Lord of the Flies
by William Golding
After earning his degree from England’s Oxford University in 1935, William Golding became a schoolmaster at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury, where he taught English and Greek literature in translation. Soon afterward, the outbreak of World War II inspired him to join the Royal Navy, first as an ordinary seaman but later as the commander of a small rocket-launching craft directly involved in the sinking of the German ship the Bismarck and the notorious D-Day assault. From these experiences—supplemented by elements from his days as a schoolmaster—Golding found inspiration to create his landmark novel Lord of the Flies.
Events in History at the Time of the Novel
The Lend-Lease Act
After spending the first year of his wartime service at a top-secret research station in England, Golding was sent to Scotland to learn the fine art of minesweeping. Thereafter he was transported to New York to await the building of a minesweeper, a warship designed to neutralize or remove mines placed in the ocean by the enemy. “I sat there for about six months,” he later recalled, “till the mine sweeper was done, and then brought it back” (Biles, p. 27). Such was his introduction to the advantages of the Lend-Lease Act, which was designed to allow the United States to aid friendly countries already involved in World War II, though the U.S. had not yet entered the conflict.
At the start of 1941, the entire west coast of Europe already lay in German hands, leaving England the newest target of their desires. Hitler decided that the best way to force the English to capitulate was to concentrate his forces on British shipping in the Mediterranean and North Atlantic seas, thereby severing their supply lines. Just as Hitler’s strategy was proving to be successful—by June, over half a million tons of British shipping were being sunk monthly—the United States had come to the rescue with the passage of the Lend-Lease Act. This law authorized governmental agencies “to manufacture in arsenals, factories, and shipyards under their jurisdiction … any defense article the President deems vital to the defense of the United States,” and “so sell, transfer titles to, exchange, lease, lend, or otherwise dispose of, to any such government any defense article” (Hall et al, pp. 631-32). Page 229 | Top of ArticleIn other words, the United States would “lend” equipment and supplies to certain countries instead of selling them the materials. The majority of this support went to England, including Golding’s mine sweeper. By the war’s end, the United States had provided the Allied forces with nearly $45 billion in supplies and services, two-thirds of which went directly to Britain and her empire.
The sinking of the Bismarck
Among Golding’s more notable experiences in the war was his attendance at the sinking of the German battleship the Bismarck. Considered to be the most powerful warship afloat, its destruction served to improve English morale tremendously while causing serious repercussions in Germany.
At midday on May 18, 1941, the Bismarck set sail from the Baltic port of Gdynia as her band played “Muss i denn,” the traditional German military song of parting. Weighing around 45,000 tons, with armor ranging from five to fifteen inches across her 820 feet of length, the Bismarck was the pride of the German navy. After a rendezvous with the cruiser Prinz Eugen in the North Sea, she was to be joined by two other vessels, the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau, to form what was considered to be the most powerful squadron in all of the oceans. Unfortunately the latter two vessels proved to be unavailable, leaving her in the company of only the Prinz Eugen as she continued her mission at sea—interfering with Allied trade by attacking trade vessels.
Sometime during the afternoon of May 21, an English Spitfire aircraft confirmed the location of the Bismarck at a spot between Greenland and Iceland. Soon thereafter, two radar-equipped cruisers picked up the trail, relaying their location to the Hood, a twenty-year-old battleship lacking sufficient modernization, and the Prince of Wales, a smaller yet better-armored vessel. In the early morning of May 24, the two English battleships confronted the enemy in a battle that lasted only six minutes. Although they fought valiantly, they were no match for the German superiority; the Hood was sunk and the Prince of Wales retired badly mauled. The Bismarck continued on its course relatively unscathed.
Over the next couple of days, British intelligence officers worked diligently to determine the new location of the Bismarck. On May 26 she was rediscovered 690 miles from the German port of Brest, a mere thirty hours from safety. The British navy converged on her with every available resource, from torpedoes to naval guns, reducing her to a “bloody shambles” (Miller, p. 165). But the battleship still would not succumb. Only after being scuttled by two torpedoes from the cruiser Dorsetshire the following day did she finally roll over and sink stern-first with her colors still flying.
