'Lord of the Flies' Overview

William Golding’s allegorical exploration of human nature

A scene from a theatrical production of "Lord of the Flies."
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William Golding's 1954 novel Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of schoolchildren stranded on a deserted island. What initially seems to be a tale of heroic survival and adventure, however, soon takes a horrifying turn as the children descend into violence and chaos. The story, which serves as an allegory for human nature, remains as fresh and startling today as when it was first published.

Fast Facts: Lord of the Flies

  • Author: William Golding
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Year Published: 1954
  • Genre: Allegory
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Good vs. evil, reality vs. illusion, order vs. chaos
  • Characters: Ralph, Piggy, Jack, Simon, Roger, Sam, Eric

Plot Summary

After a plane crash, a group of British schoolboys finds themselves on an abandoned island without any adult supervision. Two of the boys, Ralph and Piggy, meet on the beach and discover a conch shell, which they use to gather the other children. Ralph organizes the boys and is elected chief. Ralph’s election angers Jack, a fellow schoolboy who wants to be in charge. We also meet a third boy, Simon—a dreamy, almost spiritual character. The boys organize into separate tribes, choosing Ralph or Jack as their leader.

Jack announces that he will organize a hunting party. He attracts more boys to his tribe as they hunt the wild pigs. A rumor begins of a beast in the forest. Jack and his second-in-command Roger announce they will kill the beast. Terror drives the other boys away from Ralph’s orderly tribe into Jack's group, which becomes increasingly savage. Simon has a vision of the Lord of the Flies, then discovers a pilot’s body in the trees, which he realizes the boys have mistaken for a beast. Simon races to the beach to tell the other boys that the beast was an illusion, but the boys mistake Simon for the beast and kill him.

After almost all the boys defect to Jack’s tribe, Ralph and Piggy make one last stand. Piggy is killed by Roger. Ralph flees and arrives on the beach just as a ship has arrived on the island. The captain expresses horror at what the boys have become. The boys suddenly stop and burst into tears.

Major Characters

Ralph. Ralph is physically attractive, personally charming, and older than most of the other children, which makes him popular. He is a symbol of civilization and order, but as the other boys descend into chaos and brutality, he slowly loses control of the society he's created.

Piggy. An overweight, bookish boy, Piggy has been abused and bullied by peers throughout his life. Piggy represents knowledge and science, but he is powerless without Ralph’s protection.

Jack. Jack sees himself as a natural leader. He is confident but unattractive and unpopular. Jack builds a power base with his tribe of hunters: the boys who quickly shed the constraints of civilization.

Simon. Simon is a quiet, thoughtful boy who suffers from seizures. Representing religion and spiritual faith, Simon is the only boy to see the truth: the fact that the beast is an illusion. With his death, he becomes a Christ-like figure.

Major Themes

Good vs. Evil. The story's central question is whether humanity is fundamentally good or evil. The boys are initially inclined to establish an orderly society with rules and an appreciation for fairness, but as they become increasingly fearful and divided, their newly-established civilization descends into violence and chaos. Ultimately, the book suggests that morality is the result of artificial restraints imposed on our behavior by the society in which we live.

Illusion vs. Reality. The Beast is imaginary, but the boys' belief in it has real-life consequences. As their belief in the illusion grows—and, notably, when the illusion takes on a physical form through the body of the pilot—the boys' behavior grows increasingly savage. When Simon tries to shatter this illusion, he is killed. Indeed, much of the boys' motivation for their behavior stems from irrational fears and imaginary monsters. When those imaginary elements change or disappear, the structure of their newly-formed society disappears, too.

Order vs. Chaos. The tension between order and chaos is ever-present in Lord of the Flies. The characters of Ralph and Jack represent opposing sides of this spectrum, with Ralph establishing orderly authority and Jack encouraging chaotic violence. The boys behave in an orderly fashion at first, but when they lose faith in the possibility of being rescued, they quickly descend into chaos. The story suggests that the morality of the adult world is similarly tenuous: we are governed by a criminal justice system and spiritual codes, but if those factors were removed, our society would quickly collapse into chaos, too.

Literary Style

Lord of the Flies alternates between a straightforward style, employed when the boys converse with each other, and a lyrical style used to describe the island and surrounding nature. Golding also utilizes allegory: every character represents a concept or idea larger than himself. As a result, the characters' actions cannot be viewed as entirely voluntary. Each boy behaves as Golding sees the larger world: Ralph attempts to exercise authority even when he has no clear plan, Piggy insists on rules and rationality, Jack follows his impulses and primitive urges, and Simon loses himself in thought and seeks enlightenment.

About the Author

William Golding, born in England in 1911, is considered one of the most important writers of the 20th century. In addition to fiction, Golding wrote poetry, plays, and non-fiction essays. He received the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983.

His first novel, Lord of the Flies, established him as a major literary voice. Lord of the Flies continues to be adapted and referenced by other writers to this day. His writing frequently raised questions about morality and human nature, of which he had a decidedly cynical view.

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Somers, Jeffrey. "'Lord of the Flies' Overview." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-overview-4581321. Somers, Jeffrey. (2021, February 17). 'Lord of the Flies' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-overview-4581321 Somers, Jeffrey. "'Lord of the Flies' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/lord-of-the-flies-overview-4581321 (accessed June 9, 2023).