Lord of the Flies

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Date: 2001
World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them
From: World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them(Vol. 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: The Victorian Era to the Present (1837-). )
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Work overview
Pages: 10
Content Level: (Level 4)

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Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

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A novel set on an uninhabited tropical island somewhere in the South Pacific during the post-World War II years; first published in 1954.


Marooned on a desert island after a plant-crash, a group of British schoolboys tries to establish a cooperative society but ultimately descends into violence and savagery.

William Golding was born at St. Columb Minor, Cornwall, on September 19, 1911. His father, Alec Golding, the Senior Assistant Master at the Marlboro Grammar School, specialized in science and wrote textbooks (on chemistry, botany, zoology, physics, and geography). Golding himself attended the Marlboro School, then studied in science at Brasenose College, Oxford. After graduation, Golding became a settlement-house worker while composing plays and acting. In 1939, having wed Ann Brookfield, he began teaching English and philosophy at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury. His career there was short term; by the following year, he had enlisted in the Royal Navy. Golding served in the navy for five years during World War II. His first published novel, Lord of the Flies, manifests his disillusionment with human nature—a result, in large part, of his experience in World War II. Continuing to focus on violence and evil, Golding went on to write The Inheritors (1955; about prehistoric inhabitants), Pincher Martin (1956; about a drowned sailor), and eight more novels (from Free Fall, 1959, to The Paper Men, 1984), establishing “a rhythm of contrasted sea-stories and land-stories all of which are concerned with extremity and isolation” (Sanders, p. 596). His Lord of the Flies is now recognized as a modern classic, a chilling fable of total war and the darkness lurking in all human hearts, including those of children.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Hitler, social prohibitions, and the nature of evil

Although Lord of the Flies is set in the 1950s, memories of World War II—and the atrocities of the totalitarian National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany, in particular—provide a dark undercurrent to the story. Golding himself had been profoundly affected by his experiences in the British Navy during the war. In a conversation with a friend, Golding explained,

I was gradually coming up against people and I was understanding a bit more what people were like, and, also, gradually, learning that the things I hadn’t really believed, that I had in fact taken as propaganda, were, in fact, done

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going [into occupied territory in France] twice–meeting a man one time and the next time not meeting him, and being told that he was probably being tortured to death at that moment. This kind of thing one gradually began to see, and at the end, I fully believed in [the fact of] Nazism; one couldn’t do anything else.

(Golding in Biles, p. 34)

The prewar rise of Nazism—and Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler—has been attributed, among other factors, to the economic depression and political turmoil experienced by Germany after World War I. Ordered by the Treaty of Versailles to make substantial financial reparations to the victor nations, Germany suffered multiple financial woes. A disastrously inflated national currency, large-scale unemployment, and a worldwide economic depression (following the Wall Street crisis in the United States in 1929) exacerbated its postwar economic stress. Meanwhile, the Weimar Republic, established in 1919 after the abdication of the Kaiser, was proving unstable. Together the economic and political disarray, combined with the Germans’ desire to recover their lost “honor” and “greatness” as a nation, allowed Hitler’s growing Nazi party to step in and assume power in 1933. The new regime aroused nationalist fervor, promised—and delivered—economic stability, emphasized the importance of the community over the individual, and predicted a glorious national and racial destiny for Germany, especially after the elimination of “traitors and Jews” (Kedward, p. 67). Welcoming the authoritarian control provided by Hitler and his followers, most Germans became fervent believers in Nazism, even adopting Hitler’s view that Jews were a hindrance to Germany’s greatness. Ultimately, the Nazis’ dedication to the machine of the state overrode all else: the state was all, the individual—especially the Jewish or foreign individual—was nothing. Enemies of the state were to be eliminated at all costs and could expect neither mercy nor humane treatment from the state itself.

