Lord of the Flies was first published in 1954, although it very nearly wasn’t published at all. Its author, William Golding, was a struggling grammar-school teacher when he wrote it, having been given the germ of the idea by his wife, Ann. The novel’s title is a reference to Beelzebub, a name for the Devil, which means literally ‘lord of the flies’ (at least in most translations). Given the fact that power, devilry, and, yes, flies are all central aspects of Lord of the Flies, the title is especially apt.
Golding (nicknamed ‘Scruff’ by his pupils) struggled to get the novel accepted by numerous publishers before Faber and Faber took it on. However, even there it was initially rejected (the initial reader at Faber dismissed it as ‘absurd and uninteresting fantasy’ and ‘rubbish and dull’) until a young editor, Charles Monteith, saw potential in the manuscript and got it accepted. It still sells tens of thousands of copies every year.
But how should we interpret this tale of post-apocalyptic barbarism? Before we offer an analysis of Golding’s novel, here’s a brief reminder of the plot.
Lord of the Flies: plot summary
The novel begins with a plane carrying a group of British schoolboys being shot down; the boys land on a desert island. Two of them, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell on the beach, and they use it to signal to the rest of the schoolboys, who then start to form their own ‘society’, with a leader elected among them. Ralph is named the leader while Jack is his sort of second-in-command, in charge of finding food on the island.
After they start a fire to try to signal for help, they accidentally burn down a large part of the nearby forest, killing one boy. When a ship does sail past, it doesn’t stop to rescue the boys because Jack’s band of hunters have carelessly allowed the signal-fire to go out. Jack and his gang have managed to hunt and kill a pig for them to eat. Things start to get out of hand, and some of the younger boys in particular are terrified that some sea-monster will come and kill them.
When a parachutist – part of a team of fighter-pilots flying overhead – lands on the island, several of the boys think his flapping parachute is the wings of the mysterious island ‘beast’, and they run away, terrified, and spreading fear to the other boys, who organise a hunting trip to try to catch the beast. Jack and Ralph fall out, with Jack trying to oust the more senior boy from the position of leader – a move that the rest of the boys resist. Jack stomps off with his hunting band, and many of the other boys subsequently desert Ralph’s ‘side’ for Jack.
Jack, emboldened by his new supporters, ritually sacrifices a pig, which is decapitated, its head placed on a stick. Simon sees it, and thinks it’s talking to him: some devil-like figure known as ‘Lord of the Flies’. When Simon returns to the others, they set upon him and kill him, not realising who he is. Jack and his hunters run off with Piggy’s glasses. Jack and Ralph fight, and Piggy is killed with a rock.
Jack and the others hunt Ralph, who flees, only to be rescued by a British sailor who was on board a ship that spotted the fire raging on the island and came ashore. The other boys turn up, and when the officer confronts them over their appearance, they all break down in tears.
Lord of the Flies: analysis
Golding conceived Lord of the Flies as a sort of dark counterpart, or response, to the classic Victorian boys’ adventure novel, The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne, in which three boys are marooned on a Pacific island. But whereas in Ballantyne’s 1857 novel the stranded children encounter evil as an exterior force on the island, Golding inverted this: he shows us, unsettlingly, that evil is always lurking within ourselves, and is only ever just beneath the surface in so-called ‘ordinary’ or ‘civilised’ people. Golding’s working title for his novel, Strangers from Within, makes it clear that the devil – that ‘Lord of the Flies’ – is within us, all of us, rather than outside, elsewhere.
But although Golding’s novel is often viewed as a dystopian tale about ‘human nature’ and how, in times of desperation and disaster, certain people will seize power and others will be the victims of their oppressive control, Lord of the Flies actually has its roots in something more specific than this: the British class system. The three principal characters of the novel – Ralph, Piggy, and Jack – represent the three main classes in England, much as the famous class sketch from The Frost Report captured in a sketch just over a decade after Golding’s novel appeared.
As John Sutherland argues in his discussion of Lord of the Flies in How to be Well Read: A guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities, Ralph is a grammar-school boy, Piggy the product of a working-class ‘tech’ school (a short-lived post-war phenomenon), and Jack the privileged public school boy.
Ralph, therefore, is riddled with self-doubt about his middling position in English society: the Jacks of the world are above him and the Piggies below him. Jack has all of the confidence of someone born into privilege and with an almost innate sense of their right to lord it over everyone else. The message of Lord of the Flies, then, is that if you remove these schoolchildren from Britain, the British class system will still reassert itself as they construct their own stratified ‘society’. The island on which the boys are stranded becomes like the island of Great Britain which they left.
Piggy, however, is working-class. As Sutherland argues, his use of phrases like ‘the runs’ instead of, say, ‘an upset tummy’ are subtle ways in which Golding, without hammering home Piggy’s origins, reveal his status to the reader. He was always destined to be the scapegoat because the English class system dictated it. Coupled with his physical or evolutionary disadvantage (his extreme myopia and reliance on glasses) and he was doomed from the start.
The British class system, then, informs the novel, making it a peculiarly British dissection of power structures. According to Sutherland, Golding – himself a teacher at the sort of grammar school which produced the decent and honourable Ralph – once said that he would happily blow up every public school in England, and Lord of the Flies shows how it is the Jack Merridews produced by the English public school system which are the most capable of wreaking destructive power over others.
But it’s also true that Lord of the Flies bears the influence of another important experience in Golding’s life: his experience in the Second World War fighting in the Royal Navy, which showed him first-hand how ordinary men could become capable of performing acts of great evil. Of course, the horrors of Nazi Germany were also an important source for Golding’s depiction of evil, especially the way the other boys merrily join Jack’s command. Along with its searing commentary on the inherent evils of the British class system, Lord of the Flies is a powerful narrative about how fear is all it takes to persuade many ‘normal’, ‘decent’ people to behave horrifically.