Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell

William Golding, Lord of the Flies (1954)

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) is a novel written during the Cold War that explores the source of the warlike behaviour in mankind that, with the development of nuclear weapons, could destroy the planet.  Golding sees the origins of war in human nature, in a dark side that can quickly surface and dominate when given circumstances conducive for this to happen. 

The title, ‘Lord of the Flies’ refers to the devil, which, in turn, is a metaphor for the evil in mankind.  Golding puts the case that the civilisation in which so many people put their trust and hope is actually a thin veneer that can easily be overwhelmed by darker destructive forces.  This means that the faith that many people place in the likelihood that common sense and decency will prevail to ensure that nuclear weapons will not be used in war is tragically misplaced. 

The novel appears to be set during what seems to be a nuclear conflict, in a hypothetical Third World War.  A group of British school boys have been evacuated from a war zone for their safety, but the plane crashes on a small uninhabited island in the Pacific.  The boys are left to fend for themselves.  These circumstances initiate a conflict between those boys who seek to uphold civilised values (led by Ralph) and those boys who declare themselves to be hunters and indulge their barbaric tendencies (led by Jack).  Hunting for food is shown to generate blood lust and increasing barbarism, while superstition is also shown to lead to irrational and violent behaviour.   Eventually the hunters attack and kill some boys who are bystanders or who stand for civilised values.  Their increasing violence sees the island, their home, set on fire and rendered virtually uninhabitable just before they are rescued by a naval officer from a passing ship. 

After the publication of his book, Golding explained that wrote about boys stranded on an uninhabited Pacific island because he believed that through boys he could depict the problem of evil lurking below the surface in a civilised society.  As a school teacher and former boy himself, he felt he had closely observed and understood the behaviour of boys.  Boys also served his purpose because they have experienced less socialisation than adults so they are, he believed, more prone to revert to the kinds of barbarism that Golding feared was at the heart of human nature.  Golding also thought that his depiction of boys in survival mode was more realistic than other fictional depictions of boys in similar situations.  His novel represents a rebuttal of those rosier representations.   

In regards to the community of stranded boys, the pair of glasses and the conch shell represent civilisation.  The glasses, worn by the chubby and physically weak character Piggy, represent kind of technology intrinsic to a civilised society that can assist the physically frail to survive.  The lenses of the glasses can also produce fire, which can be tool of civilisation or barbarism.  As most of the boys revert to barbarism, Piggy becomes increasingly vulnerable until eventually he is attacked and killed.  The conch shell represents orderly government and the principle of living according to rules, which is the essence of civilisation.  However, since the hold of civilisation is precarious, as the novel progresses the authority of those civilised boys who control the conch slips away from them as power devolves towards the barbaric, tribal, and violent hunters.  When Piggy is killed by the hunters, the conch is smashed. Civilisation on the island has ended. 

In the novel, the violence of the mob is depicted as contagious, sweeping through the group and overwhelming the capacity of individuals to think and act rationally and independently. Eventually the warlike tendency of the mob sees them behave in ways inimical to their long-term interests by destroying their island home.  This outcome resembles the fear shared by many people in the 1950s, including by Golding, that a nuclear confrontation could render the world uninhabitable.   

Student resources by Dr Mark Lopez

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The purpose of the concise notes of Dr Mark’s The Meaning in a Nutshell is to provide much needed help to students seeking to unlock the meaning of the texts with which they have to deal.  (More elaborate notes are provided in lessons as part of my private tutoring business.) 

Subject: Lord of the Flies meaning, Lord of the Flies themes, Lord of the Flies analysis, Lord of the Flies notes