Lord of the Flies is a dystopian novel by Nobel Prize-winning English author William Golding about a group of British boys stuck on an uninhabited island who try to govern themselves with disastrous results. Its stances on the already controversial subjects of human nature and individual welfare versus the common good earned it position 68 on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 1990–1999.
Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies was Golding’s first novel. Although it was not a great success at the time—selling fewer than 3,000 copies in the United States during 1955 before going out of print—it soon went on to become a best-seller, and by the early 1960s was required reading in many schools and colleges. It has been adapted to film twice in English, in 1963 by Peter Brook and 1990 by Harry Hook, and once in Filipino (1976).
In 2005 the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005. It was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library 100 Best Novels, reaching number 41 on the editor’s list, and 25 on the reader’s list. In 2003, the novel was listed at number 70 on the BBC’s survey The Big Read.
The book indicates that it takes place in the midst of an unspecified nuclear war. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. Most (with the exception of the choirboys) appear never to have
encountered one another before. The book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves in a paradisiacal country, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state.
At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between group think and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality. How these play out, and how different people feel the influences of these, form a major subtext of Lord of the Flies.
In the midst of a wartime evacuation, a British plane crashes on or near an isolated island in a remote region of the Pacific Ocean. The only survivors are boys in their middle childhood or preadolescence. Two boys—the fair-haired Ralph and an overweight, bespectacled boy reluctantly nicknamed “Piggy”—find a conch, which Ralph uses as a horn to call all the survivors to one area. Due largely to the fact that Ralph appears responsible for bringing all the survivors together, he is quickly elected their “chief”, though he does not receive the votes of the members of a boys’ choir, led by the red-headed Jack Merridew. Ralph asserts two primary goals: to have fun and to maintain a smoke signal that could alert passing ships to their presence on the island. The boys declare that whoever holds the conch shall also be able to speak at their formal gatherings and receive the attentive silence of the larger group.
Jack organizes his choir group into a hunting party responsible for discovering a food source; Ralph, Jack, and a quiet, dreamy boy named Simon soon form a loose troika of leaders. Though he is Ralph’s only confidant, Piggy is quickly made an outcast by his fellow “biguns” (older boys) and becomes an unwilling source of laughs for the other children. Simon, in addition to supervising the project of constructing shelters, feels an instinctive need to protect the “littluns” (younger boys).
The semblance of order quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turn idle, giving little aid in building shelters, for example, and begin to develop paranoias about the island, referring to a supposed monster, the “beast”, which they believe to exist on the island. Ralph insists that no such beast exists, but Jack, who has started a power struggle with Ralph, gains control of the discussion by boldly promising to kill the beast. At one point, Jack summons all of his hunters to hunt down a wild pig, drawing away those assigned to maintain
the signal fire. A ship travels by the island, but without the boys’ smoke signal to alert the ship’s crew, the ship continues by without stopping. Angered by the failure of the boys to attract potential rescuers, Ralph considers relinquishing his position, but is convinced not to do so by Piggy.
While Jack schemes against Ralph, twins Sam and Eric, now assigned to the maintenance of the signal fire, see the corpse of a fighter pilot and his parachute in the dark. Mistaking the corpse for the beast, they run to the cluster of shelters that Ralph and Simon have erected and warn the others. This unexpected meeting again raises tensions between Jack and Ralph. Shortly thereafter, Jack decides to lead a party to the other side of the island, where a mountain of stones, later called Castle Rock, forms a place where he claims the beast resides.
Only Ralph and Jack’s sadistic supporter Roger agree to go; Ralph turns back shortly before the other two boys. When they arrive at the shelters, Jack calls an assembly and tries to turn the others against Ralph, asking for them to remove him from his position. Receiving little support, Jack, Roger, and another boy leave the shelters to form their own tribe. This tribe lures in recruits from the main group by providing a feast of cooked pig and its members begin to paint their faces and enact bizarre rituals including sacrifices to the beast.
