Lord of the Flies (1954) by William Golding (1911-1993)
Every reader is actually the reader of himself.
Hurricane Katrina has left New Orleans a ghost town (August-September 2005) and for a few days law and order were absent from some parts of the city. In such cases the veneer of civilization that covers the darker aspects of human nature can peel away.
Such is the basic theme of William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Just as the British naval ship arrives to bring civilization back to the island on which a group of British children have descended into savagery, the National Guard has restored order to New Orleans. Civilization once again triumphs over evil. Or so it might seem.
Remember the protagonists in Lord of the Flies? “Piggy and Jack—symbolize the opposite extremes of human behavior. Piggy demands adherence to the rules he grew up with: respect for others, hierarchy of responsibility and compassion. Jack represents the hedonistic side of human nature: If it’s fun, do it. The third character, Ralph, represents the dilemma of political leadership in a democracy. On the one hand, Ralph tries to satisfy the wishes of the other children on the island. On the other, he knows that certain rules of behavior and stewardship must prevail or anarchy and primitivism will triumph.”
Writing in his Readings on Lord of the Flies, Golding explains that “The theme of Lord of the Flies is grief, grief, grief.” He might just as well have said “Life is suffering.” The darkness of the novel was undoubtedly a result of Golding’s experience of the tragedy of World War II. Just as American government officials could not persuade all of the people of New Orleans to abandon the city for their own safety, the governments of Europe could not avert the disaster of war. We might come to believe that unsupervised male adolescents will revert to savagery or that Washington politicians are incompetent or worse. Why?
It is because, in part, we don’t trust each other because we see our false self in the other and the other can be anyone from our classmates and our next-door neighbor to members of other nation states, religions or cultures. “The ‘beast’ [the other and/or the false self] is a device Golding uses to represent the savage impulses living in every human being. Civilization exists to suppress the beast; by keeping the human desire for power and violence to a minimum, civilization forces people to act responsibly and rationally, like Piggy and Ralph do. When the beast is unleashed, individuals behave as Jack and Roger do, succumbing to their darkest impulses.” We are all expressing the ‘beast’ within everyday each time we “react” no matter how benign that behavior may seem. We choose to be the “beast’ albeit most often unconsciously and if we are ever to create a sustainable society we must look in the mirror and admit this truth.
Golding argued that “civilization is a veil that through its rules and laws masks the evil [false self] within every individual.” Indeed, civilization is less a veil than an illusion. “The novel is a chronicle of civilization giving way to savagery; the boys, shaped by a highly civilized British society, become savages guided only by fear, superstition and desire [the false-self survival strategy]. Meanwhile, in the real world [P-B], the adults of the supposedly civilized world are encouraged in a savage and brutal worldwide nuclear war.”
Humanity will continue to experience the chaos and violence so vividly portrayed in The Lord of the Flies until we can rewrite the story which provides the context for humanity’s future. Tragedy is built into the human narrative. We believe we are on a jungle island and only the fittest will survive. “Get it while the getting is good” and “Look out for number one.” This scenario is not any more consistent with reality than Golding’s island was for those boys who, “Without adult supervision, they organize themselves into rival tribes, learn to hunt and kill, and eventually become murderous barbarians in the abscence of a civilizing structure.”
We have yet to create anything more than a pseudo-“civilizing structure.” The suffering that attends both natural disasters and human-created disasters are both actually caused not by the events themselves but by our reactions to what is happening. Unfortunately, so-called civilization is no defense against such suffering although many of us think so and as long as we think that it is, our delusion will continue. There is no British ship-of-war coming to our rescue—we are it. We bring order to our global village or anarchy will continue to deliver suffering. Our story could have a happy ending—but we must write it—and so far we are opting for the dark Lord of the Flies conclusion.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.