar" moral lesson of Golding's novel10 is that we are capable of the most heinous cruelties in the service of our pride.

The "beastie" appears to the reader in a variety of guises: as a "snake-thing," "beast from water," "beast from air," and, finally, as an aspect of human nature. The nature of the beast is also implied by the suggestive symbolism of the title, Lord of the Flies. 11 The "lord of the flies," or Beelzebub, has been associated with the Christian devil.12 Leaving aside the pregnant symbolism of the decaying pighead, the beastie as a snake-thing invites comparison to the serpent of the Garden of Eden.13 However, in the Osiris myth the Egyptian daemon Set-Typhon is also represented by "snakes,"14 and with the ascent of Christianity he was transfigured into Baal or Beelzebub.15

A biblical interpretation of the symbolism of the snake is not at variance with an Osirian interpretation. Golding imputes that the fallen nature of man is related to his temptation by the subtle serpent in mythical Eden. Mankind's fallen nature is his desire to be "wise" and "as gods."16 This would reduce the fallen nature of man to pride. May we then attribute man's ills, including war, to his vanity?

Set-Typhon, intriguingly, is also associated with the sea. The "beast from the air" comes, as it were, from "a sudden bright explosion" carried by the changing winds to its resting place on the island. Typhon, who is also regarded as "fire,"(367C) later became the god of winds. The narrator also informs us that the boys arrived on the island by some "enchantment. Some act of God—a typhoon perhaps."17 It strikes us as more than coincidental that typhoon is derived from Typhon. Moreover, this passage appears to refer to the arrival of the boys, or Ralph, on the island. Given the construction of this passage, "his" could refer to the arrival of a god.

The beast's manifestations as "from the sea," "from the air," and "in us" are all associated with war. Rescue, long awaited and desperately needed, comes in the form of a trim warship off-shore; that is, rescue comes from the sea. The dead parachutist bears a message from the adult world, to the boys, from a "battle fought at ten miles' height." This sign descends upon the boys just as their society is disintegrating, and just as Ralph cries out for a sign from the supposedly well-ordered adult world, a world which, the narrator informs us, is embroiled in a cataclysmic war.18 Our diseased nature, the beast "in us," leads the boys to war and barbarism just as it does in the adult world.19

The Osiris myth accounts for the emergence of discord and, hence, war. It thereby demonstrates the precariousness of civilization. According to Plutarch, while reigning as king on earth, the god Osiris gave the Egyptians civilization by introducing laws, worship of the gods, marriage, and agriculture. Before Osiris gave them agriculture the Egyptians had been savages and cannibals. Osiris's brother, the daemon Set-Typhon, filled with envy and pride, sought to usurp his throne. Frustrated in his attempt to take his brother's place, Typhon tricked Osiris and drowned him. Isis, the wife of Osiris, searched for the body, regained it and concealed it in the woods. Typhon, while hunting pig during a full moon, discovered and mutilated it. A war, punctuated with "terrible deeds" and "confusion," ensued until Horus, son of Osiris, appears to have defeated Typhon. But as Plutarch notes, although "weakened and shattered [the] power of Typhon still gasps and struggles" (362E).

Plutarch informs us that the wise interpret the myth as an explanation of entirely natural phenomena: the Nile is Osiris, Isis the earth, and Typhon the sea. The yearly inundation of the Nile valley marks the victory of Osiris and Horus over Typhon. But Plutarch also makes it quite clear that a strict allegory is an insufficient guide to understanding. The "wisest," Plutarch continues, "think that nature must contain in itself the creation and origin of evil as well as good" (369D). Osiris, then, represents good in the universe and Typhon evil. The creative, fertilizing, and nourishing aspects of nature are represented by Osiris as is the order of the universe. Typhon symbolizes "everything harmful and destructive in nature" (369A).

Plutarch also states that this myth, "because it is inbred into the body and into the soul of the universe," reverberates with meaning for the soul of man. Osiris represents reason and mind (nous kai logos) in addition to creativity (371A). Moreover, Plutarch concludes that Osiris and Dionysus are the same deity (356). They either represent the same qualities within the soul or have the same origin and source. The identification of Osiris with both the reasonable and creative elements of the soul (373B) poses a problem, because Osiris as both the creative principle and dispassionate reason questions our modern disassociation of reason from creativity or reason from intuition.

Typhon represents "the element of soul which is passionate, akin to the Titans, without reason, and brutish" (371B). He personifies the overpowering, violent, and proud (371B). On account of these qualities, Typhon lusted after Osiris's preferred position. His desire to garner power was described by Plutarch as a "mad frenzy" (368D). The ritual slaughter of animals becomes identified with Typhon through this myth.

The dramatic movement of the Osiris myth flows from the character of the daemon Typhon. Typhon's desire to rule leads him to wage war against his brother. If this myth does speak to the soul of man, and man like nature contains both Osirian and Typhonic traits, then we can conclude that man is by nature proud.20 Man can, therefore, be said to be a fallen creature because of his desire to be preferred. Pride leads some, in this myth Typhon, to heroic exertions, but also to harm others. Thus, Typhon may be said to be heroic and sick. Pride leads to war.

The Typhonic element of human nature, in Lord of the Flies, is represented by Jack. Jack is red-haired, freckled, hence ruddy, and prone to blush when angry and frustrated. Typhon, according to the tradition, is described as red and ruddy. Indeed, red-haired men were burned and abused in ancient Egypt because they represented Typhon.21 When Jack's face "blushes with mortification," on the election of Ralph, he can be said to be red. And as Golding again describes, after the second vote, "Jack turned, red in face," because he had been outwitted (p. 115).22 Jack desires to be preferred, and when his pride is offended he blushes. It should also be noted that when Ralph's moral superiority is in doubt he too blushes (p. 137). Thus, blushing appears as a manifestation of wounded pride. Golding's depiction of the character Jack, and blushing, accords well with Plutarch's description of Typhon as envious, proud, and red.

Jack's soul is also Typhonic. He evinces an overweening ambition and a burning desire to be chief, demonstrated by his competition with Ralph both when the boys first selected a chief and when Jack calls for a vote of "no confidence" in Ralph. After his second parliamentary defeat, Jack responds by creating his own society and waging war on Ralph's. Jack's successful society is dedicated to hunting, war, protection from the beast, but most importantly to placating Jack's ego. Jack's regime reverts to savagery, and the narrator describes it as "demented" (p. 92). It is the antithesis of the society he opposes, the society made possible by Piggy and his specs.

Ralph seems to be the civilized counterpart to Jack: Osiris to Jack's Typhon. Ralph blows the conch, articulates the idea for a rescue fire, and, according to Jack, "gives the orders." Ralph certainly looks the part of a leader and, unlike Piggy, he comes from the class expected to lead.23 He insists that the boys must have and follow rules.

Yet after arriving on the island, Ralph does not know how he got there. The opening conversation makes it pellucid that Piggy does. Although Ralph discovers the conch, Piggy knows what it is and how to use it. But perhaps, most important of all, Piggy sees the need for a meeting. Once the boys are gathered, Piggy "moved among the crowd asking names and frowning to remember them" (p. 17). Not Ralph, but Piggy knows the importance of assemblies. Piggy can, for these reasons, be deemed the true founder of the parliamentarian society created by the assembly. At the start of the novel, the narrator states, "what intelligence had been shown was traceable to Piggy" (p. 21).

Damning to the interpretation that Ralph is the reasonable character is his attraction to the seductions of hunting, fierce exhilaration, and ambition. In the incident where Ralph almost maims Robert in the ecstacy of a pig killing ritual, he was "carried away by a sudden thick excitement" and overmastered by a "desire to squeeze and hurt" (p. 104). More damning is his participation in yet another pig killing ritual: the murder of Simon. His self-forgetting in the irrational, frenzy of the boy's orgiastic rituals conspires against the Bacchae interpretation, discussed above, for the authors of that interpretation concluded that Ralph was Pentheus who tried to repress irrationality causing his downfall.24 He demonstrates that he too can be carried away by mad frenzy.

If Ralph does not represent the Osirian elements, what does he represent? Following Golding, we agree that Ralph is "the average rather more than average, man of goodwill and commonsense."25 Ralph represents better than average humanity;26 his tale is ours.

Golding represents the duality of Osiris's nature with Simon and Piggy. They together embody that mixture of reason and intuition, which is the root of creativity. It should be recalled that the distinction made in Plutarch's Isis et Osiris was between the destructive and passionate, on the one hand, and creative and rational, on the other. Again, unlike modern perceptions, the Osiris myth, does not disassociate reason and creativity. Golding insists that art and reason are connected. As he related: "this business that the artist as a sort of starry-eyed inspired creature, dancing along with his feet two or three feet above the surface of the earth, not really knowing what sort of prince he's leaving behind him, is nothing like the truth."27

Golding may have felt it necessary to bifurcate Osiris to make this myth accessible to a modern audience. Golding has supported this "reduction" of Simon and Piggy to the same root by stating that Simon is "Simon called Peter," and that this character was derived, in part, from the character Peterkin Gay of Ballantyne's Coral Island.28 Piggy is also an odd contraction of Peterkin's name by combining the first initial and one vowel of each part of his name to form PiGy.

An Osirian interpretation also avoids the difficulty of explaining why Golding deviated from Euripides over the choice of "scapegoats." Golding, according to the authors of the " Bacchae " interpretation, assigned the scapegoat role to Simon, but from the logic of their analysis the scapegoat should have been Ralph, "the Pentheus in embryo."29 Neither Dick nor Baker offer a satisfactory solution to this problem of Golding's choice. Golding also passionately denies that Simon is a scapegoat.30

From the moment we first see the boys on the island, Piggy appears as a knower. Piggy has an inkling of the chaos into which the adult world has fallen. He understands that their coming to be on the island is linked to the war raging outside. He attempts to dispel the irrational fear of the littluns by offering a rational account of fear and the beast. Speaking of "doctors … for the inside of your mind," Piggy concludes that fear is in the beholder; it does not result from a healthy apprehension of the unknown. The author has Piggy proclaim the credo of scientific humanism, "Life is scientific, that's what it is" (p. 76).

Piggy's knowledge is, however, quite limited.31 Its roots are modern science and deductions from empirical observations. Only that which can be demonstrated in the light of day is real and rational. Piggy, moreover, lacks practical wisdom; he doesn't understand people. For example, he questions whether the island can sustain a beast. He asks, "What would a beast eat?" (p. 75). The obvious, and ironic, answer is that it would eat pig. He goes on to precipitate the debate that marks the boy's undoing by asking Phil to recount his experience of the beast. Phil's tortured rambling initiates a chain of events that would lead the narrator to relate, "That the world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away" (p. 82). Had Piggy been an acute observer of men, or boys, he would have realized how fragile the island society had become and foreseen the impact of Phil's tale.

Piggy's lack of prudence points to another fatal flaw in his understanding. He proves incapable of diagnosing the disease that afflicts the boys: he cannot see the beast for what it is. Piggy refuses to admit that Simon's death was murder. Calling it an accident, he refuses even to acknowledge his participation. He rationalizes the entire incident by arguing, "He hadn't no business crawling like that out of the dark. He was batty. He asked for it" (p. 143). Piggy denies the moral implication of their collective guilt. He coldly declares, "We never done nothing, we never seen nothing." Piggy's reason illequips him to understand the nature and origin of evil. Indeed, Piggy's scientific humanism precludes him from seeing the beast in us.

Scientific humanism, which is faith in the progressive and liberating power of science and man's ability to rationally posit values, has stripped man naked of the religious context which gave his life meaning. Confidence in mankind's ability to conquer nature and prejudice gave modern man the sensation that hitherto undreamed of possibilities were now opened to him. However, recent history and the myriad of variations on the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche indicate that scientific humanism precludes us from positing any value; that is, it precludes us from seeing evil for what it is.32 The scientific humanist, the "model intellectual," is "literally in a state of free fall."33

However, there is one character who sees, but the status and nature of his understanding disturbs modern sensibilities. Golding's "saint" Simon knows the truth about the beast.34 He arrives at the novel's truth about the fallen nature of man. As the lord of the flies asserts:

"There isn't anyone to help you. Only me. And I'm the Beast."

Simon's mouth labored, brought forth audible words.

"Pig's head on a stick."

"Fancy thinking that the beast was something you could hunt and kill!" said the head.

For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with a parody of laughter. "You knew didn't you? I'm part of you? Close, close, close! I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?"

(p. 130)

This truth comes to Simon in the form of a revelation.35 He had also intuited it earlier. In the disastrous assembly, which signaled the collapse of Ralph's regime, we learned that Simon knew the truth about the beast. But the boys, principally Piggy, shout him down.

Simon attempts to articulate his vision of the beast with, "What is the dirtiest thing there is?" Jack's crude, monosyllabic response literally ruins Simon's effort. The reader is left to wonder what the dirtiest thing is, Jack's response, and how they relate to the beast. From the vantage point of a young boy we may infer that excrement, which can be conveyed in one crude syllable, is the dirtiest thing.36 "Shit" is in us, entirely natural, and yet invisible like the beast. Like the beast, it too evokes revulsion when it becomes manifest. Simon's inspired image and Jack's reply are altogether apt. Simon may not be able to articulate his message, because, by its very nature, it can not be rationally defended.37 Simon would have been unable to persuade the other boys even if he could find the words. He is ridiculed, later mistaken for the beast, and eventually beaten to death for his insight and effort.

Simon's death symbolically marks the death of the god Osiris by the power of Typhon. Just as Simon's murder is prefigured by the pig-hunting ritual, by moonlight, so too is Osiris's body discovered by Typhon during a moonlit pig hunt. A similar fate befalls Piggy, the rational face of Osiris, in the mad, ego-driven frenzy that sweeps away the last vestiges of sanity. Again, on the surface, both the similarity of Pig to Piggy and that animal's association with Osiris support an Osirian interpretation. The sea claimed the battered bodies of Piggy and Simon just as the sea had claimed the body of Osiris.

We are not, however, offering up either Simon or Piggy as scapegoats.38 A scapegoat unwillingly becomes a surrogate for the god; he appeases the god by being sacrificed to him. Given the situation on the island at the time of their deaths, we witness the stuff out of which new cults and their attendant rituals are made. We observe the death of the "gods," not their scapegoats who will come later. The return of "civilization" in the guise of the naval officer neither precludes the destruction of Western civilization, as we know it, nor that Ralph will pass on his new found knowledge in the form of a myth.

Golding appears to contradict the foregoing interpretation by insisting that Simon is a saint. His depiction of Simon as a "saint" carries definite Christian connotations. But a saint is, as Chesterton revealed, "a medicine because he is an antidote. Indeed that is why the saint is often a martyr; he is mistaken for a poison because he is an antidote."39 Simon represents the antidote for a rationalism that cannot see. Simon's insight into the beast offers the boys the possibility of salvation on the island, not, insofar as we know, in heaven. Simon's knowledge, had it been believed, would have made up for the defects in Piggy's. Piggy's knowledge coupled with the ability to see beyond mere appearance would have made Ralph's regime resilient to the inroads of Jack's barbarism.

As Leo Strauss observed, "The very life of Western civilization is the life between two codes [the biblical and Greek philosophic], a fundamental tension."40 The separation of rational and revelatory knowledge, from Golding's perspective,41 is both the essence and the illness of the West. It "has begotten that lame giant we call civilization as Frankenstein created his monster."42 The ascendancy of scientific humanism, its inability to see or to posit eternal verities, leaves modern man free falling in the abyss of nihilism. We confront, through our excavation of Golding's myth, the value problem. Until Simon and Piggy together comprise an Osiris, Western civilization cannot diagnose, let alone cure, its essential illness.

The narrator reveals mankind's essential illness with compelling clarity in the following scene:

"This was fascinating to Henry. He poked about with a bit of stick, that itself was wave-torn and whitened and a vagrant, and tried to control the motions of the scavengers. He made little runnels that the tide filled and tried to crowd them with creatures. He became absorbed beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things. He talked to them, urging them, ordering them. Driven back by the tide, his footprints became bays in which they were trapped and gave him the illusion of mastery."

(p. 56)

Henry, who is a child, the modern apotheosis of innocence, seeks mastery over other living things, and he too is marked by the beast. The root of his will to mastery is vanity. Henry may be distinguished from Jack, or Typhon, but only in power and magnitude. This is the terrible, dark truth that resides at the heart of Lord of the Flies.

Pride has various manifestations, among them honor, prestige, fame, and wealth. Off-campus history, or nationalism, is but one manifestation of this deeper tragic flaw. But perhaps even more troubling for modern man, pride in our ideas has "thrust our world into a mental straitjacket from which we can escape only by the most anarchic violence."43 The virulent, global atrocities of the twentieth century were caused by both ideological pride and nationalism. But these otherwise impressive edifices are merely projections out from the self, which seeks to have its views sanctified. They are mirrors, if you will, that reflect back to us our own petty prejudices. Modern man, who can explain everything in entirely antiseptic, sanitary ways cannot, no matter how often he cleanses himself, rid himself of the decay that comes from within.