Simon, likely an epileptic,wanders off on his own to think and finds a severed pig head, left by Jack as an offering to the beast. Simon envisions the pig head, now swarming with scavenging flies, as the “Lord of the Flies” and believes that it is talking to him. The pig’s head tells Simon that the boys themselves “created” the beast and claims that the real beast is inside them all. Simon also locates the dead parachutist who had been mistaken for the beast, and is the sole member of the group to recognise that the “monster” is merely a human corpse. Simon, hoping to tell others of the discovery, finds Jack’s tribe in the island’s interior during a ritual dance and, mistaken for the beast, is killed by the frenzied boys. Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric feel guilty that they, too, participated in this murderous “dance.”.
Jack and his band of “savages” decide that they should possess Piggy’s glasses, the only means of starting a fire on the island, so they raid Ralph’s camp, confiscate the glasses, and return to their abode on Castle Rock. Ralph, now deserted by most of his supporters, journeys to Castle Rock to confront Jack and secure the glasses. Taking the conch and accompanied only by Piggy, Sam, and Eric, Ralph finds the tribe and demands that they return the valuable object. Turning against Ralph, the tribe takes Sam and Eric captive while Roger drops a boulder from his vantage point above, killing Piggy and shattering the conch. Ralph manages to escape, but Sam and Eric are tortured until they agree to join Jack’s tribe.
The following morning, Jack orders his tribe to begin a manhunt for Ralph. Jack’s savages set fire to the forest while Ralph desperately weighs his options for survival. Following a long chase, most of the island is consumed in flames, drawing the attention of a passing naval vessel. Ralph suddenly runs into an officer from the warship and weeps for the death of Piggy and the end of innocence that the darkness inherent in human nature has brought. The other children arrive and also burst into tears; the officer turns away to give them a moment to pull themselves together.
When he and the others arrive on the island, Ralph quickly becomes the chief of the group, not by any harsh, overt or physical action, but by being elected. Ralph is described as having “the directness of genuine leadership”. Ralph’s first big decision is that they have “got to decide if this is an island”. After Ralph, Jack, and Simon discover that they are truly “on an uninhabited island”, Ralph suggests that a fire be lit because “if a ship comes near the island they may not notice us”. However, towards the end of the book he forgets the
initial reason for maintaining the fire.This is representative of the debilitating effects corruption has even on the brightest mind. Ralph may seem to mean well, but often his obsession with being popular overcomes him and he resorts to bullying Piggy to regain his power. Still, in the midst of all the island’s chaos, it should be noted that Ralph has a tendency to be polite and logical in the tensest of moments; for example, when the children are obliged to investigate Castle Rock, Ralph takes the lead despite being afraid of “the beast”. Ralph is sometimes perceived as partially being a literary tool to aid the audience’s realization of inner evil throughout the duration of the novel; “Ralph wept for the end of innocence …”
Ralph embodies good intentions in the implementation of reason, but ultimately fails to execute these plans soundly. Ralph’s refusal to resort to violence throughout the novel is counterpoised by Jack’s inherent love of violence. Beginning with his self nomination as hunter, Jack eventually degenerates into the beast he is consumed with slaying. Towards the end of the story, Jack abandons the tribe and forms one of his own. His darkly irresistible nature, along with the lure of meat, immediately sways the majority of the island dwellers to his tribe, which is a much more violent group. Jack’s insurrection begins a chain of events that drives the island further into chaos, initially resulting in the frenzied mob murdering Simon during a primal dance, and then culminating with the murder of Piggy by Roger before the group attempts to hunt down Ralph.
Piggy has poor eyesight, asthma, and is overweight. He is the most physically vulnerable of all the boys. He appears to be of working-class background, as evidenced by his non-standard Cockney speech, but he is the most intellectual of the boys, frequently appealing to reason. By frequently quoting his aunt, he provides the only female voice.
Piggy has been described as “the only adult-type figure on the island”. His intellect benefits the group only through Ralph; he acts as Ralph’s adviser. He cannot be the leader himself because he lacks leadership qualities and has no rapport with the other boys. Piggy relies on the power of social convention. He believes that holding the conch gives him the right to be heard. He believes that upholding social conventions produces results.
