Dystopia in Lord of the Flies

1.0 Introduction

            William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is reminiscent of his predecessors, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Ballantyne’s The Coral Island in his situating the action on an uninhabited tropical island. Unlike his predecessors, however, Golding does not explore British imperialism or resourcefulness but turns to a gloomier topic much more relevant to his own time.  Lord of the Flies was published in 1954 in the wake of the Second World War and the beginning of the end of British Empire. Golding’s belief in man’s innate evil springing from the original sin strengthened after he had witnessed the amount of atrocities that humans are capable of committing, particularly in European totalitarian states during the Holocaust. His former belief in the possibility of man’s betterment and establishment of a more humane society by means of a thorough social change was shattered. Therefore, in his novel he conducts a literary experiment proving that humans cannot escape from the original evil even if they are given the opportunity to start building their society from scratch. His boys are plane-wrecked on an unknown desert island. They are completely isolated, like guinea pigs in a glass aquarium, and they do not come in contact with any external influences, such as savages in canoes, pirates, or any living adults until they are rescued. They do not have any tools, weapons, or food from the world of grownups. Thus, the boys return to nature and try to survive and establish a society of their own. At first they enjoy their newly acquired freedom, yet the boys’ return to nature instead of an idyll becomes a nightmare. Golding shows how human’s inherent tendency towards evil and aggression progresses gradually as he frees himself from constraints of civilised life and conditions him to regress into a state of dystopian savagery.

2.0 On “Dystopia”

According to M.H. Abrams, the term dystopia “has recently come to be applied to works of fiction, including science fiction, that represent a very unpleasant imaginary world in which ominous tendencies of our present social, political, and technological order are projected into a disastrous future culmination” (328). This definition can be applied to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, where a group of boys end up stranded on a desert island due to the failure of an evacuation plan necessary because of an implied disaster. The exact nature of the disaster is not certain; however, the novel contains references to a nuclear war. At the very beginning Piggy asks Ralph, “Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They’re all dead” (Golding, Lord of the Flies 7). And in another place in the novel, he fantasizes about the future and refers to the war that was probably raging at the time, “In a year or two when the war’s over they’ll be traveling to Mars and back” (Ibid 72).

Nevertheless, the story opens a possibility for a new start for human civilisation. It follows its development and charts whether “the community that evolves becomes a utopia or dystopia, the former a model of harmony and cooperation, the latter of dysfunction, disharmony, and competitive disintegration” (Moss 291). The boys at first envision and attempt to establish a utopian society; however, the seeds of disintegration are sown from the very beginning in the competitiveness between Ralph and Jack and Jack’s ill-treatment of Piggy. Even though they should have learned from the example of their adults what may happen when man’s evil gets out of control, they eventually create a microcosmic reflection of the world from which they came.

2.1 Dysfunction, Disharmony, and Disintegration

After the plane crash the boys “find an earthly paradise, a world in fact like our own, of boundless wealth, beauty and resource” (Woodward 209). In this world of plenty the boys have a unique opportunity to start a new society. At first they revel in their freedom from the authority of the adults and their first response to their new surroundings is to have fun until they are rescued. “For them the worlds of fantasy and reality have suddenly fused” (Firchow 136). It seems that the island has the potential to become a world of never ending fun, similar to the “Neverland” in James Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, the boys’ high spirits do not last for long. The dangers of the fusion of fantasy and reality start surfacing. Fear of an unseen beast spreads like plague among the boys, particularly the “littluns.” It consumes them all and culminates in a mad hysteria and a deep rift between the boys. The “good island” turns bad and a potential utopia turns into a definite dystopia (Golding, Lord 26).