  1. See "Fable," in The Hot Gates and Other Occasional Pieces (New York: Harcourt, 1966), p. 98 (hereafter HG). Golding also invites speculation on the moral lesson by arguing that "the novelist ought not to preach overtly in a fable" (p. 94). See also "Belief and Creativity," in A Moving Target (New York: Farrar, 1982), p. 198 (hereafter MT). He indicates, however, that not all of these diverse interpretations are equally correct.
  2. See for example Howard S. Babb, The Novels of William Golding, 2d ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1986); Peter Bien, "Visions of a Latter-Day Modernist: William Golding's Nobel Prize," World Literature Review 58 (1982): 165-66; and Virginia Tiger, William Golding: The Dark Fields of Discovery (London: Calder and Boyars, 1974). In support of this view, Golding points out that Simon is a "Christfigure" and a "saint." See "Fable," p. 96, and Golding's BBC interview with Frank Kermode, "The Meaning of It All," Books and Bookman 5 (1959):9-10.
  3. James J. Whitley, Golding: Lord of the Flies (London: Edward Arnold, 1970); E. L. Epstein, "Notes on Lord of the Flies, " in Golding's Lord of the Flies (New York: Perigree Books, 1954); Leighton Hodson, William Golding (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1969), pp. 30-31. See also Golding's own comments on the over-interpretation of Lord of the Flies in MT, pp. 171, 198.
  4. William Golding and James R. Baker, "An Interview with William Golding," Twentieth Century Literature 28 (1982):165-66.
  5. Bernard Dick, William Golding (New York: Twayne, 1967), pp. 26-33, and James R. Baker, "Why It's No Go," in Critical Essays on William Golding, ed. James R. Baker (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988).
  6. Baker, pp. 25ff. We may impute to the boys pride in English superiority. As Jack says, "We're English, and the English are best at everything." Howard Babb, on the other hand, argues that the "innocent pride" attributed to the boys is pride in their own wisdom (p.33 n. 8).
  7. "Fable," p. 90.
  8. Dick, p. 36.
  9. See William Golding, An Egyptian Journal (Boston: Faber and Faber, 1985), pp. 10-12, 161-62. Golding makes it clear that he is fond of Plutarch's account of the Osiris myth; indeed, he calls the absence of it on his voyage down the Nile a "disaster" (p. 12). See also Golding and Baker, "An Interview," pp. 157-58, 160, and "Egypt From My Inside," in HG, pp. 71-73. For additional examples of his interest in things Egyptian see William Golding, "Egypt From My Outside," in MT, and William Golding, The Scorpion God: Three Short Novels (New York: Harcourt, 1972).
  10. "Fable," p. 88.
  11. Whitley, p. 48.
  12. Samuel Hynes, "William Golding's Lord of the Flies, "in Critical Essays on William Golding, ed. James R. Baker (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1988) and Epstein, p. 187.
  13. See Stephen Metcalf, William Golding (Harlow, Essex: Longman, 1975), pp. 11-12.
  14. John Gywnn Griffiths, "Commentary," in De Isis et Osiris, by Plutarch (Cambridge: Univ. of Wales Press, 1970), p. 388. All references to Plutarch will be from this edition by line number in text. 15. Epstein, pp. 418-19. Beelzebub is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Ba'alzevuv.
  15. Genesis 3:3-7.
  16. William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Perigee Books, 1954), p. 12. All subsequent references will be from this edition by page number in text.
  17. Had the boys seen the descending parachutist, whom Golding equates with "history that won't lie down" and off-campus history, their situation could have worsened. It was sufficiently difficult for Ralph to convince the boys to keep the fire going in the hope of being rescued. Had the boys known that the adult world was in flames, itself in need of rescue, their descent into barbarism would have been hastened. For Golding's connection between "history that won't lie down" and the dead parachutist see "The Meaning of It All," pp. 9-10.
  18. "Fable," pp. 87-88.
  19. The foregoing interpretation of the Osiris myth loosely resembles the view of man advanced by Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan, and obliquely attacked by Jean Jacques Rousseau in Discours sur l'origine de l'inegalite. Man is a fallen creature, destined to prey upon his kind, because he is vain.
  20. James G. Frazer, The Golden Bough: The Roots of Religion and Folklore (New York: Avenel Books, 1981), vol. 2, p. 59.
  21. There are numerous other examples where the narrator describes Jack as "red." See pp. 21, 37, and 127.
  22. S. J. Boyd, The Novels of William Golding (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988), p. 11.
  23. See Baker, pp. 27-28, and Dick, p. 31. See pp. 2-4 above.
  24. "Fable," p. 89.
  25. Alternatively, the two boys whose last names are given by the author—Jack Meridew and Percival Weyms Madison—are the poles of the adult world. Jack is bullying, competitive, and aggressive, while Percival is frightened, overwhelmed, and diffident. Only a Hobbean theoretical framework divides man into two such starkly contrasting character types: the mad man of great vain glory and the common man of fear. See Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ch. 8 and ch. 13.
  26. "The Meaning of It All," p. 9.
  27. Ibid., p. 10.
  28. Dick, p. 31.
  29. "The Meaning of It All," p. 9.
  30. Whitley, pp. 26-27; Babb, pp. 21-22; and Boyd, p. 8.
  31. We live, for example, in an age that refuses to call young, brutal rapists, who leave their victim lying in a park bloody and comatose, evil. Instead we rationalize their behavior by finding socioeconomic factors to explain it.
  32. Jack I. Biles, Talk: Conversations with William Golding (New York: Harcourt, 1970), pp. 79-80.
  33. Roger too knows our natures, he knows what moves men. When Samneric are captured Roger stops Jack from seriously injuring them, not out of human kindness, but because he realizes they will prove useful. Roger tortures and apparently converts them. Roger does this to nab Ralph. He knows that Ralph will smell the meat, hunger for it, and this in addition to his isolation will draw him to Castle Rock. Roger posts the two recent converts on watch, but he watches them. Roger's manipulation of Ralph's hunger and isolation is all the more troubling because he is only a boy.
  34. This is not, of course, Simon's only revelation. Simon also prophesized that Ralph would get rescued. As Simon put it, "You'll get back to where you came from" (p. 101).
  35. Following a similar line of reasoning, Whitley argues that lord of the flies could be rendered in English as "lord of dung" (p. 43).
  36. There are two ways of knowing: reason and revelation. Reason, by definition, is a logical demonstration based upon orderly deductions or inductions. Revelation is a mysterious way of knowing that is implanted in the receiver, who as a consequence becomes a knower. A revelation is neither speculation nor a chain a reasoning based upon observation. Moses, for example, faithfully accepts Yahweh's revelation that he will lead the Israelites from bondage in Egypt. Yahweh's message admits neither theoretical speculation nor logical demonstration. It is not that words cannot describe the prophetic vision, but rather the veracity of its claim is questionable. Scientific humanism, which is based upon empirical observation, has demoted revealed religion to the status of opinion. 38. The scapegoat is usually an unwilling participant in the ritual. Golding vigorously denies that Simon is a scapegoat. Simon willingly accepts his fate like a saint ("The Meaning of It All," p. 9).
  37. G. K. Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox (New York: Doubleday, 1956), p. 23.
  38. Leo Strauss, "The Mutual Influence of Philosophy and Theology," The Independent Journal of Philosophy 3 (1979): 111.
  39. Golding makes clear his opposition to scientific humanism in "A Moving Target," in MT, p. 163; "Belief and Creativity," pp. 186-87; and "On the Crest of the Wave," in HG, pp. 129-31. See also James R. Baker, "Three Decades of Criticism," in Critical Essays on William Golding, p. 2.
  40. "Egypt from My Inside," p. 72.
  41. "Belief and Creativity," p. 187.

Lawrence S. Friedman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Friedman, Lawrence S. "Grief, Grief, Grief: Lord of the Flies. "In William Golding, pp. 19-32. New York: Continuum, 1993.

[In the following essay, Friedman explores the theme of grief.]

Lord of the Flies opens in Eden. Ralph, fair-haired protagonist, and Piggy, faithful companion and resident intellectual, look about them and pronounce their island good. And so it is, for William Golding has set his young castaways down upon an uninhabited Pacific island as lush as it is remote. Fruit hangs ripe for the picking; fresh water flows abundantly from a convenient mountain; and the tropical climate soon prompts the boys to throw off their clothes. Ralph joyfully stands on his head, an action he will repeat at moments of high emotion. It is easy to forget that the world is at war, and that the plane that carried Ralph, Piggy, and the many other English boys stranded on the island, was shot down by the enemy.

As war and plane crash recede from memory, the visible world shrinks to the desert island and its populace of six-to twelve-year-old-boys. Because of the island's fecundity and mild climate the boys are largely exempt from the struggle for food and shelter; because of their youth they are exempt from sexual longing and deprivation; because of their isolation they are exempt from adult constraints. Free to live as they choose, they can act out every boy's dream of romantic adventure until their eventual rescue. Lord of the Flies begins, therefore, as a modern retelling of R. M. Ballantyne's Victorian children's classic, Coral Island. Indeed Golding traces his book's genesis to a night when he had finished reading just such an island adventure story to his eldest child.1 Exasperated by the familiar cutout characters and smug optimism of the original, he conceived of breathing life into a moribund genre by isolating boys on a desert island and showing how they would really behave. Ballantyne's shipwrecked boys, somewhat older than Golding's, lead an idyllic life on their remote South Seas island. Tropical nature is benign, the boys' characters conventionally innocent. What evil exists on Coral Island enters in the form of such adult intruders as savage cannibals or pirates. Ballantyne's vision is doubly optimistic: man is inherently good; and good will win out in the end. Like most fairy tales, Coral Island is an amalgam of faith and hope.

On Golding's coral island, Piggy's allusions to atomic war, dead adults, and uncertainty of rescue barely ripple the surface of Ralph's pleasant daydreams. Soon the boys recover a conch from the lagoon. More than a plaything, the conch will become a means of communication, and ultimately a symbol of law and order. Instructed by the wise but ineffectual Piggy, Ralph blows on the conch, thereby summoning the scattered boys. Possession of the conch ensures Ralph's election as chief. Later the assembled boys agree that whoever wishes to speak must raise his hand and request the conch. Cradling the conch in one's hands not only confers instant personal authority but affirms the common desire for an orderly society.

Read as a social treatise, Golding's first chapter seems to posit notions of fair play and group solidarity familiar to readers of Coral Island. But the same chapter introduces us to Jack Merridew marching at the head of his uniformed column of choirboys. Clad in black and silver and led by an obviously authoritarian figure, the choirboys seem boy Nazis. Frustrated by Ralph's election as chief, Jack barely conceals his anger. The chapter ends with Jack, knife in hand, reflexively hesitating long enough on the downward stroke to allow a trapped piglet to escape. The civilized taboo against bloodletting remains shakily in place as the angry boy settles for slamming his knife into a tree trunk. "Next time," he cries.

It is the exploration of Jack's "next time" that will occupy much of the remainder of Lord of the Flies. By fixing incipient evil within Jack, Golding reverses the sanguine premise of nineteenth-century adventure stories that locate evil in the alien or mysterious forces of the outside world. According to Golding his generation's "liberal and naive belief in the perfectibility of man" was exploded by World War II. Hitler's gas chambers revealed man's inherent evil. His followers were not Ballantyne's savage cannibals or desperate pirates whose evil magically dissipated upon their conversion to Christianity. Rather they were products of that very Christian civilization that presumably guarantees their impossibility. Nor does it suffice to accept Ballantyne's implication that his boys' Englishness, like their Christianity, marks them as inevitably good. "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. So we've got to do the right things." Coming from Golding's Jack, these words effectively shatter Ballantyne's easy optimism. Conditioned no less by the theology of man's fall than by Nazi atrocities, Lord of the Flies traces the spreading stain of man's depravity from its first intimations in Jack to its near-total corruption of the boys and their social order. "I decided," explained Golding, "to take the literary convention of boys on an island, only make them real boys instead of paper cutouts with no life in them; and try to show how the shape of the society they evolved would be conditioned by their diseased, their fallen nature."2

Too immature to account for the enemy within, the boys project their irrational fears onto the outside world. The first of these projections takes the shape of a snakelike "beastie," the product of a small boy's nightmare. One side of the boy's face "was blotted out by a mulberry-colored birthmark," the visible sign of the dual nature of fallen man. More by force of personality than by reason, Ralph succeeds in exorcising the monster from the group consciousness. Now the boys struggle to drag logs up the mountain for a signal fire, Ralph and Jack bearing the heaviest log between them. Jack's momentary selflessness combined with the manipulation of the lenses of Piggy's spectacles to start their fire—as well as the very act of fire building itself—signal a resurgence of civilized values. But the fire soon rages out of control; exploding trees and rising creepers reinvoke cries of "Snakes!, Snakes"; and the small boy with the birthmark has mysteriously disappeared. The seed of fear has been planted. Reason has failed to explain the darkness within, and the island paradise begins its fatal transformation into hell.

Soon Ralph and Jack find communication impossible, the former talking of building shelters, the latter of killing pigs. Increasingly obsessed with his role as hunter, Jack neglects his more important role as keeper of the signal fire. Painting a fierce mask on his face he is "liberated from shame and self-consciousness." Shortly thereafter he and his frenzied followers march along swinging the gutted carcass of a pig from a stake to the incantory chant, "Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood." Abandonment to blind ritual has displaced the reasoned discourse governed by the conch. Meanwhile the untended fire has gone out, and a ship has sailed past the island. Lost in blood lust, Jack's thoughts are far from rescue, and he at first barely comprehends Ralph's anger. When he does, he strikes out at the helpless Piggy, shattering one of his lenses. Reason henceforth is half-blind; the fragile link between Ralph and Jack snaps; and ritual singing and dancing resume as the boys gorge themselves on the slaughtered pig. That Ralph and Piggy join in the feast indicates the all-too-human failure to resist the blandishments of mass hysteria.

Killing marks the end of innocence. It is a wiser Ralph who "found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life where every path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one's waking life was spent watching one's feet … and remembering that first enthusiastic exploration as though it were part of a brighter childhood, he smiled jeeringly." Here at the beginning of the important fifth chapter, "Beast from Water," the regression and initiation themes converge. On the basis of his newfound knowledge, Ralph assembles the boys to discuss such practical matters as sanitation, shelter, and, most crucially, the keeping of the fire. But the tension among the boys is palpable, and Ralph soon confesses, "Things are breaking up. I don't understand why. We began well, we were happy." And he concludes, "Then people started getting frightened." Piggy's theory that life is scientific is countered by new reports of a beast from the sea. Neither Piggy's logic nor Ralph's rules can hold the boys together, and the meeting scatters in confusion.

E. M. Forster pleads in his introduction to the 1962 American edition of Lord of the Flies for more respect for Piggy.3 Of course he is correct. Faced with specters of water beasts and Jack's authoritarian violence, who could fail to opt for Piggy's rationalism? Yet unaided reason cannot tell Ralph why things go wrong; it can only deny the physical reality of the beast. It is left to Simon, the skinny, inarticulate seer to "express mankind's essential illness" by fixing the beast's location: "What I mean is … maybe it's only us." Golding's moral—that defects in human society can be traced back to defects in human nature—can be illustrated by the fable of the scorpion and the frog:

"Let me ride across the pond on your back," pleads the scorpion.

"No," replies the frog, "for if I let you on my back your sting will prove fatal."

"Listen to reason," cries the scorpion. "If I sting you, you'll sink to the bottom of the pond, and I'll drown."

So the frog takes the scorpion on his back and begins swimming. Midway across the pond, he feels the scorpion's fatal sting. "How could you," gasps the frog with his dying breath. "Now you'll drown."

"I couldn't help it," sighs the scorpion. "It's my nature."4

Though his irrationality, like the scorpion's, may cost him his life, man is his own worst enemy. Undone by the beast within, man self-destructs no matter what form of social organization he adopts.

"Beast from the Air" opens with the sign from the world of grown-ups that answers Ralph's desperate cry for help after the breakup of the assembly. Dropping from the air battle high above the island, a dead parachutist settles on the mountaintop where fitful breezes cause him spasmodically to rise and fall. This grotesque "message" recalls the adult savagery that marooned the boys on the island. Moreover, the boys now take the faraway figure for the beast that haunts their dreams. Confronted by its apparent physical reality even Ralph succumbs to fear. The ironic appropriateness of the man-beast foreshadows Jack's growing power and the final unraveling of the social order. Now that the primary task is to kill the beast, Jack assumes command. Promising hunting and feasting he lures more and more boys into his camp. Man regresses from settler to roving hunter, society from democracy to dictatorship.

It is at this point, shortly after the collapse of social order under the pressures of inherent evil associated with Jack and irrational fear embodied in the beast from the air, that Golding paints his most startling and powerful scene. Simon, the only boy who feels the need for solitude, returns to his place of contemplation, a leafy shelter concealed by the dense growth of the forest. There he witnesses the butchering of a frantically screaming sow, its gutting and dismemberment, and the erection of its bleeding head on a pole. This head, abandoned by the hunters as a "gift" to the beast, presides over a pile of guts that attracts great swarms of buzzing flies. And the Lord of the Flies speaks: "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill. You knew didn't you? I'm part of you? Close, close, close! I'm the reason why it's no go? Why things are what they are?" Looking into the vast mouth, Simon sees only a spreading blackness into which he falls in a faint.

As previously noted, Golding has called himself a fabulist and his novel a fable. All fables contain morals; and the moral of Lord of the Flies is stated most explicitly in the confrontation between Simon and the pig's head. "I included a Christ-figure in my fable. This is the little boy Simon, solitary, stammering, a lover of mankind, a visionary."5 Since the Lord of the Flies is Beelzebub, the Judeo-Christian prince of devils, the scene dramatizes the clash between principles of good and evil. To accept the consequences of Golding's symbolism is to recognize the inequality of the struggle between Simon and the head. The Lord of the Flies has invaded Simon's forest sanctuary to preach an age-old sermon: evil lies within man whose nature is inherently depraved. Simon cannot counter this lesson. Engulfed by the spreading blackness of the vast mouth, he is overwhelmed by Beelzebub's power and loses consciousness. While it does not necessarily follow that Christ's message is similarly overpowered by Satan's, the forest scene strongly implies that innocence and good intentions are lost amidst the general ubiquity of evil. That evil cannot be isolated in Jack or in the beast; it is "close, close, close," a part of all of us.

The Simon who awakens from his faint trudges out of the forest "like an old man," stooping under the heavy burden of revelation. Immediately he comes face-to-face with a second awful symbol of human corruption—the rotting body of the downed parachutist. It, too, has been found by the flies; like the pig's head it too has been reduced to a corrupt and hideous parody of life. Releasing the broken figure from the tangled parachute lines that bind it to the rocks, Simon staggers back down the mountain with his news that the beast is harmless. But he stumbles into the frenzied mob of dancing and chanting boys who take him for the beast, fall upon him, and tear him apart.

The ritual murder of Simon is as ironic as it is inevitable. Ironically, he is killed as the beast before he can explain that the beast does not exist. His horrid death refutes his aborted revelation: the beast exists, all right, not where we thought to find it, but within ourselves. Inevitably, we kill our savior who "would set us free from the repetitious nightmare of history."6 Unable to perceive his truth, we huddle together in the circle of our fear and reenact his ritual murder, as ancient as human history itself. Golding's murderous boys, the products of centuries of Christianity and Western civilization, explode the hope of Christ's sacrifice by repeating the pattern of his crucifixion. Simon's fate underlines the most awful truths about human nature: its blindness, its irrationality, its blood lust.

That the human condition is hopeless is revealed in the fact that even Ralph and Piggy felt the need to join in the "demented but partly secure society" of the hunters just prior to Simon's murder. Later, they console themselves with the excuse that they remained outside the dancing circle. When Ralph recalls the horror of the murder, Piggy first tries to deny its reality. And when Ralph refuses to drop the subject, Piggy shrills again and again that Simon's death was an accident. His desperate rationalizations point to the inability of human reason to cope with the dark reality of human nature. Piggy's excuses are mere frantic attempts to explain away our basest instincts and actions. Their transparent failure to do so marks the limits of the human intellect. Symbolic of the fall of reason is the loss of Piggy's sight. His broken glasses, the means of fire making, are stolen in a raid by Jack and his hunters. As Jack stalks triumphantly off with the glasses dangling from his hand, the reign of savagery is all but sealed.

Jack's victory comes swiftly in the following chapter, "Castle Rock." Again Golding sets up a contest between principles of good and evil. But this time the outcome is a foregone conclusion. The pack of painted savages who blindly murdered Simon has by now abandoned all restraints. Personified by Roger, Jack's fanatical self-appointed "executioner," the hunters turn viciously against Ralph and Piggy and the twins Sam and Eric, the last four remnants of an orderly society. From high atop a cliff Roger pushes a great rock that, gathering momentum, strikes Piggy, killing the fat boy and shattering the conch. Although the conch has long since lost the power to invoke order, its explosion signals the final triumph of lawlessness. Screaming wildly, "I'm chief," Jack hurls his spear at Ralph, inflicting a flesh wound, and forcing the former chief to run frantically for his life.

"Cry of the Hunters," the novel's concluding chapter, marks the final degenerative stage in Golding's fable of man's fall. Ralph's pursuers, freed by Piggy's murder from the faint restraint of reason, have reduced Ralph to their quarry. As the savage pack closes in, the sad lesson of the hunt is inescapable: not that the boys are dehumanized, but that they are all too human. Man's basic instinct is to kill; and the depth of his depravity is measured by the urge to kill his own species. Not only does the metaphor of the hunt complete Golding's definition of the human animal, but it forges a link to analogous hunts in Greek drama that loom in the background of Lord of the Flies.

