What constitutes a society? It’s not just humans and laws, surely. A society wouldn’t be a society if it didn’t have humanity. So, what would happen if there were no ‘society’ to hold humanity together? Would humans still remain humane? These questions form the premise on which William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies is based.
This Nobel Prize-winning novel is an allegory of the war-ridden England of the 1940s. The World War II sure impacted several authors of the time. Golding, who had served in the British Royal Navy, was clearly affected too. The book vividly reflects his views on humanity and its constant battle between its innate good and evil. Needless to say, Lord of the Flies is one of the most thought-provoking classics to have been penned post-war.
The story begins with a group of pre-adolescent school boys stranded on a deserted island. After the plane that is evacuating them gets shot down in a crossfire and crashes onto the island, the kids are left to their own devices. Two of the boys–Ralph and Piggy–discover a conch shell and use it to summon the other survivors. Once assembled, they begin devising ways to survive (and to be rescued). They elect Ralph as their leader and he, in turn, chooses Jack as the leader of the hunting party.
While one team is off hunting, the other team gets busy trying to build a fire on the mountain. Ralph uses Piggy’s eyeglasses to direct sun rays and successfully sparks the fire. This moment is perhaps the most crucial and symbolic turning point in the story. Piggy, as a character, embodies all things rational. So, the damage caused to his spectacles foreshadows the deterioration of rationality. Even the fire they light goes out of control, setting the forest ablaze.
The demise of their rationality begins with the children going lax on their most important rule–to keep the signal fire burning. They play around, excited at the fact that for the first time ever, there were no parents around. This costs them a chance of being rescued by a ship at the horizon. Later, many of them lose their conscience too. When Jack gets no favour in replacing Ralph as the main leader of the boys, he turns barbaric. Rather than hunt for the sake of food, he begins hunting for the pleasure of killing. He even gets the other boys to dance around a sacrificial fire, as if in a trance.
But even as most of the boys turn barbaric, and downright brutal, it’s clear that one of the boys, Simon, retains his conscience. He genuinely cares for the safety of the younger ones, often bringing it up as an issue at the meetings. He even scouts for edible fruits for them. He helps Piggy get his glasses back from Jack when the hunting gang steals them. Also, Simon is the only one who’s acutely aware of the beast within every human being–the inherent evil. He’s also the only one who seems to want to tackle and defeat it. Ultimately, Simon becomes the lone voice of innate goodness amidst a group of boys who have lost human values in the absence of a society.
While the author has set the story on a small island, cut off from civilisation and limited to a group of British schoolboys, the overarching theme–humanity’s innate battle between good and evil–is universal in nature. Do we really need an authority figure or force in the form of parents, police, or law to remain humane? Can the good prevail in the midst of persisting evil? What Golding manages to do through this novel is question humanity’s conscience–particularly in times of war–and therein stir a sense of responsibility and human values in the reader.