Things do not function the way they imagined. They cannot organise themselves well enough to build proper huts. Jack’s boys lack responsibility and let the signal fire die in order to go hunting, thus missing an opportunity to be rescued. This is the beginning of the disintegration of the boys. Some boys are overtly hostile to others, such as Roger, the bully who barely refrains himself from stoning Henry, one of the smaller boys. At first “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilisation that knew nothing of him and was in ruins” (Golding, Lord 52). However, the grip of civilisation will soon slacken and there will be nothing to prevent Roger from committing murder. Hostility among the boys is best shown on the example of Jack’s behaviour towards Piggy. This boy never gets the chance to say his real name, but is constantly referred to by the hateful nickname given to him by his schoolmates. Piggy is an orphan, raised by his aunt who has a candy shop, and implicitly he is a member of a social class inferior to Jack Merridew, the insolent choir leader, “the love-child of a union between upper-middle-class chauvinism and an educational system designed to emphasize leadership, tradition, and the ingrained sense of superiority” (Tiger 140-141). The short-sighted fat boy with asthma and a balding head is constantly derided and insulted despite his intellectual abilities. From their first contact the relationship between Jack and Piggy is established by Jack commanding him to be quiet without missing the opportunity to insult him: “Shut up, Fatty!” (Golding, Lord 14). Piggy, on the other hand, sensed his inferiority and sought comfort in cleaning his glasses, the action that he often resorts to in the course of the novel. “He was intimidated by this uniformed superiority and the offhand authority in Merridew’s voice” (Ibid 13).

2.2 Reason, Responsibility, and Fear

            Nevertheless, Piggy’s role is of vast importance not only as the representative of the socially oppressed, but as an emissary of reason and responsibility. The initial juvenile utopian fun is disrupted by forces coming from the adult world. Piggy, like Barrie’s Wendy, keeps reminding them that fun is not enough. In order for them to survive and be rescued they must act with responsibility, which in their case is manifested in maintaining the signal fire and taking care of the “littluns.” This is the bone of contention and the root of the rift between Ralph’s and Jack’s groups of boys.  First they try to arrange a sort of democratic society modelled on the principles of the world of adults. Piggy in particular believes in “government by persuasion, deciding issues by debate, above all in reason itself” (Boyd 33). They have elections whereby Ralph is voted chief and “the freckles on Jack’s face disappear under a blush of mortification” (Golding, Lord 15). However, the choir boys remain under Jack’s command and he decides that they will assume the role of hunters. They organise assemblies by Ralph blowing the conch and summoning all the boys. Every boy is given the right to speak provided that he is holding the conch. They go a step further and introduce a set of rules. At first Jack agrees, saying, “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages” (Ibid 34). Nonetheless, this democratic idyll soon turns upside down, with Jack crying “Bollocks to the rules!” (Ibid 79).

When confronted with the fear of the Beast Piggy’s reason loses the battle and the democracy starts to crumble. He believes that the world is reasonable, yet reason cannot control the boys’ instinctive violence. Ralph is aware of their disintegration and wishes for a grownup who would impose order. “We’re all drifting and things are going rotten. At home there was always a grownup. Please, sir; please, miss; and then you got an answer” (Golding, Lord 81). Grownups would also know how to deal with the fear because “they ain’t afraid of the dark. They’d meet and have tea and discuss. Then things ‘ud be all right” (Ibid 82). Due to his belief that everything can be reasonably discussed and explained Piggy fails to understand the reality of the Beast. He may have the brains, but the savage, violent, beastly evil in Roger makes those brains useless when he smashes Piggy’s skull while he is embracing the conch, their symbol of democracy. Piggy’s body is described as sucked back by the personified breathing sea, which is implied as the dwelling place of the Beast in the title of the chapter “Beast from Water.”

3.0 The Carnivalesque Dystopia

The carnival is a place where a particular reversal of roles and values occurs. According to Mikhail Bakhtin, “carnival celebrated temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order; it marked the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal” (10).

