Published in 1954, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies survived an initial lukewarm response to become one of the bestsellers of all time. In simple terms, it is a novel of boyish adventure, and as such, its outline is familiar. Vivid accounts of the adventure of a group of boys trying to organize life on an uninhabited island have been the subject of many a literary classic.
However, it must be said to Golding’s credit that his story never sounds stereotyped or stale. On the other hand, originality of design and plot development is its hallmark. The idea of placing children alone on an uninhabited island and letting them work out archetypal patterns of human society is unprecedented. Golding tells his story with consummate ease and energy, producing from the first, a sense of thrill and suspense that is kept up to the stunning climax.
As the novel begins, we meet a group of English boys, marooned on a tropical island, as the plane evacuating them from atomic war-torn England crashes. Golding sees to it that the boys are portrayed in the pristine beauty and innocence of their childhood. Ralph, the protagonist, is over the moon as the realization dawns upon him that they are in an island, that “there aren’t any grown-ups anywhere” (Golding 12). The idea of unbridled freedom away from the rigours of adult life is exhilarating to the boys. There are palm trees, sandy beaches, a lagoon to swim in, plentiful ripe fruit; the setting is just perfect for the re-enactment of that perennial and highly charged boyhood myth, which found its most famous expression in R.M.Ballantryne’s The Coral Island – primitive life, unhampered by pettifogging, over-civilised, authoritarian adults. The innocence characteristic of children is very much there: “Ralph danced out into the hot air of the beach and then returned as a fighter plane, with wings swept back, and machine-gunned Piggy” (16).
Ralph and Piggy discover a conch shell on the beach, and Piggy realizes it could be used as a horn to summon the other boys. Once assembled, the boys set about electing a leader and devising a way to be rescued. A wonderful picture of the evolution of human society emerges. The conch becomes a symbol of order and democracy. They choose Ralph as their leader, and Ralph appoints another boy, Jack, to be in charge of the boys who will hunt food for the entire group. There is no antagonism among the children; they love, respect and care for each other. Ralph and Jack, the leaders of the two groups that are to enact man’s descend into savagery, “smiled at each other with shy liking” (31). They are left with no choice but to build their own society on the island. What the boys have at hand is the onerous task as well as the glorious opportunity to create a new Paradise. But Golding quickly indicates that the boys are very much the part and parcel of current human society to create something better: “The fair boy stopped and jerked his stockings with an automatic gesture that made the jungle seem for a moment like the Home Counties” (11).
Ralph, Jack, and another boy, Simon, set off on an expedition to explore the island. When they return, Ralph declares that they must light a signal fire to attract the attention of passing ships. The boys succeed in igniting some dead wood by focusing sunlight through the lenses of Piggy's eyeglasses. They frequently remind themselves of the civilised society that they belong to. As Jack puts it, “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English; and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things” (55). At first, the boys enjoy their life without grown-ups and spend much of their time splashing in the water and playing games. Ralph, however, complains that they should be maintaining the signal fire and building huts for shelter. The hunters fail in their attempt to catch a wild pig, but their leader, Jack, becomes increasingly preoccupied with the act of hunting. Sadly but surely, the innocent phase meanders towards an end.
Lord of the Flies relies heavily on foreshadowing to provide us a sense of the impending doom. The break-up of the island community is very much on the cards from the moment it comes into existence. Ralph, Jack and Simon find a piglet caught in a curtain of creepers during the last leg of their exhilarating exploration of the island. Jack draws his knife but fails to stick the piglet “because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood”. Golding sounds a warning regarding the things to come: “[Jack] snatched his knife out of the sheath and slammed it into a tree trunk. Next time there would be no mercy. He looked round fiercely, daring them to contradict” (Golding 41).
The dream world of the boys is punctured beyond repair with the introduction of the alien element, the beastie (46). Ralph’s desperate, repeated assertion “but there isn’t a beastie!” (47-48) suggests the possibility of one emerging soon. Ominously but unintentionally the boys set a part of the island on fire (56-57). Slowly the realization dawns upon them that one of the “littluns” is missing. Obviously the fire has eaten up the boy – the first death on the island. For all practical purposes, it signals the end of their childhood, for, as Millay puts it, “Childhood is the kingdom where nobody dies”. Even Jack is haunted by delusions: “feel as if you’re not hunting, but – being hunted; as if something’s behind you all the time in the jungle” (67). The spar between Ralph and Jack, who represent civilization and savagery respectively, is constantly stirring. Gradually, the savage instincts get the better of the boys and the civilised society crumbles, as darkness drops on the island like an extinguisher (74).
