A Deeper Look at "Lord of the Flies"

The lush green palm trees at the beach of a tropical island on a sunny day

"Lord of the Flies" was published on September 17, 1954. Although not initially popular, themes of individual freedom, barbarism and civilization eventually made it a best seller.
(Image credit: Bigstock/BlueOrange Studio)

Humanity's Dark Side

In 1954, author William Golding published Lord of the Flies, a deeply engaging novel about stranded British boys struggling to survive on a remote island. Written less than a decade after the end of World War II and in the midst of the Cold War, Lord of the Flies took a harsh interpretation of human nature through the prism of schoolboys. The book has since managed to cross countless lists for the greatest novels of all time and has been adapted to film three times. Since its debut, the book has managed to be a timeless representation of the dark side of humanity.

The only survivors of a crashed plane in the midst of an unknown war, the boys of the island have a blank slate from which to build a society. The boys can build practically any form of loose government they wish and being good wartime British boys, they opt for a democracy. The symbol of their new government is the conch which protagonist Ralph used to assemble the boys together after the crash. Through the conch, power is granted to the wielder to speak and present his opinion to the crowd. Along with the conch, the signal fire--representational of the boys' desire to return to the orderly and civilized world--shows humanity's desire to live beyond their base instincts.

Piggy, the strongest proponent for reason and order in the story, needs eyeglasses to see. Allegorically, Piggy is able to see thanks his eyeglasses, a medical device that was borne out of the scientific reason of a civilized society. But Piggy also has "vision" when he wears his glasses. More than anyone else in the group, he is able to recognize the necessity of law and order and this vision enables him to be taken seriously (for a while) by the group.

Where There Is No Vision, the People Perish

Piggy's glasses eventually get broken, leaving him half blind. Then his glasses get stolen, leaving him totally blind. Simultaneously, as Piggy's eyesight gets worse, the orderly society the boys envisioned for themselves also begins to deteriorate. Like democracy, itself, the conch's power is only as strong as the people's consent to it. When antagonist Jack sways the boys away from democracy towards tribalism, the conch loses all power and is even smashed in the same incident that leaves Piggy dead.

A person holding a pair of broken eyeglasses against a green background

Piggy's glasses are perhaps the most widely recognized symbols found in "Lord of the Flies."
(Image credit: Bigstock/DimaSobko)

Similarly, as the signal fire eventually falls into neglect, its end symbolizes an end to the boys' brief experiment with democracy and their downward descent into animalistic savagery. The Reign of Terror of Revolutionary France, the American Civil War, and even today's deeply politically polarized America, demonstrates that the civility of social order is extremely fragile and requires constant diligence. Negligence and apathy can smash civilization as easily as a boulder can smash a seashell.

Tools for Keeping Power

As law and order dies on the island, a new and more primitive totem becomes the symbol of the island's grip on the boys. Jack and the rest of his hunter clique begin to speak of a "beast" that is threatening the lives of the island society. While the beast turns out to have a real inspiration--a dead paratrooper--the hunters use its myth in the camp as a tool to scare the others into giving the hunters more sway in the group.

The beast is clearly the archetypical boogeyman figure employed by all those fervent demagogues who try to acquire--and maintain--power. The danger of creating a fictitious boogeyman in order to unite a turbulent mob for a common cause is never more apparent than when a frenzy over the beast leads the boys to accidentally slaughter Simon, the most innocent of the boys.

Ultimately, primal barbarism wins over rational logic and order at the cost of the boys' innocence. When the boys are eventually rescued, it becomes glaringly obvious how expensive the cost was for abandoning order for complete and total anarchy. The question is, will the real world ever learn that lesson without having to pay such a high price?