Piggy asserts that “Life … is scientific”. Ever the pragmatist, Piggy complains, “What good’re you doing talking like that?” when Ralph brings up the highly charged issue of Simon’s death at their hands. Piggy tries to keep life scientific despite the incident, “searching for a formula” to explain the death. He asserts that the assault on Simon was an accident, and justifiable because Simon asked for it by inexplicably crawling out of the forest into the ring.
Piggy is so intent on preserving some remnant of civilization on the island that, after Jack’s tribe attacks Ralph’s group, he assumes they “wanted the conch”, when, in fact, they have come for Piggy’s glasses in order to make fire. Even up to the moment of his death, Piggy’s perspective does not shift in response to the reality of their situation. Because his eminently intellectual approach to life is modeled on the attitudes and rules of the authoritative adult world, he thinks everyone should share his values and attitudes as a matter of course. When Ralph and Piggy confront Jack’s tribe about the stolen spectacles, Piggy asks “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill? … law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?” as if there is no doubt that the boys would choose his preference.
In the 2012 film Island, the character Max is a re-imagining of Piggy and is played by actor Robbie Curran.
When first blown, it calls the children to an assembly, where Ralph is elected leader. They agree that only the boy holding the conch may speak at meetings to forestall arguments and chaos, and that it should be passed around to those who wish to voice their opinion. The conch symbolizes democracy and, like Ralph, civility and order within the group. When Piggy is killed, the conch is smashed into pieces,signalling the end of order and the onset of chaos. Originally the conch is portrayed as being very vibrant and colorful, but as the novel progresses, its colors begin to fade, the same way society begins to fade on the island.
Jack epitomises the worst aspects of human nature when unrepressed or un-tempered by society. Like Ralph, Jack is a natural leader. Unlike Ralph, Jack appeals to more primal desires in the children and relies on his status as leader of the choirboys to justify his authority. Although his way of behaving is neither disruptive nor violent at the beginning of the book, he does, at that time, express an unquenchable desire to hunt and kill a pig and spends hours in solitude traversing the island.
This first time Jack has an opportunity to kill a pig, he cannot, “because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood”. After this hesitation, for which he is most ashamed, Jack’s blood lust grows more and more irrational, to the point where he abandons the fire (and causes the boys to miss a potential rescue) in order to hunt. During Jack’s metamorphosis, he begins to paint his face with clay and earth, masking his humanity from the pigs and inspiring terrible awe amongst the boys.
Jack’s transition puts him on a collision course with Ralph’s elected authority. As Jack leaves and takes the majority of the boys with him, lured by the promises of meat, play, and freedom, there has arisen a clear dividing line between the two. Jack represents the irrational nature of the boys, while Ralph represents rationality. Under Jack’s rule, the baseness of human nature is unleashed, and he initiates a period of inter-tribal violence, punishing other children, inciting the frenzy that leads to the murder of Simon, and torturing the twins until they submit to his authority.
The tale ends with Jack leading many of the boys in a frenzied attempt to kill Ralph. At this time, the last remaining vestiges of civilization are gone, and Ralph’s demise is only prevented by the abrupt and unexpected arrival of a naval officer, who is disappointed by the savage nature of the British boys.
Roger, at first, is a simple “bigun” who is having fun during his stay on the island. Along with Maurice, he destroys the sand castles made by three small children. While Maurice feels guilt for kicking sand into a child’s eye, Roger begins to throw stones at one of the boys. The book states that Roger threw the stones to miss, and felt the presence of civilization and society preventing him from harming the children. Later, once he feels that all aspects of conventional society are gone, he is left alone to his animal urges. During a pig hunt,
Roger shoves a sharpened stick up the animal’s rectum while it is still alive. He kills Piggy with a boulder that was no longer aimed to miss, and becomes the executioner and torturer of Jack’s tribe. He also tortured Sam and Eric into joining Jack’s tribe. In the final hunt for Ralph at the end of the novel, Roger is armed with “a stick sharpened at both ends,” indicating his intentions of killing Ralph and offering his head as a sacrifice to the “beast”. He represents the person who enjoys hurting others, and is only restrained by the rules of society.
