By William Golding (1911-1993
A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010 ©
Type of Work
The Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel, a literary work in which characters, events, objects, and ideas have secondary or symbolic meanings. In The Lord of the Flies, the island on which the boys are stranded after a plane crash symbolizes the world at large. The boys themselves represent adult civilization. The conflicts that divide them into opposing groups symbolize the conflicts that lead to war in the adult world.
Another popular allegorical novel is George Orwell's Animal Farm, about farm animals vying for power. On the surface, it is an entertaining story that even children can enjoy. Beneath the surface, it is the story of ruthless Soviet totalitarianism. Other famous examples of allegories are John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and the fifteenth-century morality play, Everyman.
Date of Publication and Source
Intrigued, Ralph tries it out and surprises himself at the deep, booming sound he produces. Within a short time, a small boy comes toward them. Then others arrive, including a group of choir singers led by a boy of superior bearing barking commands. His name is Jack Merridew. When the boys introduce themselves, Piggy pipes up, asking that a name be repeated. But Jack says, “You’re talking too much. Shut up, Fatty.” There is laughter all around. Meaning well but further embarrassing the fat boy, Ralph says, “He’s not Fatty, his real name’s Piggy.” There is more laughter, louder this time.
Using the rules of civilization taught at school, the boys assemble to choose a leader. Jack nominates himself, and all of his choirboys vote for him. But Ralph—who seems bright and sensible and who is, moreover, the holder of the conch, which is perceived as a symbol of authority—gets the majority of votes. To pacify Jack, Ralph appoints him and his choirboys as hunters. Of course, there is plenty of fruit on the island, the boys have discovered. But they hunger for more substantial fare: meat.
When Ralph, Jack, and another boy, Simon, explore the inland forest, Jack carries an invaluable tool: a long, sharp knife—ensconced in a sheath—that he brought with him from the plane wreckage. They climb a summit from which they observe the entire island, which is boat-shaped. On their way back, they hear rustling and squeals. The source of the sounds is a baby pig caught in a tangle of plant growth. Food! Jack has an opportunity to stab it with his knife, but he hesitates and loses his chance. The next time, he says, he will show no mercy.
Late in the afternoon, Ralph blows the conch, summoning all the boys for a meeting. First, he tells them that he, Jack, and Simon found no signs of other human life on the island; they are alone. They did discover, however, that there are pigs on the island to enliven their diet. Next, he makes a rule: Whenever anyone speaks at a meeting, he will hold the conch, signaling that no one must interrupt him. When another person wishes to speak, he will raise his hand and the conch will be passed to him.
A little boy, crying, says he has seen a “snake-thing.” The other boys doubt his story, suggesting he had a nightmare. There are no “beasties” on the island, they assure him. To further hearten everyone, Ralph says his father, a navy man, will rescue them. The British, after all, have maps of every island everywhere; one day, rescuers will come. When Ralph suggests that they build a fire on a nearby mountain, everyone jumps up and carries leaves and dry wood to the site. No one has any matches, so Jack snatches Piggy’s eyeglasses and gives them to Ralph, who kneels down and holds the lenses over the wood pile until the concentrated sun rays start the fire. There is applause.
When it is decided that someone must maintain the fire and continually create smoke visible at a distance, Jack volunteers to have some of his hunters take on this task. While the boys are talking, the fire burns out of control. Piggy—annoyed that the others have been acting hastily—“like a pack of kids,” says they should have put more planning into how to maintain the fire; instead, everyone just jumped up and built it without deciding what to do next. What’s more, he says, “The first thing we ought to have made was shelter down there by the beach. How can you expect to be rescued if you don’t put first things first and act proper?”
A while later, an explosion from the fire sends vines into the air. Some little boys shout “Snakes! Snakes! Look at the snakes!” Before sunset, Piggy discovers that one of the little ones is missing. He is never found.
When the boys build huts, they all pitch in enthusiastically at first. Then many of them—mostly the “littluns,” as the youngest children are called—gradually drop out to swim, play games, or forage for fruit.
“All day I’ve been working with Simon,” Ralph tells Jack, who has just returned from an unsuccessful hunting expedition. “No one else. They’re off bathing, or eating, or playing.”
Ralph then asks Jack to help, but Jack says he has to pay attention to hunting. “We want meat.” The boys are on the brink of an argument when they change the subject and talk amiably. Ralph confides to Jack an unsettling thought: When he was in the forest, he felt that something was hunting him. The conversation then returns to pigs and shelters—then the fire. Ralph reminds Jack several times not to forget about the fire.
