Lord of the Flies centres on a group of boys stranded on a tropical island when their plane crashes en route from England to Australia as part of an evacuation during an atomic war (hypothetical war.) The story is essentially an allegorical tale of the innate evil of man – good versus evil. Of the book, Golding said that he wrote it to illustrate how political systems cannot govern society effectively unless they take into consideration the inherent defects of human nature. Marxism is seen as the development from an oppressive capitalist society to an equal and classless society. Golding tries to set a utopian world within the island devoid of adult, societal constraints but in the end the innate animal characteristics of man come to the fore.
Golding based his story on the 19th century novel ‘The Coral Island’ written by R M Ballantyne. Whereas Ballantyne’s novel, an adventure story of three boys stranded on a desert island, was optimistic, Golding’s is terrifyingly pessimistic. The novel was written shortly after World War II , in the early days of the Cold War when paranoia about communism was at its height. In the early 1950s many people were accused, often falsely, of being communists (the McCarthy era in the USA at this time is a good example of this.) It is within this context that Golding wrote Lord of the Flies. The battles between Ralph and Jack, the struggles between the Conch group and the Savages and above all the fight of good versus evil, originate in a degree of paranoia typical of the era in which the novel was written.
Lord of the Flies’ reflects elements of Golding’s own life – his experiences during the war made him second guess the traditionally held belief that while society might be evil, man was inherently good. Golding had witnessed the evil in man, not just in the enemy but in his own allies (he was on the ship that sank the German ship Bismarck.) Golding said in his essay ‘Fable’ – originally given as part of a lecture series in 1962 – “My book was to say: you think that now the war is over and an evil thing destroyed, you are safe because you are naturally kind and decent. But I know why the thing rose in Germany. I know it could happen in any country. It could happen here.”
The breakdown of order and discipline is prominent throughout the novel. This idea was drawn from Golding’s experiences as a school master (his father was also a school teacher.) Golding taught in an English public school so much of his insight was drawn largely from this. Golding felt that at the time, the education system lacked a balance between discipline and creative freedom. By placing the boys on an island without adults, free from the constraints of society, he allows the boys freedom to indulge their desires and impulses. But by setting the story in a tropical paradise, Golding allowed the boys’ downfall to come not through a basic struggle for survival but instead from within themselves and commented “If disaster came, it was not to come through the exploitation of one class by another. It was to rise, simply and solely, out of the nature of the brute . . . . . the only enemy of man is inside him.” (Fable, 1962.)
Golding uses the varied characters in the novel to symbolise the varying degrees of savagery exhibited by man and their rift with organised civilisation. For example, Piggy demands that the boys stay within the parameters of organised society – his frequent references to his ‘auntie’ represent the only adult voice throughout much of the novel. Jack, on the other hand, is more interested in satisfying his own desires and is of the belief ‘if it’s fun, do it.’ Ralph, however, is caught somewhere between the extremes exhibited by Piggy and Jack. It is in the clashes between Ralph and Jack that the conflict between a civilised society and a savage one are dramatised and it is in their differing attitudes towards authority that these differences in ideology are portrayed.
Ralph is eager to establish order – using the conch to assemble the boys – and although as Golding says “what intelligence had been shown was traceable to Piggy while the most obvious leader was Jack” it is Ralph who is chosen as the ‘chief.’ There is something about Ralph that has set him apart from the others, an innate quality; but it is his hold on the conch that seems to determine his election as leader of the group. The conch symbolises the old, established adult order the boys had been used to – it represents the rules and regulations or law and order of civilised society. Ralph is representative of government and authority and uses his own authority as chief to try and establish rules (for example, you can only speak if you are holding the conch) which are for the good of the group as a whole – he strives to enforce the moral rules of the society they are stranded from.
Jack is the antithesis of this – seeking to gain control of the boys to satisfy his basic instincts (Ralph in fact recognising Jack’s disappointment at not being chosen as leader is consolatory in announcing that Jack is in charge of the choir or ‘hunters’ as they quickly become.) Jack’s shift or decline towards savagery is marked throughout the novel. In the early chapters, his eagerness for killing pigs is really a show of bravery but is intertwined with the need to obtain food for the group. In this sense, Jack conforms to society’s rules. It is only later in the novel when Jack no longer recognises Ralph’s authority and forms his own splinter group with the hunters that Golding shows the reader Jack’s true and more dangerous character. In this way, Golding is able to highlight the fact that to a degree certain savage aspects are an inherent part of man’s nature (there is an overriding will to survive in humans) nevertheless in most instances this is suppressed to acceptable levels by the mores of society.