The idea of feasting is important in Golding’s novel as a symbol of greed and one of the benefits offered by Jack and his gang of hunters. The boys who revert to savagery put hunting and feasting before the signal fire and possibility of rescue. “Rescue? Yes, of course! All the same, I’d like to catch a pig first,” says Jack moments after he took over the responsibility to keep the fire burning. Unable to attain victory in democratic elections, Jack found a way of using the Beast for his own ends. His boys armed with savage weaponry offer protection and meat to those boys who join them. Furthermore, they free themselves from the established order by rejecting the democracy of the conch-invoked assemblies. In the words of Paul Crawford, “Their carnival is filled with dance, chanting, fire, ‘fun,’ and irresponsibility—of general festivity” (66). They neglect all the routines that require responsibility. Their tribal unity is emphasized by the remnants of their choir uniforms and their painted faces. They are carnivalesque “painted fools” challenging the rules and the rulers and subverting the norms of the civilised society (Golding, Lord 160).

Golding’s dystopian representation includes carnival decrowning, “where a king figure is parodied and derided as the played-out subversion of hierarchical society” (Crawford 67). This is evident when Jack sticks a pig’s head on a double-pointed spear as an offering to the Beast. Simon stays observing the head and realises that everything is “a bad business” (Golding, Lord 122). He looks at “the white teeth and dim eyes, the blood” and suddenly he is struck by “that ancient, inescapable recognition” (Ibid 123).  The “Lord” from the title of the novel is nothing but a pig’s head on a stick, a lord only to flies gathering on it, symbolising the reversal of hierarchy and authority. Yet on the other hand, the “Lord of the Flies” may be interpreted as the Devil, or Beelzebub, the “Lord” of the human inherent evil, which got the upper hand on this island. Therefore, this symbol is fitting both to the “dystopian misrule of carnival” in the novel and to the etymological base of “Lord of the Flies” referring to Beelzebub or Devil (Crawford 67).

3.1 Democracy vs. Totalitarianism

            Furthermore, Golding’s dystopian representation of carnival may be interpreted as a political fable. A fable, according to Abrams, “is a short narrative, in prose or verse, that exemplifies an abstract moral thesis or principle of human behaviour” (6). As a political fable, Lord of the Flies can be seen to explore social regression, “where it is not so much the capabilities of the boys as their depravity, and by fabular extension humankind’s inability to control aggression, within a workable social or political order” (Tiger 139). Even though Ralph and Piggy possess good will and judgment, they are politically inadequate. Ralph needs constant reminders of his tasks and goals as a chief. Moreover, they both participate in the feast and the frantic ritual dance during which Simon is murdered.

Additionally, there is the contrast and tension between Ralph’s and Piggy’s peaceful liberal democracy and Jack’s totalitarianism based on violence and oppression reflecting the carnival crowd behaviour. Golding refers to this issue in his essay “On the Work as a Fable,” saying that after the Second World War he lost his faith in “the perfectibility of social man” and he ceased to believe that one “could remove all social ills by a reorganisation of society” (Golding, “Fable” 56). Therefore he conducts this social experiment, putting his characters in an extreme situation and observing how they behave and the evils they do.

The character of the novel as an experiment may be recognised by “the very lack of realism, the very extremity of situation” (Firchow 143). At the beginning of the novel the reader is presented with a boy coming along a “long scar smashed into the jungle,” trailing his sweater, followed by another boy who got entangled into the creepers (Golding, Lord 1). Later these boys are identified as Ralph and Piggy. It may be deduced from their conversation that a plane transporting the boys and two adults crashed during the previous stormy night and that the scar in the jungle was made by its burning body. However, besides the scar there are no other remains of the plane, so Piggy concludes that it must have sunk. Somehow, both of the adults went down with the plane and the boys found themselves miraculously unharmed on the island. They are left alone on this testing ground and the reader observes what they eventually make of it. The nature of the social experiment is also apparent in the ending of the novel. After it proved the author’s hypothesis that social ills cannot be removed by a reorganisation of society, the experiment is terminated by a deus ex machina in the form of a British naval officer who rescues Ralph from an imminent death.