With the Nazi regime as the most blatant example, World War II provided numerous incidences of man’s inhumanity to man. Throughout Germany and other parts of Eastern Europe, Hitler and the Nazis set up firing squads and concentration camps where an estimated 5,721,800 victims (mostly Jews) were killed in gas chambers or through forced hard labor, or were gunned down in cold blood and left for dead in pits such as Babi Yar in the Ukraine. Forced to dig the pits, undress, then stand at the edge of the new graves, they became targets for the gunfire of the Nazi militia and even of the local population. In several camps, Jews were also made the “guinea pigs” for Nazi “medical experiments,” exposed, for example, to extremes of high pressure and freezing temperatures at the Dachau concentration camp in Germany. Other nations were equally savage in their treatment of “the enemy.” In Japanese prison camps, enemy civilians and POWs were starved, beaten, and subjected to experimental surgery, without anesthesia, by Japanese physicians. Those who survived the medical procedures were usually killed afterwards. The Americans meanwhile interned Japanese residents, and the British did likewise to Italian, Austrian, and German (including Austrian and German Jewish) refugees within their borders.

The British internment of aliens began after Denmark, Norway, and Holland fell to the Nazis and when Germany threatened to invade Britain. The major fear of the British issued from their perception that Holland fell because of so-called “Fifth Columnists,” the Dutch populace favoring a German takeover and working subversively to promote it. Most internees were kept on the Isle of Man, but as many as 7,000 were transported to Canada and Australia. Overcrowding, rationed food, restrictions on communication, and routines of camp life created intense psychological Page 285  |  Top of Articleanxiety that led to depression and even suicide among internees. Over time life in the camps improved, with the help of educational, artistic, and literary activities and entertainment, such as cabarets and concerts. Still, prejudice and hostility were manifested toward aliens, who were always treated with suspicion.

After the war, the revelation of atrocities committed by the Nazis and others led many, including Golding, to reflect on the nature of good and evil. Summing up his own experiences, Golding concluded,

I had seen enough in the last five years to know that these people [the “nice people”] are capable of [atrocities] too; that really this was an extension of the human condition; that what the Nazis were doing, they were doing because certain capacities in them, certain deficiencies … had been freed, and they were just people like us, in different circumstances.

(Golding in Biles, p. 34)

However, Golding also argued, “There must be an explanation of why there is a Nazi system in one place and not in another, because even if [people] were held back only by certain social sanctions or social prohibitions, the social prohibitions were there” (Golding in Biles, p. 36).

The Blitz and the Great Evacuation

Hitler’s plan to invade Britain, called Operation Sea Lion, involved the use of amphibious warfare. British naval strength made it imperative for Germany to gain dominance in the air. To achieve this, Germany amassed 1,300 bombers and dive bombers, as well as 1,200 fighter aircraft. Deployed from Norway to northern France, the German air force, or Luftwaffe, attacked Britain from all directions, except from the sea at the west. The attackers encountered British antiaircraft guns and the Royal Air Force (RAF), whose 600 fighters, chiefly Spitfires and Hurricanes, intercepted the Germans in the air. As the Battle of Britain unfolded, the attack at sea saw the German naval force strike along the coast of the English Channel, then move inland.

Without a strategic plan, the German air force struck diverse targets, not simply military but also civilian, such as populated urban areas and historical and cultural monuments in Britain. In the end, the RAF prevailed, the British scoring a military and psychological victory. While the British lost approximately 900 fighter aircraft, the Germans lost almost 1,700 bombers and fighters. The British meanwhile staged an air raid on Berlin. In retaliation, Hitler ordered the bombing of populous cities in England, including London, Manchester, and Coventry. Britain’s most intense period of aerial bombardment by the Germans—which became known as the “Blitz”—began in September 1940 and ended in May 1941.

Even before the Blitz, many city families were planning to send their most vulnerable members—the children—to safety. In 1939, the British government formulated a plan to sponsor the evacuation from London of children and their mothers, expectant mothers, and certain classes of the population, such as the blind, to more isolated locations in the country. Workers and those willing to contribute to the war effort were encouraged to stay behind; others remained in London at their own risk or left at their own expense. In late summer of 1939, even before war had been officially declared between Britain and Germany, many London families were receiving letters containing instructions for evacuation procedures, like the following from the West Ham Council:

In the event of an Emergency, arrangements have been made to evacuate school children from the London area to safe places in the country. It is hoped that your child/children will participate in this scheme. On receipt of further instructions, he/she/they should report to Star Road School bringing with him/her/them hat, raincoat, haversack containing night-clothes, towel, soap, tooth brush and toothpaste, and he/she/they should wear a card round his/her/their neck (s) giving his/her/their full name(s), age(s), School, home address and names of next of kin.