Golding has often acknowledged the formative influence of the ancients. Together with the biblical version of man's fate expressed in the doctrine of original sin, Greek drama fleshes out the myth of the fall. If it is true that a writer's forebears surface most apparently in his early work, then the final hunt of Lord of the Flies is second only to Simon's "passion" in fixing the origins of Golding's most cherished ideas. While it is true that Simon's confrontation with the pig's head and his subsequent martyrdom are couched primarily in Christian terms, the Greek influence is also apparent. The pig's head is at once the Judeo-Christian Beelzebub and the king of the Olympian gods. Thus Jean-Paul Sartre's modern reworking of Greek motifs in The Flies opens on a public square in Argos, "dominated by a statue of Zeus, god of flies and death. The image has white eyes and blood-smeared cheeks."7 Zeus himself appears in the play to explain the great swarms of buzzing flies that plague the city. "They are," he says, "a symbol," sent by the gods to "a dead-and-alive city, a carrion city" still festering fifteen years after the original sin of Agamemnon's murder. The citizens of Argos are "working out their atonement." Their "fear and guilty consciences have a good savor in the nostrils of the gods." Zeus implies that man's blood lust is balanced by his reverence for the gods, a view shared by Golding: "As far back as we can go in history we find that the two signs of man are a capacity to kill and a belief in God."8 Human fear and guilt are perverse affirmations of the gods' existence and therefore find favor with the gods. For Sartre, the existential philosopher, man's awful freedom, won at the expense of breaking his shackles to the gods, is all-important. But for Golding, the Christian believer, man is lost without God. The absence of prayer, even among fearful young choirboys, is one of the darkest aspects of Lord of the Flies.

Although The Flies may have no direct bearing upon Golding's novel, its title as well as its identification of Zeus as god of flies and death reveal the same backdrop of Greek tradition. At the end of Sartre's play, the hero Orestes, drawn directly from Greek drama, is pursued by the shrieking Furies. No such deities hunt Ralph, only his fellow boys. Yet chase scenes of all kinds fill Greek drama, and Golding the classicist seems indebted not merely to the general metaphor of the hunt but specifically to its powerful treatment in two plays of Euripides: The Bacchae and Iphigenia in Tauris.

Euripides wrote The Bacchae, his greatest and most difficult play, in the wake of a disillusionment with the Peloponnesian War as profound as Golding's with World War II. As skeptical about human nature as Golding, Euripides had already written the most devastating antiwar play that survives from antiquity, The Trojan Women. Both Lord of the Flies and The Bacchae are anthropological passion plays in which individuals—children in Golding, adults in Euripides—revert to savagery and murder during a frenzied ritual.9 At Thebes, where Dionysus (Bacchus) comes to introduce his worship to Greece, King Pentheus adamantly denies the new religion. To Dionysus's orgiastic revels Pentheus opposes the rule of reason. Yet he is tempted to disguise himself in the fawn skin of a Dionysian follower in order to watch the rites of the female devotees. Spied by the Bacchants, he is hunted down and torn to pieces by the frenzied women, led by his own mother, Agave. Maddened by the god, the hapless Agave bears Pentheus's head, which she imagines is a lion's, triumphantly back to Thebes. There she comes to her senses and awakens to the horrid proof of Dionysus's power. To deny Dionysus is to deny a fundamental force in human nature. That the destruction of Pentheus is so disproportionate to his offense constitutes poetic justice in The Bacchae: Pentheus denies the primitive power of unreason only to become its victim. Yet the orgiastic worship that transforms Agave into the unwitting murderess of her son is hardly preferable to Pentheus's denial. Euripides, in dramatizing the clash between emotionalism and rationalism, may be arguing the primacy of neither. However one interprets The Bacchae, its affinities with Lord of the Flies are striking:

Specifically, both drama and novel contain three interrelated ritual themes: the cult of a beast-god, a hunt as prefiguration of the death of the scapegoat-figure, and the dismemberment of the scapegoat. Golding deviates in only one respect from Euripides: logically Ralph, the Pentheus in embryo, should be the scapegoat; but the author assigns this role to Simon, allowing Ralph to live instead with his new-found knowledge of "the darkness of man's heart."10

Dionysus is the true hero of The Bacchae; his merciless destruction of Pentheus is but the opening salvo in his campaign to establish his worship in Hellas. Golding is no less concerned with the primitive force that Dionysus represents; but his primary concern is the impact of that force upon his hero. Ralph, the latter-day Pentheus, must therefore survive the ordeal of the hunt and live with his hard-won knowledge. Against the backdrop of the flaming island, a hell that once was Eden, the savage tribe pursues Ralph until, stumbling over a root, the frantic boy sprawls helplessly in the sand. Staggering to his feet, flinching at the anticipated last onslaught, Ralph looks up into the astonished face of a British naval officer. Ralph's miraculous salvation completes the drama of his initiation as, in a shattering epiphany, he weeps "for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the fall through the air of the true wise friend called Piggy."

Although Golding shifts the focus from God's power to man's knowledge he relies on a familiar Euripidian device for ending his novel. Golding calls the timely arrival of the naval officer a "gimmick," a term subsequently used by critics to plague him. Yet the officer is neither more nor less than the Greek deus ex machina in modern uniform. Employed most strikingly by Euripides, the "god" in the machine is hoisted high above the other actors to solve the problems of the preceding action and to supply a happy ending. Most often, when the deity imposes a happy ending, the normal consequences of the action would be disastrous. Neither The Bacchae nor Sartre's The Flies employs the device in its purest form. In the former, Dionysus resolves the action by heaping even more woe upon the Thebans who denied his godhead. In the latter, Sartre's Zeus absents himself from the ending, having already explained its significance. Moreover, both gods take major roles from the outset of their respective plays. Neither makes the single in-the-nick-of-time appearance to reverse the action that generally characterizes the deus ex machina.

In Iphigenia in Tauris, however, Euripides relies upon the deus ex machina for a resolution markedly similar to that of Lord of the Flies. Iphigenia, her brother Orestes, and his friend Pylades, pursued by the minions of the barbarian king Thoas, reach the seacoast where a Greek ship waits to carry them home. But Thoas's troops control the strait through which the ship must pass; and a strong gale drives the ship back toward the shore. Enter the goddess Athena, who warns Thoas to cease his pursuit. It seems that the fates of Iphigenia and her companions have been foreordained, and against this "necessity" even gods are powerless. Thoas wisely relents, the winds grow favorable, and the ship sails off under Athena's divine protection.

Barbarian pursuit, friendly ship, and miraculous rescue are no less present in Golding's conclusion. And when to these elements are added the hunt for sacrificial victims and the bloody rites of the Taurian religion, the resemblances between Iphigenia in Tauris and Lord of the Flies seem more than skin deep. Yet the lessons of the two works radically differ. Greek drama is ultimately conditioned by the proximity of the gods: omnipresent yet inscrutable they influence human action and determine human destiny. Since, as Sartre's Zeus admits, the gods need mortals for their worship as much as mortals need objects for their devotion, it follows that Greek drama chronicles this interdependence. In The Flies, Sartre's Zeus, the fading though still powerful king of the gods, owes his rule to human fear and superstition and relies upon man's willing servitude. When Orestes finally strides boldly into the sunlight, the spell of the gods is broken; henceforth he will blaze his own trail, acknowledging no law but his own. For Sartre, man's freedom begins with his denial of the gods and his full acceptance of responsibility for his actions and their consequences. And while existential freedom is as fearful as it is lonely, it is infinitely preferable to god-ridden bondage. Whether Dionysus stalking through The Bacchae, Athena watching over Iphigenia in Tauris, or Zeus brooding in The Flies, the gods play a role in the human drama. Note that all three deities carefully define their roles: Dionysus to punish the errant Thebans whose king denied him; Athena to ensure the proper worship of her sister, Artemis; and Zeus to warn the recalcitrant Orestes of the consequences of rebellion. So closely are the gods involved with mortals that their interventions, no matter how arbitrary, take on a certain inevitable logic.

What Golding calls the "gimmicked" ending of Lord of the Flies and the Greek deux ex machina used most conventionally in Iphigenia in Tauris are alike in their technical function: to reverse the course of impending disaster. Yet their effects are quite different. Athena's wisdom is incontrovertible, her morality unassailable. High above the awed mortals she dispels chaos and imposes ideal order. The very fact of her appearance underlines the role of the gods in shaping human destiny. Golding's spiffy naval officer is, however, no god. Nor does he represent a higher morality. Confronted by the ragtag melee, he can only wonder that English boys hadn't put up a better show, and mistakes their savage hunt for fun and games à la Coral Island. While he cannot know the events preceding his arrival, his comments betray the same ignorance of human nature that contributed to the boys' undoing. Commanding his cruiser, the officer will direct a maritime search-and-destroy mission identical to the island hunt. Lord of the Flies ends with the officer gazing at the cruiser, preparing to reenact the age-old saga of man's inhumanity to man.

Just as the naval officer cannot measure up to Euripides' Athena, so Ralph falls short of Sartre's Orestes. Orestes strides into the sunlight of his own morality to live Sartre's dictum that existence precedes essence. Creating himself anew with each action, he will become his own god. Ralph can only weep for the loss of innocence from the world; he shows no particular signs of coping with his newfound knowledge. To understand one's nature is not to alter it. Morally diseased, mired in original sin, fallen man can rise only by the apparently impossible means of transcending his very nature. In man's apparent inability to re-create himself lies the tragedy of Lord of the Flies. The futility of Simon's sacrificial death, the failure of adult morality, and the final absence of God create the spiritual vacuum of Golding's novel. For Sartre the denial of the gods is the necessary prelude to human freedom. But for Golding, God's absence leads only to despair and human freedom is but license. "The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief, sheer grief, grief, grief."11


  1. William Golding, the title essay in A Moving Target, p. 163.
  2. Golding, "Fable," p. 88.
  3. E. M. Forster, introduction, in William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Coward-McCann, 1962), p. xiii.
  4. Orson Welles, Mr. Arkadin, 1955. Welles, in the title role of a wealthy and powerful tycoon, relates this story at one of his sophisticated soirees. Written and directed by Welles, the film depicts Arkadin hunting down and killing former friends who might expose his shady past.
  5. Golding, "Fable," pp. 97-98.
  6. James R. Baker, William Golding (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1965), p. 13.
  7. Jean-Paul Sartre, The Flies, in "No Exit" and Three Other Plays, tr. Stuart Gilbert (New York: Vintage, 1955), p. 51.
  8. Biles, Talk: Conversations with William Golding, p. 106.
  9. Bernard F. Dick, William Golding (New York: Twayne, 1967), p. 30.
  10. Ibid., p. 31.
  11. Golding, "A Moving Target," p. 163.

Kirstin Olsen (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Olsen, Kirstin. "Literary Analysis." In Understanding Lord of the Flies: a Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents, pp. 1-21. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Olsen provides a thorough literary analysis of Lord of the Flies.]

Absurd and uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atomic bomb on the colonies and a group of children who land in jungle country near New Guinea. Rubbish and dull. Pointless.

—Verdict of a manuscript reader on the first version of Lord of the Flies, then titled Strangers from Within

The very idea of putting Lord of the Flies into a social and historical context seems, at first, absurd. After all, it is a deliberately mythic novel, almost as abstract as it is possible for a work of fiction to be. The setting is never identified. It could be almost any small island in the tropics. The characters, except for Jack (and Percival Wemys Madison, whose last name exists solely as a symbol of lost civilization) have no surnames; many of them, including most of the littluns and choirboys, do not even merit first names. The war that brings them to the island in the first place is mentioned only briefly. An early draft of the novel contained additional chapters outlining the course of the nuclear war that occasions the boys' evacuation, but Golding's editor felt that the novel was stronger without this material,1 and the chapters in question were cut. Thus stripped of unnecessary detail, the central conflicts come into sharper focus, and the story seems more nearly universal.

Yet Lord of the Flies, like all novels, comes from its author's experiences and interests. It is shaped by Western ideas about civilization and savagery and by the British colonial past. It reacts to the pervasive belief in the superiority of British culture and to the belief that to be British was in some sense the direct opposite of being a savage. It evolves from Christian, perhaps even Calvinist, theories about human nature and sin. It is influenced by debates about biological determinism, by the English school system that both produced and employed Golding, by the adventure stories that boys of Golding's time read, and by the events and aftermath of World War II. The remarkable thing is that, despite being very much a product of its place and time, full of dated schoolboy slang and cold war anxiety, Lord of the Flies remains an influential and powerful commentary on human evil.

In part this is because it explores some of the most intense urges and emotions in our repertoire: the desire for power, the fear of the unknown, fear of other people, anger, and jealousy. In short, this novel asks hard questions about what Golding, taking a cue from Conrad, calls "the darkness of man's heart" (202).

The Universal Fascination with Power

Anyone who has watched children at play for a significant length of time observes, over and over, the exercise of power. Children, powerless in so much of their daily lives, act our roles that they believe come accessorized with power: mother, father, teacher, police officer, king, queen, and hero. Even their animal play, once they become aware of the predator-prey relationship, is informed by a desire for power. Few children choose to be the brachiosaurus or zebra if they can be the T. rex or the lion. Similarly, when they play with dolls, blocks, and other toys, they see themselves as little gods, determining what happens to their tiny creatures much as their own fates are dictated by parents and others.

Golding recognizes this tendency in children and even includes an example of it in Lord of the Flies. One of the younger children, Henry, amuses himself on the beach by trapping, herding, collecting, and thereby controlling, small sea creatures (61). Significantly, Golding describes Henry's experience not as actual power but as an "illusion of mastery," a phrase that could describe many of the power relationships in the novel. Is Piggy master of himself or his fate? Clearly not. When put to the test, he cannot even retain control over his own eyeglasses. Is Ralph master of anything? He appears to be, but his political power proves, too, to be an illusion, as evanescent and as incapable of containing living beings as Henry's tiny footprints in the sand. Even Jack's power is illusory or at least temporary, vanishing the moment an adult authority arrives on the island.

Golding thus simultaneously taps into one of our greatest desires and one of our greatest fears: the desire to control ourselves and others and the fear that any sense of control we possess is ultimately false. He shows us the means by which power is ordinarily seized: physical force, knowledge, size, beauty, insight, currency (in the case of the island, the currency is pork), and friendship. Every reader has tried to gain the upper hand in some situation by at least one of these means. Yet, in the novel, every one of them proves to be a trap or a mirage. Small wonder that most readers feel a sense of horror at the disintegration of the island's small society. It is not only the fictional community that is dissolving, but also the readers' own sense of personal control.

The Universality of Fear

Another strength of Lord of the Flies is its attempt to explain one of our most fundamental emotions: fear. Fear is, in Darwinian terms, a good thing. It urges creatures in danger to flee, fight, or hide and thus allows them to live longer and to pass on their wariness to their offspring. Like power struggles, it can result in a stronger, fitter community and a more successful species.

However, like power struggles, fear can exceed useful limits and become a destructive force. A diurnal animal in the wild needs to be alert even at night, sleeping lightly and in a relatively safe place, and exercising special caution at times when its vision is impaired. Even so, it may fall prey to nocturnal predators better adapted to the dark. Fear, in this context, is rational and directed at a specific threat.

A child safe at home in bed may fear the dark for the same reasons but without the threat. Its ancient evolutionary instincts tell in that danger lurks in the unseen. It is primarily a visual creature, with faint powers of smell and hearing, and it relies on its eyes. When light is removed, it must assume, according to its evolutionary programming, that danger is eminently possible. The parents, with the benefit of years of experience of safe sleeping, know that there is no danger. The child, however, has only the instinctive alertness and fear that kept its ancestors alive. With no namable threat close by, it creates something to fill the place left empty by jaguars and lions and bears. Therefore, there are monsters under the bed, in the closet, outside the window, down the hall—in short, in all the unseen places that a wild creature would be reasonable to fear.

Early human societies had plenty to fear. Besides wild beasts and natural disasters, there were diseases, infections, accidents, enemy tribes, false allies, and food shortages. Their inventions, like the monster in the closet, gave tangibility and limits to intangible or uncontrollable fears. They named gods and demons, told stories about them, and gave them faces and attributes. A nine-headed hydra, a goat-footed devil, a many-breasted goddess, and a jackal-headed god were mysterious, yet easier to understand than bacteria, viruses, electromagnetic charges, cold fronts, and betrayal. If a child falls ill and dies without apparent cause, what does it mean? Whom does it help? Who might fall ill and die next? In the absence of the answers, humans make a demon. Something unseen ate the child, wanted it, hated it, or wanted something it possessed. Appease the demon, hunt it, drive it out of the village, oppose it, find it, trick it, destroy it, or bribe it, and the problem will be solved. Sometimes it actually worked. A frightened village might isolate itself, hoping to ward off evil spirits, and by quarantining itself escape a plague. A violent member of the community might do less damage if presumed to be possessed by evil spirits and driven away or subjected to public scrutiny or punishment. A fortunate coincidence might lead to the natural disappearance of a threat at about the time a purifying ritual was performed. Even when such tactics did not work, appeasing unseen dangers made the community feel that it had taken action.

But what if, as in the child's bedroom, there is no threat? The alertness and wariness do not vanish simply because no rational threat is present. This is the situation on the island, where there are no predatory animals, no enemy tribes, and no purely natural disasters. Still, the boys have two basic problems. The first, as Golding recognizes, is that the tendency to find and name enemies does not evaporate. In the absence of real danger, people—especially children, accustomed to sudden and apparently inexplicable changes imposed from above, and lacking the experience to judge the rationality of their fears—often create an imaginary danger to take its place.

The second problem is that there is one genuine cause for fear on the island, but it is the one thing that must remain unspoken. Despite their initial joy at being away from all adult authority, the boys are terrified that they will never be rescued. The importance of the fire to rescue is often stressed, but the natural consequences of failure are voiced only by Piggy, who states his fear that they could stay there until they die. Ralph, confronted with this horrible fate, pushes it away. He asserts that his father will come for them, and when Piggy asks how he will know the boys are there, Ralph cannot even give voice to his fear or to his denial of fear (14). These children come from a British schoolboy culture that valued stoicism and often separated boys from their parents at quite a young age. Boarding-school boys would see pining for parents and home as babyish, and the boys—the "biguns," at least—are old enough to want to seem like men. Unable to gaze into the dark corners of their worst fear, the boys are left with an empty closet and a willingness to put a monster into it.

Into this void steps the birthmarked boy with his tale of a "beastie," a "snake-thing, ever so big" (35). Just as he denied his fear of abandonment, Ralph denies the existence of the beast. As if to reinforce his point, he follows his last denial with a renewed statement of faith in rescue (37). However, this merely delays the hunt for a beast. It is an ineradicable part of human nature, Golding seems to be saying, to make a beast where none exists or to put a beast in the place of a more abstract threat. Soon the boys are enacting all the universal responses to demons—searching for the beast, opposing it, appeasing it. By this time, however, the fear of dying on the island has been joined by a new fear, a fear of each other. One could also argue, given that the actual "beast" is the decaying body of a paratrooper, that the beast also represents the boys' generalized fears of and about the war in which their country is engaged. The attempt to make their vague and terrifying fears concrete is mocked by the beast itself: "Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!" (143) says the pig's head to Simon. The real horror, Golding seems to imply, is that our worst fears have no names—or the wrong names.

The Universality of the Characters

Much of the novel's strength also lies in its characters, who, despite all the "waccos" and "wizards," remain recognizable as the sort of people everyone has known in school, work, and society. Almost everyone has known a Piggy—a person set aside by some defect or difference who becomes the target of all sorts of teasing and torment. Plenty of people have known, or been, the littluns, the people on the fringe of the real action, motivated only by fear and hunger, victimized at random (60), seemingly unable to direct the course of events themselves, led by whomever promises the fastest end to fear and hunger.