As a result of the sinking of the Bismarck, British morale skyrocketed. “The Hood has blown up, but we’ve got the Bismarck!” Churchill cried emphatically (Miller, p. 161). For the Germans, the defeat proved disastrous. Not only was the leader of its navy now looked upon with sudden disdain by Hitler, but never again throughout the course of the war were major German warships put to sea to cruise against Allied trade.
Post-World War II Britain
Like many parts of the world at the conclusion of the war, Great Britain was left devastated by enemy attacks. Bombing raids by the German air force had not only destroyed docks, factories, railroads, and other public institutions but also thousands of homes as well, leaving behind only remnants of the prosperity the British had once enjoyed. In addition to the physical effects the war produced, its end also signified a grave decline in the British economy.
For the first time in its history, Britain assumed the role of debtor rather than creditor. Many of its citizens were now forced to forgo luxuries, such as liquor and clothing, that they had once taken for granted in peacetime. The deprivations of the war years continued in the postwar
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period, including the rationing of meat, bread, sugar, gasoline, and tobacco. Even newspapers felt the pressure when they were cut to four pages to save newsprint imports.
In order to cure their country’s ills, the British government turned to nationalization and socialism as possible solutions. Legislative acts brought establishments like the Bank of England; coal, electric power, and gas companies; and internal and external air and transport companies under public ownership. Meanwhile the government helped make services such as insurance and health care available to everyone. Such legislation brought radical changes to the political, social, and economic climate of Great Britain in the postwar years during which Golding wrote Lord of the Flies.
The Novel in Focus
As the novel opens, the reader is introduced to two young boys, Ralph and Piggy, who are exploring the unfamiliar face of a deserted island. To the best of their knowledge, they are the survivors of a crash that occurred when the plane evacuating them from England was attacked by enemy fire. Soon the other survivors, children of all ages, are emerging from the jungle.
Once the last group of survivors arrive—a boys’ choir clad in black cloaks and caps and led by Jack Merridew—the newly formed group sets about establishing rules for governing the island. They elect Ralph to be the leader, primarily because of his possession of a conch, a large shell, and Ralph in turn appoints Jack and his choir as hunters, much to the latter’s delight. Following a brief reconnaissance of the island, they agree to erect shelters on the beach and establish a signal fire on the peak of a nearby mountaintop.
At the top of the mountain, they discover a means of making fire by using Piggy’s glasses as a lens to concentrate the sun’s heat. Before long, however, the flame they have created is raging out of control, burning a quarter of a mile square of forest and taking the life of one of the smallest boys along with it. Despite the shame they feel, nobody wants to admit contributing to his death.
In the days following the episode on the mountain, the boys take comfort in performing daily routines. For Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, this consists mainly of working on the shelters. Others become preoccupied with the hunt, while the smallest boys, called the “littluns,” engage in a cyclical ritual of gorging themselves on mass quantities of fruit and then suffering from recurring bouts of diarrhea.
At first, no one seems to mind that Jack, the leader of the hunters, has been ignoring his responsibility to maintain the signal fire in favor of capturing game. However, when a chance to be rescued is sacrificed as a result of his game-hunting, two different parties begin to emerge: those who wish to adhere to the status quo—constructing huts, maintaining the signal fire, and respecting Ralph as leader—and those who wish to hunt with Jack.
This chasm is further divided by an unspoken rivalry between the two older boys, Ralph and Jack. Jack accuses Ralph of being a coward and unfit to serve as chief. “He just gives orders and expects people to obey for nothing,” Jack says vehemently (Golding, Lord of the Flies, p. 126). Then, citing the need for more aggressive action, he demands that a vote be taken to reelect their chief. When several of the youngsters fail to support his motion, Jack marches off in anger to form his own tribe, inviting “anyone who wants to hunt” to join him (Lord of the Flies, p. 127).
For the next few days, Ralph attempts to reinstill order by concentrating on how to promote their rescue, moving the signal fire from its home
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on the mountain, for example, to a spot nearby on the beach. Despite his efforts, however, many of the boys depart to the other side of the island where Jack’s faction has set up camp. Those that remain soon follow when it is announced that Jack’s faction will hold a large feast in celebration of their most recent kill. Even Ralph and Piggy decide to attend, partly because they are hungry but also to serve as reminder of the way things were when everyone acted as one.