(West Ham Council in Mosley, pp. 5-7)

On September 1, 1939, shortly after Britain received news of Germany’s invasion of Poland, the British government issued orders to transport London’s children to safety, and the Great Evacuation began. For the next 24 hours, people everywhere in London came to watch as long processions of children trekked to a railway or bus station. Around the neck of each child was a small square cardboard box that held a gas mask, and pinned to their lapels were name tags. “Brothers and sisters clung to each other’s hands like grim death, and refused to be parted” (Mosley, p. 14). An estimated 1 million children and 200,000 mothers left London in the Great Evacuation. Evacuees who had relatives in the country took refuge with them, while others were housed by rural families who had consented to serve as a safe haven. Some of the wealthier Londoners sent their children overseas, to the United Page 286  |  Top of ArticleStates and Canada, where they would remain throughout the war.

Lord of the Flies centers on British schoolboys who are being evacuated to a safe haven after a deadly nuclear war breaks out but end up marooned on a deserted tropical island. It is one of the novel’s many ironies that Britain’s attempt to spare such boys from the horrors of war backfires, ultimately embroiling them in a violent, primitive, and equally deadly struggle for survival on the island.

Nuclear technology and total war

In the European theater, the concept of total war involved the devastation not only of military installations and personnel but also of civilians and urban

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Less than a decade after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan, the specter of nuclear war was revived during another armed conflict. Britain found itself embroiled in grim warfare in Korea for 37 months (July 1950-August 1953) preceding the publication of Lord of the Flies. The United Kingdom suffered 1,078 killed in action, 2,674 wounded, and 1,060 missing or taken prisoner during the conflict (Hickey, p. 366). United States President Harry Truman promised British Prime Minister Clement Atlee that no nuclear weapons would be fired on Korea or Red China, but the devastation was staggering nonetheless. Two million civilians are estimated to have perished in North Korea, which translates into 20 percent of the region’s population at that time. Clearly man’s inhumanity to man had not been quashed by the excesses of World War II.

areas. Because twentieth-century nations relied on their country’s industrial capability for military equipment and materials, civilians, though non-combatants, were perceived as vital to the war effort. Consequently, they and the factories in which they labored became targets for air raids, as in the aforementioned Battle of Britain. This concept of total war enlarged considerably with the invention of the atomic bomb. First developed in the United States under the Manhattan Project, atomic weaponry resulted in a potential for mass destruction on a scale previously unimagined. On August 6, 1945, the United States detonated an atomic bomb over Hiroshima, Japan, destroying an area of 4 square miles at the center of the city, where close to 350,000 residents dwelled. The number of dead and injured amounted to almost 140,000. On August 9, 1945, the United States dropped another atomic bomb over Nagasaki, Japan, killing nearly 65,000 people. Since that time, the specter of nuclear conflict has virtually terrorized humankind.

The United States’ decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been the focus of heated debate ever since. Initially, there was little outcry against the bombings—indeed, many Allied nations agreed with U.S. President Harry Truman’s argument that dropping the bomb forestalled an invasion of Japan and prevented a costly land war, bringing World War II to a speedier end than would otherwise be the case. Within a few years, however, Truman’s decision fell under scrutiny; in July 1946, a panel he had appointed to study the Pacific War submitted a report, The United States Strategic Bombing Survey, expressing the opinion that Japan would probably have surrendered before the end of 1945, even if the atomic bomb had never been dropped. Seconding this view, Henry Stimson, the U.S. Secretary of War in Truman’s administration, wondered in his memoirs—published in 1948—if a change in negotiating tactics would have brought about peace without the bombings. The 1950s and ‘60s saw the emergence of new opponents to the bombings and to atomic warfare in general. Critics, said Robert J. Maddox, “have accused President Harry S Truman and his advisers of everything from failing to explore alternatives to engaging in a monstrous conspiracy to slaughter all those people for no more compelling reason than to employ ‘atomic warfare’ against the Soviet Union” (Maddox, p. 1). P. M. S. Blackett, a British scientist, even charged that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki represented the first chapter of the Cold War, that is, the competition between the United States and the Soviet Union for world leadership, rather than the last chapter of World War II. In 1950, Admiral William D. Leahy, Truman’s personal chief of staff, denounced the bombings in his own memoirs as “barbarous,” maintaining that they provided “no material assistance in our war against Japan” and declaring, “I was not taught to make war in that fashion and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children” (Leahy in Maddox, p. 120).