Of all the characters, the one who often makes the most lasting impression is Piggy. Partly it is his nickname that makes him memorable; partly it is the distinctiveness of his physical incapacities. Fat, asthmatic, nearsighted, unable to swim (13), and a whimpering mama's (or auntie's) boy, he is by no means suited to an adventure in the wild. Yet it is he who has most of the best ideas. He tries to make a sundial (64-65), names and organizes the boys, and insists on the rights of the littluns. He even, on one occasion, serves as the littluns' literal voice, repeating the words of the birthmarked boy so that the full group can hear (35). It is he who identifies the conch shell that becomes the symbol of parliamentary order on the island, and it is he who first gives it a purpose, changing it from a purely natural object into a tool of civilization (16). Furthermore, it is Piggy who provides, albeit somewhat unwillingly, the tool that bestows the power to create fire—his spectacles (40-41). It makes sense that he tries to re-create civilization in the wilderness, because he must know, at some level, that in civilization lies his best protection. Civilization protects the weak and different; the wilderness does not.

The wilderness, in fact, as symbolized by Jack, Roger, and their adherents, chooses the weak and different as its first prey. From this simple and brutal fact of predation comes Piggy's concern with fairness and his defense of the littluns. It is no coincidence that, in the wake of the fire, the boy who is called "Fatty" and told by Jack to "shut up" should be the first to notice the absence of "[t]hat little 'un … him with the mark on his face" (45-46). Piggy, a marked man in his own way, is good at spotting his own kind, and it does not take very long for the boys to identify the relationship between the boy Piggy and the animal piggies. In the debate over the existence of the beast, the subject of the predator-prey relationship is enlisted on the side of reason by Piggy, but the other boys ignore the logic and make a leap that the astute reader has already made, from the actual pigs on the island to the one boy named after a pig (83). In the wild, zebras survive by forming herds, confusing their enemies with numbers and movement. In politics, the disenfranchised, the weak, and the poor survive by forming parties or staging riots and demonstrations. Piggy, if he were able to form the littluns and other marginal boys into some kind of coalition, might be able to survive, but he is a poor leader. The minute he is left in charge, the littluns scatter (46). The herd is doomed.

In a happy version of the story, Piggy's good ideas and spectacles would compensate for his physical differences, his bad grammar, and his nagging insistence on behaving like grownups. It is possible that this could happen in real life as well. But it is equally plausible, perhaps more plausible, that things would work out as Golding envisions, with Piggy made into a favorite victim and someone, sooner or later, realizing that the spectacles can be possessed without the wearer. His good ideas, in the end, count for nothing. It is sad but true that a good idea can be torpedoed simply by being espoused by the wrong person. Piggy is not beautiful, popular, strong, or charismatic, and his only advantage is that he is, for the most part, right. It is not enough.

It is, in fact, in Piggy's hands, something of a disadvantage. No one likes Piggy, with the halfhearted exception of Ralph, and so no one really wants him to be right. When he is, they resent him for it. He sounds perpetually like Cassandra foretelling the fall of Troy, cursed with foreknowledge and bad timing. Over and over, he thrusts himself forward, strong in his convictions, but weak in presentation. He is too shrill, too repetitive, too disdainful of fun. He is too much like a parent, and few of the boys on the island seem to want their parents back in any form. He in fact chides them for acting like children, virtually guaranteeing that he will become an outcast. And, like Cassandra, he can see his own fate (14). He knows he is saying the right things in the wrong way and he knows how Jack feels about him. (93). Yet he cannot stop himself. He remains the voice of civilization, of parents and nannies and policemen and teachers, to the last: "Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?" (180) As always, he misjudges the mood of his audience, or perhaps does not care enough about their mood. To mention hunting and killing at this juncture is no hollow piece of rhetoric, but practically an invitation.


If Piggy is civilization's voice, Ralph is its public face. He is a profoundly average boy, better-looking than some, but of average capacities. He shares the average boy's desires, for rescue and fun, in that order or not as the whim takes him, and he has good, but not brilliant, oratorical skills. In a moment of stress, for example, he discovers that "his voice tend[s] either to disappear or to come out too loud" (104). Sometimes he finds the right words, but often he fails, as when Jack apologizes for letting the fire go out (72).

Ralph follows this misstep with another, an "ingracious mutter" (72) to relight the fire. He is, after all, a frightened and angry boy, not a master statesman. His initial election as the boys' chief is haphazard and nearly instinctive, and he is chosen for much the same reasons that many people select their leaders: "The most obvious leader was Jack. But there was a stillness about Ralph … there was his size, and attractive appearance, and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch" (22). At first, Ralph is delighted to play leader. Like the conch or the vote, power itself is a toy. Later, like most elected officials, he worries both about his responsibilities and about maintaining power.

His responsibilities are few enough, and they constitute the basic set of duties of any leader, whether parent or president: feed his charges, shelter them, protect them from harm, work for their greater security or salvation. The boys constantly measure Ralph's success as a leader by his ability to perform these tasks, yet every one of these responsibilities is twisted by circumstances into a symbol of failure or futility. Feeding the boys is no trouble, since there are crabs and fruit on the island, but food, in the form of roast pork, becomes the boys' sole focus. Meat becomes the island's money. It is hard to obtain but can be gotten with hard work and skill, and the getting of meat interrupts all other work. Shelters go unbuilt, and Ralph is powerless to force the boys to build. The hunt plays havoc with the schedule for keeping the fire lit, making salvation difficult to obtain. Most of all, the idea of protection from danger is warped by the conditions on the island. There are no natural enemies on this small scrap of land, yet danger is such a part of the boys' notion of adventure that danger must be invented if it does not exist. Thus the beast is conjured from dreams and glimpses, while the real danger, the all-consuming desire for power and acceptance among the boys, goes unheeded by almost all. Ralph recognizes his essential failure to lead, even while the outward forms of leadership remain intact. Nevertheless, every time he loses power to Jack, he seems surprised by this latest turn of events and newly shocked by his incapacity to perform his duties.

He has options, of course, but fails to make use of them. He could yield power to Jack and ask to be placed in charge of a fire detail, sacrificing his own vanity and ambition to the greater good of rescue. He could challenge Jack physically and defeat him once and for all. He could lend Piggy more assistance in forming a coalition. Yet he lacks something—vision, urgency, a willingness to be unembarrassed by Piggy's friendship, or something else altogether—that would give him the courage to force the issue. Instead, he embarks on a campaign of appeasement and diplomacy.

Golding, of course, was writing within recent memory of one of history's great diplomatic failures: the policy of appeasement that preceded Britain's entry into World War II. The British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, averted his eyes while Hitler's Germany armed for war and began invading its neighbors, and it was not until Chamberlain's replacement by Winston Churchill and Hitler's invasion of Poland that Germany's aggression was met with a significantly aggressive response. The world was fortunate to have a Churchill at the time and a Roosevelt who urged support for Britain despite an isolationist climate in the United States. However, there is not always a Churchill or a Roosevelt in the right place at the right time, a failure of political systems made all too clear in the 1990s by worldwide dithering over genocide in Rwanda and the Balkans. Political and moral cowardice, after all, are nothing new. Martin Luther King, Jr., derided it when he declared that evil triumphs in the absence of action by good people, and Susan Sontag, referring to the violence in Bosnia and to the defiant post-Holocaust slogan "Never again," reflected, "Never again doesn't … mean anything, does it. I mean, never again will Germans be allowed to kill Jews in the 1940s. That's … true. But do we have the will and the interest to prevent a genocide in Europe now?"2

Ralph is Chamberlain, and Clinton, and every other leader who fails to act at the perfect time, in the perfect way, to avoid a monumental tragedy. In other words, he is a good many of the world's leaders throughout history—flawed, uncertain, trapped by a multiplicity of possibilities in a web of inaction or wrong action, too tangled to find the way out.

All he knows for certain is that he is bound to be a better leader than Jack, whose desires are for pleasure and power and self-glorification, with no room left for the good of the community. Ralph at least has some sense of responsibility. So he blunders on, unwilling to yield to the bad boy. To retain his power, he even resorts to hunting, attempting to become more like Jack in order to steal back some of Jack's growing glory. Unfortunately, his attempt is all too successful. Flushed with a small success, he adopts, for the moment at least, Jack's value system: "'I hit him, all right. The spear stuck in. I wounded him!' He sunned himself in their new respect and felt that hunting was good after all" (113). The rest of this chapter details Ralph's descent into Jack's world. Instead of returning to Piggy and the island's small civilization, he remains with Jack, leaving Simon to carry out his responsibilities. He and Jack spar verbally, with Ralph mostly on the defensive. His one attempt to cut through the posturing to the "darkness of man's heart," his query to Jack on the reason for his hatred is an embarrassing failure (118). The chapter ends, significantly, with Ralph's direct encounter with the beast, the novel's supreme symbol of fear and evil. In the end, Ralph can only co-opt Jack's leadership qualities by living in the wilderness of predation, aggression, and fear, and he cannot tame Jack and absorb him into the civilized world.

Therefore, Ralph fails as a leader. He neither preserves his people nor retains his position as chief, mostly because he never understands the fragility of his power. Like most politicians, he has (or at least develops) a sense of the people's mood, and he has a talent for shifting responsibility (37). Eventually, he also learns a few basic principles of government, for example, that important things have to be repeated to be understood (78). In this sense, he understands that he is addressing an audience of children, but he never quite manages to be the leader, the parent, that they and Piggy want him to be. For, despite their resentment of control, the children simultaneously miss the safe boundaries and the freedom from decision making that their parents and teachers provided them. Ralph never gains real control of the household, or the state, since he has no rewards to offer for good behavior and no punishments to threaten for disobedience. Unlike a parent, he cannot offer food or playthings as rewards. Food is abundant on the island and can be taken at will, while playthings like sticks and crabs are everywhere and "civilized" playthings are entirely absent. Similarly, he cannot send the boys to their rooms or rescind their privileges. Unlike the state, he cannot offer tax breaks or incentive programs as rewards, nor can he jail the boys or impose corporal punishment for their laziness or mutiny. Just as the conch appears to be a symbol of power, but in fact is subverted whenever it suits the purpose of the moment, Ralph appears to be the chief but has no actual power, only a slight influence that ultimately dissipates. He cannot force the boys to build shelters (80) or to keep the fire lit, and even the eventual rescue is only indirectly caused by him.

Ralph is not a fool. He knows that everything is going wrong, and his responsibilities begin, literally, to devour him. He begins biting his nails beyond the quick, almost entirely unconsciously (131). Eating is never simple in Lord of the Flies; it always carries heavy symbolism. Eating fruit is synonymous with laziness, and eating meat is synonymous with violence. Ralph is doing neither. As the symbol of the civilized community that almost was, he is slowly consuming himself. It is the group's sin of self-cannibalism, a literally gnawing awareness of his failure, that torments him.


Ralph's most significant failure is his inability to control Jack. If he could make Jack his faithful servant or ally, as successful politicians make servants or allies of the military, he might actually have some leverage over the rest of the boys, because Jack has the one real reward on the island under his control. This reward is the knowledge of the hunt. Unlike the task of keeping the fire lit, which is tedious and apparently unending, Jack's hunt offers camaraderie, hard work, esoteric knowledge, a clear end to the task, and a tangible reward at its end. The hunt is also something that the boys cannot easily duplicate on their own. In Jack's case, it takes a great deal of study to learn to track and kill the wild pigs on the island; a good example of his efforts can be found at the beginning of Chapter 3. For the littluns, acquiring this knowledge on their own is impossible. Even for the older boys, it would be tiresome and difficult to repeat Jack's experience. Therefore, Jack has the only currency on the island, and he knows it.

It is Jack, not Ralph, who is the clear choice as leader on the island. Unlike Ralph, Jack is a grand master of manipulation and public image. Almost everything he does, whether by instinct or calculation, increases his power over the boys. He grants or withholds meat, grants or withholds the right to hunt, stages public recreations of the hunt to demonstrate his hunters' prowess (115), makes use of uniforms—first the choirboys' uniforms and then the hunting paint—to create a sense of belonging, and, cleverest of all, hints at the exclusivity of his band while intending to absorb the entire island population under his control: "If you want to join my tribe come and see us. Perhaps I'll let you join. Perhaps not.… He was safe from shame or self-consciousness behind the mask of his paint" (140). It is the mention of "shame or self-consciousness" that makes Jack one of Golding's most ingenious creations. Jack is the Freudian id, the wild man, Hitler, the school bully, a smug and devious co-worker, a savage, a killer. Yet he is also a boy, frightened of the other boys' disapproval, frantic to be popular, and jealous of Ralph's friendship with Piggy (91). All of his evil, all of his machinations and displays, come from such basic human insecurities that it is possible, in our most honest moments, to see ourselves in Jack as well as in Ralph or Piggy.

It is thus possible to detest Jack's use of power and to admire the skill with which he obtains it. In the beginning of the novel, he has nothing but the leadership of his choir, a leadership that the elected leader, Ralph, bestows upon him. The conch, symbol of parliamentary discourse, is in Ralph's control. Jack cannot even manage to wound a pig, let alone kill it (31). Yet, with sheer political genius, he elevates the hunt while denigrating the conch until the former becomes the whole focus of the island and the latter is destroyed. He begins by speaking out of turn, without the conch (87), later shouting down those who hold the conch. Each encroachment on the conch's power as a symbol is either tolerated or ineffectively opposed. By the time Piggy asks to carry the conch (171), the conch is the one thing that Jack no longer needs.

Even as he undermines the conch's significance, Jack magnifies that of the hunt. From the time of his first kill in Chapter 4, he surrounds the hunt with the kind of ritual that humans seem to crave. There are processions, chants of "Kill the pig. Cut her throat" (69), and re-enactments of the kill, complete with sound effects and vivid narrative. Finally, there is the tangible reward of the hunt—roast pork—which exceeds anything offered by the fire or the shelters for sheer physical pleasure. Even the fact that the hunters neglect the fire, obtaining their first kill at the expense of a chance of rescue, becomes less important in the rapture of the feast.

From that point, the hunt becomes not only a hobby and a source of sustenance but a determinant of manhood and worth. After the first kill, Jack justifies withholding pork from Piggy because he did not hunt (74). Ralph, afraid of pursuing the beast, tries to get Jack to go after it by saying, "You're a hunter," and then hunts it himself because he realizes that it is his job as chief to hunt a threat to his tribe (104). Jack then follows him and joins this hunt (106). Is he unable to let Ralph hunt the beast alone because of their friendship, because of duty, or because of the personal glory attached to a perilous hunt? Given what we know about Jack at this point in the novel, the last explanation seems most likely. Then, when Jack is knocked down during a hunt, and it is Ralph who wounds the boar, Jack manages to turn events to his advantage once again, displaying his own wound to general admiration (114). Almost immediately, there is another hunt reenactment, with Robert unwillingly playing the role of the pig, and a new element is added to the ritual—a human stand-in for the prey, who will be subjected to increasing tortures and even murder as the novel progresses.

Eventually, Jack tries to make hunting a prerequisite for leadership. He calls Ralph a coward and attacks him for his failure to hunt, using this as a basis to challenge him for the chieftainship (126-27). Though the tactic fails in the short term and results in Jack becoming an outcast, he turns the situation to his advantage, withholding meat from those who will not support him and offering knowledge of the hunt to those who will. In Jack's society, meetings are not run according to the principles of equality and free discourse symbolized by the conch, but according to the fierce rituals of the hunt, with chants, violence, and displays of personal power dictating the outcome. By breaking the old rules and making his own, Jack comes to leadership at last, but he lacks Piggy's insight, and in the end, he has nowhere to lead the boys but into hell.


The logical product of Jack's society is Roger, a boy who is far harder to understand or appreciate than his nominal leader. If Ralph is Chamberlain and Jack Hitler, Roger is the Gestapo, an instrument of torture and terror released from conventional morality and thus capable of unspeakable cruelty. He and Simon are the two most inscrutable major characters and serve as foils for each other. Both seem to understand that the lack of real authority on the island creates a potential for great evil, but for Simon this represents a threat to be contested, while for Roger it represents an opportunity to be embraced. Little by little, Roger tests his lack of limits. At first he explores cruelty in secret, lobbing stones at an unwitting Henry. Then he throws himself wholeheartedly into the half-serious torment of the pig-Robert (114), a public and socially acceptable outlet for his violence. The hunt is his element, a glorified excuse for madness and killing, and he is particularly savage in this activity, spitting a live sow on the point of his spear by stabbing her in her rectum (135). Yet even the slaughter of animals cannot contain his mounting capacity for cruelty, and Jack's bid for power gives him the chance to display its full range. Robert informs Roger that Jack intends to beat the bound Wilfred for no stated reason; he has finally found the society that will impose no humane limits on behavior.

Now his aggression is directed at humans, publicly and with increasing viciousness. He feels powerful flinging stones at Sam and Eric (175). He dehumanizes Ralph and Piggy in his mind and murders Piggy "with a sense of delirious abandonment" (180). Jack imposes no penalties for this act, giving it his tacit approval, and Roger becomes imbued with "a nameless authority" (182). It is he, it seems, who hurts Samneric, and it is he, even more than Jack, whom they fear (188-89). The last specific reference to him in Lord of the Flies is a hint that he is torturing the twins during the hunt for Ralph (192), and the penultimate reference to Roger is the most chilling of all, an implication that he means not only to kill Ralph but to behead him and display the severed head (190). Roger's behavior is horrifying and seemingly incomprehensible, but not, unfortunately, unusual. Human sacrifice, medieval tortures, genocide, purges, and a host of other atrocities testify to the capacity of Homo sapiens, "wise man," for murder and terror and a host of unwise acts when authority approves or fails to resist.


If we find it hard to see anything of ourselves in Roger because identifying with him is distasteful, we find it equally hard to see ourselves in Simon, though for different reasons. Simon is so decent, so selflessly brave, so opaquely meditative, so unjustly executed, that it is as desirable yet difficult to identify with him as it is to identify with Christ, after whom he is modeled. In fact, in the first draft of Lord of the Flies, Simon was so obviously a Christ figure that Golding's editor suggested that the analogy be toned down a bit.3 Simon is thus made less completely Christlike, but no less obscure and mysterious than before, as Golding explained. "Simon," he said in an interview, "is understood by nobody, naturally enough."4 The other boys certainly do not understand him. They call him "queer," "funny" (55), and "batty" (157). Piggy, as the voice of science and reason, is especially unsympathetic to Simon's spiritual approach. Asked if Simon could be climbing the mountain in search of the beast, he replies, "He might be.… He's cracked" (132).

Simon, in the finished version of Lord of the Flies, has characteristics that are not pointedly Christlike. He faints (20, 22), he is shy (25) and uncomfortable speaking before groups (103), traits not shared by the Bible's carpenter-rabbi who always seemed to have a parable ready. Simon happily enters into the business of the world, symbolized by his willingness to accompany an exploratory expedition and his excitement about making a map of the island (24-30). His ascetic appearance, barefoot, barely clad, long-haired, and dark-skinned (55-56) is subverted by "eyes so bright they had deceived Ralph into thinking him delightfully gay and wicked" (55). Simon is thus no point-by-point counterpart to Christ.