Simon is a character who represents peace and tranquility and positivity. He is often seen wandering off by himself in a dreamy state and is prone to fits of fainting and hallucination, likely epileptic in nature. He is in tune with the island, and often experiences extraordinary sensations when listening to its sounds. He loves the nature of the island. He is positive about the future. He has an extreme aversion to the pig’s head, the “Lord of the Flies”, which derides and taunts Simon in a hallucination. After this experience, Simon emerges from the
forest to tell the others that the “beast” that fell from the sky is actually a deceased parachutist caught on the mountain. He is brutally killed by the boys, who ironically mistake him for the beast and kill him in their “dance” in which they “ripped and tore at the beast”. It is implied that Ralph, Piggy, Sam and Eric partake in the killing. The final words that the Lord of the Flies had said to Simon vaguely predicted that his death was about to occur in this manner. Earlier in the novel Simon himself also predicts his own death when he tells Ralph that he will “get back all right”, implying that, of the two of them, only Ralph will be saved. Simon’s death represents the loss of truth, innocence, and common sense. Simon is most commonly interpreted as a Christ figure because of his ability to see through misconception, unlike the rest of the boys, and the events he experiences in the book that parallel those of Jesus’ life.
Arriving moments before Ralph’s seemingly impending death, the Royal Navy officer is surprised and disappointed to learn that the boys’ society has collapsed into chaos. He states that he would have expected “a better show” from British children. The sudden looming appearance of an adult authority figure instantly reduces the savagery of the hunt to a brutal children’s game. Upon the officer asking who is in charge, Ralph answers loudly, “I am”, and Jack, who was previously characterized as a powerful leader, is reduced to “A little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist”. In the last sentence, the officer, embarrassed by the distress of the children, turns to look at the cruiser from which his party has landed—a symbol of his own adult war.
The Beast is first mentioned by a “littlun” and the notion is immediately dismissed by Ralph. The Beast is thought to be within the water and described by the littluns as such. Soon after the rumors of the Beast begin to flourish, the corpse of a fighter pilot, ejected from his aircraft, falls to the island. His parachute becomes entangled in the jungle foliage in such a way that sporadic gusts of wind cause the chute to billow and the body to move as if still alive. Sam and Eric discover the parachutist in the dark and believe that it is the beast.
Ralph, Jack, and Roger search for the Beast and encounter it on the mountain. The reality of the Beast is now firmly established in the boys’ minds. Simon discovers the parachutist and realises that the beast is really only the corpse of a man. Jack’s tribe feeds the Beast with the sow’s head on a stick. This act symbolizes Jack’s willingness to succumb to the temptation of animalism.
Simon is the first child on the island to realize that the Beast is created by the boys’ fear. He decides that “the news must reach the others as soon as possible”. Meanwhile, the boys have been feasting and begin to do their tribal pig-hunting dance. When “the beast stumble[s] in to the horseshoe”, the frenzied, terrified boys “leapt on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore”. It becomes clear that the boys have mistaken Simon for the beast and murdered him both when Golding describes “Simon’s dead body move[ing] out towards the open sea”, and on the morning after when Ralph tells Piggy, “That was Simon …. That was murder”
The Lord of the Flies
The eponymous Lord of the Flies is a pig’s head that has been cut off by Jack, put on a stick sharpened at both ends, stuck in the ground and left as an offering to the “beast”. Created out of fear, the Lord of the Flies is the remnant of a mother sow who, though at one time loving, and innocent, has now become a manically smiling, bleeding image of horror. Near the end of the book, while Ralph is being hunted down, he strikes this twice in one moment of blind anger, causing it to crack and fall on the ground with a grin “now six feet across”. The name “Lord of the Flies” is a literal translation of Beelzebub.