In Lord of the Flies, sophisticated and primitive warfare exist alongside each other. Not only have the British schoolboys been evacuated because of a nuclear war, but also aerial battles take Page 287  |  Top of Articleplace over the tropical island on which the boys find themselves stranded. As they revert to savagery, hunting each other with knives and spears, their elders employ the technological advancements of civilization to elevate the destructive impulses of human nature to the most catastrophic levels. The boys are ultimately rescued from the island by a naval officer whose ship is armed with a submachine gun and whose gaze is trained on the horizon, in search of the enemy he must hunt and destroy.

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

The novel begins as two boys—fair-haired, even-tempered Ralph and fat, bespectacled, asthmatic Piggy—meet on the beach of an apparently deserted tropical island. Both were passengers on an aircraft transporting British 6-to-H-year-old schoolboys to a safe destination while England wages a nuclear war. The aircraft crashed, claiming the life of the pilot. Ralph and Piggy, who were traveling in the passenger compartment, which had landed safely on the island, somberly wonder if they are the sole survivors. Drawn by Ralph’s blowing upon a conch shell, more children emerge from the jungle and quickly assemble. Last to join the group are a black-clad boys’ choir, led by bossy, red-haired Jack Merridew.

Discovering that they are without adult supervision, the boys try to establish rules for life on the island while they wait to be rescued. Jack is discomfited when Ralph is elected leader by the other boys but is appeased when he and the rest of the choir are appointed to be hunters, responsible for obtaining food for the whole group. Ralph, meanwhile, decrees that shelters be erected on the beach and that a signal fire be built on top of a nearby mountain to attract rescuers. The first attempt to build the fire—using Piggy’s glasses as a lens to focus the sunlight on their kindling—ignites a blaze that scorches a large portion of the forest, but eventually the boys succeed in lighting a proper signal fire, which Jack and the other hunters promise to keep ablaze during the day. At this point, one small boy, who claimed to have seen “a beastie”—a snakelike thing that moves by night—gets lost in the confusion (Golding, Lord of the Flies, p. 31).

In the days that follow, tensions begin to develop between Ralph and Jack. Ralph complains that after having agreed to build huts, many of the boys work briefly on that project, then scatter to swim, eat fruit, or play. Only Ralph and Simon—an introverted boy prone to fits—are building the huts. Meanwhile, Jack becomes increasingly intent on his role of hunter, painting his face with colored clay as he stalks wild pigs in the hope of slaying one for food. Finally, he and the other hunters succeed in killing a pig; unfortunately, they are so involved in the hunt that they neglect to tend the signal fire, which dies out just as the other boys sight a vessel on the horizon. A furious Ralph berates Jack for costing them their chance to be rescued, and a fight ensues during which one of Piggy’s lenses is shattered. Peace is restored after Jack apologizes for neglecting the fire, and all the boys roast and eat the pig.

The truce between Ralph and Jack proves temporary, however, and other fears—chiefly surrounding the mysterious “beastie” described by the lost boy—start to erode the tenuous bonds that hold the group together. At one assembly Jack challenges Ralph’s leadership and summons the rest of the hunters to follow him instead. Jack and his band depart, leaving Ralph, Piggy, and Simon to fret about the group’s dissolving and to lament the absence of adults on the island.

That night the body of a dead parachutist—killed in a nearby air battle—is carried by the wind to a mountainside on the island. Periodically, a breeze elevates the head and chest of the corpse, so that it appears upright and gazing when held in place by the tangled lines of the parachute. Meanwhile, the older boys have formed a search party to locate the “beastie,” or beast. One night, Ralph, Jack, and another boy, Roger, scale the mountain where the beast was supposedly sighted. Close to the summit, they view the decomposing corpse of the parachutist; the gruesome sight causes the boys to flee down the mountain in terror of “the beast.”