Golding refers to the “vileness beyond all words” that went on in totalitarian states, to the atrocities committed coldly and skilfully by educated men, not by savage tribes, but rather by “men with a tradition of civilisation behind them, to beings of their own kind” (Ibid). In the novel, Jack emphasizes that they are not savages by showing his national pride, “We’re English, and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things” (Golding, Lord 34). Yet, they end up committing two murders and attempting a third. Jack talks with a sort of relish about killing pigs, cutting their throats, and spilling the blood. At first all the boys are restrained by the ingrained principles of civilisation. Jack cannot kill “because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood” (Ibid 23). But, after the first killing he liberates himself from the shackles of civilisation, realises how much he enjoyed slaughtering the pig, and moves downward into the moral abyss. “‘There was lashings of blood,’” he says to Ralph grinning proudly.

At the end of the novel, the naval officer who comes to their rescue looks at the little savages in front of him and says rather disappointedly, “I should have thought that a pack of British boys (…) would have been able to put up a better show than that” (Ibid 182). What may be derived from these assumptions and the failure of the British boys is Golding’s unease about the nature of British civilisation in the aftermath of World War II and his lack of faith in the possibility of establishing a better society. In the light of the events from World War II and the Holocaust, he sharply criticises warfare, political opportunism, and social oppression. Therefore, the carnivalesque in Lord of the Flies “subverts the view that the ‘civilised’ English are incapable of the kind of atrocities carried out by the Nazis during World War II” (Crawford 67). Golding’s boys are his guinea pigs in his social experiment, whereby he shows that “man’s capacity for greed, his innate cruelty and selfishness, was being hidden behind a kind of pair of political pants,” which is the reason why most social systems produced dystopian rather than utopian societies; for instance, the idealist concepts of primitive socialism eventually turned into Stalinism and German political idealism culminated in the rule of Adolf Hitler (Golding, “Fable” 57).

Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a dystopia “because it shows the breakdown of civilised life and firstlings of totalitarian rule” (Trahair 110). On the island, they started with the attempt to establish a democratic “Neverland,” yet they ended up waging a war. Liberal democracy did not stand a chance faced with Jack’s totalitarian regime. Ralph could not reason enough with the boys to make them see the importance of the signal fire and building huts. Even he had to be constantly reminded by Piggy. On the other hand, Jack’s boys were uniform, not only in terms of clothing and masks but also in their behaviour and undisputable obedience and loyalty to Jack. At the beginning of the novel they are described as a dark “creature” because of their cloaks, hats, and coordinated movements (Golding, Lord 12). Jack exercises full control over them. He is a striking figure with his long cloak fluttering about him and the golden badge on his hat. Even though overwhelmed by heat they do not take off any part of their uniform, and when Jack yelled “‘Stand still!’” they “huddled into line and stood there swaying in the sun” (Ibid 13). No wonder Jack managed to hold them under his control until the very end and attract other boys by means of propaganda offering food and protection.

4.0 The Sinful Man and the Boys as Ignoble Savages

            By means of the boys the mankind is given the opportunity to establish a new and better society in the midst of a terrible war. Yet, “man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin,” says Golding (“Fable” 57). Therefore, the boys succumb to the forces of evil inherent to all humans. In the words of Virginia Tiger, “they cradle within themselves the beast of evil, ‘Beelzebub,’” consequently, they turn the Edenic island into a “fiery hell” (139).

            Before opting for a writing career, William Golding worked as a teacher of English language and philosophy at a private school in Salisbury called Bishop Wordsworth School. He gained firsthand experience of the kind of boys that he deals with in Lord of the Flies. Moreover, in his essay on fable Golding says,

I am a son, brother, and father. I have lived for many years with small boys and understand and know them with awful precision. I decided to take the literary convention of boys on an island, only make them real boys instead of paper cutouts with no life in them; and try to show how the shape of the society they evolved would be conditioned by their diseased, their fallen nature (“Fable” 57).

