The story of atomic-war survivors, Lord of the Flies tells how a group of young boys struggle to reestablish civilization and their tragic reversion to savagery. An established modern classic, Lord of the Flies has sold over 100,000 copies and become required reading in many American colleges and universities. Author William Golding also received the Nobel Prize for Literature for producing “in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. In this post, I’ll discuss why the fictional elements work, including that of theme.
Apparently, one reason that Lord of the Flies didn’t immediately gain critical attention is that reviewers originally dismissed it as just another adventure story. Certainly, elements of adventure exist, in that the boys explore the island on which they’ve crashed, figure out how to start (and control) a fire, and learn how to hunt. From the beginning, however, there is also foreshadowing of the conflicts to unfold. The boys vacillate between a desire to view their new home as an idyll coral island and a realistic recognition that they alone must orchestrate their rescue. Conflict ensues over a conch, which quickly becomes “no longer a thing seen but not to be touched”. Upon the union of two groups, younger boys and older boys, betrayal happens when Ralph unthinkingly reveals Piggy’s nickname. When a select group explores the island, they reveal their need for power, both in the toppling of a rock and their attempt to kill a piglet. Finally, there is the issue of who should lead, how they should lead, and what will most help the boys survive. All of these seemingly minor conflicts occur in the first chapter and foreshadow the major ones that will develop throughout the remaining chapters, making Lord of the Flies a natural choice to study in literature classes.
I remembered the novel mostly as a story about innocent boys who turned on one of their own. In reality, there are multiple lines drawn. Even at the first meeting, the older boys resist accepting the responsibility of caring for the younger ones. Those who fall into the middle actually end up taking on leadership roles, with Ralph receiving the most votes and Piggy serving reluctantly as his advisor. While those in the middle acknowledge the little ones, they soon dismiss their duty to them by neglecting to count their numbers or learn their names. While the older boys do recognize the importance of fire to being rescued, their hearts from the start lay in being explorers and hunters. Those in the middle then find themselves tasked with the challenge of having to reprimand the older boys when a ship comes into view while the smoke signal has been allowed to die out. They also find themselves having to make the unenviable decision of whether the little ones are correct to fear beasts or are simply having nightmares. All these lines are blurred one night, when the boys as a whole claim an unintentional victim, who ironically holds the secret to identity of the so-called beast.
Golding has said that the novel’s theme is, “an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” Initially, the conflicts between Ralph and Jack seem relatively innocent. They both want to be in charge. Jack feels embarrassed to lose to someone younger and smaller than him. Later, Ralph begins to fear the calling of meetings and especially that of a re-election for fear that he will lose his authority. As the two continue to struggle, soon it becomes obvious that more significant issues are at stake. Ralph stands for rules. He also believes that sustaining a smoke signal is key to survival. Jack stands for anarchy. He also believes that hunting is just as essential, for everyone needs to eat. Which position is right? Or is neither right, but a balance? In what is perhaps the most poignant moment in the novel, the boys find out just how capable they are of evil, but also how much they wish to deny this side of them. Except in convincing themselves that their act of passion was an accident, they open themselves up to even darker crimes. That’s a lesson that we all would do well to learn from, instead of falling into the same trap as the boys.
Obviously, there are other fictional elements I could cover. For example, while the sections describing the island sometimes dragged, they also brought the world where the boys had landed alive. Lord of the Flies well-deserves the attention and respect it has received. As with many classics, I look forward to reading it again and again in the future.
My rating? Bag it: Carry it with you. Make it a top priority to read.
How would you rate this book?