Lord of the Flies by William Golding
It’s likely that most readers will beware of this classic tale of how our species is programmed for conflict, and society merely masks it. But how many have actually read it? If you would like know a little more about Lord of the Flies, then stay with us as we give you a brief synopsis of this iconic literary work. There are spoilers.
It’s set during the Second World War as a plane carrying British schoolchildren crashes in the western Pacific. Although the exact location is never stated, it is presumably close to Singapore or Malaysia, former British colonies. The children, who range in age from 6 to 12, survive but without any adults, as they make their home on a deserted island.
They have food and fresh water so are not going to starve, and must build basic shelters to protect them from the elements of wind, rain and, most importantly, extreme sun. As with all groups, individual personal characteristics emerge as a hierarchy is soon formed.
We have Piggy, a bespectacled adolescent with good sense but little charisma and not enough confidence. There is Ralph, the more dominant youth who has the necessary strength and vigour to lead, but little in the way of political nous, a requirement for taking charge in a chaotic group of soon-to-be tearaways. Then there is Jack, a regimented rival to Ralph who pushes for a more structured island society with himself at the top. To compliment these lead protagonists, we have a host of other children, each with a differing perspective upon the circumstances in which they find themselves.
It all starts off well enough as plans are made and assemblies called. The older boys provide some basic guidance for the younger ones and a signal fire is started in the off-chance that a passing ship might see them. But boys will be boys and they demand fun and forts. Jack places a greater emphasis on defence and hunting the few feral pigs to be found on the island, whereas Ralph wants to ensure that the group remain focuses upon getting rescued. The fractures that already existed between the different personalities become widened as Ralph and Jack battle for control of the children.
Ralph offers benevolent leadership. Jack is an autocrat. Piggy is with Ralph but recognizes the dangers that Jack and his hunters pose as they offer the children an enticing alternative from the fruit that is the staple of their diet, meat. To compound the miseries suffered by the children, there is also the growing rumour of a beast that will eat them. No one seems to know if it lives somewhere on the island or emerges from the sea. This legend grows stronger and presses the children further into Jack’s corner.
As Jack and his team become more successful at hunting the pigs, they attract more of the group to their militaristic standard. Ralph and Piggy’s dwindling numbers become vulnerable as Jack demands total control. To appease the mythical beast of the island, Jack leaves the head of a slaughtered pig as an offering in the hope that the children will then be safe. The head is stuck on a stick and propped upright in a more remote part of the island. Insects swarm around the bloody remains. It is eventually named, the Lord of the Flies.
This is a very disturbing story. It could be viewed as a metaphor for the events leading up to the Second World War. Or it might simply be an adventure story. Whatever the reasoning, it is a harsh, but likely accurate portrayal of our species at the formative stages. The behaviour of the children demonstrates what can happen when there are no benevolent rules to govern or when there are no rules at all.
As the last vestiges of civilization begin to fade from the memory of the children, they regress to a more primitive state. It’s an indication of what lies within all of us. There’s no getting away from it. Humanity is, at its core, a very violent and territorial species capable of great aggression. The lessons from the Lord if the Flies can be seen today in the wars that are generated across the world. The primitive instincts that come to the fore in the children’s island society are prevalent in the boardrooms and government offices of our planet. It’s a sobering realization.
All out conflict eventually rages between Ralph and Jack and their factions. It ends in catastrophe as there are deaths. It is often said that children can be vicious, especially when in a pack. Lord of the Flies plays upon this notion which is extremely unsettling. It’s unpleasant to think that our young are capable of such violence but then we can all remember the playground.
One child dies early in an accidental fire. At this time the children are still capable of feeling empathy and guilt. By the time of their civil war, there appears to be little respect for the sanctity of human life, except in Piggy, Ralph and their few friends. Even the little have become feral. During a particularly appalling incident, Simon – one of the more considerate children – is murdered in a frenzy. It’s a horrific, if not explicit, presentation.
Jack and his tribe have thus lost all semblance of civilized ideals as they embrace Darwinism. Only the strong, and those favoured by them, shall survive. When Ralph and Piggy try to mediate with Jack’s lot, Piggy is killed in a horrific fashion. Ralph becomes surplus to requirement as Jack seeks to remove all competition to his rule. The entire body of children are sent out to hunt the youth they once sought to follow. They try to flush him out of hiding by setting fire to the jungle. Luckily for Ralph, the children have been so busy behaving like savages that they failed to notice a ship that had stopped, drawn by the flames. They are saved. Ralph is one very lucky young boy. Rebel Voice imagines that there would have been a great need for child psychologists in the aftermath of the rescue.
So why did Lord of the Flies become so popular? Well, as stated earlier, it is a disturbing look at the truth of our species. We are all seemingly one disaster away from regressing into a caveman state. It should be noted that there are no girls in the story and it’s to be wondered how a female presence would have impacted upon the conduct of the older boys.
The premise is one which has been copied repeatedly, sometimes with teenagers and at other times with adults. Richard Laymon wrote an engaging tale called The Woods Are Dark in which are featured a backwoods family known as the Krulls. The story also has feral children who become hunters. It’s an interesting concept and perhaps one which should find greater favour in these times when apocalyptic fantasies appear to be all the rage. It also serves as a warning. We are not as civilized as we like to think we are, and social structures can be fragile in times of desperation.
Lord of the Flies is probably deserving of its ‘classic’ epithet. It is of its time, and attitudes towards children were not what they should have been at the time it was written.This can be seen in the comments of the officer when he discovers that the children have regressed into savagery. Rebel Voice felt that the story is one of the most unsettling yet reviewed on this site, because of what it reveals about the best among us, namely the children. We wonder if you’ll agree?
Sult scale rating: 7.5 out of 10. This story is upsetting in that it strips children of their innocence and casts them in the roles of rabid, feral killers. It’s an honest, if unsettling view of what happens when children are left, for any length of time, to their own devices. It vindicates the position of this site in promoting Childcentricity, with a strong focus being placed on the young, and their welfare and protection. Lord of the Flies is a vivid demonstration of the capitalist psychology in full flow. As that particular ideology is in control of our planet today, heaven help us all.
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the 1963 film is faithful to the book and well worth finding.
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Thanks for that. I’ll have a scally at it sometime.