The next day, Jack and his boys smear clay on their faces as a sort of camouflage, then go off on another hunting expedition. On the beach, Piggy suggests to Ralph that they plant a stick in the ground to make a sun dial. But Ralph, preoccupied with the burden of leadership, turns away. By and by, he spies a silhouette on the horizon. A ship! He turns to check the signal fire, but sees no smoke. Maybe the fire is out. Frantically, he tears up the mountainside, then stops. Piggy’s glasses! If the fire is out, he will need them. But if the fire is still alive—. No time to waste. He keeps running up the mountain. At the top, he discovers the worst: The fire is dead. As the ship begins to disappear, he shouts at it—“Come back! Come back!” No use. In moments, it is gone.
A while later, Jack returns triumphantly from the hunt. Two of his boys are carrying a pig on a pole resting on their shoulders. All of the hunters are chanting: “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood.”
Ralph, livid with anger, shouts at Jack, “You let the fire go out!” When Piggy also rebukes Jack, the latter doubles him over with a punch to the stomach. Then he slaps at Piggy, and his eyeglasses go flying. One of the lenses shatters on rocks. Ralph and Jack argue, but after tempers cool the boys build a new fire, roast the pig, and eat. When Jack doesn’t offer any meat to Piggy, Simon gives Piggy a portion.
That evening, Ralph calls a meeting to restore discipline and respect for the rules, presenting the following grievances: (1) The boys neglect to refill coconut shells used to hold fresh water for everyone; (2) they shirk their duty to work on shelters; (3) they do not use the rocky area designated as a “lavatory” but, instead, excrete their waste wherever they please; (4) they make separate fires, causing them to neglect the signal fire on the mountain.
From now on, he says, everyone must abide by the rules—and there will be only one fire, the signal fire. To allay growing fears, Ralph declares that there are no beasts to be afraid of; there are only overactive imaginations. Jack seizes this opportunity to ridicule the small boys for believing in such creatures, calling them crybabies and telling them they must learn to live with their fears. But a boy named Phil nevertheless swears he saw something “big and horrid” in the forest. Another boy, Percival, claims that a beast hides in the sea and comes out at night. There is also talk of ghosts. Then boys start talking out of turn; confusion and disorder result. Piggy asks, “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages?”
Jack tries to declare himself the new chief, then storms off when he fails. Ralph begins to doubt his ability as a leader and speaks of resigning. Piggy and Simon urge him to remain the leader.
Overnight, under shimmering stars and a bright moon, an explosion erupts in the sky, and an airplane goes down in the sea, leaving behind a spiral of smoke and a parachutist falling to earth. He lands in the island’s forest, his lines tangled and hung up between a tree and a rock. He is dead. But his body bobs and sways in the wind, and the parachute billows and flaps. Nearby, twins Sam and Eric, who are tending the mountain fire, hear strange noises. As dawn nears, they investigate and, in the dim light, perceive . . . the beast!
Tearing down the mountainside, they awaken Ralph and the other boys, crying out their tale of horror. There is an assembly at which the boys recite the details of their experience, describing the beast as furry and having wings.
“There were eyes—”
Ralph notices the cuts and tears the twins suffered in their rush down from the mountain through the heavy forest growth. He is now convinced that there really is a beast after all. The faces of the others are stricken with terror
Although the boys are all genuinely frightened, they realize they must hunt the beast down. To remain confined to the beach, cut off from their food supply, is out of the question. So Jack, Ralph, and the rest of the older boys set out to track the creature while Piggy remains behind with the small boys. Jack leads the way. Simon, not far behind him, is the only one who doubts the existence of the beast. He regrets that he lacked the courage to speak up at the assembly.
Their destination is a high point on the far side of the island where they believe the beast has his lair. After nearing the site, Ralph, as chief, decides to steal forward alone. The others observe from bushes. Moments later, however, Jack joins him. When they arrive at the site, they find nothing. Ralph then notices that no smoke is rising from
their signal fire in the distance. Other boys, realizing that there is nothing to fear where they are, come out of hiding and begin to roll rocks down the hill. When Ralph orders everyone to leave, some of the boys want to stay and play. Ralph says, “There’s no signal showing. There may be a ship out there. Are you all off your rockers?”
When a big boar crosses their path, Ralph hurls a spear that strikes it. The animal then changes directions and disappears into the forest. Ralph brags about his spear throw, and Jack shows a brush burn on his arm that he says the pig caused. The boys are excited now, and they reenact the scene, one boy, Robert, playing the charging pig, and the others jabbing at him. Later, as the afternoon merges into evening, they climb the mountain to the signal fire. There, like Sam and Eric before them, Jack, Ralph, and Roger hear noises and see the monster, a figure resembling an ape sleeping in a sitting position. (It is, of course, the dead parachutist, his body still lodged between the rock and the tree.)