Golding himself does not see the novel as a Marxist piece, but as an illustration of “the darkness of man’s heart”. Whilst the novel wasn’t about class differences, Golding cleverly uses the language of the boys to highlight the fact there are indeed differences. For example at the beginning of Chapter 1 when Ralph meets Piggy and he asks “. . . What’s your father?” When responding Piggy asks “When’ll your dad rescue us?”
Alternate explanations from critics seem to come to the conclusion that the events of the novel were a result of circumstance and not of the evil within man. But Golding dismisses the idea that the actions of the boys were not inevitable. He suggests that the violence occurs “simply and solely out of the nature of the brute.” Modern critics will argue that the meaning of the text is individual to each reader.
“I no longer believe that the author has a sort of patria potestas over his brainchildren. Once they are printed they have reached their majority and the author has no more authority over them, knows no more about them, perhaps knows less about them than the critic who comes fresh to them, and sees them not as the author hoped they would be, but as what they are” (Golding, Fable)
Golding is suggesting that the meaning of a text is not always governed by the author, so although he clearly did not intend for “Lord of the Flies” to be a Marxist piece, it could be argued that it has become one. It could be argued that given Golding’s life experiences and his father’s influence, this was inevitable.
Roger’s sadistic manner was only stopped by the taboos and laws of society, but without these constraints he is unable to unleash the “id” that is caged by society, but is a demonic feature of the human psyche. In the chapter ‘Painted Faces and Long Hair’ Roger is seen along with Maurice to destroy the ‘Littluns’ castle. Then Roger throws stones at Henry, although deliberately misses – in this sense his action is controlled by the presence of the rules of society. Later in ‘Castle Rock’ Roger, feeling that all aspects of civilised society have disappeared is now free of the constraints imposed by society and so unleashes his true savagery by throwing a stone at Piggy – this time deliberately aimed to harm. It can be argued that Golding uses Roger, who becomes the epitome of savage when he murders Piggy, to embody the central theme of the novel.
The conflict between desire and moral obligation is a central theme of the novel. Golding uses the different personalities of the boys to indicate the varied degrees of savagery that humans demonstrate. Piggy juxtaposes Roger as he exhibits no animalistic qualities and adheres to society’s rules. Golding expresses that this vehemence is a more natural aspect of human behaviour and that civilization forces compassion onto us rather than it being a natural human instinct. Even the naval officer recognises that the boys have become out of control – his comment to Ralph that they might have been able to “put up a better show than that . . . “illustrates this; Ralph recognises that in the beginning they were a cohesive group, a society.
The signal fire’s purpose is to hopefully attract the attention of a passing ship so that the boys may be saved. Metaphorically, indicates how savage the boys have become and how far they have moved away from socially acceptable behaviour. The boys start the fire using Piggy’s glasses in an attempt to be rescued .This suggests that they still long for the order of civilisation. As the fire diminishes, we notice decay in the moral obligations the boys feel and they become more savage. The signal fire allows the reader to gauge how much of society is left on the island. Golding uses dramatic irony at the end of the novel when the officer arrives on the island. Ironically the fire is the antithesis of society at this point in the novel; it has now become a metaphor for the ferocity that man is capable of.
The boys ask for some sign of the beast – the sign sent by the grown-ups is the dead parachutist; the beast is a dead pilot – Golding uses this to signify the chaos of an adult world at war. In chapter 5, Simon says “What I mean is… maybe it’s only us”. Simon suggests that “the beastie” is just a creation of the boys. It is the fear of the unknown that brings the beast to life. Simon’s idea is one that links with Golding’s views of humanity’s savagery. Simon is the only boy on the island who does not abandon his morals, but he is savagely killed when he tries to help the rest of the boys. Simon’s morality is overwhelmed by the other boy’s amorality, so while Golding does not claim that mankind doesn’t exhibit kindness, he does make the point that it is powerless when the rest of the world is evil.
The island is a microcosm of society, and the boys represent different political ideologies. Ralph represents democracy, whilst Jack, with his symbolic red hair, represents communism. The boy’s influence on the island itself can also be seen as a metaphor for human corruption of the planet. The forest scar created by the crashing plane symbolises the encroachment of corrupt civilisation onto the island.
“What makes things break up like they do?” is the poignant question Piggy asks Ralph. Golding himself blames the breakdown of the island’s democracy on the innate greed and ferocity that is an occupational hazard of being human. In a lecture at the University of California in 1962 he said “So the boys try to
construct a civilization on the island; but it breaks down in blood and terror because the boys are suffering from the terrible disease of being human”.
The fire is diatronically opposed to hunting which is the activity of anarchy.
Ralph portrays democracy and the role of government in any modern society. He strives to satisfy the demands of the public at large but recognises that certain rules of behaviour must be followed in order to prevent anarchy.
Anarchy eventually defeats order – Golding believed that government is ineffective in keeping people together. No matter how logical or reasonable government is, it will in the end give way to anarchical demands of the public.
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