When Lord of the Flies was originally published in the 1950s it only sold a few thousand copies. Today, the novel by William Golding has become a literary classic akin to other great works read in schools across America like: Fahrenheit 451, The Great Gatsby, or Catch 22. The novel itself can be appreciated for its various allegorical interpretations, perhaps focusing its lens on politics or imperialism. However, above those particular socio-contemporary applications rests an astute observation of humanity at its base. That is, as Paul Elmen suggests, we are infused by certain “primordial and nameless vitalities” that, if left unchecked, will destroy us.
Set in a future fraught with nuclear war, a group of British schoolchildren emerge from a plane crash on a deserted island to discover that the adults are dead and they are alone. Some set out to reform a civilized society and await rescue while others embrace their “inner barbarian” as they hunt for food. One of the thematic elements inherent in the novel is its pitting the “civilized” camp versus the “savage” camp. Ralph and Piggy, two pictures of rational civilization, want to maintain a rescue fire in the hopes that a plane or ship can see it. Jack and Roger, two figures in the savage hunter crew, reject Ralph and Piggy, and, therefore, a more structured approach to society.
Inevitably, the cohesiveness of the group dynamic expressed in the characters’ initial meeting (via blowing of a conch shell) begins to unravel as time goes on. The more Jack and his crew hunt, the more bloodthirsty they become, until one day they kill one of their own as they are caught in the feral nature of a celebratory dance and war chant: Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!
Golding does an excellent job of balancing a utilitarian-style of writing with an effortless flourish of details at certain moments in the story. Case in point:
“The pile of guts was a black blob of flies that buzzed like a saw. After a while these flies found Simon. Gorged, they alighted by his runnels of sweat and drank. They tickled under his nostrils and played leapfrog on his thighs. They were black and iridescent green and without number; and in front of Simon, the Lord of the Flies hung on his stick and grinned.”
This is a description of a crucial scene where the author begins to reveal the true nature of the characters. Simon will soon come to realize that the mysterious “beast” hiding in the jungle is actually a behavioral disposition hiding deep down in them all waiting to devour their innocence as easily as those black flies can consume a pig carcass. Thus, the significance of the title of the story comes into view: The Lord of the Flies is a reference to Beelzebub, the prince of demons found in 2 Kings 1:2 and Matthew 10:24-25.
Golding is ultimately describing a “paradise lost” of the human condition, a move away from the garden and into the cursed soil of the heart. This is one of the strongest and most significant currents, as it were, running through Lord of the Flies, and he does a brilliant job of highlighting this current in elegant detail. As a matter of fact, putting aside the rich, multi-layered depths within the story, Golding is simply a great descriptive writer, and thus can be enjoyed purely as an architect of syntax. One of my favorite descriptive lines from the book is: “The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock.” Golding is painting word portraits here!
As was previously mentioned, despite the best efforts of Ralph and Piggy, the characters begin slouching toward violence and murder. Piggy bemoans the fact that “We did everything that adults do. Why didn’t it work?” This is revealing since Golding is likely suggesting that humanity’s defect lies not in societal structuring (as some would have us believe) but in humanity itself. This is exactly what Scripture teaches us.
Psalm 51:5 says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me.” Romans 3:11 tells us that, “there is none righteous, not even one…” Colossians 1:21 says we Christians were originally “alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds…” before our conversion by the grace of God. Finally, Jeremiah 17:9 reveals one of the most troubling facts about ourselves: “The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick; who can understand it?”
In other words, we are born sinners into a world of sin where we continually engage in evil all the while not fully understanding or appreciating our sin because we are fundamentally sick. Mankind has been broken ever since the seminal moment in the garden; and Golding, whether he intended to or not, is expressing this biblical truth, this Christian reflection of reality, in 200 riveting pages. The reality is: without God’s mercy and kind intention upon us, we as a people are hopelessly lost.
I suspect I know why Lord of the Flies is a classic tale. Others will tell you that it must be due to its symbolism or allegory. Maybe, but I think it’s deeper than that. I think that, because we know the truth deep down (Romans 1:21), Lord of the Flies connects with our awareness of that truth. Somewhere inside us we know the book is still entirely relevant to our lives, that it is reflecting the biblical accounting of the way reality is, and is thus shining a spotlight on the condition of our hearts.
 Paul Elmen, “Golding’s Lord of the Flies: Prince of the Devils,” Christianity and Crisis 23, No. 1 (February 4, 1963): 7.