Lord of the Flies: A Critical History

The Lord of the Flies
“The boy with the fair hair lowered himself down the last few feet of rock and began to pick his way toward the lagoon. Though he had taken off his school sweater and trailed it now from one hand, his grey shirt stuck to him and his hair was plastered to his forehead. All round him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of head. He was clambering heavily among the creepers and broken trunks when a bird, a vision of red and yellow, flashed upwards with a witch-like cry; and this cry was echoed by another. ‘Hi!’ it said. ‘Wait a minute’” (1). 

William Golding published his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, in 1954. This book was the first serious challenge to the popularity of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951). Golding explores the lives of a group of schoolboys who are stranded after their airplane crashes on a deserted island. How have people perceived this literary work since its release sixty years ago?

The History of Lord of the Flies

Ten years after the release of Lord of the Flies, James Baker published an article discussing why the book is more true to human nature than any other story about stranded men, such as Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Swiss Family Robinson (1812). He believes that Golding wrote his book as a parody of Ballantyne’s The Coral Island (1858). Whereas Ballantyne expressed his belief in the goodness of man, the idea that man would overcome adversity in a civilized way, Golding believed that men were inherently savage. Baker believes that “life on the island has only imitated the larger tragedy in which the adults of the outside world attempted to govern themselves reasonably but ended in the same game of hunt and kill” (294). Ballantyne believes, then, that Golding’s intent was to shine a light on “the defects of society” through his Lord of the Flies (296).

While most critics were discussing Golding as a Christian moralist, Baker rejects the idea and focuses on the sanitization of Christianity and rationalism in Lord of the Flies. Baker concedes that the book does flow in “parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse” but he also suggests that “the making of history and the making of myth are [ . . . ] the same process” (304). In “Why Its No Go,” Baker concludes that the effects of World War II have given Golding the ability to write in a way he never had. Baker notes, “[Golding] observed first hand the expenditure of human ingenuity in the old ritual of war” (305). This suggests that the underlying theme in Lord of the Flies is war and that, in the decade or so following the release of the book, critics turned to religion to understand the story, just as people consistently turn to religion to recover from such devastation as war creates.

By 1970, Baker writes, “[most literate people [ . . . ] are familiar with the story” (446).  Thus, only fourteen years after its release, Lord of the Flies became one of the most popular books on the market. The novel had become a “modern classic” (446). However, Baker states that, in 1970, Lord of the Flies was on the decline. Whereas, in 1962, Golding was considered “Lord of the Campus” by Time magazine, eight years later no one seemed to be paying it much notice. Why is this? How did such an explosive book suddenly drop off after less than two decades? Baker argues that it is in human nature to tire of familiar things and to go on new discoveries; however, the decline of Lord of the Flies, he writes, is also due to something more (447). In simple terms, the decline in popularity of Lord of the Flies can be attributed to the desire for academia to “keep up, to be avant-garde” (448). This boredom, however, was not the main factor in the decline of Golding’s novel.

In 1970 America, the public was “distracted by the noise and color of [ . . . ] protests, marches, strikes, and riots, by the ready articulation and immediate politicization of nearly all [ . . . ] problems and anxieties” (447). 1970 was the year of the infamous Kent State shootings and all talk was on the Vietnam War, the destruction of the world. Baker believes that, with such destruction and terror ripping apart at people’s everyday lives, one hardly saw fit to entertain themselves with a book that parallels that same destruction. Lord of the Flies would force the public “to recognize the likelihood of apocalyptic war as well as the wanton abuse and destruction of environmental resources [ . . . ]” (447).     

Baker writes, “[t]he main reason for the decline of Lord of the Flies is that it no longer suits the temper of the times” (448). Baker believes that the academic and political worlds finally pushed out Golding by 1970 because of their unjust belief in themselves. The intellectuals felt that the world had surpassed the point in which any person would behave the way that the boys of the island did; therefore, the story held little relevance or significance at this time (448). 

These beliefs, that the youth of the time could master the challenges of those boys on the island, are expressed by the reactions of school boards and libraries from 1960 through 1970. “Lord of the Flies was put under lock and key” (448). Politicians on both sides of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, viewed the book as “subversive and obscene” and believed that Golding was out-of-date (449). The idea of the time was that evil spurred from disorganized societies rather than being present in every human mind (449). Golding is criticized once again as being too heavily influenced by Christian ideals. The only possible explanation for the story is that Golding “undermines the confidence of the young in the American Way of Life” (449). 

All of this criticism was based on the idea of the time that all human “evils” could be corrected by proper social structure and social adjustments. Golding believed, as is demonstrated in Lord of the Flies, that “[s]ocial and economic adjustments [ . . . ] treat only the symptoms instead of the disease” (449). This clash of ideals is the main cause of the fall-off in popularity of Golding’s most famous novel. As Baker puts it, “we perceive in [the book] only a vehement negativism which we now wish to reject because it seems a crippling burden to carry through the daily task of living with crisis mounting upon crisis” (453). 

