Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 and in it, William Golding sets out to create a disturbing and dystopian view of the world – a social experiment that goes horribly wrong. The bleak aftermath of the second war to blight the Twentieth Century is still being felt in Britain, Europe and the rest of the world in the early 1950’s. Images of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, along with personal war memories and experiences and other atrocities were still very raw in people’s minds. This powerful novel can be included among other dystopian classics such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. This genre of dystopian fiction represents the other extreme from Utopias, fictional representations of ideal political states or ways of life, the classical example here being St. Thomas More’s Utopia, a Latin work written in 1516.
Golding, as you will soon be aware, is very concerned with the pervasive influence of evil forces in our world, and he has few allusions about the counterbalancing forces of good. It is possible to classify Lord of the Flies as a dystopian fable because in it Golding is casting a jaundiced eye on earlier and more optimistic variations on his theme, the best known of these being R.M. Ballantyne’s The Coral Island. Lord of the Flies was written as a kind of parody of The Coral Island and Golding makes specific reference to it in his novel. A very brief comparison with Ballantyne’s book helps us see what Golding is attempting in Lord of the Flies. In The Coral Island, Ballantyne shipwrecks a group of upright, solid, church-going British boys, and allows them to build a decent imitation of British civilisation in their new and primitive surroundings. In Lord of the Flies, the shipwreck is now a plane wreck; the boys are still middle-class British Christians. Even the names of three of Golding’s main characters are similar to those in Ballantyne – Golding’s three central characters – Ralph, Piggy and Jack – are caricatures of Ballantyne’s heroes . The vital difference between the two novels, however, is that whereas Ballantyne’s is thoroughly optimistic in spirit and outcome, Golding’s outcomes are disillusioning and pessimistic.
The need for social order
Lord of the Flies is a very grim illustration of the kind of situation that, as Golding sees it, must inevitably arise if the sanctions and controls of society are abandoned. In this kind of situation, the great majority of human beings (whether boys or men) will choose destructive courses. There will be the few who will choose order, whose acts reflect human decency and goodness, but they will be outnumbered and defeated by the evil tendencies of the many. The ethos of Ballantyne’s island was that of the boy-scout camp; on Golding’s the greater number of the boys choose to enact the roles of savages, painting themselves, wallowing in an orgy of animal slaughter, sinking into bestial habits, engaging in torture, murder and sacrifice to false gods.
Speaking of false gods prompts a reference to the significance of Golding’s title for the novel. This refers to Beelzebub, traditionally the most debased and disgusting of all the devils. The young British Christians, most of all the choirboys, instinctively chose him, rather than the Christian God as the object of their worship. This choice bears fundamentally on Golding’s views on human nature. Golding is, above all, a didactic writer and he is trying, therefore, to teach us a moral lesson here. One of his primary purposes is to expose what he sees as the shallowness of optimistic theories (he would see them as illusions) about human nature. At one level, his novel can be read as a strenuous rejection of humanistic theories of human perfection. It enacts an unrepentant belief in the traditional Christian doctrine of Original Sin; the doctrine which teaches that the first sin of Adam, as the old Catechism put it, ‘darkened the understanding, weakened the will, and left us a strong inclination to evil’.
A pessimistic world view?
This traditional view sets Golding apart from many of the modern ‘trendy’ currents of thought. Few of us have escaped the influence of the romantic view of childhood as a time of glorious innocence; the cult of the noble savage has, since Rousseau, enjoyed widespread support in all kinds of fiction. It was a common Romantic assumption that man was potentially a noble, upright creature if only he could be freed from the fetters of a corrupt society. Golding is having none of this! Not for him the vision of the child emerging in clouds of glory, or the inherent nobility of the savage life. What he finds instead, is that only the slightest push, or the removal of sanctions or firm restraints, is needed for children, as well as for men, to tumble into unfathomable depths of depravity. In Lord of the Flies he is trying to show us with what frightening ease man and boy can throw off all his superficial decency (‘off you lendings’ in Lear’s version) and regress back to that primitive state where ‘chaos is come again.’
