Lord of the Flies Ruthless Criticism

Translated from Sozialistische Gruppe – Hochschulgruppe Erlangen/Nürnberg: Was man im Unterricht lernt – Deutsch/Literatur/Englisch/Philosophie (1990)

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies” is a true hit in English classes, popular with students and teachers alike. Golding even won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his novel. What’s the secret to this novel’s success? Certainly not its originality. He stole the idea for his novel from his fellow countryman Daniel Defoe and modernized it a bit. Instead of the shipwrecked Robinson Crusoe, a group of English schoolboys is whisked away to an uninhabited South Sea tropical island paradise after a plane crash.

Certainly not his ingenious literary innovations. Stylistic flourishes such as “a great tree ... and a rapid climber flaunted red and yellow sprays right to the top” were not mentioned as a reason for conferring the award, and literary highlights of the calibre: “A kind of glamour was spread over them and the scene and they were conscious of the glamour and made happy by it” would be easily identified by any eighth-grader as a typical feature of a kitsch novel if they came from a Harlequin romance. But someone who, according to the publisher’s blurb, packs a “parable of human society” into a rather boring adventure novel can get away with pages and pages like this.

And so Golding’s “parable” has continued to enlighten young people in education institutions about what people turn into when their imperfect human nature is not constantly suppressed by a proper order, and what they must not be allowed to do under any circumstances. In order to prove this in a way that seems logically compelling, Golding had to come up with some improbable constructions in his “Lord of the Flies.”

He begins by putting his characters in a shared predicament. A plane crashes on a deserted island, and only a group of boys from six to twelve years old survive. In such a situation, what else is there to do but look for food and try to get off the godforsaken island? The absolute necessities of life determine the tasks that have to be done, and they have to be carried out in a way that is based on the division of labor as best as possible.

However, Golding does not let his characters act so simply. For them, the activities imposed by the emergency can only be carried out if they are organized by a superior authority who tells the others what their interests are and what they have to do. As soon as they have emerged from the smoking wreckage of the plane, Ralph, the “boy with fair hair” (likeable, right?), and the fat, asthmatic, spectacle wearing Piggy (clumsy but intelligent!) don’t have any better idea than to call a “meeting.” There Ralph makes a game changing proposal to the other boys: “Seems to me we ought to have a chief to decide things,” as if they didn't “need” anything more necessary after a plane crash. Because he has a “stillness” and, on top of that, an “attractive appearance,” Ralph wins a democratic election against Jack, who is the opposition and also looks like it: “His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness.”

As soon as they are elected, Ralph and his intellectual advisor Piggy act as if the other boys don’t want to survive and return home, and as if they have to have their own happiness forced on them: “We'll have rules! … Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks 'em―” Once “rules” have been established on the island in this way, and Ralph has concluded with his sigh: “No grownups!” that a replacement has to be found as soon as possible so that the children can obey again, the leader delegates the tasks. A signal fire is to be lit day and night to draw the attention of ships. Jack has to hunt with a group of wild boars, and all of them together are obliged to build huts.

Lesson No. 1: The basic need of all people is for an “order” that must be prescribed to them by democratically elected leaders so that they know what they want.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Golding only came up with the whole thing about the hopeless situation on the deserted island in order to make the desire for “order” and the need to enforce it seem plausible. By this standard, Ralph’s rules are logical and put him morally in the right. Conversely, of course, everyone who doesn’t constantly campaign for order is evil – regardless of what they do and why they do it. So Ralph, as the representative of order, is the only one who sticks to his decisions, after he was the only one who came up with them because he was the only one who amazingly gave it thought: “By myself I went, thinking what’s what. I know what we need.” The others can do whatever they want. Because it’s not for order, it’s bad. All their actions are images of what happens if human instincts are not suppressed. And so it happens the way the poet wants it to happen. Nobody helps Ralph build a hut because it never rains anyway. A passing ship sails by because the ugly, power-hungry opposition leader Jack is hunting wild boars with his hungry horde instead of looking after the common good and tending the fire according to the rules. And in the subsequent crisis meeting of the “assembly,” everything goes haywire because some only think about what’s next, namely how to fill their bellies, instead of devoting themselves to the higher purpose and realizing that Ralph’s unconditional insistence on democratic loyalty is the real deal: “I was chief, and you were going to do what I said. You talk. But you can’t even build huts―then you go off hunting and let out the fire―”

Lesson No. 2: Since people are inherently unreasonable, they do not understand order, which is only for their own good. They must therefore be forced to comply with order or else there will be chaos.

Because he lacks the power that a democratically elected leader needs to assert himself, Ralph loses his “offhand authority.” The irrational majority now follow the successful wild boar hunter Jack. He recognizes the “possibilities of irresponsible authority,” finally throws the humane democratic order overboard and founds a tribe of “savages” who really let out the pig inside every human being: “They understood only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought.” In bloody feasts, wild trance dances and brutal attacks, humanity’s true nature is revealed, which completely succumbs to the devil, the symbol of evil (Golding found the “Lord of the Flies” in Goethe’s “Faust”) through ritual sacrifices to idols. Ralph’s last attempt to appeal to reason is his stupid alternative: “Which is better―to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” The uncivilized savages decide in favor of the pig roast and finally destroy order. They murder Piggy, sanity personified.

Lesson No. 3: Without order, evil gains the upper hand in people, especially when they fall into the hands of the wrong leadership.

Nothing seems to be able to stop the evil now. The “savages” burn down the entire island to drive Ralph out of his hiding place. At the last second, he is saved by the civilized order, which appears in the form of a naval officer in Her Britannic Majesty along with a “trim cruiser”: “He staggered to his feet, tensed for more terrors, and looked up at a huge peaked cap. It was a white-topped cap, and above the green shade of the peak was a crown, an anchor, gold foliage. He saw white drill, epaulettes, a revolver, a row of gilt buttons down the front of a uniform.” The failed order fanatic Ralph is ashamed to mourn “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart” when the representative of the only true order paternally rebukes him: “I should have thought that a pack of British boys―you're all British, aren't you?―would have been able to put up a better show than that.”

Lesson No. 4: Order must be enforced on every corner of the earth so that the evil “in the heart of man” finally no longer has a chance, and the guarantor of order is the military.