It is impossible to really understand Lord of the Flies without understanding some of the historical context that author William Golding drew upon when writing the novel. It was published in 1954 and was very influenced by the events of World War II. Therefore, like many other dystopian novels of the time period, the novel examined the types of social factors that might have contributed to the rise of the Nazi party. It was also an example of a type of post-apocalyptic novel; even though there is an atomic war, there is not really an actual apocalypse in the novel, but the boys were living in a post-apocalyptic scenario. How the stranded boys devolve from civilization to savagery can be seen as an allegory for humans, as a whole.
William Golding was a British author who spent the first part of his career as a teacher focusing on English and Philosophy. However, in 1940 Golding left that career to join the British Royal Navy because of World War II. He resumed his career as a teacher after the war, and published his first novel, Lord of the Flies, in 1954. He wrote a dozen novels over his career and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. Golding was a self-described bully in his childhood and recounts taking joy in hurting others. He also describes witnessing similar behavior among students when he worked as a teacher. Combined with his own experiences at war, he became convinced that humans produce evil like bees produce honey.
Given his personal viewpoints on the human condition, it should come as no surprise that Golding takes a very cynical approach to humanity, suggesting that savagery is underneath the veneer of civilization. While not all of the boys seem to revel in or enjoy the savagery, almost all of them do support it in one way or another. Of course, this mirrors Germany in the lead up to and during World War II. While not all Germans were Nazis, only a small percentage of Germans actively resisted the Nazis. However, while many people see the Nazi symbolism in the novel, Golding was also commenting on the United States using nuclear weapons in World War II. It is also important to recognize that, during this time period, the Soviet Union was amassing significant power in Europe. The communism scare was becoming very real, as evidenced by the boys’ fear that the communists would find them before the British could rescue them. Even though the Soviet Union had been allied with Britain in World War II, after the conclusion of that war they were quickly seen as an enemy.
Lord of the Flies is a grim story, which begins with children in peril and only gets worse from that starting point. It begins with a war. A group of British schoolboys is evacuating and their plane is shut down over a deserted island Ralph and Piggy discover a conch shell on the beach and Piggy thinks it could be used as a way to call out to the other boys. The boys gather together and make a plan to be rescued. They decide that Ralph will be their leader, and Ralph chooses Jack to pick some boys who will be in charge of hunting and making sure that the group gets fed.
Ralph, Jack, and a third boy named Simon decide to explore the island. They discover that it is uninhabited. When they get back to the group of boys, Ralph suggests setting a signal fire, in the hopes of getting rescued. They use Piggy’s eyeglasses to start the fire, but they let it get out of control and it sets the forest on fire. The fire results in the presumed death of one of the boys.
Initially, the boys enjoy their freedom and spend their time playing. Ralph tries to get them to build shelters and keep the signal fire going. The initial attempts at hunting are not successful, but Jack focuses his time and energy on hunting. A ship passes close by, but the signal fire has gone out. The hunters were responsible for maintaining it that day, and Ralph goes to confront Jack about the fire burning out. However, Jack has managed his first kill and the hunters are in the midst of a bloodlust and unconcerned about the signal fire. Piggy criticizes Jack, and Jack retaliates by slapping Piggy.
Ralph manages to restore enough order for a meeting, but the meeting reveals significant problems. The youngest boys, who are collectively referred to as littleuns, have been having nightmares and believe that there is a monster on the island. The older boys try to convince them there is no monster by challenging them with logical questions. However, when one of the littleuns says that the monster could hide in the ocean during the day, the idea scares all of the children. In addition to concerns about monsters, the boys have war overhead, but fail to notice it. Sam and Eric, a pair of twin who are responsible for tending the fire that night, fall asleep and miss a parachutist landing on the island. When they wake up, they mistake his silhouette for the monster and run back to camp to report what they have seen.
Ralph– Ralph is a 12-year-old boy from England, who was evacuated from the country because of a war. After the plane evacuating them is shot down, Ralph becomes the leader of the group of boys who are stranded on the island. He pushes for the boys to create and maintain a civilization until they can be rescued. Ralph is the protagonist of the novel.
Jack- His age is not specified, but Jack is one of the older boys on the island. He is rivals with Ralph for power, and begins by leading the boys as hunters. He is portrayed as power hungry, sadistic, and manipulative, and quickly gets one group of boys to follow him as the leader of the hunters. When the group starts to split, Jack’s hunters are the first to follow him.