The following day, Ralph tells Piggy about their sighting of the beast. Downcast, Ralph thinks there is no way to kill it and no way to maintain a signal fire, for the beast sits near the mountaintop as if ready to attack anyone who goes there.
“What about my hunters?” Jack says.
“Boys armed with sticks.” Ralph replies sarcastically.
At an assembly, Jack informs everyone about the beast, then twists Ralph’s words, saying he accused his hunters of being cowards. He concludes that Ralph is not a “proper chief, ” then leaves, soon to be joined by his loyal followers. He believes he is the new chief.
Piggy, glad to be rid of Jack, tells Ralph all is not lost; for they can build a fire on the beach. Ralph perks up, and so do the rest of the boys. They immediately gather wood and start the fire, although they realize it is a formidable task to keep a big fire going without the help of Jack’s boys. So they settle for a small one.
Meanwhile, Jack and his boys go on another hunting expedition, deciding to search only for pigs. If they kill one, they will leave part of it behind to appease the beast. In almost no time, they find and kill a sow in a bloody struggle. Simon, who had wandered into the forest, is observing everything from the cover of leaves. The hunters cut off the head of the pig and impale it on a stake, leaving it behind as a gift for the beast. After they leave, Simon gazes intently upon the head and the flies buzzing around it.
The hunters now have meat but no fire and no means of starting one, so they storm Ralph’s beach site and steal burning sticks from his fire. Before leaving, Jack invites everyone to join him and his boys at his site for food and fun. He and his raiders then trot away.
Ralph tells his followers they must remain at the fire to keep it going. There could be a ship. They could be rescued. But one of the boys, Bill, argues in favor of attending the feast, saying it would give them an opportunity to ask for help in maintaining their fire. Besides, there will be meat. Sam and Eric think it would fun to attend and, of course, they would have meat. Back in the forest, the impaled pig’s head—the Lord of the Flies—seems to speak to Simon:“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close!”
So there is no beast in the forest, Simon realizes; there is only the beast inside the boys—the evil that has been gradually corrupting them. Simon wanders off again, this time to the mountaintop—and verifies that what others thought was a beast is really something else, a dead parachutist. He must go down immediately and tell everyone.
Storm clouds are gathering on the beach. It is hot. Ralph and Piggy are bathing in the pool while little ones play at the edge. Bill, Sam, and Eric have gone to Jack’s party. Piggy suggests that he and Ralph go too—“to make sure nothing happens.” Jack accepts the advice. Sam and Eric remain behind.
When they arrive at Jack’s site, boys are dancing and singing, their faces greasy with meat. There is also fruit, and coconut cups are full of water. There is a moment of silence and uneasiness when Ralph enters the camp. However, after Ralph and Piggy join in the laughter, merriment returns and Jack passes around meat. A short while later, Jack creates discord when he invites Ralph’s boys to join his tribe. When Ralph and Jack argue over who is chief, Ralph declares that he is the keeper of the conch, giving him the power to call assemblies. Jack says the conch means nothing to him. Meanwhile, some of Ralph’s boys abandon him for Jack.
Thunder booms. Raindrops fall. The flashes of lightning—followed by cracks and rumbles—make the bigger boys uneasy and terrify the little ones. Jack rallies them by telling them to do their dance. Forming a circle, they dance and chant, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” Little ones form their own circles. Ralph and Piggy watch and, considering the storm and the darkness of the night, are only too willing to be part of the festivities.
Soon, the dancers work themselves into a frenzy—just as Simon walks out of the forest, a shadowy figure whom some of the boys say is the beast. In a moment, the dancers are upon him, poking sticks, clawing, biting, tearing. Simon dies.
The next day, Piggy and Ralph are back at their own beach site, disheartened. Piggy tells Ralph that the only other ones left in their group are Sam, Eric, and a few little ones; the rest have all gone over to Jack. When they talk about the night before, Ralph characterizes Simon’s death as murder. Piggy says it wasn’t so—especially because of the way Simon came out of the woods, taking everyone by surprise. Ralph says:
“You were outside. Outside the circle. You never really came in. Didn’t see what we—what they did.”
Piggy insists it was an accident. After they ruminate further over Simon’s death, they turn their attention to maintaining a fire started earlier by Piggy.
During the next night, Jack, Maurice, and Roger attack Ralph, Piggy, and Sam and Eric. Piggy isn’t any use, but Ralph, Sam, and Eric give their adversaries a fierce fight and drive them off. However, Jack comes away with a prize—Piggy’s eyeglasses.