To return to categories and literary genres for a moment, Lord of the Flies is a fable. As Golding himself points out, the writer of fables is a moralist: ‘he cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it’, very similar to the parables in the Gospels. No matter how we look on this novel, however, it would be very difficult to describe Golding’s lesson here as a hopeful one. For him, men are generally vicious, murderous and liable to extremes of self-degradation and animal behaviour. What most forcibly strikes us as we read this novel is Golding’s intuition that, at best, civilising conventions and rules are passing things, but that what endures is man’s wild irrationality and his destructive urges. A passing visit to Sky News or CNN or BBC News may confirm this for us on a daily basis! Who would choose to live in Aleppo in Syria or the many cities in Iraq who have been condemned to untold barbarity in recent times?
A realistic novel
Lord of the Flies has proved an extraordinary popular book, both from the point of view of general readership and among academics. Golding may have conceived his novel as an allegory, but he is also a master of realistic fiction, and the book has a striking impact on the generality of young readers, for whom it is, here in Ireland as well as in Britain, a widely prescribed school text. Golding was a teacher for a number of years, and has an instinctive understanding of, and feeling for, the characters and mannerisms of schoolboys. One of the striking features of his method is his success in presenting his young characters in terms of idiom and linguistic habit (compare the under-educated, ill-spoken Piggy in this respect with Ralph and Jack). The novel, for all its allegorical and symbolic overtones, is rooted firmly in real experience. Physical sensations are admirably and tellingly rendered; the discomforts, unpleasantness, delights and other sensations associated with life on the island are evoked with astonishing realism. The beautiful descriptions of island and sea are unforgettable. Golding’s continuous success with the depiction of the physical realities of life, the rootedness of the book in the solid earth, is perhaps its most memorable feature for younger readers, most of whom, it is safe to suggest, can approach it on a realistic level without bothering unduly about its allegorical implications or its status as a moral fable. Discussing the wider picture, the novel as fable or allegory or simply realistic novel with an eager English class, is one of the great joys and job satisfactions of the teacher of English Literature!
Academics have naturally tended to focus on the allegorical and symbolic features of the book, following Golding himself, who has strongly emphasised these in his critical comments. There are numerous examples of symbols in the novel. The shell or conch discovered by Ralph and Piggy has attracted a wide variety of such interpretations. It is most obviously to be regarded as a symbol of the forces in the boys striving to uphold civilised standards and values. The character of Simon attracts a good deal of symbolic weight also. The pig’s head covered in flies is a symbol or sign of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies. Simon’s hallucination of the monologue from the pig’s head is another symbolic feature. But whatever importance one may attach to such matters, the vital consideration is that most of the episodes which obviously attract symbolic interpretations also work most successfully at a realistic level, which adds to the great appeal of the novel.
Dream to nightmare
Golding has a remarkable gift for presenting abstract conceptions in compelling concrete terms. One of the themes of the book that particularly appeals to younger readers is that it enacts a powerfully imagined version of the dream that most children cherish at one time or another of escaping from the restraints of a society controlled by adults. What Golding does in Lord of the Flies is bring this dream to life. But what he also does is to turn the dream into a virtual nightmare. Escape from the stabilising forces of the adult world, instead of bringing about happiness, results in a riot of destructive individualism. At the beginning, there is a vague, unsatisfactory sense of kinship and comradeship: Ralph and Jack, the two ‘mighty opposites’ of the later parts of the novel, can, at the beginning, look at each other ‘with a shy liking’. The collapse of this sympathy, the breaking of most of the bonds of human kinship, is the stark reality which haunts Golding’s fable. And even when the outside world comes to the rescue at the conclusion of the novel it only brings further reminders of disorder and war with the finding of the dead airman and the arrival of an armed warship. There is little comfort, then, to be drawn from Golding’s dystopian novel: neither a ‘civilised’ environment nor the lack of it, seem to offer much hope of even limited perfection or happiness to human beings.