In the resulting panic, Jack again stirs up trouble at an assembly, challenging Ralph’s status as chief. He accuses Ralph of cowardice in the presence of the so-called beast and of simply barking out orders and expecting others to obey. The other boys remain silent and fail to support Jack’s claim to be the new leader, after which Jack angrily leaves the group to form his own tribe. Later, the rest of the hunters and several other boys slip off to join him. Jack and his followers paint their faces, then track and kill a sow, disemboweling her and mounting her head on a stick to appease the beast on the island. Both the pig’s head and offal attract hordes of flies.

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To cook the sow, Jack’s boys need fire, so they steal it from Ralph’s band, which by now has dwindled to himself, Piggy, Simon, and two other boys. Jack informs Ralph and his followers about the killing of the sow and invites them to the feast. Simon, who has wandered off into the forest by himself, meanwhile encounters the pig’s head and undergoes a visionary experience that causes him to lose consciousness. After regaining his senses, Simon resumes his wanderings, Page 289  |  Top of Articleencounters the corpse of the parachutist, and recognizes it for what it is. Freeing the body from its moorings, Simon goes to inform the other boys of his discovery.

Ralph and his followers arrive at the feast, over which a painted, garlanded Jack is presiding. After the meal, Jack invites the remaining boys to join his tribe, then commands his followers to enact the dance of the hunt. Storm clouds appear overhead. The boys, frenzied by their dance and chanting, see Simon emerge from the forest, mistake him for the beast, and attack him, ignoring his cries for help. When the storm breaks, the boys finally scatter, seeking shelter. A great wind dislodges the corpse of the parachutist from the mountain and sweeps it out to sea. Simon’s lifeless body is also carried off by the tide.

Shaken by Simon’s death and their own participation in it, Ralph, Piggy, and their last two followers try to concentrate on the signal fire—now located on the beach. That night, Jack and his followers raid Ralph’s camp, while the boys are asleep, stealing Piggy’s glasses, the vital tool for starting fires. The next morning, Ralph’s band plans to reason with the hunters, and request the return of Piggy’s glasses. Approaching Jack’s group, the party of four are astonished to find his mountain camp guarded by armed followers who deny them admission. Jack, returning from a hunt with two other boys, tells Ralph that he is not welcome and orders him to keep to his part of the island. Ralph demands the return of Piggy’s glasses; but Jack refuses, and the boys engage in hand-to-hand combat with spears. Meanwhile, at Jack’s command, his hunters capture Sam and Eric, the other two boys in Ralph’s band. As Ralph and Jack continue to fight, Piggy tries to muster the group’s attention with the conch shell used to call everyone to assembly. But atop the mountain, Roger, one of Jack’s followers, dislodges a boulder that careens downhill, shatters the conch shell, and strikes Piggy, who falls 40 feet to his death in the sea below. Jack hurls his spear at Ralph, wounding him and forcing him to flee alone into the forest.

After hiding and examining his wounds, Ralph secretly returns to Jack’s camp, where he encounters Sam and Eric, who warn him that Jack’s tribe plans to hunt him next. Concealing himself in a thicket, Ralph hopes to avoid discovery but is ultimately spotted by a hunter. Fleeing through the forest, he learns that the hunters have started a fire to smoke him out, so he heads for the open beach with Jack and the others in hot pursuit. Suddenly, Ralph finds himself face to face with a naval officer, whose vessel was attracted to the island by the smoke. The other boys, though painted and savage in appearance, emerge from the forest behind him and come to a halt when they see their rescuer. The officer questions Ralph about the situation and expresses disappointment that “a pack of British boys” failed “to put up a better show” (Lord of the Flies, p. 186). Overwhelmed by his experiences on the island, Ralph begins to shake and sob over “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart” and the deaths of Simon and Piggy (Lord of the Flies, pp. 186-87). The other boys are soon crying along with him. Uncomfortable with such a naked display of emotion, the officer turns away to study “the trim cruiser in the distance” (Lord of the Flies, p. 187).