Simon- Simon is a highly symbolic character who is intended to represent good. He treats the other children with kindness and wants to build a mutually cooperative society on the island. However, he differs from Ralph in a significant way. While Ralph’s morality seems to come from rules imposed by society, Simon’s seems innate.
Piggy- Piggy is in many ways a stereotypical nerd, complete with chubbiness and glasses. He has a number of very good ideas, which the boys do not always embrace. Even though the best ideas are his, he does not take on a leadership role, but instead serves as Ralph’s right hand man.
Roger- Jack’s second-in-command, Roger is known for his cruelty to the littleuns. He is the one who murders Piggy.
Sam- One of the twins known as Samneric, he is initially very loyal to Ralph. Eventually, the twins support Jack and are part of the group trying to hunt and kill Ralph.
Eric- The other one of the twins known as Samneric, he is initially very loyal to Ralph. Eventually, the twins support Jack and are part of the group trying to hunt and kill Ralph.
The Monster/Beast- The children believe that there is a monster on the island. This monster or beast is later personified by a fallen parachutist. However, there is no monster.
The Lord of the Flies- The pig’s head that is mounted on a stake and given as an offering to the monster. Although not an actual character in the novel, the personified head does play a central role in the story.
A theme refers to a recurring idea that pervades a work of literature. There are several themes in Lord of the Flies, but many of them focus on contrasts between two different states, such as good and evil or civilization and savagery. Therefore, when looking at themes in the novel, look for this duality.
Good and Evil- One of the central questions explored in the novel is whether humans are innately good or innately evil. The novel seems to suggest that humans are innately evil, as most of the boys eventually succumb to evil behaviors. However, Simon’s goodness remains even when civilization is removed, suggesting that some humans may be innately good.
Civilization and Savagery- The contrast between civilization, and how it impacts the boys’ behavior at the beginning of the novel, and the savagery that they develop as the novel progresses is one of the biggest themes in the novel.
Violence- Violence is a major theme in the novel. The boys are being evacuated because of a war, which is violent. The boys engage in violent behavior. Some of that violent behavior is pro-social, such as the hunting that they do. Other aspects of the behavior are both antisocial and dangerous, resulting in the deaths of several of the boys.
Emotion and Logic- Closely related to the question of civilization, the novel focuses on the boys’ decisions that are made emotionally and those that are made logically. When the boys let emotion rule them, they make decisions that do not promote the logical goals of shelter and security while they are stranded on the island and a plan to get off of the island. They also respond very negatively to any of the boys that is trying to use logic at these times.
The novel begins with two boys meeting at a lagoon. They introduce themselves to each other as Ralph and Piggy. They have been evacuated from England because of a war, and their plan was shot down over the ocean. The boys could not find the other passengers or the pilot, so they begin searching. During this search, they discover a conch shell. Piggy tells Ralph to use it like a horn in the hopes it will bring survivors to them. Ralph does, and a group of boys gathers around them on the beach. They range in age from around 6 to 12. Some of the boys are dressed in black choir robes and led by Jack. They are militaristic in bent, and despite the tragedy they all just suffered, they mock Piggy’s appearance and nickname.
Once together, the boys decide they need to choose a leader. They elect Ralph, though the choir boys vote for Jack. Ralph asks the choir to serve as hunters. Ralph also asks Jack and Simon, one of the choir boys, to explore the island with him. The three boys initially bond, but come to realize the island is deserted. They see a wild pig that is tangled in some vines and Jack tries to kill it, but cannot. The pig frees itself and runs away, with Jack vowing that he will not hesitate the next time.
Even though the physical setting of the first chapter is a wild island with no adults, the boys do not initially realize this. Part of the reason for their exploration is to try to locate adults, and they stick with the rules of society, as they know them. They pick a leader and follow that leader’s suggestions. Jack also hesitates to kill the pig for food. This will stand in stark contrast to how the boys appear later in the novel.
The first chapter also introduces some of the symbols that are significant in the novel. Piggy’s glasses are symbolic of civilization. This is not only because of Piggy’s adherence to the rules of civilization, but also because the boys use the glasses to start the signal fire. The fire is another symbol of civilization; control of fire is one of the things that separates humans from animals. The conch shell is another symbol of society, including the law.
