Sir William Golding composed Lord of the Flies shortly after the end of WWII. At the time of the novel’s composition, Golding, who had published an anthology of poetry nearly two decades earlier, had been working for a number of years as a teacher and training as a scientist. Golding drew extensively on his scientific background for his first narrative work. The novel’s plot, in which a group of English boys stranded on a deserted island struggle to develop their own society, is a social and political thought-experiment using fiction. The story of their attempts at civilization and devolution into savagery and violence puts the relationship between human nature and society under a literary microscope. Golding’s allusions to human evolution also reflect his scientific training. The characters discover fire, craft tools, and form political and social systems in a process that recalls theories of the development of early man, a topic of much interest among many peoples including the mid-century Western public. The culmination of the plot in war and murder suggests that Golding’s overarching hypothesis about humanity is pessimistic, that is, there are anarchic and brutal instincts in human nature. Ordered democracy or some other regime is necessary to contain these instincts.
As an allegory about human nature and society, Lord of the Flies draws upon Judeo-Christian mythology to elaborate on the novel’s sociological and political hypothesis. The title has two meanings, both charged with religious significance. The first is a reference to a line from King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to gods.” The second is a reference to the Hebrew name Ba’alzevuv, or in its Greek form Beelzebub, which translates to “God of the Flies” and is synonymous with Satan. For Golding however, the satanic forces that compel the shocking events on the island come from within the human psyche rather than from an external, supernatural realm as they do in Judeo-Christian mythology. Golding thus employs a religious reference to illustrate a Freudian concept: the Id, the amoral instinct that governs the individual’s sense of sheer survival, is by nature evil in its amoral pursuit of its own goals. The Lord of the Flies, that is, the pig’s head on a stick, directly challenges the most spiritually motivated character on the island, Simon, who functions as a prophet-martyr for the other boys.
Published in 1954 early in the Cold War, Lord of the Flies is firmly rooted in the sociopolitical concerns of its era. The novel alludes to the Cold War conflict between liberal democracy and totalitarian communism. Ralph represents the liberal tradition, while Jack, before he succumbs to total anarchy, represents the kind of military dictatorship that, for mid-century America and Great Britain, characterized the communist system. It is also notable that Golding sets the novel in what appears to be a future human reality, one that is in crisis after atomic war. Golding’s novel capitalizes on public paranoia surrounding the atom bomb which, due to the arms race of the Cold War, was at a high. Golding’s negative depiction of Jack, who represents an anti-democratic political system, and his suggestion of the reality of atomic war, present the novel as a gesture of support for the Western position in the Cold War.
In addition to science, mythology, and the sociopolitical context of the Cold War, Lord of the Flies was heavily influenced by previous works of speculative fiction. In particular, Golding’s novel alludes to R. M. Ballantyne’s 1857 The Coral Island, which tells the story of three boys stranded on a desert island. Golding, who found Ballantyne’s interpretation of the situation naive and improbable, likely intended Lord of the Flies to be an indirect critique of The Coral Island. Golding preserves the names of two of Ballantyne’s characters, Ralph and Jack, to force the two texts into deeper comparison. While the boys of Coral Island spend their time having pleasant adventures, Golding’s characters battle hunger, loneliness, and the deadly consequences of political conflict after they are deserted. The pessimistic character of Golding’s story reflects the author’s emphasis on the necessity of democratic civilization. Critics also have noted the relationship between Lord of the Flies and Joseph Conrad’s canonical 1902 Heart of Darkness, which follows a soldier’s excursion into marginal African civilizations. Reflecting some biases, Heart of Darkness depicts these parts of Africa as places where social order is absent and anarchy rules, breeding death and disorder; the novel sees the same problem as an issue within the individual human soul. Like Conrad’s work, Golding’s novel emphasizes the brutal and violent human impulses that arise in the absence of political order.
Lord of the Flies, with its dystopian and speculative characteristics, established Golding as a solid author with an interest in the science-fiction literary genre that was popular in the 1950s. The novel depicts ostensibly realistic characters, but the plot, which follows a small group of humans isolated within an alien landscape, employs or alludes to the conventions of popular science fiction novels of the time. Golding’s subsequent works saw him moving even further into the science fiction genre. The Inheritors, heavily influenced by H. G. Wells’s Outline of History, imagines life during the dawn of man and is considered a modern classic of speculative fiction.
Lord of the Flies was not an instant success, selling fewer than 3,000 copies before going out of print in 1955. Shortly thereafter, however, the novel became a bestseller among American and British readers who, as the arms race intensified, likely saw in Golding’s wartime dystopia a grim prediction of their own future. By the 1960s the novel was required reading for many high school and college courses, where it has remained to the present day. The enduring popularity of the novel inspired two film adaptations, one by Peter Brook in 1963, and the second by Harry Hook in 1990. Golding’s original novel, however, remains the best-known version of the tale. In 2005, Time Magazine named the novel one of the 100 best English-language novels since 1923.
A continuing controversy surrounding the political message of the novel and its view of human nature has led some readers to challenge its status as a book suitable for children. The American Library Association thus positioned Lord of the Flies at number 70 on its list of the 100 most challenged books of 1990-2000. Among literary critics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, however, Lord of the Flies has been revisited less as an allegory of human evil than as a literary expression of Cold War ideology. This historicizing does not do justice to the novel. But in terms of reception history, contemporary critics are right to note that the novel’s position at the center of many English curricula across America and Great Britain during the Cold War illustrates how the pedagogy of literature has been used to bolster national identity and ideology.
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