Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was published in 1954, as the Cold War was intensifying. The mid-20th century’s “clash of civilisations” pitted Western democracy against Communist totalitarianism in China and the Soviet Union. In Golding’s novel, this cold war of ideas has turned hot, and a group of English schoolboys are being evacuated when their aeroplane crashes on a remote island. At first, they attempt to establish a sense of order and fairness — but as rivalries and superstitions emerge, the boys soon turn to faction, violence and savagery. “The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief,” wrote Golding when the novel was published. “Sheer grief, grief, grief.”


The boys have been raised in a “civilised” English culture which prides itself on democracy, reason and fairness. This is embodied by Ralph, who tries to establish order and looks out for the needs of the group. But Jack’s opposition wins popularity among the boys and shows that, given the chance, more savage instincts can prevail. How do we think about civilisation 60 years on?


The boys fear a mysterious “beast” on the island, and present a pig’s head as an offering, which Simon names the “Lord of the Flies”. This is a literal translation of Beelzebub, another name for Satan in the Bible. But as Simon contemplates the beast, he comes to a terrifying realisation: it is “only us”.


There are no girls on the plane which crashes on the island — it is an entirely male society. Is this what makes it so violent? Would the boys have acted differently if there were girls around? And has masculinity changed in the years since the 1950s?


In the beginning, the island is an idyllic paradise, devoid of any human influence. Later, it becomes a more violent, stormy world. The boys must learn how to come to terms with nature in its purest form. Simon has an almost spiritual connection with nature; Ralph avoids it as he waits on the beach; Jack destroys it. Which of these is most like the 21st century?


The boys are young — even the oldest among them are not yet teenagers. But during their time on the island, they confront devastating realities of life and death. When they are finally rescued, Ralph weeps for “the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart”.