Ralph and Piggy, accompanied by Sam and Eric, go to Jack’s camp and, using the conch, attempt to call an assembly. When Jack orders them out of the camp, Ralph demands Piggy’s glasses. Jack refuses to return them. Ralph calls Jack a thief, and Jack lunges at him with a spear. Ralph parries it with own spear. They fight close in for a while, then break off. Ralph appeals to reason, saying their only hope for rescue is to join forces and maintain the fire. Some of Jack’s boys surround, capture, and tie up Sam and Eric. Ralph loses his temper and attacks Jack. They exchange blows.
Piggy holds up the conch and demands to speak. Out of curiosity, everyone listens. “Which is better,” he says, “law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”
Jack and his boys form into a solid wall to launch an attack. From above, someone pushes a rock from a precipice. It strikes and kills Piggy. When Jack and his boys charge, Ralph runs and hides in the forest while the others track him down. They set a fire that forces Ralph onto the beach. Running for his life, he stumbles and falls. When he looks up, he sees a British naval officer, who tells him he has seen the forest fire.
Ralph breaks down, crying “for the end of his innocence,” author Golding writes,and for “the darkness of man’s heart,” and the death of “the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
In the distance, a cruiser waits to return the boys to civilization.Text Used for Plot Summary: Golding, William.The Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, a Division of Penguin-Putnam, 1954..
The Meaning of the Title
The title of the novel is a translation of a Hebrew word, “baal-zevuv,” which means chief or principal devil—Satan. In Greek, the word is “Beelzeboub.” An English word derived from the Greek word is “Beelzebub,” which can mean any of the following: Satan, chief devil, an assistant devil second only to Satan, or fallen angel. In the novel, the decapitated head of a pig is referred to in Chapter 8 (“Gift for the Darkness”) as the "Lord of the Flies" after Jack and his boys impale it on a stake driven into the ground. When the head begins to decompose, it attracts many flies. However, the head is only a symbol of the devil, or evil. Simon learns while staring at it that the real evil on the island lies inside the souls of the boys. It is interesting to note that the boys call their leader “chief,” which could be interpreted as a shortened version of the meaning of Beelzebub, or chief devil. Theme
All human beings have a dark side that can cause the breakdown of individual or community moral standards if this dark side gains sway over reason and right thinking. This is a common motif in literature, occurring in short stories, novels, and poems. Examples of other works with this theme are Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Theme as Explained by the Author
In a publicity release prepared for American publishers of The Lord of the Flies, William Golding explained the theme of his book as follows:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser? (E.L. Epstein. "Notes on Lord of the Flies." The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 1954, page 204)..
The Lord of the Flies contains many symbols used by the author to develop and support his theme. These symbols include the following:
Plane Crash: Failure or breakdown of society in the world outside; spread of corrupting ideas.
Golding relies heavily on figures of speech and symbols to undergird his story. A log becomes a metaphor for the throne of the ruler, or chief; a conch, the emblem of democracy; a fist fight, a military battle; an island, the whole world.
Golding’s language is vivid but easy to understand, and the plot moves quickly. As in Animal Farm, by Golding’s fellow countryman Eric Blair (pen name, George Orwell), the characters and the action have several layers of meaning, although readers can enjoy the novel as an adventure story on its basic, literal level. One fault of the book appears to be that Golding sometimes violates a central tenet of good writing: “Show, don’t tell.” In other words, rather than allowing his figures of speech, symbols, and descriptions to work their magic by suggesting subtle meanings, interpretations, feelings, character traits, and so on, he intrudes upon the narrative to tell the reader what such and such means or represents. This approach patronizes the reader and destroys the sense of awe and mystery that Golding is attempting to create. Notable examples of this heavy-handed approach occur in two crucial scenes—the first when the impaled pig’s head speaks to Simon, the second when Ralph stumbles and falls at the feet of the navy man at the end of the novel.
In the first example, the impaled head (the Lord of the Flies) tells Simon—and the reader—what he symbolizes (Golding 143). The head, in fact, assumes the role of a teacher instructing a slow learner. Golding writes, “The Lord of the Flies spoke in the voice of a schoolmaster. ‘This has gone quite far enough. My poor, misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?’”
In the second example, Golding is there again to tell the reader what to think and, with a reference to Piggy, to add a note of melodrama bordering on bathos: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy” (202).
Golding, William.The Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, a Division of Penguin-Putnam: 1954.
There are two main types of conflict in literature: external and internal. External conflict pits a person against another human or against an animal, an object, the forces of nature, or any other thing or things outside of him. Internal conflict involves a struggle between a person and his emotions or negative attributes. Both types of conflict occur in The Lord of the Flies. Write an essay that identifies several of them and explains how they affect the course of events.
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