Between 1972 and the early-2000s, there was relatively little critical work done on Lord of the Flies. Perhaps this is due to the fact that readers simply moved on. The novel has been around for 60 years, now, so why read it? Or, this lack of study could be due to another factor that Baker raises: the fact that there is so much destruction present in everyday life, no one wanted to deal with it in their fantasy time. The mentality in 1972 was still that Golding wrote his book from a Christian point of view. Perhaps, the people of the Vietnam War generation were sick of the religious undertones of an out-of-date book. 

It is possible, also, that the academic world felt belittled by Lord of the Flies. The only truly intelligent character in Golding’s novel is Piggy. The intellectuals may have felt threatened by the abuse that Piggy has to endure throughout the book and by his eventual demise. A.C. Capey writes, “the falling Piggy, representative of intelligence and the rule of law, is an unsatisfactory symbol of fallen man” (146).

In the late 1980s, Golding’s work is examined from a different angle. Ian McEwan analyzes Lord of the Flies from the perspective of a man who endured boarding school. He writes that “as far as [McEwan] was concerned, Golding’s island was a thinly disguised boarding school” (Swisher 103). His account of the parallels between the boys on the island and the boys of his boarding school is disturbing yet entirely believable. He writes: “I was uneasy when I came to the last chapters and read of the death of Piggy and the boys hunting Ralph down in a mindless pack. Only that year we had turned on two of our number in a vaguely similar way. A collective and unconscious decision was made, the victims were singled out and as their lives became more miserable by the day, so the exhilarating, righteous urge to punish grew in the rest of us.”

Whereas in the book, Piggy is killed and Ralph and the boys are eventually rescued, in McEwan’s biographical account, the two ostracized boys are taken out of school by their parents. McEwan mentions that he can never let go of the memory of his first reading of Lord of the Flies. He even fashioned a character after one of Golding’s in his own first story (106). Perhaps it is this mentality, the release of religion from the pages and the acceptance that all men were once boys, that re-birthed Lord of the Flies in the late 1980s.

In 1993, Lord of the Flies again comes under religious scrutiny. Lawrence Friedman writes, “Golding’s murderous boys, the products of centuries of Christianity and Western civilization, explode the hope of Christ’s sacrifice by repeating the pattern of crucifixion” (Swisher 71). Simon is viewed as a Christ-like character who represents truth and enlightenment but who is brought down by his ignorant peers, sacrificed as the very evil he is trying to protect them from. It is apparent that Friedman believes the human conscience is at stake again, as Baker argued in 1970. 

Friedman locates “the fall of reason” not in Piggy’s death but in his loss of sight (Swisher 72). It is clear that Friedman believes this time period, the early 1990s, to be one where religion and reason are once again lacking: “the failure of adult morality, and the final absence of God create the spiritual vacuum of Golding’s novel . . . God’s absence leads only to despair and human freedom is but license” (Swisher 74).

Finally, in 1997, E. M. Forster writes a forward for the re-release of Lord of the Flies. The characters, as he describes them, are representational to individuals in everyday life. Ralph, the inexperienced believer, and hopeful leader. Piggy, the loyal right-hand man; the man with the brains but not the confidence. And Jack, the outgoing brute. The charismatic, powerful one with little idea of how to take care of anyone but who thinks he should have the job anyway (Swisher 98). Society’s ideals have changed from generation-to-generation, each one responding to Lord of the Flies depending on the cultural, religious, and political realities of the respective periods.

Perhaps part of Golding’s intention was for the reader to learn, from his book, how to begin to understand people, human nature, to respect others and to think with one’s own mind rather than being sucked into a mob-mentality. It is Forster’s contention that the book “may help a few grown-ups to be less complacent, and more compassionate, to support Ralph, respect Piggy, control Jack, and lighten a little the darkness of man’s heart” (Swisher 102). He also believes that “it is respect for Piggy that seems needed most. I do not find it in our leaders” (Swisher 102).

Lord of the Flies is a book that, despite some critical lulls, has stood the test of time. Written after World War II, Lord of the Flies has fought its way through social upheavals, through wars and political changes. The book and its author have been scrutinized by religious standards as well as by social and political standards. Each generation has had its interpretations of what Golding was trying to say in his novel.

While some will read Simon as a fallen Christ who sacrificed himself to bring us truth, others might find the book asking us to appreciate one another, to recognize the positive and negative characteristics in each person and to judge carefully how best to incorporate our strengths into a sustainable society. Of course, didactic aside, Lord of the Flies is simply a good story worth reading, or re-reading, for its entertainment value alone. 

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Burgess, Adam. "Lord of the Flies: A Critical History." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-critical-history-4042902. Burgess, Adam. (2021, February 16). Lord of the Flies: A Critical History. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-critical-history-4042902 Burgess, Adam. "Lord of the Flies: A Critical History." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-critical-history-4042902 (accessed March 30, 2023).