William Gerald Golding was born on September 19, 1911, in Cornwall, England. He lived an isolated life with his parents and nurse in a gloomy house situated next to a graveyard, and the nearness of this burial ground gave rise to a terrifying fear of death and the unknown. The chestnut tree in the garden, however, provided refuge for Golding, and his vocation as a writer began to take shape there as he sat reading or gazing at his surroundings. In school, Golding was a “dreamer,” not particularly skilled at mathematical studies but fascinated with language and possessed of an active imagination.
Lord of the Flies became popular at the onset of the 1960s, a decade that witnessed an increase in both the number of teen-agers in America and the influence of their ideas. More than thirty years after the book’s publication, the situation of many modern American young adults bears significant similarities to the crisis situation of the British schoolboys whose tale is the subject of the novel.
The action of Lord of the Flies takes place during World War II on a deserted island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Golding deliberately borrows the Setting from Coral Island (1858) in order to contrast his theme with that of Robert Michael Ballantyne’s utopian novel. In Lord of the Flies, the marooned schoolboys have survived a plane crash caused by warfare; they are innocent victims of adult violence. The island at first seems to offer them sufficient food, water, shelter, and even the possibility of eventual rescue. The boys build a signal fire on the island’s highest spot, hoping to attract the attention of any vessels or aircraft that might venture into the vicinity. But as the novel progresses, the island takes on a malevolent quality. An evil force seems to reside within it, threatening the boys’ lives.
The principal Characters of Lord of the Flies are English schoolboys ranging from young children to older adolescents. These young men represent the upper level of British society; they are members of an elite school system from which the nation draws its leaders. Ralph, one of the main Characters, vividly recalls the tranquility, safety, and comfort of the life he and the others have left behind. He remembers his room at home, stocked with all his favorite books, as a place where “everything was all right; everything was good-humored and friendly.”
Critics often refer to Golding’s novels as religious myths or parables, stories written to illustrate a moral point. Lord of the Flies symbolically relates Golding’s idea of what happens when human beings refuse to deal with the destructive forces in their own nature. Golding defines the Characters just enough to explain their various responses to the threat of the “Lord of the Flies.” Within this group are fairly typical representatives of an English school of the time; that they have no personal characteristics beyond the ordinary serves to emphasize Golding’s point that the evil infecting the boys could manifest itself in any normal human being. Yet the novel is not merely a moral fable but a gripping adventure story. Golding skillfully leads the reader through the steps of the developing situation, from the ominous fear of the “littlun” who dreams of “The Beast,” to the formation of a savage tribe headed by Jack, to the hunt to find and kill Ralph. Although the transformation of the innocent schoolboys is shocking, it develops so gradually that the situation is believable.
It is significant that Golding, who comes from a social background identical to that of the schoolboys in Lord of the Flies, chooses to focus on the destructive effect of evil upon this particular group. He understands how the traditional values of respectability, order, intelligence, reason, and self-discipline have been pressed upon generations of boys in the educational system of England. Golding asserts that nothing can erase the problem of evil from human society if the individual does not directly confront the temptation to choose wrong over right. He ensures that his novel does not imply that a particular social group, race, or class cannot be trusted. Golding’s point is that, in the struggle to face the evil forces that rise from within the human spirit and threaten to overwhelm society, all men and women are equal. All are tempted to turn away from the best part of themselves and obey the most violent, degraded aspects of their personalities. To develop his theme, Golding depicts this violence and degradation in increasingly gory detail as the plot progresses and the schoolboys become savage hunters. The climactic passage describing the brutal killing of the sow is particularly disturbing for its use of sexual imagery; the murders of Simon and Piggy are also shocking, as Golding intends them to be.
1. The schoolchildren in Lord of the Flies are left alone on the island without adult supervision. Does this account for the change in their behavior? Explain.
1. In Lord of the Flies, a war breaks out between Ralph and Jack. Explain how their different ideas on the proper conduct of life on the island cause them to battle for power. Discuss whether or not this battle could have been avoided.
Several Golding novels with similar circumstances and Themes may be of interest to readers. Golding’s second published novel, The Inheritors, tells of an innocent group of prehistoric men and women killed by the ancestors of modern man. Neanderthal man is destroyed by Homo sapiens, a species noted in the novel for its malevolent cleverness, its casual annihilation of another species, and its cruelty and arrogance. The Inheritors features a theme that Golding would turn to frequently in his later novels: the benevolent aspects of faith and poetry as compared to the evil effects of technological societies.