The boys are given a chance to organise a society of their dreams, yet they manage to create the world of war, violence, immorality, and evil almost the same as the one that they came from. The boys’ island society is a microcosm of a larger whole. The failure of their society occurs due to their innate tendency towards violence and their consequent reverting to savagery, which in this case connotes evil and aggression contrasted with the safety and order of civilisation. Golding opposes the romantic notion of “noble savage,” who is “an idealised concept of uncivilised man, who symbolises the innate goodness of one not exposed to the corrupting influences of civilisation” (Britannica). For Golding “Man is born in sin. Set him free and he will be a sinner, not Rousseau’s ‘noble savage’” (Biles 104). Therefore, since humans are not innately innocent their progress is unlikely. The violence of the boys is only a miniature manifestation of what is happening on a large scale in the world of adults. The sinfulness of the world is obvious in the references to nuclear war and atrocities committed by men to other men. The obvious example is the dead parachutist, the emissary of the adults, the fallen man, the harbinger of death, who was ironically expected to bring salvation. Yet, he only manages to deepen the chasm separating the boys by fuelling their fears and pushing them to choose between salvation and protection. Another clear indicator of the state of affairs in the remainder of the world is the naval officer who comes to save the boys. As Ralph stands beside him lifting his gaze, he notices his military cap, his badge, buttons on his uniform, epaulettes, a revolver, and behind him “a cutter, her bows hauled up and held by two ratings,” and in another rating a sub-machine gun (Golding, Lord 180).

5.0 Conclusion

            In Lord of the Flies William Golding conducts a literary social experiment showing how humans conditioned by the primeval evil, spoil their chance of a new beginning and create a savage dystopian society. If we observe the world as a set of concentric circles, then the boys’ island world is a smaller circle mirroring a larger one. Their microcosmic dystopia reflects the violent events occurring in the world of adults. Bakhtin’s idea of carnival can be recognised as another dystopian element in this novel. Jack’s gang rejects constraints of civilisation and turns to savagery. They mask their faces resembling carnivalesque fools and conduct a ritual dethroning by sticking a sow’s head on a spear, which becomes the “Lord” of the flies that swarm on it. By doing so they also create the likeness of the true “Lord of the Flies,” the lord of the devils, Beelzebub, thus emphasizing the notion of the evil’s strengthening grip over them. This idea of man’s innate evil may be observed in the light of the terrible events that occurred during the Second World War. Horrible crimes committed by allegedly civilised and highly educated men had a great impact on Golding fortifying his belief in human vileness. This made him question the social order and the ability of humans to better themselves and their condition. Moreover, by making his characters British, the descendants of a system that prepares them for imperial rule over others, hence ingraining in them a sense of social superiority, he shows that despite their belief in their great civilisation they still are capable of committing the same sort of atrocities committed in totalitarian states during the Second World War. Bearing in mind these events Golding says, “I believed then, that man was sick – not exceptional man, but average man. I believed that the condition of man was to be a morally diseased creation and that the best job I could do at the time was to trace the connection between his diseased nature and the international mess he gets himself into” (“Fable” 57). Conditioned by his moral disease, man has no choice but to create new dystopias, on a small as well as on a large scale.

© 2019 Erna Grcic 

Works Cited

Primary Sources

Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin Books, 2001. Print.

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Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. Print.

Biles, Jack I. Talk: Conversation with William Golding. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Jovanovich, 1970. Print.

Boyd, S.J. “The Nature of the Beast: Lord of the Flies.Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

Crawford, Paul. Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002. Print.

Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopaedia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite.  Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. DVD.

Firchow, Peter Edgerly. Modern Utopian Fictions from H. G. Wells to Iris Murdoch. Washington D.C.: The Catholic University of America, 2007. Print.

Golding, William. “On the Work as a Fable.” Bloom’s Guides: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ed. Harold Bloom. Broomall: Chelsea House Publishers, 2004. 56 – 58. Print.

Moss, Joyce. World Literature and Its Times: Profiles of Notable Literary Works and the Historical Events That Influenced Them. New York: Gale Group, 2001. Print.

Tiger, Virginia. “Lord of the Flies.” Bloom’s Modern Critical Interpretations: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008. Print.

Trahair, Richard C. S. Utopias and Utopians: An Historical Dictionary. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1999. Print.

Woodward, Kathleen. “On Aggression: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.No Place Else:Explorations in Utopian and Dystopian Fiction. Ed. Joseph D. Olander, Eric S. Rabkin, Martin Harry Greenberg. Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983. 199 – 224. Print.

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