As the boys on the island progress from well-behaved, orderly children longing for rescue to cruel, bloodthirsty hunters who have no desire to return to civilization, they naturally lose the sense of innocence that they possessed at the beginning of the novel. The longer the boys spend on the island, the longer their hair grows and the less civilized they become. Their long hair is symbolic of the loss of civilization. Throughout his stay on the island, Jack lets his hair hang in his face. Ralph on the other hand constantly keeps the hair out of his eyes – the evil inside him constantly taunts him to succumb to it, but he continually pushes it aside. Piggy holds on to his sense of civilization the entire time he is on the island, unlike many of the other boys. "He was the only boy on the island whose hair never seemed to grow" (81). Piggy and his glasses represent knowledge, maturity and civilization. He constantly cleans his glasses, which represents him keeping his mind, in addition to his glasses, clear.
Sensing danger, Ralph snaps his ties with Jack and establishes a strong bond with Piggy. He remembers the “first enthusiastic exploration as though it were part of a brighter childhood” (95). He fails to understand why everything is deteriorating in their small community. He finds the going tough as his capacity to think dips alarmingly. Simon alone realizes the disturbing truth that it is nothing but the evil inherent in man that makes things fall apart ever so rapidly. But he becomes inarticulate in his effort to express mankind’s essential illness. All he manages to say is “maybe there is a beast” (110) and adds, “maybe it’s only us” (111).
Slowly but surely the lawful and the understandable world slips away; Jack bids goodbye to the civilised world when he says “Bollocks to the rules!” (114). Desperate, Ralph yearns for a sign from the world of the adults. The sign does indeed come, but it is not what they expected. A dead airman drops to the island by parachute and by some accident assumes a sitting posture; he is to be feared by the boys as the beast. He is a victim of hate, of the cruelty of the human heart. The beast thus is a dead man from a dying world, a world torn apart by war and hatred. Everyone save Simon is terrified by the beast. He feels a flicker of incredulity regarding the whole episode. The cruelty of Jack’s heart is fully revealed when he suggests that they could use a “littlun” in place of the pig to chase and kill just for fun (143).
Things come to a head when the boys form two antagonistic groups with Ralph and Jack as the leaders. Gradually Jack gains more followers. He paints himself in savage colours, neglects to tend the fire as he is in pursuit of pigs, and establishes a wild ritualistic dance that fascinates the boys. The hunters, their initial squeamishness lost, revel in the blood-lust induced by pig-sticking. There is no longer the fear of the “unbearable blood”; to destroy a life is “like a long satisfying drink” (88). They dance around the reeking, dismembered corpse of the pig chanting, "Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Bash her in” (94). To crown it all they leave the pig’s head on a stick to propitiate the beast (170).
Meanwhile Simon makes up his mind to learn about the veracity of the beast. On his way he stumbles upon the lord of the flies, which is nothing but pig’s head on a stick. He comes to understand that the beast is the dead body of the airman. Tired and exhausted, he slowly approaches his friends to inform them of his discovery, but what ensues is a brutal slaughtering. The boys, in the frenzy of their tribal dance, take Simon for the beast and kill him. During the night, Jack’s hunters raid Ralph’s shelter and take away Piggy’s spectacles. A fight ensues the next day at the culmination of which Roger pushes down a huge rock that kills Piggy and smashes the conch into a thousand white fragments (222). Somehow Ralph manages to escape but the chase to hunt him down is well and truly on. Ralph comes face to face with the lord of the flies and in an act of great symbolic significance, he tears it down. To smoke Ralph out Jack sets the whole island on fire. A complete annihilation of life on the island is very much on the cards as we come to the end of the innocence-lost-phase of the novel.
As we resume our discussion on Lord of the Flies, we meet Ralph running for his life as the fire devours the whole island. Finally he reaches the shore; there is nowhere to go now. He will be caught and butchered by Jack and his savages. He collapses in exhaustion, but when he looks up he discovers a naval officer standing before him, looking at him in wary astonishment (Golding 246). The officer explains that his ship was attracted by the smoke of the burning island: “We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?” (247). The painted savages have also reached the shore. The officer is bewildered at the condition of the boys. He questions Ralph and is shocked and dismayed when he learns that several boys have been killed and that all vestiges of order and civilization have disappeared from the island. He says, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys… would have been able to put up a better show than that”. Ralph realizes that at last he is free from all the horrors of life on the island and feels secure in the knowledge that he has been rescued. As the novel comes to an end, Ralph breaks into tears “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy” (248).