On the evening of the big feast, the air is alive with news of an impending storm. After everyone has eaten their fill, Jack invites those that haven’t done so already to join his tribe, offering promises of fun, food, and protection from a beast whom they imagine to be on the island. He then orders his followers to perform the ritualistic dance of the hunt, which they blindly agree to, organizing themselves in a circle with spears raised. As the circle begins to swell, the young hunters unleash a bloodcurdling chant that only intensifies when the rain begins to fall. At the height of their frenzy, an image emerges from the jungle; it is Simon coming to inform them that he has discovered the identity of the beast. Caught in the moment, however, the crazed boys convince themselves that Simon is the beast, pouncing on him, and beating and tearing him to pieces, all the while ignoring his pleas for help. Eventually the storm forces them to seek shelter and washes Simon’s body, now lifeless, out to sea.
In the morning, feelings of shame and remorse overtake nearly everyone, especially Piggy and Ralph. Although Piggy attempts to explain away the previous evening’s events as an accident, Ralph considers it murder, pure and simple.
After an exhausting and hopeless day of tending to the signal fire, Ralph, Piggy, and their few followers return to their own camp eager to catch some much-needed rest. Unfortunately, no sooner have they succumbed to sleep, when they are awakened by voices in the night. Jack and his followers raid Ralph’s camp to steal its last item of value, Piggy’s glasses. A fight ensues, but Jack’s side succeeds.
The following morning Ralph’s faction decides to talk to Jack in the vain hope that he may understand reason. After all, in addition to providing sight to an otherwise blind Piggy, his glasses are also necessary for the upkeep of the fire. When the small ensemble arrives at the other end of the island, they are shocked to find Jack’s camp guarded by armed members of his tribe who refuse to allow them admission. Events escalate further out of control when Jack and a group of hunters emerge from the jungle, a dead sow on the ground behind them. Upon seeing Ralph, the two leaders begin to exchange insults before engaging in a vicious hand-to-hand fight with spears. Only the cries of Piggy are enough to distract them, mere moments before a large boulder, set in motion by one of the children above, comes careening toward him. Without the benefit of his eyesight, he is helpless to avoid it and is crushed instantly. A moment later, Jack hurls his spear at Ralph, drawing blood and forcing him to seek haven in the foliage.
Jack and his hunters decide to embark on a new hunt in which Ralph is to be the prey. Thinking that they will not suspect him of hiding close to the camp, Ralph burrows his body into a large thicket nearby and waits in fearful anticipation. The hunters discover Ralph’s location, and Jack orders that the bushes be set afire in an attempt to smoke him out. The ploy proves successful; soon Ralph is dashing through the trees with the sound of his pursuers not too far behind.
With nowhere else to run, Ralph heads directly toward the beach, where he collapses in exhaustion. He finds himself at the feet of a uniformed officer. While Ralph struggles to comprehend the situation, several of the youthful Page 233 | Top of Articlesavages begin to emerge behind him, staring with mouths agape at the unfamiliar sight. Unable to contain himself any longer, Ralph begins to shake and sob in sudden realization of all that has occurred. Soon all the boys are crying aloud, driven by thoughts of Simon and Piggy, both now dead, as well as the more recent memory of their hunt. As the boys continue to wallow in their grief, the officer in front of them turns to the horizon and spots his own prey, “a trim cruiser in the distance,” thus continuing the hunt, only on a grander scale (The Lord of the Flies, p. 202).
Evil in paradise
One of the most poignant scenes to take place during the Lord of the Flies occurs when Simon, an impartial observer and friend to the weaker “littluns,” tries to inform the others that he has discovered the true identity of a beast thought to dwell on the island (it is, in fact, a dead parachutist). In an ironic twist of fate, Simon stumbles upon the others as they are engrossed in a ritualistic dance, causing them to mistake him for the very thing he sought to tell them about. Simon was crying out something about a dead man on a hill, when in a chilling scene they turn on Simon, calling him the beast.
“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! Do him in!”
The sticks fell and the mouth of the new circle crunched and screamed. The beast was on its knees in the center, its arms folded over its face. It was crying out against the abominable noise something about a body on the hill. The beast struggled forward, broke the ring and fell over the steep edge of the rock to the sand by the water. At once the crowd surged after it…. There were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws.
