“What I mean is…maybe it’s only us.” This statement is uttered by Simon, a child, and one of the central characters in Lord of the Flies. It is one of the themes of this gripping story, examining the nature of evil in people. Lord of the Flies was originally published by William Golding in 1954 during the tension of the Cold War. Golding himself was a veteran of the Second World War. His experiences of the madness and savagery of the conflict influenced his ideas when writing the book.
A Modern Classic
Lord of the Flies is considered a classic in modern literature. It’s difficult to pin down a genre, but it could be best described as a blend of allegory, adventure, drama, and science fiction. Working in the book’s favor is a compelling story with a good deal of action. As well, there are deeper meanings and symbolism throughout. Be warned that this is not a tale about good overcoming evil and the bad guys always getting their comeuppance. It is also not a story for children.
For a long time there has been a philosophical debate between two schools of thought on the nature of humanity. One side has argued that people are inherently good but that the constraints of civilization have corrupted their better natures. The other side believes that civilization has tamed humanity’s baser instincts and that organized society is the only thing keeping people from destroying each other. Lord of the Flies certainly supports this second point of view.
Lord of the Flies revolves around a group of British schoolboys, roughly between the ages of six and twelve. They are being evacuated during a nuclear war and crash land on a deserted tropical island. The boys decide to organize themselves until they can be rescued.
Their time on the island begins innocently, with the children enjoying a world without grownups. However, reality sets in as prospects for a quick rescue diminish. Fears grow when the boys believe they see a “beast” on the island. A darker side emerges as time goes on and memories of the life they once knew grow distant.
There are a variety of unique characters in the book. The main protagonist is Ralph, a sensible fellow who gets elected as “chief” of the boys. He tries to keep the group focused on rescue and maintaining rules. Ralph is one of the few characters to grow throughout the story. At first he is carefree. As time goes on he gets increasingly concerned and frustrated about the moral decay of the boys and the reasons for it.
Jack is the book’s antagonist. At the start he is the strict leader of a group of choirboys. As compensation for losing the election to Ralph, he is appointed as the leader of the hunters. Jack struggles to catch his first pig for meat, the protocols of civilization still restraining him from bringing down the knife. But soon he gets his first kill. From there, Jack grows increasingly bloodthirsty and power hungry, trying to lure the rest of the boys away from Ralph’s civilizing influence.
Piggy becomes Ralph’s advisor and conscience. His weight, high intellect, and belief in reason make him a target and scapegoat for most of the boys, but especially for Jack, who resents his constant lecturing. Piggy frequently berates the group for not listening to rules or maintaining a fire for rescue.
Roger is a brooding character. He becomes Jack’s main ally as the boys become more vicious. At first Roger is restrained by the rules he had been taught by adults and school. At one point he begins throwing stones near one of the younger kids, but stops short of throwing directly at him. Yet the impulse to hurt others is strong and becomes increasingly difficult to suppress.
Simon is a shy and introspective child who has strange visions and develops important insight into the human condition. Like Piggy, Simon is seen as different and is considered an outcast. His insights make him a threat to the boys, who don’t want to see their true natures.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Lord of the Flies makes great use of symbols. During their assemblies the boys use a type of shell called a conch. It is blown to announce meetings and whoever is holding the conch is allowed to speak, a representation of democracy. Piggy’s glasses are used to light fires, a symbol of reason. When one of Piggy’s lenses is broken it represents the boys’ drift towards darkness and irrationality. A pig’s decapitated head stuck on a pole by the boys is the Lord of the Flies, representing evil.
Throughout the book there are abundant descriptions of the setting. You are forced to feel the oppressive heat, the thick branches and tangled foliage, the strength of Mother Nature, the fear, and the tension of children stranded on an island without adult supervision. A looming sense of conflict and deterioration prevail throughout.
There is a pivotal point in the book where the boys have one of their meetings and some cracks in their fragile civilization are revealed. Ralph is getting frustrated that all they want to do is hunt and play, instead of building shelters and keeping a fire going for rescue. A ship has passed near the island but the boys supposed to be watching the fire had run off with Jack to hunt a pig.
Ralph decides to call an assembly in an attempt to reinforce priorities. Holding the conch, he makes an impassioned speech about maintaining rules, a fire, and cleanliness. Then he asks the boys to debate rumors that a beast is lurking on the island. In particular, Ralph wants to discuss the reason for their fears and to persuade them that it’s a silly thing to worry about.
He lets other boys have their say. Jack takes the conch. Instead of adding constructive points to the debate, he bullies the smaller boys for their fears, calling them all “useless cry-babies” and if something did get them it would serve them right. Jack winds up adding to the tension.
Piggy takes the conch next and suggests that life is scientific. He denies the existence of any beasts and says the only thing to be fearful of may be people. Simon suggests something similar. Both boys are ridiculed and shouted down.
The discussion turns to the possibility of beasts coming out of the water, or even ghosts on the island. The assembly degenerates into name calling and argument. Ralph brings back some decorum by blowing the conch. There is a vote on whether there are ghosts. The majority believe there are.
Piggy, taking the conch, denounces the irrationality of the boys’ decision about ghosts. Jack viciously yells at Piggy to shut up. Ralph tells Jack he shouldn’t talk without the conch, as that is breaking the rules. Jack tells Ralph to shut up as well, and asks why anyone should care about the rules?
Ralph gives a quick reply, “Because the rules are the only thing we’ve got!”
Jack responds. “Bollocks to the rules! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat-!”
After that the assembly dissolves into chaos, as Jack and most of the others run down the beach screaming and laughing hysterically. It’s a poignant scene highlighting how easily and quickly the layers of civilization can be removed.
The complete and unabridged Lord of the Flies audiobook is read by Martin Jarvis and he does excellent work relating the story and the tensions of the characters for listeners. For example, Piggy is considered an outsider partly because of his different accent. Jarvis accounts for this in the narration. All the details and dialogue from the book are in this audio version.
Above all, Lord of the Flies is a dark but entertaining story, which is enough reason to listen. The bonus is that it will likely get you to reflect on the nature of evil and our own civilization long after the narration is over.