As John Peter puts it, “only an idiot will suppose that the book ends happily” (36). With the appearance of the naval officer the bloodthirsty hunters are instantly reduced to a group of painted urchins, led by “a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap” (247-248), yet the reduction cannot expunge the knowledge of what they have done and meant to do. Until this point Golding makes us forget that these are only young children. The surprising twist of events at the end of the novel is a highly original device to force upon us the author’s take on human behaviour. The crazy, sadistic chase to kill Ralph is suddenly revealed to be the work of a semi-circle of little boys, their bodies streaked with coloured clay. The abrupt return to childhood underscores the argument of the narrative: that Evil is inherent in the human mind itself, whatever innocence may camouflage it, ready to put forth its strength as soon as the occasion is propitious. This theme takes on a frightful force by being presented in juvenile terms.
Ironically, it is the smoke of barbaric fury, and not the smoke of conscious effort, that leads to their rescue (Gindin, “Gimmick” 68). But the irony is also directed at the naval officer who comes to rescue them. Special care is taken to describe his weapons (Golding 246). His white drill, epaulettes, revolver and the trim-cruiser are only more sophisticated substitutes for the war-paint and sticks of Jack and his pack of savages. The officer finds the games of war the boys have been playing to be amusing. He is a military man himself and part of the savage business of war which has its roots, Golding implies, in the same source which led to the heinous activities on the island. His conversation seems like empty prattle in the light of the momentous events which have just shaken the island. The surrogate for Western civilization, this ‘grown-up’ officer is absurdly blind to reality. He fails to see the fact that he too is chasing men in order to kill. In this sense, the dirty children mock the absurd civilised attempt to conceal the power of Evil. And so, when Ralph cries for the end of innocence, he weeps for the whole human race.
A different view is expressed by James Gindin in his work Postwar British Fiction. He calls the climax of the novel “a gimmick, a trick, a means of cutting down or softening the implications built up within the structure of the boys’ society on the land” (198). Basically, Golding is using the device known as the deus ex machina, the god from a machine. Gindin’s point is that Golding’s ending, though thematically appropriate, has too much of a ‘tagged-on’ look to be totally assimilated into the whole.
However, there are several points to be made in defence of the ending; points which would seem to weaken Gindin’s case. The double perspective has already been mentioned. The officer’s inability to recognize what has happened mirrors man’s inability to recognize his own capacity for evil (Whitley 53). The adult is as blind as the boys themselves. A naïve adult adheres to the notion that children are innocents threatened by a hostile adult world and promptly inverts the truth. However, a new adult in the story, knowing nothing of previous activities, offers a fertile field for multiplying ironies. The officer’s “fun and games” (Golding 246) now mean something quite different to us.
The naval officer is a god from a machine who seems godlike to the boys. Yet he is an infernal god from a diabolic machine. Does adult society rescue the boys? Whitley suggests that rescue means “to free or deliver from confinement, violence, danger or evil” (Whitley 54). Rescue is possible in Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, where only external danger threatens, but not here. The boys will board the ship and get away. But away to what? Apparently to a world which still cannot recognize its own evil and is in the process of blowing itself to pieces.
So what does the novel tell us post innocence? Are the children ever innocent? These boys cannot be seen even remotely like the innocents of Rousseau and Wordsworth. There is nothing much to hope for either, for, as Ralph realizes, he cannot embrace the adult world as a security: he knows that it has too many intricate connections with the savage fury unleashed on the island. Ralph weeps in realizing his fallen nature, the reason why he and all men perversely destroy themselves. Innocence is only ignorance. Ralph weeps for a world he thought existed. Alas! Lord of the Flies seems to suggest that innocence is nothing but ignorance.
Thanks for Reading!! And be happy!! Look at yourself in the mirror. No, everything is not lost. Or, is it?
Chase, Richard. The American Novel and Its Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 1957.
Gindin, James. “Gimmick and Metaphor in the Novels of William Golding”.
Ed. Norman Page. William Golding: Novels, 1954-67. London: Macmillan
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--- Postwar British Fiction. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1962.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980.
Peter, John. “The Fables of William Golding”. Ed. Norman Page. William Golding:
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Whitley, John S. Golding: Lord of the Flies. London: Edward Arnold Ltd., 1970.