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The title of the novel refers to Beelzebub, who was the patron god of the Philistines in ancient Palestine. In Judeo-Christian mythology, Beelzebub—the Greek translation of the Hebrew Baal-Zevuv is the prince oí demons or devils, whose idol, called Baal, included the image of an animal, at times propped up on a pole. Such idols became objects of worship in ancient Phoenicia, Syria, and Palestine. Periodically the Israelites would capture or destroy the idols. At times, moreover, the idols wound up in Gehenna, a refuse dump outside Jerusalem where they attracted hordes of flies. Hence, Beelzebub was also called “Lord of the Flies.”

War, society, and civilization

The emphasis on destruction in Lord of the Flies derives from Golding’s own experience in the war. As a lieutenant in the Royal Navy, he commanded a rocket ship that engaged enemy battleships, submarines, and airplanes. He even participated in D-Day operations. Interviewed in 1963 by Douglas A. Davis for an article in New Republic (4 May 1963), Golding himself explained how the war affected him, saying that when he was younger, he had some unrealistic views about human nature, but the war changed him (Golding in Dick, p. 4).

A decade earlier, in his reply to a publicity questionnaire from the American publishers of Lord of the Flies, Golding revealed how his conception had shifted:

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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 however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except 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 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?

(Golding in Epstein, p. 189)

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Initially, the stranded boys in Lord of the flies clins closely to the strictures of the worldly society from which they hail, including class-related strictures. Ralph proudly reveals that he is the on of a naval officer, a fact that gives him a certain standing in the eyes of the other children. Likewise, Jack clings to his own status in the outside world as chorister and “head boy” at his school. By contrast, the orphaned Piggy demonstrates by his unigrammatical speech—“There ain’t nothing we can do”—that he is of a lower social class than Ralph or Jack, which sets him apart from the group as much as his overweight, myopia, and asthma do (Lord of the Flies, p. 40). Once the society the boys attempt to create on the stand begins to collapse, however, class designations cease to matter: most of the boys become indistinguishable in their savagery. The naval officer who rescues them cannot tell the commander’s son from the choir boy; he sees only “little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, [and] sharp sticks in their hands” who have, to his disapproval, been conducting themselves like “small savages (Lord of the Flies, pp. 185-86).

In the novel, the boys’ actions increasingly reflect their consciousness of war and their own capacity for violence. Even before the struggle for the island begins, the children play at war—Ralph pretends to be “a fighter-plane, with wings swept back, and machine-gun [s] Piggy,” while some of the other boys scale the cliffs, cheering when they manage to dislodge a boulder and send it crashing “like a bomb” to the forest below (Lord of the Flies, pp. 9, 24). Most ominous of all is the first appearance of the boys’ choir; led by Jack Merridew, they enter “marching approximately in two parallel lines and dressed in strangely eccentric clothing … each boy wore a square black cap with a silver badge on 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” (Lord of the Flies, p. 16). The description of the almost military organization and demeanor of the choir brings to mind the black-shirted followers of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini or Hitler’s own goose-stepping Nazis, who wore black uniforms and iron crosses during World War II.

Freed from adult strictures, Jack and his followers quickly become a force for darkness and violence, like the Nazis but on a far more primitive level. At home, Jack “was a part of society; on the island he is all of it,” much as a dictator would be (Golding in Biles, p. 46). Also, the chants that Jack and his followers reiterate as they stalk pigs on the island, encircle, and kill them with spears—“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!”—seem to echo the hysteria that typified Nazi rallies (Lord of the Flies, p. 106). Perhaps Jack and his hunters are primitive counterparts of fervent Nazis whose own chants led to aggression, first against their neighboring countries and then against the Allies in World War II.

