Thursday, 10 November 2011

Review: Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1959)

It's the day after tomorrow and a nuclear war has broken out.  A planeload of English schoolboys being sent to safety is shot down and crashes on a deserted tropical island. No adults survive and the wreck of the plane is washed out to sea, leaving the surviving boys, none older than twelve, with nothing to survive with except two small knives and the clothes they're standing in.  However, the weather is warm and there's fruit to eat and, having elected the boy Ralph as their leader, the boys settle down to a life of tending the signal fire and hours of play like characters out of Coral Island.

Unfortunately, things don't work out that way.  Under the dire influence of the power-hungry Jack, a boy obsessed with hunting and bloodshed, the group's minimal cohesion begins to unravel.  As the weeks drag on, the boys sink further and further into chaos as Ralph and his myopic friend Piggy try desperately to keep the hope of rescue alive and the final plunge in savagery at bay.

It's not easy reviewing a book that most people have already read in school and has praise heaped on it for over half a century.  It also doesn't help that I didn't like it the first time I read it when I was not much older than the main characters or that re-reading it has only altered my opinion slightly.  I suppose it's because the boys in the novel always struck me as being incompetent and that, by extension, this was Golding's opinion of civilised man.  Selling the premise of a book is always vital and it was hard for me to accept that these boys, who were my age, knew less about woodcraft than I'd ever forgotten–and I was no Daniel Boone.  They also seemed painfully ill-disciplined and I often wondered how different the tale would have been if the plane had been carrying boy scouts.

Mind you, I'm sure that Golding was also aware of this, but his decisions clearly show that he was stacking the deck by rigging his islanders for failure.  Ralph, for all his good intentions and nascent leadership, is utterly ineffectual with no concept of human nature, Piggy is as repelling as he is level headed and intelligent, and Jack and his henchman Roger are both obviously insane from chapter one.  So is the introspective and insightful Simon, come to that, who is best described as a high-functioning schizophrenic.

Golding is also extremely proud of his symbolism, but he is never clear about what the blazes the symbols are supposed to mean; leaving the point as a rebus puzzle for the reader.  Symbolism has its place as does allegory, but you still have to get to the point.  I can hardly believe that it's that when thing go bad civilisation can go to smash.. That's far too facile.  G K Chesterton made the much stronger point that what's really interesting is the balancing act of order and how it's able to reassert itself against all odds as if... But that's getting into theology.

I have read that one parallel that Golding was trying to draw was between the final, murderous hunt and the mission of the rescuing Royal Navy warship.  If this is the case, then I find his point insulting.  Jack is an instrument of chaos and tyranny bent on destruction.  The warship is an instrument of order intended to enforce the peace and protect civilisation.  They are not parallels, but diametric opposites.


  1. You have to understand that the foundation for characters, scenarios and symbols often lies in the author’s own life and experiences. What shaped Lord of the Flies? Well for one, Golding was a school teacher to privileged children and he often allowed his students free reign in the classroom, which obviously doesn’t usually make for the most peaceful classroom. It’s unlikely that these kids, coming from the background they did, had too many practical skills. Also, as asserted by Shmoop, he served in the Navy during WWII and saw firsthand, the degeneration of human beings during times of chaos and strife, as well as the inherent inability of most to handle power.

  2. Good points, but it isn't much of a moral to a story to say that public schoolboys are feckless psychopaths. That an incompetent will go to pieces is little more than a truism.

    And is Shmoop saying that the Royal Navy during the war was loaded with undisciplined, violent cowards who were drunk with power? If so, then Shmoop is in serious need of correction.