Yet he is the most spiritual of the boys. Unlike Piggy, who follows the rules because it is in his own interest to enforce them, Simon is no automatic outcast. He appears to respect the rights of the disenfranchised not because he is, by extension, defending his own rights, but because he really believes in the virtue of the rules. Ralph and Piggy often insist on the rule of the conch, usually when they are trying to make themselves heard, but Simon actually follows the rule without self-interest, stifling his own comments deliberately on at least two occasions (34, 86) because someone else has the conch. Alone among the boys, he thinks about the welfare of others, not because he believes it is his duty or because he believes it will help him, but because it is his inescapable nature to do so.

Incident after incident demonstrates Simon's essential generosity and empathy. He defends Piggy's role in starting the fire to Jack by pointing out that Piggy's glasses were of help (42). He helps build shelters long after the others have yielded to the temptations of swimming and hunting (50). Like Christ, who fed the masses with loaves and fishes, Simon feeds those incapable of feeding themselves. He gives his own meat to Piggy when Jack refuses to give Piggy any (74) and picks fruit for the littluns (56). He also, in order to ease a littlun's fear of a beast, confesses that he has been going off by himself at night. He is, as perhaps he suspected he would be, rewarded with ridicule. All of these acts are humble, self-abnegating, and as anonymous as it is possible for any act to be in such a small community. Most people would probably like to have Simon's gift for quiet charity, but most people would probably also end up swimming, hunting, and trying to stay on Jack's good side. Nonetheless, Simon resembles a rare type of person who does exist. There are people who give of themselves because it is their nature or their sole ambition. They do consider their own needs from time to time, but they are principally concerned with the needs of others.

Therefore, it is likely that Golding's readers have known someone at least somewhat like Simon. The reader may have known someone poorly understood, someone who really believed in society's rules, or someone who was innately generous. It is even possible that the reader knows someone who shares all three of these characteristics. What makes Simon unique, and thus harder to comprehend than any of the other boys, is that to these three personality traits Golding adds a fourth, rarer than the other three: a yearning and an aptitude for seeing the truth. In the midst of the dark jungle, Simon finds a private pocket "of heat and light" (56), light here serving as a metaphor for knowledge in the midst of ignorance and superstition. Unfortunately for Simon, he lacks the words to express what he perceives. Like Piggy, he sees to the heart of the boys' animosities, but, unlike Piggy, he does not attempt to name the hatred he observes (68). He understands the essence of the beast even before his conversation with it, but he cannot communicate his vision (89). Undermined, ridiculed, belittled, Simon persists in his quest, even if he no longer attempts to explain it to his companions. He remains silent, with an awareness still more visual than verbal (103). Not until his direct conflict with the Lord of the Flies does Simon find adequate words, and then it is unclear whether the words are a true description or a weapon in a verbal battle. Succinctly, he calls the Lord of the Flies what, in the physical world at least, it really is: "Pig's head on a stick" (143). However, this is not a complete identification of the beast. The pig's head, beginning to rot and preyed on by scavenging flies, is only a symbol of the beast, not the beast itself, and Simon cannot fully express in words the nature of what he sees.

Small wonder, then, that the boys think him a little crazy. He prophesies. He speaks to visionary demons. He sees things and understands great issues but cannot explain well what he knows. He may indeed be ill, either physically or mentally. During his conversation with the pig's head, Simon's own head wobbles as he feels "one of his times" coming on (143). The phrase "one of his times," combined with Simon's fainting spell at his first appearance with the choirboys, implies epilepsy or a similar disease. Clearly, Simon has episodes of some kind with some frequency. He recognizes the state he is entering. Golding never explains what Simon's "times" are or whether they are to be perceived as a state of illness, madness, or awareness, but these distinctions are hardly relevant. Whether Simon is ill or not, he sees the truth, and to dismiss the truth because its messenger may be ill is itself a little crazy.

Simon behaves like a person with a mental illness, yet he is the only one on the island who fully comprehends what is going wrong and why. Is Golding saying that crazy people are crazy because they see more truth than the rest of us, or that seeing truth resembles insanity so closely that the one is bound to be mistaken for the other? The novel is lean enough not to give away the answer to that question, but it is true that in the modern world, a Simon, a Jesus, a Buddha, or a Mohammed is more likely to be institutionalized than revered. Who is really crazy, after all: The boy who talks to a pig's head, or the boys who murder him? The man who talks to the Devil in the desert, or the society that nails him to two boards and outlaws his teachings? These are among the provocative questions that Lord of the Flies raises.

Simon's perception is clearer than that of the other boys, and he is willing, despite his own fears and the probability of unpleasant consequences for himself, to stare unblinkingly into the face of ugly realities. He sees past superstition, past loyalty, even past the power of words to convey what he sees. To find this extraordinarily uncommon characteristic in harness with the previous three is beyond the personal experience of most readers. If they have known such a person, they have probably, like the boys on the island, misunderstood him or her. Simon is thus the least universal of the novel's characters.

Sam and Eric

It is hard to imagine oneself as Simon, but all too easy to imagine oneself as Samneric, the twins so lacking in individual identity that they have one voice, one work shift, and one merged name. In fact, Golding's readers are, in the act of reading, very much like Samneric, passive observers of events, swept along and approving or objecting as events dictate, but unable to alter the unfolding of the disaster. Samneric are the ordinary person's surrogates. They do not rule, or make rules, or have the best ideas, or stage coups, or invent horrible tortures, or see the essence of evil for its true self, or really change anything at all. Basically decent but ineffective, they act when acted upon. They react.

Samneric cannot act independently (96). This is true from quite early in the novel, when they find a log for the fire but can "do nothing" without the others (39). The fire will test them again and again, and they fail each time. They fall asleep tending it. They question the good of keeping it alive, lacking the innate will to seek rescue (163). They are the least perceptive of the big boys, the least original thinkers, less imaginative even than some of the littluns. In Chapter 6, they are the first to spot the downed parachutist, but instead of investigating, they flee from it. The idea of a beast has been planted in their minds, and like the great mass of humans everywhere, they perceive things according to their preconceptions. They do not, like Simon, question what they have witnessed or attempt to formulate an alternative explanation.

In fact, their encounter with the parachutist is emblematic of their approach to everything. They run from conflict at every turn, sometimes aware of the right course of action but seldom strong enough to take it. When Jack hosts a feast, they yield, with most of the other boys, to the lure of meat. The twins are swayed by the proximity of an influence. When Jack is near, they drift toward him; when Ralph returns, they sidle his way and pretend that nothing has happened. In a similar vein, they willingly enter into the selective memory of Simon's murder (158), a revisionist-history scene that, coming as it does not quite ten years after the end of World War II, begs to be likened to the convenient forgetfulness of war criminals.

Samneric stay with Ralph longer than any of the biguns except Piggy, but to no avail. They simply lack enough moral strength and determination to do him much good as allies. Captured and tortured by Jack's tribe, they yield quickly (182). They make a feeble attempt to provide him with inside information, but what they offer is of little use. Jack means to hunt him; Ralph could probably have figured that out on his own, though it shows some good will on Sam's part to overthrow his "new and shameful loyalty" (187) for long enough to reveal Jack's plan. Still, they have not the brains or the imagination to figure out why Roger is sharpening a stick at both ends, and instead of trying to rebel against Jack, they can offer Ralph no better option than to run. Even this plan is ruined by their cowardice. Tortured again, they reveal Ralph's hiding place, betraying him once again (192). One wonders about the boys' lives after they are rescued from Golding's island. One suspects that many of them would be tormented by nightmares, guilt, and self-loathing. Samneric, however, might very well be able to convince themselves that they had behaved as well as humanly possible, and exonerate themselves in all but the deepest recesses of their consciences. It is, after all, how many people rationalize their own bad behavior or inertia. Golding's application of everyday cowardice to an extraordinary situation is one of the reasons that Lord of the Flies is so disturbing.


This analysis has frequently mentioned the behavior of children for the same reason that Golding chooses children as his subjects in Lord of the Flies. Children have spent fewer years absorbing the particular cultural quirks of their societies. Their behavior is, therefore, closer to "nature"—to the genetic programming with which each of us is born. In this novel, Golding explores some of the universal traits that define humanity: power hunger, fear, faith, betrayal, jealousy, curiosity, logic, cowardice, and violence, among others. His conclusions about people are deeply saddening. In at least one kind of situation, the novel says, politics (Ralph) fails, science (Piggy) and spirituality (Simon) are murdered, power (Jack) and cruelty (Roger) prevail, and the ordinary decent fellow (Samneric) cannot do anything to change the course of events. The use of children to illustrate these concepts strips away layers of social conditioning that would be found in adults and increases the novel's atmosphere of abstraction.

However, the use of children practically requires that Golding mention play, since children spend a good deal of their time playing. Play, in all species where it occurs, serves as training for adult activities. Baby wolves play at hunting, while baby humans play at talking on the phone and driving cars. In Golding's day, boys played sports, board games, and make-believe adventure games, and though games are never extraordinarily prominent in this novel, they are mentioned, subtly, throughout. There are references to rugby (115), chess (117), and other games from time to time. The boys play at controlling sea creatures and each other, and the naval officer who lands on the island to rescue the boys at first interprets their hunt for Ralph as an ordinary children's game. This introduces an entirely new level of complexity into an already many-layered novel. Is the whole thing a game or not, the natural behavior of humankind (including children) or an imitation of the adult world?

At first glance, it seems deadly serious. Even the officer is taken aback when the answer to his joking question, "Nobody killed, I hope? Any dead bodies?" is "Only two" (201). Furthermore, the presence of the very real warship off the island's coast is an ample reminder that war is no game. Yet the whole saga of these stranded schoolboys seems to be game and reality at once. The conch is not a symbol of authority but a boy's toy version of a symbol of authority, serving the same purpose as a toy telephone. Until the arrival of the navy, there is no voice at the other end of the line. By the same token, the voting for chief, Ralph's authority, the hunt, the kill, and the feast each follow the pattern of child's play, as the boys imitate what their elders might do in similar circumstances. Each chapter reveals a new game or a new stage of the game.

How many people get married, or take certain jobs, or have children, or join certain organizations simply because it seems to be the next step in the game? Perhaps the boys hunt Ralph simply because it seems to be the next step in the game and because there is no outside authority to call them in for dinner. There is a long, shaded continuum between the toddler with a toy soldier and a water pistol, the older boy hunting animals with a real gun or blasting aliens into bloody body parts on a computer screen, and the adult general moving markers on a map to represent real bodies dying somewhere in battle. We can all put ourselves somewhere on that continuum between play and earnest, between what we naturally wish and the patterns set by our predecessors. Golding thus touches another universal aspect of humanity. Lord of the Flies is a novel that encourages questions about the human condition, not the least of which is this: At what point do you put down your toys and decide not to play anymore?


  1. Charles Monteith, "Strangers from Within," in William Golding: The Man and His Books, ed. John Carey (London: Faber and Faber, 1986), 58.
  2. Susan Sontag, on Charlie Rose, August 2, 1995.
  3. Monteith, "Strangers from Within," 59.
  4. Jack I. Biles, Talk: Conversations with William Golding (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1970), 14.

Paul Crawford (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Crawford, Paul. "Literature of Atrocity: Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. In Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down, pp. 50-68, 79-80.

[In the following excerpt, Crawford defines "literature of atrocity" as the use of fantasy, demonization, and the grotesque to create a reactions and examines Lord of the Flies as a treatise about Nazism and the Holocaust.]

We are post-Auschwitz homo sapiens because the evidence, the photographs of the sea of bones and gold fillings, of children's shoes and hands leaving a black claw-mark on oven walls, have altered our sense of possible enactments.

—George Steiner, Language and Silence: Essays,


Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night.… Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.

Elie Wiesel, Night

In moving beyond the earlier critical recognition that Golding interrogates English "immunity" from totalitarian violence and the institutionalization of this brutality in its class structure, we need to show how this attack is achieved through the use of fantastic and carnivalesque modes, modes that amount to Juvenalian or noncelebratory satire in opposition to merely universal or ahistoricist readings. As such, the fantastic is a technique of "literature of atrocity," significant in terms of the Holocaust experience, and its theme of demonization joins the noncelebratory carnivalesque in foregrounding exclusionary gestures toward the Jews. Yet Golding's attack on English constructions of national identity in opposition to Nazism is obstructed by the fabular and hence indirect form of critique in both Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955).

Contrary to those who claim the fantastic mode is escapist, Golding uses it in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors to interrogate contemporary events and map out the violent superstition behind the exclusion and attempted extermination of the Jewish race that has been viewed historically as an outsider race.1 In Lord of the Flies, fantastic hesitation breaks into the shocking natural explanation that the "Beast" is not an external, supernatural force of evil. The only "Beast" on the island is the fascist group of English adolescent males who kill or attempt to kill outsiders: Simon, Piggy, and Ralph. In their noncelebratory, violent, and fascistic carnivalesque behavior, we witness English schoolboys not only dressing but even acting like Nazis. Alan Sinfield, in his book Society and Literature, argues that "the British themselves (in spite of fighting against fascism in the war) were not immune from that very sickness [of regarding human beings as means rather than ends], diagnosed by the existentialists, which had given rise to fascist violence and totalitarianism. William Golding, in particular, challenged the notion that the British were, in some peculiar way, different or special." Sinfield asserts that "when Jack and Roger turn upon Piggy and Simon, they are, for Golding, simply making manifest the brutal and violent pattern of behaviour that underlies Britain's stratified and bullying social order." It is not insignificant that the boys who take up leadership roles, Ralph and Jack, appear to be from a privileged background, perhaps educated at public or boarding schools. In his essay "Schoolboys," Ian McEwan says: "As far as I was concerned, Golding's island was a thinly disguised boarding school." Certainly, as S. J. Boyd suggests, Golding's "deep bitterness at and hatred of the evils of class" are evident in Lord of the Flies, as in his later novels, The Pyramid and Rites of Passage. Boyd claims that there is a "middle-class ambience" to Ralph, who "is not slow to inform Piggy that his father is officer-class," and Jack, who has a "privileged choirschool background." He argues that Piggy himself is very much a "lower-class" outsider whose accent—a "mark of class"—is mocked. Indeed, Piggy's "main persecutor" is Jack who has strong notions of hierarchy because of his privileged education and previous status as head boy of his choir school. Sinfield's and Boyd's insights can be extended to reveal how Golding mixes his critique of the English class system with a critique of English fascism—a dual attack that is achieved through the deployment of fantastic and carnivalesque modes. If this is Golding's aim, we might wonder at the unfair nature of such a linkage, especially since being a member of the privileged classes does not necessarily make you right wing, as Auden, Spender, and Orwell can attest with their radicalism and Marxism during the 1920s and 1930s. In broad terms, however, Golding does seem to critique not just English complacency about being anti-or non-Nazi, but also the English class system that perpetuates so much division and exclusion of "outsiders." This suggests some link between Golding's work and what Blake Morrison calls the "token rebellion" against social privilege by "Movement" writers of the 1950s.2

In The Inheritors, the "shock tactic" of breaking fantastic hesitation brings a startling recognition that "civilized" human beings commit genocide against those they project as monstrous "ogres" or devils. The Cro-Magnon people, progenitors of Homo sapiens, exterminate a race that, Boyd argues, resembles the Jews. The fantastic tension between the real and unreal in all these novels is strongly evocative of the Holocaust experience and the kind of writing it provoked. This tension was not only a constituent of the Holocaust experience but also an aesthetic technique in "literature of atrocity" that portrayed horrors in a manner that went beyond documentary account.3Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors can be included in this tradition.

The carnivalesque in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors is revealed in the suspension and shedding of the stable, ordered conformity of social life. Rules are forgotten for a period of time. In their place comes an enactment of desires and drives that have been repressed. But the carnivalesque behavior in these novels is presented as violently anti-Semitic. This noncelebratory aspect to carnival has been foregrounded by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White's argument that carnival "violently abuses and demonizes" outsiders such as the Jews, whose abjection is promoted by carnival practices such as the eating of pig flesh. The history of carnival's noncelebratory aspect was not lost on Golding in the light of the Jewish Holocaust. Indeed, Lord of the Flies is replete with violent carnival images of the pig. Thus, carnival is a site of violence against the weak, the marginalized. This was not missed in Golding's powerful evocation of English "Nazism." The carnivalesque, topsy-turvy world is widely represented in the violent, noncelebratory Dionysianism and scatology of Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. This use of the carnivalesque cannot be understood within Mikhail Bakhtin's purely celebratory focus in Rabelais and His World.

Although Lord of the Flies is a strong attack on notions of English moral superiority vis-à-vis Nazism, such a critique is hampered somewhat by its fabular form. It subtilizes historical reference to Nazi-like group fascism. This obfuscation of historical reference continues in The Inheritors, which more generally attacks the notion of "civilization" rather than English moral superiority. However, we might see Golding's attack upon H. G. Wells's racial elitism and the comparison evoked between such views and Nazism as a general warning that the English have no grounds for complacency about their moral distance from atrocities carried out in the Holocaust. In The Inheritors, the Holocaust is strongly evoked in the racial extermination of Neanderthal Man but is again hampered by Golding's use of fable. As I will demonstrate in the following chapter, this reference to contemporary atrocity and fascism is strengthened in Pincher Martin and Free Fall, novels that shift progressively from fabular to historical form and delineate more closely the totalitarian personality.

In Lord of the Flies particularly, and perhaps more tenuously in The Inheritors, Golding's Vergangenheitsbewältigung, or "coming to terms with the past," concludes that the English and Nazis are not so different as one might expect. It is this painful evocation of similitude that has been overlooked in earlier critical readings. Both novels should certainly be included in the wider European tradition of "literature of atrocity." That we know Golding himself to have been deeply involved in the war, on intimate terms with its horror, and exercised by expressions not just of Allied moral superiority to Nazis, but of racial violence that broke out in England after the war as well, is significant for a full understanding of his early novels.

In A Moving Target, Golding tells of the impact this loss of belief in the "perfectibility of social man" had on Lord of the Flies: "The years of my life that went into the book were not years of thinking but of feeling, years of wordless brooding that brought me not so much to an opinion as a stance. It was like lamenting the lost childhood of the world. The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief, sheer grief, grief, grief, grief" ([A Moving Target ], 163). Despite such commentary from Golding himself, the effect of the war and other social contexts such as racial violence on his writing has drawn scant attention from critics. This emphasis has tended to remain submerged.

Furthermore, there has been no consideration of how Golding, "punch drunk" on atrocity, uses fantastic and carnivalesque modes powerfully to register his grief about this context.4 The following readings of Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors aim to redress this lack. These novels, which can be thought of as a pair, make an oblique response to the sociopolitical context of World War II and its aftermath. They provide an uneasy coexistence of the universal and historical.5

Lord of the Flies

In Lord of the Flies, fantastic and carnivalesque modes are used to subvert postwar English complacency about the deeds of Nazism, particularly the Holocaust. Although oblique, Golding effects an integration between literature and cultural context. This interpretation renegotiates previous critical paradigms that have, for the most part, centered on the timeless or perennial concerns of this novel about a group of English schoolboys, deserted on a South Pacific island following a nuclear third world war, and their descent into ritual savagery and violence.6 As most critics attest, the characters replicate those in R. M. Ballantyne's Coral Island (1858), who in similar straits pull together and overcome external dangers from natives and pirates. Ballantyne's schoolboys exemplify cultural assumptions of imperial superiority and conversely the inferiority of the "fuzzy-wuzzies" or "savages," the indigenous race feared for its cannibalistic practices. For Ballantyne's boys, evil and degenerative nature is outside of them, and the suggestion is that imperial colonialism is beneficent, that the savage can be "saved" by the civilized, Christian Western man. Such inherent and dominant racial elitism is extended in Ballantyne's Gorilla Hunters (1861), in which older versions of the same schoolboys, on a scientific expedition in Africa, hardly differentiate between the gorillas and the natives.

