Not for the cast of William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. Of course, the complicating factor for the boys in Lord of the Flies is that they’re marooned on a desert island. Which means they have to worry about survival—and a lurking Beast—and can’t just enjoy life without adults.
The other complicating factor is that Golding’s Lord of the Flies isn’t just some cheerful adventure story. It’s a study in human weakness. A meditation on barbarism. It’s about the conflict between civilization and savagery. And, yes, the choice between good and evil. It’s about what happens when selfishness trumps decency.
What happens? Here’a hint: William Golding was not an optimist.
Lord of the Flies : Context and Resources
William Golding survived the horrors of World War II with an abiding faith in mankind’s capacity for evil. (Golding’s favorite among his 13 published novels was The Inheritors, which imagines our prehistoric ancestors, the Homo Sapiens, killing off the last tribe of ape-like Neanderthals.) So a deeper understanding of Lord of the Flies requires an understanding of its author.
William Golding’s Biographer
Here’s a brief radio interview with William Golding’s biographer, John Carey, who spent six months reading the author’s daily diaries (two and a half million words). “…The fact that that [Lord of the Flies] eclipsed everything else he did,” Carey says, “was, to him, a very bitter dose to swallow.”
Here’s a review of Carey’s biography, WILLIAM GOLDING, The Man Who Wrote “Lord of the Flies”: A Life. Golding’s neuroses defined and inhibited his career as a write: “Time and again the impression is of a man in a form of omnipresent torment of one kind or another: sometimes it would be mild and possibly amusing; at other moments, debilitating and damagingly neurotic.”
William Golding’s Daughter
William Golding’s daughter, Judy Carver, published a memoir, The Children of Lovers, depicting Golding as a loving but tormented father.
Here’s an interview in which Carver shares details of her life as Golding’s daughter. “In many ways very kind and very understanding and very sweet,” she says. But then there was another side: “I know he referred to himself as a monster. Very occasionally I remember him behaving quite badly, being unkind,”
Golding said that his experiences in World War II, inspired a view of humanity’s capacity for evil that led him to write Lord of the Flies.
Here’s an overview of Golding’s wartime experiences in the British Royal Marines. One probable literary influence: An adventure tale, Coral Island, published in 1857. Coral Island tells the story of three young British boys, shipwrecked on a desert island, who learn to survive without adults. The boys are brave and resourceful, and get along splendidly. Lord of the Flies is said to represents Golding’s effort to bring a more “realistic” sensibility to an old English boarding school fantasy.
History and Response
Golding’s novel–his first–was turned down by 21 publishers. A junior editor, Charles Monteith, rescued the manuscript from the reject pile at one of those publishers. Monteith would become one of the most illustrious book editors of the 20th century.
Here’s Charles Monteith’s obituary. Monteith directed Golding to make a few changes to the text before publishing Lord of the Flies in 1954. The book sold 3000 copies before it went out of print in 1955. Subsequent printings cemented its place in the canon of English literature and Golding’s place as a writer worthy of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Here’s The New York Times review, October 1955, of Lord of the Flies, “a strange and deeply disturbing novel.” (Ralph, the reviewer observes, is a “character marked for oblivion in any upheaval.” Piggy is “the egghead born to be cracked in time under the iron compulsions of conformity.”) The review begins with veiled criticism of the publisher’s marketing campaign: “This reader plunged into Chapter One eagerly—expecting, at the very least, a Tom Sawyer with a British accent.” It concludes: “What distressed us most in Mr. Golding’s tidy allegory is the total absence of hope.”
Here’s a news report of the Swedish Academy’s decision to award Golding the Nobel Prize. It includes the account of a rare public protest by one member of the jury.
Speaking of the Swedish Academy, here’s the Nobel Prize’s official interactive Lord of the Flies quiz. Really.
Ethical and Philosophical Issues
Are ordinary people capable of evil deeds, or are evil doers inherently evil? Philosophers have considered the question for thousands of years. William Golding offered his answer in Lord of the Flies. In 1971, psychologists at Stanford University sought to bring statistical rigor to the discussion.
Here’s a description of the Stanford Prison Experiment, a planned two-week laboratory study in the psychological effects of prison, halted after six days because of its effect on participants.
Here’s an article about the participants themselves that looks into the effect, after 40 years, of the Stanford Prison Experiment on their lives.
Here’s an overview of a recent UCLA study challenging a widely-held assumption that bullying reflects an effort by the aggressor to compensate for low-esteem. The UCLA research shows, in fact, that bullies have “ridiculously high” opinions of themselves.