(Lord of the Flies, pp. 152-53)
At the conclusion of World War II in 1945, much of the world was left ravaged by the constant fighting, leaving the victors desperate in their search for a scapegoat to blame. Many did not think twice about accusing former enemies, especially the Nazis, for inciting atrocities. However, as an active participant in some of the war’s most infamous battles, Golding realized that the blame could not be shouldered by only select parties. Rather, the seeds for war, he concluded, existed within us all.
Despite scholars’ attempts to find inspiration for Lord of the Flies in literary classics like Euripides’ Bacchae and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, (also covered in Literature and Its Times), many identify only one book as a direct influence: Robert Michael Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Published in 1857, Ballantyne’s novel told the story of three young boys shipwrecked on an unnamed island in the Pacific. Insulated from civilization, the trio live blissful, happy lives untainted by the evils of society.
After witnessing the horrors of World War II firsthand, Golding sought to apply a realist’s perspective to Ballantyne’s “paradise.” For his main characters, he chose to borrow directly from The Coral Island; both works have protagonists named Jack and Ralph. He also drew on a third character from Ballantyne’s novel, a mischievous fourteen-year-old named Peterkin, ascribing his traits to the overweight Piggy. The character Simon has been called a Christlike figure by Golding himself. To round out the rest of his youthful cast, Golding called upon his experiences as both father and schoolmaster to create a cadre of boys ranging in age from six to twelve.
The next step in his reworking of Ballantyne’s classic was the matter of the plot. Contrary to his predecessor—who believed that when left alone on an island devoid of societal influence, children will behave in a civilized manner—Golding thought that without proper guidance, these same children could easily revert to savagery. He based his mode of reasoning on his experiences during the war. In an interview with his friend and colleague, Professor Jack I. Biles, Golding made the following admission:
I had seen enough in the last five years to know that these people [the “nice people”] are capable of that, 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, certain Page 234 | Top of Articleanything you like in them, had been freed, and they were just people like us in different circumstances.
(Golding in Biles, p. 34)
Although Lord of the Flies is often cited as one of the most widely read texts in classrooms everywhere, it was originally rejected by twentyone publishers. Even after its publication by Faber & Faber in 1954, it met with only modest success. With the arrival of the paperback edition in 1959, however, came wider praise. As the novel’s reputation began to spread among scholars and students alike, so did the number of copies sold, soaring to over a million by 1964.
Critically speaking, the novel originally garnered mixed reviews. Some, such as Douglas Hewitt of the Manchester Guardian, were quick to recognize Golding as an author of rare quality. In Hewitt’s words, “it is clear from the start of … Lord of the Flies… that it would be insulting to judge it by any but the most rigorous standards” (Hewitt in Nelson, p. 4). Others, such as Louis J. Halle of the Saturday Review, viewed Golding as a talented writer but one who fell short of accomplishing the goals he set for himself. “[Golding’s] rocket explodes in the air,” said Halle, “spectacular for the moment, but leaving only the memory of a light that went out and the dead stick of an academic conception” (Halle in Nelson, p. 6).
Despite the disparity of opinions that greeted Lord of the Flies at its initial publication, in the years following its transition to paperback many began to reevaluate the importance of Golding’s work. In the classroom, teachers began to associate it with J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (also covered in Literature and Its Times) as required reading, while in more scholarly circles, professional academics began drawing studied theses from what was previously dismissed as merely an adventure story. Eventually, the overwhelming consensus would proclaim Golding’s first novel a literary masterpiece.
For More Information
Biles, Jack I. Talk: Conversations with William Golding. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1970.
Dick, Bernard F. William Golding: Revised Edition. Boston: Twayne, 1987.
Fahey, James J. Pacific War Diary, 1942-1945. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Putnam, 1954.
Hall, Walter Phelps, Robert Greenhalgh Albion, and Jennie Barnes Pope. A History of England and the Empire—Commonwealth. 5th ed. Waltham, Mass.: Xerox College Publishing, 1971.
Miller, Nathan. War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. New York: Scribners, 1995.
Nelson, William. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies: A Source Book. New York: Odyssey, 1963.
Reily, Patrick. Lord of the Flies: Fathers and Sons. New York: Twayne, 1992.