It would not be entirely accurate to describe Golding’s novel as a parable about Nazism. It can, however, be argued that the breakdown of certain social prohibitions on the island causes the collapse of “government” that the British schoolboys attempt to establish there, creating an environment in which violence, savagery, and inhumanity can flourish, as they did in Nazi Germany. Like the post-World War I Germans, the boys in Golding’s novel find themselves in a state of disarray after a disaster—the crash of their aircraft leaves them stranded on a deserted island. At first, they are jubilant at being without adult restriction and confident in their ability to create a viable communal society on the island, declaring, “We’re English and the English are best at everything” (Lord of the Flies, p. 38). But in the end, the English, like the Americans (with their internment camps), the Japanese (with their prisoner-of-war camps), and the Nazis (with their death camps), succumb to what Golding perceives as a pervasive human depravity.

The view is not an entirely bleak one, however. Golding conceives of the depravity as pervasive, but not as absolute:

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It is the ordered society which keeps us in … this viable shape, this social shape, and which enables us to show our bright side…. Take away these sanctions, and we fall into the dark side. But you must remember this, that the sanctions, the shape of society, are also the product of the human being. Here is where it gets so damned difficult.

(Golding in Biles, p. 44)

Sources and literary context

Lord of the Flies is Golding’s reaction to, and critique of, a work of children’s literature in England, Robert Michael Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1857), written during the heyday of Victorian society. In this classic novel, three boys—Ralph Rover, Jack Martin, and Peterkin Gay—are shipwrecked on a Pacific island. In accordance with the traditions and values of Victorian society, the boys interact cooperatively and happily on the island. They are resourceful; their killing of a sow, which, unlike Lord of the Flies, does not ensue in a bloodthirsty frenzy, will provide the hide from which they craft shoes for future use. They encounter cannibals, who eventually are converted to Christianity, and a resounding affirmation of God echoes in the novel.

Golding perceived Ballantyne as an idealist, whose fanciful children’s story lacks realism. Throughout Golding’s novel, there are periodic reminders of Ballantyne’s work when characters refer to the “coral island” on which they are stranded. Golding’s schoolboys initially compare their marooned situation to an adventure story, citing such books as Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons, and Coral Island {Lord of the Flies, p. 30). At the end of the novel, the uncomprehending naval officer makes a similar reference when the exhausted, traumatized Ralph tries to explain what has been happening to them: “I know. Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island” (Lord of the Flies, p. 186). As an antidote and counterargument to Ballantyne’s idealism, Golding revives the narrative of the shipwreck and boys stranded on a Pacific island. Ballantyne’s Ralph and Jack become the identically named characters in Golding’s novel, and Peterkin, as Golding revealed in an interview with literary scholar Frank Kermode, is transformed into Simon—“Peterkin … is Simon, by the way. Simon called Peter, you see [as in the Bible]. It was worked out very carefully in every possible way, this novel” (Golding, p. 201).

In a larger sense, Golding’s Lord of the Flies reflects a longstanding trend in “island literature.” Whereas Ballantyne’s Coral lsland dramatizes how children cope with the challenge of being stranded, other works such as Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Johann Rudolf Wyss’s Swiss Family Robinson (1827) feature adults, as well, on an island. Often the aim of such literature has been to present a society from its inception and chart whether the community that evolves becomes a utopia or dystopia, the former a model of harmony and cooperation, the latter of dysfunction, disharmony, and competitive disintegration.


At its publication in 1954, Lord of the Flies elicited mixed reviews. In the New Statesman, Walter Allen questioned the plausibility of the degeneration of the schoolboys into barbarism: “These children’s crosses, it seems to me, were altogether too unnaturally heavy for it to be possible to draw conclusions from Mr. Golding’s novel” (Allen in Nelson, p. 3). Louis J. Halle in the Saturday Review also expressed reservations about Lord of the Flies, arguing that Golding “cannot quite find his meaning in his material. The heroes come to a bad end, having contributed nothing to such salvation as the society achieves. There is a great deal of commotion and the last page is nothing more than a playwright’s contrivance for bringing down the curtain. One is left asking: What was the point?” (Halle in Nelson, p. 5).