Golding subverts these notions of racial and cultural superiority, of scientific progress, notions casting long shadows over atrocities against the Jews carried out in World War II.7 He draws a parallel between the violent history of English imperialist adolescent masculine culture and the extermination of the Jews. He broaches the grim fact that English colonial warfare against "inferior" races, modeled on hunting and pig sticking, was not a million miles away from the extermination of the Jews. Pig sticking, of course, was at the heart of R. S. S. Baden-Powell's scouting repertoire. Indeed, in 1924 he published Pig Sticking or Hog Hunting, a guide for scouts on that very art. Given the whole setting of Lord of the Flies, with its reference to Ballantyne and empire boys, Golding appears to have the imperial scouting ethic in his sights. John M. MacKenzie alerts us to the greater reach of such an ethic:

Africans swiftly became the human substitute for the usual animal prey. Baden-Powell constantly stressed that the scouting and stalking techniques of the Hunt could immediately be transferred to human quarry in times of war. Hunting was also … a preparation for the violence and brutalities of war. By brutalising themselves in the blood of the chase, the military prepared themselves for an easy adjustment to human warfare, particularly in an age so strongly conditioned by social Darwinian ideas on race.8

Golding's critique is not directed exclusively at Nazi war criminality but at the postwar complacency of the English who too readily distanced themselves from what the Nazis did. He reminds them of their long infatuation with social Darwinism. Graham Dawson maps the trajectory of the "soldier hero," an "idealized," militaristic masculinity at the symbolic heart of English national identity and British imperialism. He argues that this "imagining of masculinities" in terms of warfare and adventure pervades the national culture, swamps boyhood fantasies, and, in particular, promotes rigid gendering, xenophobia, and racial violence.9 In Lord of the Flies, Golding's critique of British imperial, protofascist history is powerfully registered by the Nazification of English schoolboys: "Shorts, shirts, and different garments they carried in their hands: but each boy wore a square black cap with a silver badge in it. Their bodies, from throat to ankle, were hidden by black cloaks which bore a long silver cross on the left breast and each neck was finished off with a hambone frill" (LF, 20-21).

James Gindin insists that Golding's description of Jack's gang—who are English—"deliberately suggests the Nazis." Despite a preference for the universal aspects of Golding's fiction, Leighton Hodson suggests Piggy might represent the "democrat and intellectual," Jack "Hitler," and Roger a "potential concentration camp guard." L. L. Dickson identifies the novel as political allegory, referring to World War II atrocities, particularly those inflicted upon the Jews. Suzie Mackenzie refers to Jack's gang as a "fascist coup" and sees the opposition between democracy and totalitarianism as one of the novel's themes. The "black" garments and caps are, indeed, highly suggestive of the Nazi Schutzstaffeln, or SS—the "Black Angels" responsible for the Final Solution. Certainly, Golding's candid comments to John Haffenden suggest this: "I think it's broadly true to say that in Lord of the Flies I was saying, 'had I been in Germany I would have been at most a member of the SS, because I would have liked the uniform and so on.'" They also suggest Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts. The silver cross may obliquely bring to mind both the Iron Cross (Eisernen Kreuz) and the anti-Semitic swastika. The reference to "hambone" may suggest the skull and crossbones or Death's Head (Totenkopf) insignia of the SS. Certainly, the "black cap with a silver badge in it" resembles the black ski caps decorated with the skull and crossbones worn by Hitler's early group of bodyguards, the Stabswache. Like Hitler's Stabswache, which was made up of twelve bodyguards, Jack's gang or squad is small in number. Nazification of Jack's gang is further amplified by its delight in parades and pageantry, which together with "the unshackling of primitive instincts" and "the denial of reason" is all part of what psychoanalytical theories categorize under the "style and methods of fascism," according to Ernst Nolte.10 This mingling of Nazism and Englishness is not to be overlooked. Of course, it is the violence of Jack's gang that most powerfully suggests links between them and the Nazis.

The centrality of violence to fascism can be charted, for example, in the appeal that Georges Sorel's apparent valorization of direct violent action in Reflections on Violence had for fascist ideologues. Adolescent male aggression, like that of Baden-Powell's pig sticking, is central to Nazism and other versions of fascism or totalitarianism.11 Silke Hesse contends that because adolescents are "unattached," "mobile," impressionable, physically strong, and easily "directed towards ideals and heroes" on account of unfocused sexuality, the adolescent gang is seen as "a most efficient tool in the hands of a dictator." She concludes: "Of course, Fascism cannot be exhaustively explained with reference to male adolescence. Yet most of the major theories of fascism emphasize the youthful nature of the movement and, even more, its masculinity, in terms both of participation and of traditionally masculine values." Hitler himself has been called "an eternal adolescent" by Saul Friedlander. We may see Jack's gang as an English version of the Hitlerjugend, or Hitler Youth, who grew into the jackboots of the SS, or, indeed, Mosley's New Party (NUPA) Youth Movement. Nicholas Mosley notes that Christopher Hobhouse, of Mosley's New Party, "said he saw the NUPA Youth Movement turning into something like the Nazi SS." Again, Robert Skidelsky argues that as with fascism in general, "the most striking thing about active blackshirts was their youth." In an early review, V. S. Pritchett links Lord of the Flies to "the modern political nightmare," and hoped that it was being read in Germany.12 I would rather suggest that Golding hoped it was being read in Britain and other Allied nations.

For Golding, the dominant and prevalent cultural assumptions found in Ballantyne's stories support the projection of evil onto external objects or beings, such as savages, and in Nazi Germany's case the Jews.13 But Golding maintains that the darkness or evil that humans fear, and consequently attempt to annihilate, is within the "civilized" English subject. Importantly, Golding appears to have a specific continuity in mind concerning an evil that is not overcome or displaced by English civilization, but is, in effect, a potential that comes hand in hand with it. He connects adolescent English schoolboys from privileged backgrounds, the imperial scouting ethos, and fascism. Thus, whereas in Germany fascism actually sprouted, while in England it did not, there is nonetheless the possibility that the English ethos could easily tip over into fascism (as it does on the island) since privileged education and scouting ideology have much in common with fascism. In order to rebut Ballantyne's projection of evil onto savages, and to draw attention to the ability of the English—with their schooling in fascistic behavior—to mirror Nazism, Golding uses the combined forces of fantastic and carnival modes.

In Lord of the Flies, the world of the island is apprehended from the viewpoint of the schoolboys. Initially, they appear to be all-around empire boys, characters in the island adventure tradition that stretches back to Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island (1883), and Ballantyne's Coral Island. But their preoccupation with natural phenomena and survival rapidly changes to a preoccupation with the unknown and inexplicable. They face beasts and phantoms in a succession of apparently supernatural events. Uncertain and fearful, the boys are subjected to unexplained phenomena. Suspense and hesitation as to the nature of the "beast" follow, and their fear increases accordingly. Although at first it is only the "littluns" that appear affected by this fear, the circle widens until all the boys, including Ralph and Jack, believe in the "Beast." The term beastie (LF, 39) quickly matures into "beast" (LF, 40). Initially, Ralph and Jack hedge their bets by stating that even if there was a beast, they would hunt and kill it. The mysterious disappearance of the boy who had seen the "snake-thing" compounds with the fall of snakelike creepers from an exploding tree and adds fuel to fear. In their beach huts the "littluns" are plagued with nightmares. And in pace with the growing sense of strangeness, the island environment itself becomes equivocal and menacing: "Strange things happened at midday. The glittering sea rose up, moving apart in planes of blatant impossibility; the coral reef and the few, stunted palms that clung to the more elevated parts would float up into the sky, would quiver, be plucked apart, run like raindrops on a wire or be repeated as in an odd succession of mirrors. Sometimes land loomed where there was no land and flicked out like a bubble as the children watched" (LF, 63).

Yet this strange transformation of the natural fabric of the coral reef is rationally explained by Piggy as a mirage. But such is the general uncertainty now of what is real and unreal that the fall of darkness is unwelcome. The equivocal nature of familiar things is constantly in view: "If faces were different when lit from above or below—what was a face? What was anything?" (LF, 85). The "littluns" are constantly attacked for their fearfulness. Jack calls them "babies and sissies" (LF, 90). Piggy proclaims that if these fears continue, they'll be "talking about ghosts and such things next" (LF, 91).

But no sooner has Piggy subdued his own and everyone else's doubts by advancing a scientific approach to reality than Phil, another "littlun," speaks of seeing "something big and horrid" in the trees (LF, 93). Although Ralph insists that he was experiencing a nightmare, Phil maintains that he was fully awake at the time. Then Percival says he has seen the Beast and that "it comes out of the sea" (LF, 96). Thus, doubt and hesitation increase. Maurice says: "'I don't believe in the beast of course. As Piggy says, life's scientific, but we don't know, do we? Not certainly, I mean—'" (LF, 96). Then Simon amazes the older boys by admitting that "'maybe there is a beast'" (LF, 97). Here, Simon elliptically hints that the Beast might be them: "'We could be sort of …' Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind's essential illness" (LF, 97). The boys even vote on the issue of whether ghosts inhabit the island. Only Piggy fails to lift his hand. Yet Piggy's claim that ghosts and suchlike do not make sense brings its own fearful counter: "'But s'pose they don't make sense? Not here, on this island? Supposing things are watching us and waiting?' Ralph shuddered violently and moved closer to Piggy, so that they bumped frighteningly" (LF, 101).

Schoolboy nerves are further jangled by what follows: "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" (LF, 103). But this noise turns out to be Percival reliving his own personal nightmare. For the moment there is the relief of natural explanation. The Beast from Air we know to be a dead parachutist, shot down over the island while all but Sam and Eric are asleep. This figure is uncannily animate, moving in the wind:

Here the breeze was fitful and allowed the strings of the parachute to tangle and festoon; and the figure sat, its helmeted head between its knees, held by a complication of lines. When the breeze blew the lines would strain taut and some accident of this pull lifted the head and chest upright so that the figure seemed to peer across the brow of the mountain. Then, each time the wind dropped, the lines would slacken and the figure bow forward again, sinking its head between its knees.

(LF, 105)

Sam and Eric who are guarding the fire on the mountain hear the strange popping noise of the chute fabric in the wind. Here, hesitation between a supernatural and a natural explanation to the Beast from Air belongs only to the characters. They return and tell the others of the beast on the mountain. Despite a natural though uncanny explanation being available to us, we cannot fail to empathize with the subsequent fear and hesitation experienced by the characters: "Soon the darkness was full of claws, full of the awful unknown and menace" (LF, 108). However, the disturbing fact that the only beasts on the island are the boys themselves begins to gain ground: "Simon, walking in front of Ralph, felt a flicker of incredulity—a beast with claws that scratched, that sat on a mountain top, that left no tracks and yet was not fast enough to catch Samneric. Howsoever Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick" (LF, 113).

Our own hesitation and uncertainty as readers has begun to shift more clearly toward a natural yet uncanny explanation that the boys are their own monsters. But the breaking of this central hesitation, as to the nature of the Beast, does not exclude further peripheral uncertainty between natural and supernatural events. Apart from the fact that we participate vicariously in the hesitation of Ralph and Jack as they hunt down the figure on the mountain, a "great ape … sitting with its head between its knees" (LF, 136), the pig's head or "Lord of the Flies" remains on the border between reality and unreality. It is animated: "the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned" (LF, 152). It appears to be a focal point of something supernatural—Evil, the Devil, Satan. Here, peripheral uncertainty is maintained. We hesitate between formulating natural or supernatural explanations. There is a definite sense of the "Lord of the Flies" as a possessed object, and this possession is registered through the visionary viewpoint of Simon. Though Simon has repeatedly been described as mad, hesitation remains as to whether the strange conversation he has with the "Lord of the Flies" is a fit-induced psychosis or not; indeed, we hesitate to ascertain whether psychosis disallows vision. This threshold between Simon's sanity or insanity—a hazy world of split personality, psychosis, and dreams—magnifies fantastic uncertainty, as does, in a more marginal way, the "doubling" of the twins, Samneric. Simon's "madness" has its base in both Todorovian "themes of the self" and carnival foolery. Ironically, it is the death of the equivocal and mysteriously spiritual Simon that erodes fantastic hesitation. His "madness" may also mark the beginnings of Golding's perennial questioning of religious authority throughout his work, a critique most powerfully achieved in The Spire.

A final break of the core hesitation concerning the nature of the "Beast" occurs when in Simon's eagerness to explain the human nature of the phenomenon, he unwittingly becomes the "Beast" and is murdered. An exchange of beasts occurs. At this point, we become fully aware of the boys as beasts, in their vicious murder of Simon. This most poignant and telling delivery of an uncanny explanation breaks fantastic hesitation most completely. Then, by way of contrast, the harmless, dead Beast from Air exits the island, though, for the characters, its exit remains a supernatural phenomenon.

The shift, then, is from a predominant hesitation about the nature of the Beast to an uncanny explanation that the boys, and humans in general, project fear onto other groups, individuals, or objects. Even so, the uncanny resolution of who or what really is the Beast on the island remains somewhat equivocal. We are still unsure of a background supernatural activity or influence. The natural and the supernatural seem to coexist, a realm perhaps more akin to Todorov's "fantastic uncanny." Supernaturality is still registered, for example, in the description of Simon's body, which, like that of Lycaon in Homer's Iliad, is devoured by "sea monsters."14

The characters continue to fear an external beast, with Jack's gang having already tried to propitiate the Beast by making an offering of the pig's head, deciding to "keep on the right side of him" (LF, 177). Even rational, scientific Piggy ends up thinking strange sounds outside his hut are made by the Beast: "A voice whispered horribly outside. 'Piggy—Piggy—' 'It's come,' gasped Piggy. 'It's real'" (LF, 184). Of course, the sounds are those of Jack and members of his gang stealing the remains of Piggy's glasses. Again, the shift from character hesitation to uncanny natural explanation is effective. Notions of "beast" are transposed onto Jack's gang.

With Piggy's murder, and the "pig hunt" of Ralph under way, clarification of the human nature of the Beast is intensified. The natural as opposed to supernatural interpretation of events is given its final and fullest exposition. Yet, even so, the uncanny does not completely override the supernatural. The pig's head remains strangely animated, as when the hunted Ralph strays upon it: "[T]he pig's skull grinned at him from the top of a stick. He walked slowly into the middle of the clearing and looked steadily at the skull that gleamed as white as ever the conch had done and seemed to jeer at him cynically. An inquisitive ant was busy in one of the eye sockets but otherwise the thing was lifeless. Or was it?" (LF, 204).

Effectively, the fantastic elements in Lord of the Flies operate in tandem with those of carnival: they combine to disturb us and subvert dominant cultural notions of the superiority of civilized English behavior. These are the kind of assumptions that buoyed the complacency of England, and indeed other Allied nations, namely, that the atrocities perpetrated by the Nazis were an exclusively German phenomenon. Within the fantastic framework, it is the break from potential supernatural explanation to the chilling and uncanny reality of natural explanation that disturbs us: that the Beast is human, Nazi-like, and English. We participate in the shock that this shift in perspective brings. Instead of externalizing and projecting evil onto objects, phantoms, and supernatural beasts, we confront the reality of human destructiveness. This is registered in both a universal or "perennial" frame and a specific "contemporary" frame, polemicizing the English capacity for Nazism, especially in the light of its exclusionary class system. Although the novel is set in the future, the surface detail, as discussed by earlier critics such as James Gindin, corresponds to World War II. In effect, the fantastic interrogates the postwar "reality" of Britain and its Allies. Yet it does not do so alone.

The shift from the fantastic to the uncanny amplifies carnivalesque elements in the text that symbolically subvert, turn upside down, the vision of civilized, ordered, English behavior. In combination, these elements are the structures through which Lord of the Flies disturbs. Yet such is the inherent irreversibility of the narrative structure—its dependence upon hesitation or suspense of explanation—that we cannot read Lord of the Flies and register the peculiar shock it delivers a second time.15 Indeed, there is something particularly "evanescent" about the pure fantastic, not as a genre, but as an element.16 Ultimately, the shock recognition of the negative, transgressive, "evil" side of not simply human behavior but the behavior of English boys is what is disturbing about Lord of the Flies. Such shock recognition is effected by the combination of fantastic and carnival elements. Because of the fantastic's evanescence, we need to recall our first reading when we reexamine Lord of the Flies: we must remember our initial shock. We find no relief in the novel's coda at the end of the book when the boys are "saved" by an English naval officer. Our unease shifts from the carnival square of the island to the wider adult world—a world at war for a third time, a world in which the theater of war greatly resembles, in its detail of a paramilitary fascist group, machine-gunning and, in its dead parachutist, the familiar Second World War. It is a world of continuing inhumanity. This open ending is typical of "the satirist's representation of evil as a present and continuing danger."17 The naval officer marks the gap between ideal British behavior and reality: "'I should have thought that a pack of British boys—you're all British aren't you?—would have been able to put up a better show than that—I mean—'" (LF, 222). The substantiation of the children as British subjects is not superfluous to the novel's meaning. It is fundamental to this novel's ethical interrogation of England, Britain, and its Allies at a specific juncture in history.

One of the most powerful carnivalesque elements in Lord of the Flies is that of the pig, which Golding uses symbolically to subvert dominant racial assumptions, in particular toward the Jews, and, universally, toward those humans considered alien or foreign to any grouping. This has alarming relevance to the atrocities committed against the Jews in World War II, yet has been overlooked by Golding critics who have not interpreted Golding's merging of the pig hunt with the human hunt, and the racial significance of eating pig flesh at carnival time.

The pig symbol is developed in Lord of the Flies as the pig of carnival time. It is a major motif: as locus of projected evil; as food for the schoolboys; as propitiation to the Beast; but more than anything, as the meat the Jews do not eat. This link between pig flesh and the Jews is reinforced by Golding's choice of the novel's Hebraic title. "Lord of the Flies," or "Lord of Dung," as John Whitley renders it, comes from the Hebrew word Beelzebub. As I noted earlier, Peter Stallybrass and Allon White argue that the eating of pig meat during carnival time is an anti-Semitic practice. It is an act of contempt toward the Jews for bringing about the Lenten fast. White asserts: "Meat, especially, pig meat, was of course the symbolic centre of carnival (carne levare probably derives from the taking up of meat as both food and sex)." That the pig becomes human and the human being becomes pig in the frenzied, carnivalistic debauchery of Jack and his totalitarian regime is important. The shadowing of pig hunt and human hunt, ending with Simon's and Piggy's deaths, and almost with Ralph's, signifies the link between the pig symbol and the extermination of those considered alien or outsiders. The name "Piggy" does not merely imply obesity. It is the lower-class Piggy who is always on the periphery of the group of schoolboys, always mocked, never quite belonging. As Virginia Tiger points out, "Piggy is killed … because he is an alien, a pseudo-species."18 Piggy is alien or foreign, and, as such, he is a focus for violence based on the sort of racial assumptions found in Ballantyne's writing, but it is important to clarify the precise nature of his outsider status. The character name "Piggy" does not, unlike that of Ralph and Jack, feature in Ballantyne's Coral Island. Piggy is Golding's creation—a creation that suggests a Jew-like figure: "There had grown tacitly among the biguns the opinion that Piggy was an outsider, not only by accent, which did not matter, but by fat, and ass-mar, and specs, and a certain disinclination for manual labour" (LF, 70). We find something of the Jewish intellectual in this description of the bespectacled Piggy, with his different accent and physical feebleness. The stereotype of Jewish feebleness has been a stock in trade of anti-Semites and peddlers of degeneration theories.19 It is here that we witness the anti-Semitism of carnival. In essence, Golding utilizes the imperial tradition of pig sticking to suggest a continuum between English imperialism and fascism.

