William Golding's Lord of the Flies is a troubling look at humanity and society from the perspective of a group of kids. What makes it all the more troubling is the way it challenges our belief that children are innocent and only adulthood corrupts them. Golding makes it clear that there is something far more sinister, and impossible to describe, that makes civilizations crumble and allows evil to ravage us. Whatever this something is, it's in all of us. Through the eyes of a group of children isolated on a small island, the novel pits the need for civilization against the irrational savagery innate within us all.
A plane wreck leaves a group of young boys stranded on a small, unknown island occupied by pigs. Among these kids is Ralph, who first feels joy at the thought of liberation. He begrudgingly befriends Piggy, a fat boy with asthma who is much more terrified at the prospect of having no adults around. Together, Piggy and Ralph fish out a white conch shell that Ralph uses to call a gathering of all of the kids on the island. Jack arrives last with his troop of scouts, and a rivalry between him and Ralph is inevitable when the boys elect the more charismatic Ralph as leader. Ralph, however, appeases Jack by making him leader of his scout group, the hunters.
Though he's the butt of jokes, Piggy is the smartest kid on the island, and he's the one who realizes they need a fire going in case ships pass by. He also realizes the importance of building shelters against oncoming rains. Ralph develops a certain fondness for Piggy because of his intelligence, though his asthma and physical condition make him all but useless for labor. It's Jack who rushes into things, such as building a gigantic fire that catches half the island on fire, and views the conch shell, a symbol of leadership and order, with loathing. Jack's preoccupation with hunting grows frightening, and his actions begin to unravel the group's unity.
Lord of the Flies is a symbolic novel, meaning its events aren't meant to be taken literally. The setup, a plane wreck, is barely developed because what's important is to put these children in isolation, not how they got there or how probable it is only they would survive the crash. The pigs are another enigma. They seem to be an odd occupant of the novel, but their presence is symbolic rather than scientific fact. The pigs aren't just pigs, but a representation of flesh: the desire to eat meat and to overpower and slaughter living creatures. This isn't to say the novel is an abstraction. It is very vivid, and the reader can clearly picture the setting and the drama that unfolds
Things start out okay, and it's difficult to determine the turning point as to when things go sour. One can easily point to Jack, but I'll get to that later. Another problem is fear, and the lack of security. The island society is divided between
"biguns" and "littluns." The littluns spend most of their time playing and don't seem to fully comprehend the severity of their situation, and
the biguns are the ones responsible for getting things done. A fear spreads amongst the littluns that there's a beast on the island. This beast takes many forms, residing on land, in the
sea, and even in the air. The biguns try to shrug these fears off as silly, though in reality
they're simply afraid to admit a certain terror at the idea of a beast on the
island. This terror helps drive a wedge in Ralph's attempt at civilization, and the littluns are right to be afraid, though the beast turns out to be much closer to home than they realize.
This beast is something that resides within the children, and it comes out through Jack most frighteningly of all. The question arises, what is it in Jack that snaps? Why isn't he able to see the reason in what Ralph and Piggy have to say? Piggy recognizes Jack's hatred of him and Ralph, but it is Simon who has a grasp of the terrifying secret. Simon has a hallucinatory conversation with Jack's creation, the Lord of the Flies, a pig's head staked to the ground and covered with flies. The Lord of the Flies is able to describe what Simon knows but is unable to put into words himself. He realizes that the beast everyone is afraid of is not a physical beast residing on the island, but a being residing within them all.
This beast takes over Jack, and Ralph in fighting off the beast within himself and fighting to keep order becomes Jack's rival. Of course, though Ralph is the chief in name, Piggy is the brains of the operation. I liked Piggy and felt sorry for him. He's teased because he's overweight, though in truth there's probably a good deal of envy due to his smarts. He's the voice of reason, and if the boys had listened to him, everything would have likely turned out much better. Ralph's charm gets him appointed chief over anyone else, though you get the feeling Piggy doesn't want to be chief. Jack has leadership experience, but there's a darkness to him the others sense, and so they cling to Ralph. However, Ralph finds his mind slipping, and he begins to forget why they need the fire and must be reminded again and again by Piggy. His obscure promise of rescue, an abstraction, fails to keep his society glued together, and it's to Jack the boys eventually turn because he learns to kill pigs and the meat is something tangible. Jack's bloodlust blinds him of the consequences of not being rescued.
The novel is much more mature than today's young adult books. It isn't written in the fast and easy way that teens are accustomed to now, but at a slow, deliberate pace and with lots of description. Of course, it is beautifully written, and this is the benefit of using a more sophisticated, slower-paced writing style. The novel's concluding chapters become much more exciting and action-packed, and there is a lot of dialogue, which is something teens like. Personally I've heard many mixed opinions about the novel, and many are disturbed by the violence, though I think a large part of the dislike of the novel comes from the fact that many readers find symbolism intimidating. The problem is when someone hears a novel is symbolic, they read the book with a different ear than they would otherwise. Though it is a challenging read, I think the best way to enjoy Lord of the Flies is not to analyze it as a configuration of symbols, but to see the story as it is on the surface, in the conflicts between the children and their ideas, and wonder what Golding has to say about society. You may be troubled by his conclusion, but it's important to recognize.