Other critics were more favorably impressed. In The Manchester Guardian, Douglas Hewitt found the book “completely convincing and often very frightening,” adding that the “weaknesses of the novel may be summed up as a tendency to be too explicit” (Hewett in Nelson, p. 4). James Stern, however, admired the allegorical elements in Lord of the Flies, writing in The New York Times Book Review, “With undertones of ‘1984’ and ‘High Wind in Jamaica,’ this brilliant work is a frightening parody on man’s return (in a few weeks) to that state of darkness from which it took him thousands of years to emerge … even the most skeptical reader will be carried away by the story’s plausibility and power, by the skillfully worked-out progress, by the perfection of its characterization, dialogue and prose” (Stern in Nelson, p. 7). Dan Wickenden, in the New York Herald Tribune, was also enthusiastic, calling Lord of the Flies “an exciting and ultimately powerful narrative. The boys themselves are altogether convincing: the style is vivid and crystalline; the sense of mounting terror is brilliantly conveyed” (Wickenden in Nelson, p. 9). Lord of the Flies has its shortcomings, Page 292  |  Top of Articlebut all told it is a distinguished performance” (Wickenden in Nelson, p. 9).

—Albert Labriola and Pamela S. Loy

For More Information

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

Cesarani, David, and Tony Kushner, eds. The Internment of Aliens in Twentieth Century Britain. London: Frank Cass, 1993.

Dick, Bernard F. William Golding. Boston: Twayne, 1987.

Dunnigan, James F., and Albert A. Nofi. Victory at Sea: World War II in the Pacific. New York: William Morrow, 1995.

Epstein, E. L. “Biographical and Critical Notes.” In Lord of the Flies. New York: Capricorn Books, 1959.

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkeley, 1954.

Hickey, Michael. The Korean War: The West Confronts Communism. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook, 2000.

Kedward, H. R. Fascism in Western Europe 1900-45. New York: New York University Press, 1971.

Lukacs, John. The Hitler of History. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.

Maddox, Robert James. Weapons for Victory: The Hiroshima Decision Fifty Years Later. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1995.

Mosley, Leonard. Backs to the Wall: London under Fire 1939-45. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1971.

Moss, Joyce, and George Wilson. Peoples of the World: Eastern Europe and the Post-Soviet Republics. Detroit: Gale Research, 1993.

Nelson, William. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”: A Source Book. Indianapolis: Odyssey Press, 1963.

Sanders, Andrew. The Short Oxford History of English Literature. Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Source Citation

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Labriola, Albert, and Pamela S. Loy. "Lord of the Flies." World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them, by Joyce Moss, vol. 4: British and Irish Literature and Its Times: The Victorian Era to the Present (1837-), Gale, 2001, pp. 283-292. Gale Ebooks, https%3A%2F%2Flink.gale.com%2Fapps%2Fdoc%2FCX2875600040%2FGVRL%3Fu%3Dmlin_m_newtnsh%26sid%3DGVRL%26xid%3D175e128e. Accessed 18 Oct. 2019.

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2875600040

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  • Austrian
  • Baal
    • 4: 289 (sidebar)
  • Ballantyne, Robert Michael
    • 4: 291
  • Beelzebub
    • 4: 289 (sidebar)
  • Class consciousness
    • in Lord of the Flies
      • 4: 290 (sidebar)
  • Cold War
    • and threat of nuclear annihilation
  • Coral Island, The
    • 4: 291
  • Evil in human nature
  • Fascism
  • Germany (in chronological order)
  • Golding, William, Lord of the Files
    • 4: 283-92
  • Hiroshima, Japan
  • Holocaust
  • Internment of aliens by British and Americans during WWII
    • 4: 284-5
  • Jews
  • Korean War
    • 4: 286 (sidebar)
  • London
  • Lord of the Flies (Golding, William)
    • 4: 283-92
  • Nagasaki, Japan
  • Nazism
  • Novels
    • Lord of the Flies (Golding, William)
      • 4: 283-92
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Science and technology
    • providing potential for nuclear annihilation
  • South Pacific: works set in, Lord of the Flies (Golding, William)
    • 4: 283-92
  • “Total war” involving civilians
    • 4: 286
  • Warfare
    • nuclear weapons
    • society, civilization, and evil in human nature
    • “total war” involving civilians
      • 4: 286
  • War weaponry
  • World War II (in chronological order)
    • British internment of aliens
    • Great Evacuation (of children and mothers) from London (1939)
      • 4: 285-6
    • Britain” (1940-1941)
    • atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945)