Jack's gang persecutes Jew-like Piggy and those it considers outsiders. As a carnival mob they break the normal rules of authority with a willful, transgressive violence that marks a shift from liberal democracy to fascism and anti-Semitism. We witness the demise of Ralph's parliament and the ascendancy of Jack's totalitarian, primitive regime based on savagery, hunting, and primal drives. There follows aggressive sexual debasement and frenzy in the killing of the carnival pig, mimicking anal rape by sticking the spear "'Right up her ass'" (LF, 150):

[T]he sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood.… [S]he squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror. Roger ran round the heap, prodding with his spear whenever pigflesh appeared. Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife. Roger found a lodgement for his point and began to push till he was leaning with his whole weight. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her.

(LF, 149)20

The transgressive connotations of this act are amplified by Robert and Maurice's mimicry of the event. In effect, the whole scene is one of a carnivalesque focus on the lower body parts, particularly that "low" orifice, the anus. As Allon White points out: "Orifices, particularly the gaping mouth, emphasize the open, unfinished, receptive nature of the body at carnival, its daily proximity to flesh and to dung." We may further note scatological details of the "littluns'" toilet habits or Jack's orgasmic fart. Later we witness the "befouled bodies" (LF, 172) of Piggy and Ralph. The orifice as mouth or anus is found in several descriptions in Lord of the Flies. Arnold Johnston considers that Golding's Swiftian scatology strengthens an accusation that the contemporary world evades home truths about human nature such as the killing of six million Jews.21 We have the foul breath from the mouth of the dead parachutist and the vast gaping mouth of the pig: "Simon found he was looking into a vast mouth. There was blackness within, a blackness that spread" (LF, 159). The theme of "lower body parts," symbolic of misrule, is replicated elsewhere in the novel, as in Ralph's derision of Piggy's asthma: "'Sucks to your ass-mar'" (LF, 156). Here, we find the connotations of anal damage or marring and "sucking ass." In the mock pig killing that follows, Robert ends up with a sore backside. The transgression of sodomy is further evidenced in the likely spear rape of Simon on the beach implied by the kind of elliptical references expected of sexual taboo. Although no explicit reference is made to such actions, we must bear in mind previous pig-killing ritual and play:

"Don't you understand, Piggy? The things we did—"

"He may still be—"


"P'raps he was only pretending—"

Piggy's voice tailed off at the sight of Ralph's face.

"You were outside. Outside the circle. You never really came in. Didn't you see what we—what they did?"

There was loathing, and at the same time a kind of feverish excitement in his voice.

"Didn't you see, Piggy?"

(LF, 173)

We must read this transgressive violence in political terms. Golding is explicitly linking extreme violence with anti-Semitism and the kind of "sadomasochistic homosexuality" that Wilhelm Reich and Erich Fromm considered integral to fascism.22 Of course, we might argue that Reich and Fromm's analysis is misplaced or erroneous, yet Golding adopts this kind of popularized image. As Roger Eatwell notes: "Images of fascism are part of our culture. For most people, the word 'fascism' conjures up visions of nihilistic violence, war and Götterdämmerung. 'Fascism' has a sexual side too: but it is the world of Germanic uniforms and discipline, of bondage and sadomasochism, rather than love."23 Whether or not "sadomasochistic homosexuality" is a definitive aspect or style of fascism, Golding certainly appears to have drawn on such popularized theories and images, even though such an analysis is ultimately contradictory in terms of the Nazis' exclusionary acts toward homosexuals. Yet it makes sense in that what is feared is persecuted in others.

Jack's gang descends into a meat and sex society, rejecting the liberal democracy of the conch-invoked meetings. Their carnival is filled with dance, chanting, fire, "fun," and irresponsibility—of general festivity. Those routines that reflect responsible society, such as keeping a fire going on the mountain, are neglected. They wear masks and painted faces. They dress and present themselves as a choir, an oxymoronic combination in light of their actions. The rules are challenged, turned upside down—as we have noted, Jack cries "Bollocks" to the rules. They are the "painted fools" of carnival, part of a masquerade (LF, 197). Of course, such imagery may equally apply to the imperialist notion of descent into savagery, both carnival "painted fool" and "savage" being "low domains." Golding provides a dystopian representation of carnival that dwells on the pessimistic, violent, and racist seam that has had its place in the history of carnival crowd behavior. He makes a strong connection between this history and contemporary fascism. This aspect of the carnivalesque cannot be appreciated by those "critics who remain purely within the celebratory terms of Bakhtin's formulation," nor those who universalize transgression.24

Golding's dystopian representation incorporates noncelebratory carnival decrowning, where a king figure is parodied and derided as the played-out subversion of hierarchical society. This is evident in Jack's thrusting of a pig's decapitated head on a double-pointed spear, as propitiation to the Beast. Such an oxymoronic symbol, referred to in the title of the novel as "Lord of the Flies," reflects the enactment of misrule, the turning upside down of order and authority, of what is crowned. What is "lord" is lord only to flies—those insects of the scatological. This symbol is both fitting to the overall dark or dystopian misrule of carnival in Lord of the Flies and the etymological base of "Lord of the Flies" as meaning Beelzebub or Devil.

We may view Golding's use of carnival in Lord of the Flies as registering his deeply felt unease about the nature of English "civilization" in light of the events of World War II—of totalitarianism and genocide: a "civilization," among others, that is primed for the total wipeout of nuclear apocalypse. The mis-rule of carnival in contemporary history is presented as integral not simply to Nazis or other totalitarian regimes but also to England with its divisive and cruel class system. Golding lays bare an alternative view to civilized English behavior, one that counters accepted, familiar, erroneous complacencies. In the isolated focus, in the "carnival square" of Golding's island, carnival affirms that everything exists on the threshold or border of its opposite.25 In effect, Golding explodes a Nazi-English or them-us opposition.

So, to summarize, noncelebratory or Juvenalian satire with its combined fantastic and carnivalesque in Lord of the Flies subverts the view that the "civilized" English are incapable of the kind of atrocities carried out by the Nazis during World War II. These modes are deployed in the novel as an attack on what Golding deems to be a complacent English democracy, and its masculinity and classist attitudes in particular, in relation to the rise of National Socialism.…

In Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, it may be that Golding wished to avoid effecting any kind of representation of the Holocaust that might appear to be what Lawrence Langer calls an "unprincipled violation of a sacred shrine."26 Or maybe Golding was aware of the difficulty of "presenting the unrepresentable." Hence, his reference is somewhat masked by a universal or fabular setting of these novels. He does, however, strengthen his reference to broad or popular conceptions of fascism and the totalitarian personality in Pincher Martin, Free Fall, and Darkness Visible, perhaps to compensate for making too oblique a reference in these early more fabular novels. Yet even so, as we shall see, the later novels only barely connect with the "Final Solution" as such.

In conclusion, then, Golding surely knew that his representations of the Holocaust, and indeed fascism, were necessarily limited and partial. Yet he obviously wanted to make some kind of intervention with what he perceived as complacency among the English in particular about their moral distance from Nazism. This focus on English complacency is evident in Nigel Williams's comment on Golding's view of Lord of the Flies: "He once said to me that one of the main aims of his book was to tell the story of the breakdown of English parliamentary democracy. 'Don't make them into little Americans, will you,' he added." Golding does not attempt to be comprehensive or detailed in his reference to the Holocaust as he needs only to suggest the conceptual territories of this genocide and fascism to effect his satire. Golding knew that, like himself, the postwar reader would have sufficient familiarity with German prison camps and the Holocaust through a plethora of accounts. Like Clamence in Albert Camus's La Chute (1956), Golding did not need to play the historian here: "We children of this half-century don't need a diagram to imagine such places."27

In terms of the Holocaust, Golding placed himself within what Langer calls the "culture of dread" as opposed to the "culture of consolation." We cannot accuse Golding of any sentimental aestheticization of the Holocaust or the Nazi "Final Solution." We may accuse him of being a "long-distance" writer like Sylvia Plath, D. M. Thomas, and William Styron, but not a barbaric one. Indeed, as Berel Lang admits rather reluctantly, there is some justification in the "barbarism" of imaginative writing about the Holocaust, even "bad" or "false" contributions, "as a defence against still greater barbarism—against denial, for example, or against forgetfulness."28 Golding's early fiction offers a defense against this barbarity of amnesia and denial. His later fiction moves away from what may be thought of as a grief response and encrypts the Holocaust in his reflection on "post-Auschwitz" life and meaning. Having instantiated the massive "seismic" force of the Holocaust in his early fiction, he traces its aftershocks or aftermath as they threaten comforting epistemologies and rationality itself with further collapse and fragmentation. Indeed, the arch-relativization of meaning we call postmodernism has spawned a concerted attack on the historicity of the Holocaust. The Holocaust is treated as merely textual, as something that can be deconstructed. Part of this effort involves the extreme claim by deniers of the Holocaust that the mass killing of Jews in World War II was a hoax. In this sense, we might consider the Holocaust as heavily influencing the postwar skepticism that eventually developed into what we broadly call postmodernism yet subsequently fell foul of its more hard-boiled deconstructive and antifoundationalist pronouncements. Or, in other words, the Holocaust intensified the climate for its denial.


  1. For a useful summary of critical positions that support or oppose the notion of "escape" in the fantastic, see Siebers, The Romantic Fantastic, 43-45.
  2. Sinfield, Society and Literature, 1945-1970, 35-36; McEwan, "Schoolboys," 158; Boyd, Novels of Golding, 10-11; Morrison, The Movement, 77.
  3. Boyd, Novels of Golding, 40-42. See Langer, Literary Imagination, 43-49. Langer asserts: "To establish an order of reality in which the unimaginable becomes imaginatively acceptable exceeds the capacities of an art devoted entirely to verisimilitude; some quality of the fantastic, whether stylistic or descriptive, becomes an essential ingredient of l'univers concentrationnaire. Indeed, those who recorded details painstakingly in an attempt to omit none of the horror may have been unwittingly guilty of ignoring precisely the chief source of that horror—existence in a middle realm between life and death with its ambiguous and inconsistent appeals to survival and extinction, which continuously undermined the logic of existence without offering any satisfactory alternative" (43).
  4. Oldsey and Weintraub, Art of Golding, 173. Oldsey and Weintraub consider the branding of Golding's vision "by acts of superior whites in places like Belsen and Hiroshima" as the core unifying thesis behind his early novels (45). Dick suggests that Golding's focus on the evil side of humankind in Lord of the Flies resembles media presentations of Nazi atrocities that do not tell the whole story (William Golding [1967], 34-35).
  5. On the paradox of timeless novels that remain contemporary, see Oldsey and Weintraub, Art of Golding, 11, 43-45, 173; and Josipovici, World and Book, 236. Dickson, developing the work of Edwin Honig and Angus Fletcher, evaluates allegory along the lines of what Scholes has termed "modern fabulation," which "tends away from the representation of reality but returns toward actual life by way of ethically controlled fantasy" (see Dickson, Modern Allegories, 1; and Scholes, The Fabulators, 11-14).
  6. According to Crompton: "The book originally began with a description of the atomic explosion [cut prior to publication] out of which the children escaped, an event recapitulated exactly but in miniature by the fire that is destroying the island at the end of the book" (View from the Spire, 96). This is ratified by Golding who told John Haffenden that the "picture of destruction" in the fire scene "was an Atomic one; the island had expanded to be the whole great globe" ("William Golding: An Interview," 10).
  7. S. Laing argues that "the reversal of texts of high bourgeois optimism" in Golding's early work, and focus on the irrational, follows Golding's participation in and reflection on World War II. He refers to Golding's revelation of "history as nightmare" ("Novels and the Novel," 241).
  8. MacKenzie, "The Imperial Pioneer and Hunter and the British Masculine Stereotype in Late Victorian and Edwardian Times," 188.
  9. See Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire, and the Imagining of Masculinities.
  10. Gindin, William Golding, 22; Hodson, William Golding, 32. See also Medcalf, William Golding, 10, 13. Dickson, Modern Allegories, 24-25. McCarron has written that the novel "would not have been written had Belsen and Auschwitz never existed, or indeed had Dresden never been bombed by the Allies" (William Golding, 4). Mackenzie, "Return of the Natives," 40; see Rupert Butler, The Black Angels; Haffenden, "William Golding: An Interview," 11; see E. W. W. Fowler, Nazi Regalia, 150; Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, 39.
  11. The significance of male youth to fascist movements has been noted by historians and theorists of totalitarianism. See Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 227, 366, 377, 399; Renzo de Felice, Interpretations of Fascism, 179; Nolte, Three Faces of Fascism, 618; Noel O'Sullivan, Fascism, 74-75; and Alice Yaeger Kaplan, Reproductions of Banality: Fascism, Literature, and French Intellectual Life, 22. For a detailed examination of the importance of young male gangs to fascism, see Silke Hesse, "Fascism and the Hypertrophy of Male Adolescence," 157-75. She writes: "I would suggest that, rather than patriarchy, the very different structure of a gang of adolescent youths is the model of Fascist society" (172).
  12. Hesse, "Fascism and Male Adolescence," 172, 175; Saul Friedlander quoted in Gerhard Rempel, Hitler's Children: The Hitler Youth and the SS, 1; Mosley, Rules of the Game: Sir Oswald and Lady Cynthia Mosley, 1896-1933, 211; Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley, 317; Pritchett, "Secret Parables," 37.
  13. Hitler described the Jews as bloodsucking vampires (see Mein Kampf, 296).
  14. See The Iliad 21.135-40: "Lie there, Lycaon! let the fish surround / Thy bloated corse, and suck thy gory wound: / There no sad mother shall thy funerals weep, / But swift Scamander roll thee to the deep, / Whose every wave some wat'ry monster brings, / To feast unpunish'd on the fat of kings" (in Pope, "The Dunciad," 466).
  15. Todorov, Fantastic, 89.
  16. Brooke-Rose, Rhetoric of the Unreal, 63.
  17. Connery and Combe, Theorizing Satire, 5.
  18. Whitley, Golding: "Lord of the Flies," 43; see Stallybrass and White, Politics of Transgression, 54; White, Carnival, Hysteria, and Writing, 170; Tiger, Dark Fields, 63.
  19. See Sander Gilman, Franz Kafka: The Jewish Patient. See also Gilman, The Jew's Body.
  20. Stallybrass and White note that the Latin etymology of pig, porcus or porcellus, refers to female genitalia and that in Attic comedy, prostitutes were called pig merchants (Politics of Transgression, 44-45).
  21. White, Carnival, Hysteria, and Writing, 170; see Johnston, Of Earth and Darkness, 38, 45.
  22. See James A. Gregor, Interpretations of Fascism, 50, 55, 68, 74.
  23. Eatwell, Fascism: A History, xix.
  24. Stallybrass and White, Politics of Transgression, 191, 19. For early examples of crowd violence in carnival, see Ladurie, Carnival in Romans; Buchanan Sharp, In Contempt of All Authority: Rural Artisans and Riot in the West of England, 1586-1660; and Charles Tilly, Charivaris, Repertoires, and Politics. It is important to note the relevance of crowds or masses to theories on fascism. For a summary of the work of Gustave le Bon, José Ortega y Gasset, Emil Lederer, Sigmund Neumann, Eric Hoffer, Hannah Arendt, and William Kornhauser on the phenomenon of crowds or masses, see J. Gregor, Interpretations of Fascism, 78-127. See also Eatwell, Fascism, 4-10.
  25. On the carnival square, see Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics, 128-29, 168-69.
  26. Langer, Admitting the Holocaust, 76.
  27. N. Williams, William Golding's "Lord of the Flies," ix; Camus, The Fall, 92.
  28. Langer, Admitting the Holocaust, 9; Lang, "The Representations of Limits," 317.



Lamber, Bruce. Obituary. New York Times, (20 June 1993): 38.

Gives an overview of Golding's life and career.

Wood, James. "Religious Insight of a Man Apart." Manchester Guardian Weekly (29 September 1991) 25.

A tribute to Golding, written on the occasion of his eightieth birthday.


Gindin, James. "Background Themes: The Propellants." In William Golding, pp. 8-19. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1988.

Discusses underlying themes and literary influences for Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors.

Hodson, Leighton. "The Metaphor of Darkness: Lord of the Flies. "In William Golding, pp. 19-38.

Contends that Golding's intention in his body of work is to show the darkness in the soul of humanity and the salvation of self-awareness.

Hollahan, Eugene. "Running in Circles." Studies in the Novel 2, no. 1 (spring 1970): 22-29.

Examines circle motif in Lord of the Flies.

Rahman, Khandkar Rezaur. "Early Period." In The Moral Vision of William Golding, pp. 33-48. Dhaka, Bangladesh: Dhaka University, 1990.

Chronological examination of Golding's works.

Redpath, Philip. "Doorways Through Walls: Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. In William Golding: A Structural Reading of His Fiction, pp. 78-98. London: Vision Press Limited, 1986.

Posits the lack of definition in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors leaves both books open to myriad interpretations.

Sternlicht, Sanford. "Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience in Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. " The Midwest Quarterly 9, no. 4 (July 1968): 383-90.

Argues that it is in The Inheritors that Golding writes about the loss of innocence, not in Lord of the Flies.

Tiger, Virginia. "Lord of the Flies." In William Golding: The Dark Fields of Discovery, 38-64. London: Calder and Boyars, 1974.

Discusses several standard interpretations of Lord of the Flies and then her own view of its symbolic structure.

Additional coverage of Golding's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists, Vols. 5, 44; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 2; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; British Writers Supplement, Vols. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1945-1960; Contemporary Authors, Vol. 5–8R, 141, Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 13, 33, 54; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, 17, 27, 58, 81; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 15, 100, 255; DISCovering Authors ; DISCovering Authors: British Edition ; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors and Multicultural Authors ; DISCovering Authors 3.0 ; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Novels; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; Literature Resource Center Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Novels for Students, Vol 2; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost and Gothic Writers ; St. James Guide to Science Fiction Writers, Ed. 4; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers ; Twayne's English Authors ; Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers ; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

Golding, William

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William Golding

BORN: 1911, St. Columb, England

DIED: 1993, Perranarworthal, England


GENRE: Fiction

Lord of the Flies (1954)
Darkness Visible (1979)
Rites of Passage (1980)


William Golding was a British novelist, poet, and Nobel Prize laureate. With the appearance of Lord of the Flies (1954), Golding's first published novel, the author began his career as both a campus cult favorite and one of the most distinctive and debated literary talents of his era. The author's prolific output—five novels in ten years—and the high quality of his work established him as one of the late twentieth century's most distinguished writers. He won the Booker Prize for literature in 1980 for Rites of Passage, the first book of his To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. Golding has been described as pessimistic, mythical, and spiritual—an allegorist who uses his novels as a canvas to paint portraits of man's constant struggle between his civilized self and his hidden, darker nature.