The boys finish their exploration of the island and return to the beach. Ralph blows the conch, which gets the kids to return to the beach. When they gather, he lets them know that there are not any adults on the island. Jack and Ralph decide that they need some hunters to get meat for the boys. They also decide that the conch is not just going to be used to summon the boys to the beach, but will also be used to determine who has the right to speak. The other boys will be quiet while the boy holding the conch is talking.
Some of the boys, including Piggy, begin to freak out about the idea that, because they were in the middle of an evacuation, no one knows that they have crashed. They start to get frightened, and this is increased when one of the littleuns says that he saw a monster the previous night. The older boys try to convince the younger boys that the monster was really just a nightmare.
Ralph comes up with a plan that could lead to their rescue, and says that they should build a signal fire on top of the island’s central mountain. The goal is to make it large enough to be visible to any ships that pass. The idea distracts the boys from the idea of a monster and they run up the mountain to start it. Piggy and Ralph linger behind the group, and Piggy begins complaining about the other boys. However, they are able to gather enough wood and use Piggy’s glasses to set the wood on fire. The fire is a success, but does not last long. Jack says that the hunters will take responsibility for keeping the flame ablaze, however, the boys accidentally sets the forest on fire. The fire kills one of the boys. Piggy chastises the other boys for acting carelessly.
The accidental death of the boy in the fire shows that the boys are initially horrified and shocked at the idea of being responsible, even accidentally, for a death. It will serve as a significant counterpoint to how they respond to causing death later in the novel. The chapter also introduces two symbolic ideas that are important in the novel: the fire and the monster. The monster symbolizes evil, which will eventually be revealed in the boys, themselves. The fire represents not only civilization, but also whether the boys have the desire to return to civilization.
The morning starts with Ralph’s group trying to restart the fire, but they cannot do it without Piggy’s glasses. They decide to try to get the glasses back from Jack’s group. They head up to Jack’s group. When they get there, Ralph blows the conch shell to get the hunters’ attention, but the hunters throw stones at them and tell them to leave. The conch shell and the civilization that it represented have both lost their authority. Jack emerges from the forest with another dead pig, and, when he sees Ralph there, orders Ralph to leave the camp. Ralph tells them they are there for Piggy’s glasses. Jack and Ralph start to argue, with Ralph continuing to stress how important a signal fire is. Jack ignores him and tells the hunters to tie up the twins. Ralph lunges at Jack and the two boys start to fight. Piggy tries to get them to stop and to restore order to the group. Roger shoves a boulder down the mountainside. Ralph is able to dodge it, but it knocks Piggy off the mountainside and to his death. Piggy was holding the conch at the time, and it also shatters. The boys are not even fazed by Piggy’s death. Jack throws a spear at Ralph and the other boys join in. Ralph manages to escape from them, but the hunters begin to torture Sam and Eric to try to find out where Ralph could be.
Ralph manages to head into the jungle and hide from the boys, but he knows that Simon and Piggy’s deaths mean that he is in serious danger. There is no more civilization on the island. As he is running from the boys, he comes across the sow’s head. He knocks the skull to the ground. He decides to use the stake as a weapon for self-defense. Ralph sneaks back down to Jack’s camp. He finds Sam and Eric on guard duty. They feed him and warn him that Jack plans for all of the boys to hunt him the next day, but refuse to join him. Ralph hides nearby, where he overhears Jack torturing one of the twins to reveal his hiding spot. Once they know he is in the thicket, the boys try to get to Ralph by rolling a boulder in there. When they cannot do that, they try to enter the thicket. Ralph is able to prevent them from doing so, but smells smoke and realizes that Jack has set the thicket on fire to smoke him out. He breaks out of the thicket and manages to run away, collapsing on the beach in exhaustion.
Ralph looks up from where he has collapsed, surprised to find a navy officer standing over him. The officer says that they saw the fire and came to the island. The boys who are chasing Ralph emerge from the jungle. The officer assumes that they are playing games and does not seem able to comprehend that they have become so savage. When he realizes that they have, he is disgusted. Ralph begins sobbing when he realizes that he has been rescued; the other boys start crying, too. The novel ends with the officer turning his back on them so that they can regain their composure.
There are several elements about the end that are noteworthy. The signal fire, which Ralph has wanted to maintain since the beginning of the