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Probing the Darkness Golding was born in England's west country in 1911. His father, Alex, was a follower in the family tradition of schoolmasters; his mother, Mildred, was a political activist for women getting the right to vote. The family home in Marlborough is characterized by Stephen Medcalf in William Golding as “darkness and terror made objective in the flint-walled cellars of their fourteenth-century house … and in the graveyard by which it stood.” By the time Golding was seven years old, Med-calf continues, “he had begun to connect the darkness … with the ancient Egyptians. From them he learnt, or on them he projected, mystery and symbolism, a habit of mingling life and death, and an attitude of mind sceptical of the scientific method that descends from the Greeks.”

After graduating from Oxford, Golding perpetuated family tradition by becoming a schoolmaster in Salisbury, Wiltshire. His teaching career was interrupted in 1940, however, when World War II found “Schoolie,” as he was called, serving five years in the Royal Navy. Lieutenant Golding saw active duty in the North Atlantic, commanding a rocket-launching craft. Present at the sinking of the Bismarck and participating in the D-Day invasion of France by Allied forces, Golding later told Joseph Wershba of the New York Post: “World War Two was the turning point for me. I began to see what people were capable of doing.” Indeed, the author's anxieties about both nuclear war and the potential savagery of human-kind were the basis of the novel Lord of the Flies.

Writing to Please Himself On returning to his post at Bishop Wordsworth's School in 1945, Golding, who had enhanced his knowledge of Greek history and mythology by reading while at sea, attempted to further his writing career. He produced three novel manuscripts that remained unpublished. “All that [the author] has divulged about these [works] is that they were attempts to please publishers and that eventually they convinced him that he should write something to please himself,” notes Bernard S. Oldsey. That ambition was realized in 1954, when Golding created Lord of the Flies.

For fifteen years after World War II, Golding concentrated his reading in the classical Greeks, and his viewpoint seems close to the Greek picture of humans at the mercy of powers erupting out of the darkness around and within individuals. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983, and in his address at the awards ceremony, he said that the English language was possibly suffering from “too wide a use rather than too narrow a one.” Stressing the significance of stories, Golding also expressed his concern with the state of the planet and raised the question of environmental issues. He then focused on the writer's craft, saying that words “may through the luck of writers prove to be the most powerful thing in the world.”

Works in Literary Context

Savagery Versus Civilized Behavior While the story has been compared to such previous works as Robinson Crusoe and High Wind in Jamaica, Golding's novel Lord of the Flies is actually the author's “answer” to nineteenth-century writer R. M. Ballantyne's children's classic The Coral Island: A Tale of the Pacific Ocean. These two books share the same basic plot line and even some of the same character names. Although some similarities exist, Lord of the Flies totally reverses Ballantyne's concept of the purity and innocence of youth and humanity's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions. In Lord of the Flies, Golding presented the central theme of his collective works: the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul. Although the novel did not gain popularity in the United States until several years after its original publication, it has now become a modern classic, most often studied in high schools and colleges.


Golding's famous contemporaries include:

J. D. Salinger (1919–): A reclusive author who wrote The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a classic novel about adolescence and the painful journey to responsibility and maturity—perhaps the main rival for Lord of the Flies in high school student popularity.

Winston Churchill (1874–1965): Prime minister of Great Britain from 1940 until 1945. Churchill's inspirational speeches were perhaps just as influential as his determination and brilliant military strategies in guiding Britain and her allies to victory in World War II.

Francis Ford Coppola (1939–): American film director who is behind some of the most detailed explorations of the violent psychology that has shaped twentieth-century culture: Apocalypse Now and the trilogy of Godfather movies.

Joseph Campbell (1904–1987): An American professor who became an expert on world mythologies, demonstrating in a series of widely popular books and media presentations that the great stories and religious mythologies throughout history share a limited number of recurring patterns and powerful spiritual symbols.

Elie Wiesel (1928–): A Jewish Holocaust survivor who has written over forty novels, memoirs, and political tracts, the most famous of which is Night, his memorable account of his imprisonment in several concentration camps in Germany and Austria during World War II. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

Shift of Perspective While none of Golding's subsequent works achieved the critical success of Lord of the Flies

he continued to produce novels that attracted widespread critical interpretation. Within the thematic context of exploring the depths of human depravity, the settings of Golding's works range from the prehistoric age, as in The Inheritors (1955); to the Middle Ages, as in The Spire (1964); to contemporary English society. This wide variety of settings, tones, and structures presents dilemmas to critics attempting to categorize them. Nevertheless, certain stylistic devices are characteristic of his work. One of these, the use of a sudden shift of perspective, has been so dramatically employed by Golding that it has both enchanted and infuriated critics and readers alike. For example, Pincher Martin (1956) is the story of Christopher Martin, a naval officer who is stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean after his ship has been torpedoed. The entire book relates Martin's struggles to remain alive against all odds. The reader learns in the last few pages that Martin's death occurred on the second page—a fact that transforms the novel from a struggle for earthly survival into a struggle for eternal salvation.

Morality By 1965, Golding had produced six novels and was evidently on his way to continuing acclaim and popular acceptance—but then matters changed abruptly. The writer's output dropped dramatically: For the next fifteen years he produced no novels and only a handful of novellas, short stories, and occasional pieces. Of this period, The Pyramid, a collection of three related novellas, is generally regarded as one of the writer's weaker efforts. Golding's reintroduction to the literary world was acknowledged in 1979 with the publication of Darkness Visible, the title of which derived from John Milton's famous description of Hell in Paradise Lost. From the first scenes of the book, Golding confronts the reader with images of fire, mutilation, and pain, which he presents in biblical terms. Samuel Hynes observed in a Washington Post Book World article,

[He is] still a moralist, still a maker of parables. To be a moralist you must believe in good and evil, and Golding does; indeed, you might say that the nature of good and evil is his only theme. To be a parable-maker you must believe that moral meaning can be expressed in the very fabric of the story itself, and perhaps that some meanings can only be expressed in this way; and this, too, has always been Golding's way.

Myth and Allegory Golding's novels are often termed fables or myths. They are laden with symbols (usually of a spiritual or religious nature) so imbued with meaning that they can be interpreted on many different levels. The Spire, for example, is perhaps his most polished allegorical novel, equating the erecting of a cathedral spire with the protagonist's conflict between his religious faith and the temptations to which he is exposed.

Works in Critical Context

The novel that established Golding's reputation, Lord of the Flies, was rejected by twenty-one publishers before Faber & Faber accepted the forty-three-year-old schoolmaster's book. Initially, the tale of a group of schoolboys stranded on an island during their escape from atomic war received mixed reviews and sold only modestly in its hardcover edition. But when the paperback edition was published in 1959, thus making the book more accessible to students, the novel began to sell briskly. Teachers, aware of the student interest and impressed by the strong theme and stark symbolism of the work, assigned Lord of the Flies to their literature classes. And as the novel's reputation grew, critics reacted by drawing scholarly theses out of what was previously dismissed as just another adventure story.


Lord of the Flies shows that when people are abandoned in a faraway place, far from traditional external authorities, their deepest nature is exposed. Here are some other works that also explore humanity's place in the wilds of the world.

Paradise Lost (1667), an epic poem by John Milton. This extended meditation on the nature of Good and Evil takes the form of an epic poem about Satan's rebellion in Heaven, his subsequent banishment to Hell, and his attempts to get revenge on God by spoiling His new creation of Adam and Eve in Paradise.

Robinson Crusoe (1719), a novel by Daniel Defoe. What started out as a fake travel narrative of a sailor marooned on a deserted island has become a classic tale of self-reliance. One of the earliest British novels, this book has helped define the British middle-class ethics of faith, self-control, and hard work ever since.

Gulliver's Travels (1726), a work of fiction by Jonathan Swift. The best known of Jonathan Swift's works, this classic of English literature is a satire on human nature and a parody of the popular travel narratives of the time. Gulliver becomes marooned in various exotic locations, and Swift uses the situations for everything from outrageous comedy to searing satire on the human condition.

Cast Away (2000), a film directed by Robert Zemeckis. This movie, starring Tom Hanks, is about a time-obsessed Federal Express systems engineer who finds himself alone on a tropical island after a plane crash.

While he has faced extensive criticism and categorization in his writing career, the author is able to provide a brief, simple description of himself in Jack I. Biles's Talk: Conversations with William Golding:

I'm against the picture of the artist as the starry-eyed visionary not really in control or knowing what he does. I think I'd almost prefer the word ‘craftsman.' He's like one of the old-fashioned shipbuilders, who conceived the boat in their mind and then, after that, touched every single piece that

went into the boat. They were in complete control; they knew it inch by inch, and I think the novelist is very much like that.

Lord of the Flies Lord of the Flies has been interpreted by some as being Golding's response to the popular artistic notion of the 1950s that youth was a basically innocent collective and that they are the victims of adult society (as seen in J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye). In 1960, C. B. Cox deemed Lord of the Flies as “probably the most important novel to be published … in the 1950s.” Cox, writing in Critical Quarterly, continued:

[To] succeed, a good story needs more than sudden deaths, a terrifying chase and an unexpected conclusion. Lord of the Flies includes all these ingredients, but their exceptional force derives from Golding's faith that every detail of human life has a religious significance. This is one reason why he is unique among new writers in the '50s…. Golding's intense conviction [is] that every particular of human life has a profound importance. His children are not juvenile delinquents, but human beings realising for themselves the beauty and horror of life.

Not every critic responded with admiration to Lord of the Flies, however. One of Golding's more vocal detractors is Kenneth Rexroth, who had this to say in the Atlantic: “Golding's novels are rigged. All thesis novels are rigged. In the great ones the drama escapes from the cage of the rigging or is acted out on it as on a skeleton stage set. Golding's thesis requires more rigging than most and it must by definition be escape-proof and collapsing.” Rexroth elaborates: “[The novel] functions in a minimal ecology, but even so, and indefinite as it is, it is wrong. It's the wrong rock for such an island and the wrong vegetation. The boys never come alive as real boys. They are simply the projected annoyances of a disgruntled English schoolmaster.”

Responses to Literature

  1. Why do you think Golding is so interested in the causes of violence and brutality? Research some of his interviews and consider his life history. Is it surprising that someone like Golding would be so involved in writing about the psychology of violence and be able to do it with such insight?
  2. What exactly is the definition of a “fable,” and how does it apply to Lord of the Flies and Golding's other works?
  3. Many reality television shows today play on the stranded-on-a-deserted-island motif. Do you think that shows such as Survivor demonstrate the same psychology we see in Lord of the Flies? In particular, you might want to research the short-lived show Kid Nation, which put forty children from ages eight to fifteen alone together in a deserted town to see how they would manage.
  4. Scientist James Lovelock is the creator of an idea known as the Gaia hypothesis; this name was recommended to him by his acquaintance, William Golding. Research the Gaia hypothesis. What are the basic ideas behind it? How did Golding's literary preferences lead him to come up with this name? Can you find any similarities between the Gaia hypothesis and Golding's views on humans and nature?



Babb, Howard S. The Novels of William Golding. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970.

Biles, Jack I. Talk: Conversations with William Golding. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.

Biles, Jack I., and Robert O. Evans, eds. William Golding: Some Critical Considerations. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1979.

Carey, John, ed. William Golding: The Man and His Books: A Tribute on His 75th Birthday. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987.

Crompton, Don. A View from the Spire: William Golding's Later Novels. Edited and completed by Julia Briggs. Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.

Friedman, Lawrence S. William Golding. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Reilly, Patrick. Lord of the Flies: Fathers and Sons. New York: Twayne, 1992.


Kermode, Frank. “The Novels of William Golding.” International Literary Annual 3 (1961): 11–29.

Oldsey, Bernard S., and Stanley Weintraub. “Lord of the Flies: Beelzebub Revisited.” College English 25 (November 1963): 90–99.

Peter, John. “The Fables of William Golding.” Kenyon Review 19 (1957): 577–92.

Web sites

William Golding Home Page. Retrieved March 10, 2008, from Last updated on March 10, 2008.

William Golding

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William Golding

The winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature, Golding is among the most popular and influential British authors to have emerged after World War II.

Golding's reputation rests primarily upon his acclaimed first novel Lord of the Flies (1954), which he described as "an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature." A moral allegory as well as an adventure tale in the tradition ofDaniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857), and Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Lord of the Flies focuses upon a group of British schoolboys marooned on a tropical island. After having organized themselves upon democratic principles, their society degenerates into primeval barbarism. While often the subject of diverse psychological, sociological, and religious interpretations, Lord of the Flies is consistently regarded as an incisive and disturbing portrayal of the fragility of civilization.

Golding was born in St. Columb Minor in Cornwall, England. He enrolled in Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1930, initially intending to obtain a degree in the sciences. After several years of study, however, he decided to devote himself to the study of English literature. He published a volume of poetry, Poems, in 1934 to scant critical notice; he himself later repudiated the work. Receiving a degree in English in 1935, he worked in various theaters in London, and in 1939 he moved to Salisbury, where he was employed as a schoolteacher. He served five years in the Royal Navy during World War II, an experience that likely helped shape his interest in the theme of barbarism and evil within humanity. Following the war Golding continued to teach and to write fiction. In 1954, his first novel, Lord of the Flies, was published to much critical acclaim in England. He continued to write novels, as well as essays, lectures, and novellas, throughout the next three decades. Most of these works, however, were overshadowed by the popular and critical success of Lord of the Flies.

Golding's Lord of the Flies presents a central theme of his oeuvre: the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul. Although the novel did not gain popularity in the United States until several years after its original publication, it has now become a modern classic, studied in most high schools and colleges. Set sometime in the near future, Lord of the Flies is about a group of schoolboys abandoned on a desert island during a global war. They attempt to establish a government among themselves, but without the restraints of civilization they quickly revert to savagery. Similar in background and characters to Ballantyne's The Coral Island, Lord of the Flies totally reverses Ballantyne's concept of the purity and innocence of youth and humanity's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions.

While none of Golding's subsequent works achieved the critical success of Lord of the Flies, he continued to produce novels that elicit widespread critical interpretation. Within the thematic context of exploring the depths of human depravity, the settings of Golding's works range from the prehistoric age, as in The Inheritors, (1955), to the Middle Ages, as in The Spire (1964), to contemporary English society. This wide variety of settings, tones, and structures presents dilemmas to critics attempting to categorize them. Nevertheless, certain stylistic devices are characteristic of his work. One of these, the use of a sudden shift of perspective, has been so dramatically employed by Golding that it both enchants and infuriates critics and readers alike. For example, Pincher Martin (1956) is the story of Christopher Martin, a naval officer who is stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean after his ship has been torpedoed. The entire book relates Martin's struggles to remain alive against all odds. The reader learns in the last few pages that Martin's death occurred on the second page—a fact that transforms the novel from a struggle for earthly survival into a struggle for eternal salvation.

Golding's novels are often termed fables or myths. They are laden with symbols (usually of a spiritual or religious nature) so imbued with meaning that they can be interpreted on many different levels. The Spire, for example, is perhaps his most polished allegorical novel, equating the erecting of a cathedral spire with the protagonist's conflict between his religious faith and the temptations to which he is exposed. Darkness Visible (1979) continues to illuminate the universal confrontation of Good and Evil; Golding was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel in 1980. Throughout the 1980s Golding's novels, essays, and the travel journal An Egyptian Journal (1985) have received general praise from commentators. Lord of the Flies, however, remains central to Golding's popularity and his international reputation as a major contemporary author.

Further Reading

Allen, Walter, The Modern Novel, Dutton, 1964.

Anderson, David, The Tragic Past, John Knox Press, 1969.

Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 5, Gale, 1991.

Axthelm, Peter M., The Modern Confessional Novel, Yale University Press, 1967.

Babb, Howard S., The Novels of William Golding, Ohio State University Press, 1970.

Baker, James R., William Golding: A Critical Study, St. Martin's, 1965.

Biles, Jack I., Talk: Conversations with William Golding, Harcourt, 1971. □

Golding, William

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William Golding

Born: September 19, 1911
Saint Columb, Cornwall, England
Died: June 19, 1993
Perranarworthal, Cornwall, England

English author

The winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in Literature, William Golding is among the most popular and influential British authors to have emerged in the second half of the twentieth century. Golding's reputation rests primarily upon his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), which is consistently regarded as an effective and disturbing portrayal of the fragility of civilization.

Childhood and college years

Golding was born in Saint Columb Minor in Cornwall, England, in 1911. His father, Alex, was a schoolmaster, while his mother, Mildred, was active in the Women's Suffrage Movement (the movement for women's right to vote). As a boy, his favorite authors included H. G. Wells (18661946), Jules Verne (18281905), and Edgar Rice Burroughs (18751950). Since the age of seven, Golding had been writing stories, and at the age of twelve he attempted to write a novel.

Golding remained an enthusiastic writer and, upon entering Brasenose College of Oxford University, abandoned his plans to study science, preferring to read English literature. At twenty-two, a year before taking his degree in English, Golding saw his first literary work publisheda poetry collection simply titled Poems.

After graduating from Oxford in 1935, Golding continued the family tradition by becoming a schoolmaster in Salisbury, Wiltshire. His teaching career was interrupted in 1940, however, with the outbreak of World War II (193945). Lieutenant Golding served five years in the British Royal Navy and saw active duty in the North Atlantic, commanding a rocket launching craft.

Lord of the Flies

Golding had enhanced his knowledge of Greek history and mythology by reading while at sea, and when he returned to his post at Bishop Wordsworth's School in 1945, he began furthering his writing career. He wrote three novels, all of which went unpublished. But his frustration would not last long, when, in 1954, Golding created The Lord of the Flies. The novel was rejected by twenty-one publishers before Faber & Faber accepted the forty-three-year-old schoolmaster's book.

Initially, the tale of a group of schoolboys stranded on an island during their escape from war received mixed reviews and sold only modestly in its hardcover edition. But when the paperback edition was published in 1959, thus making the book more accessible to students, the novel began to sell briskly. Teachers, aware of the student interest and impressed by the strong theme and symbolism of the work, began assigning Lord of the Flies to their literature classes. As the novel's reputation grew, critics reacted by drawing scholarly reviews out of what was previously dismissed as just another adventure story.

The author's extremely productive outputfive novels in ten yearsand the high quality of his work established him as one of the late twentieth-century's most distinguished writers. This view of Golding was cemented in 1965, when the author was named a Commander of the British Empire.

Later works

After the success of Lord of the Flies, Golding enjoyed success with other novels, including Pincher Martin (1957), Free Fall (1959), and The Pyramid (1967). The author's creative output then dropped drastically. He produced no novels and only a handful of novellas (short novels), short stories, and other occasional pieces.

In 1979 Golding returned with the publi cation of Darkness Visible which received mixed reviews. The author faced his harshest criticism to date with the publication of his 1984 novel The Paper Men, a drama about an aging, suc cessful novelist's conflicts with his pushy, over-bearing biographer. Departing briefly from fic tion, Golding wrote a book containing essays, reviews, and lectures. A Moving Target appeared in 1982, one year prior to the author's receipt of the Nobel Prize in Literature.

William Golding died in England in 1993. A year after his death, The Double Tongue was released, published from a manu script Golding completed before he died.

For More Information

Carey, John, ed. William Golding: The Man and His Books; a Tribute on His 75th Birthday. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1987.

Friedman, Lawrence S. William Golding. New York: Continuum, 1993.

Gindin, James. William Golding. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Golding, Sir William Gerald

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Golding, Sir William Gerald (1911–93) English novelist. He achieved fame with his allegorical debut novel, Lord of the Flies (1954). Other novels include The Spire (1964) and the trilogy The Ends of the Earth (1991), which incorporates the Booker Prize-winning Rites of Passage (1980). He received the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature.