Golding’s Spurs Examination of Human Nature Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

A study of the human capacity for evil, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a parable about a group of boys marooned on an island. It proved to have great resonance, not only for adult readers—its original intended audience—but also for younger readers.

Summary of Event

Soon after Lord of the Flies (1954) was published in its first U.S. edition in 1955, it became a campus phenomenon. Time magazine called it “Lord of the Campus” and identified it as one in a series of underground literary favorites that were challenging the required reading lists of the traditional humanities curriculum. Before William Golding’s surprise best seller, it was common knowledge that students were reading “unauthorized books,” especially J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), in spite of (and frequently because of) their condemnation by “the establishment.” The existence of a serious subliterature with an intelligent, dedicated readership flourishing in the midst of the conventional curriculum was something unprecedented on college campuses. Lord of the Flies (Golding) [kw]Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature (1954)[Goldings Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature] [kw]Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature, Golding’s (1954) [kw]Human Nature, Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of (1954)[Human Nature, Goldings Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of] Lord of the Flies (Golding) [g]Europe;1954: Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature[04310] [g]United Kingdom;1954: Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature[04310] [c]Literature;1954: Golding’s Lord of the Flies Spurs Examination of Human Nature[04310] Golding, William

William Golding.

(The Nobel Foundation)

In Lord of the Flies, Golding postulates a future time and an imaginary island. What he tells readers about that time—planes, warships, and atomic bombs—is an extension of the very real present; he does not suggest weapons or machines or circumstances that are still in the fantasy stage. His threats are real even if his setting is not. It is the very deceptiveness of the setting that gives his tale its unique character. What could be further removed from the threat of death and devastation than an exotic tropical island, the sort of paradise that holiday dreams are made of, a land of love and sweet indulgence? Golding’s island becomes a grim microcosm of the monstrous world that surrounds it and that introduces evil to it after a plane carrying refugees from an English boys’ school crashes during what seems to be a third world war.

Golding is carefully selective of details, but those he provides are not the trappings of a fairy-tale world. The island at first seems as innocent as any island one might find in the Caribbean or the South Pacific. It has palm trees and fruit trees, sunshine and sandy shores, peace and quiet. At first, the boys behave the way one would expect of children who are temporarily without adult supervision. They horse around and tease one another, offering insults in the language of the playground; neglectful of their appearance, they are unaware that as the sun burns their faces and the salt water bleaches their hair, their clothes are disintegrating and they are looking and acting more and more like savages.

The scene grows ominous as it dawns on the boys that there are no adults around to intervene, nor are there likely to be. It is at this point that their “play” takes on sinister overtones. At the end of the book, when adults come “just in time,” it comes more as a shock than as a relief, for readers know that the boys’ warfare has been interrupted by adults who are participating in a deadlier warfare of their own, and on a much larger scale. It is not until the naval officer smiles indulgently at the little rascals and mutters something about “fun and games” that the full extent of the horror of what is happening really hits. Although the boys have been halted temporarily in their regression to barbarism, the sleek cruiser lying peacefully at anchor on the horizon is waiting to transport them back to a world that, like their island, is already going up in flames.

When Golding, as a sailor on duty in the North Atlantic during World War II, saw the ecstasy on the faces of his fellow sailors as they returned the fire of the enemy or launched an attack, he realized with a shock of recognition that the beast of gratuitous aggression was within almost everyone, waiting to break through the fragile veneer of civilization. Golding reveals that reason is subservient to humanity’s depraved instincts and that the moment people forget why they have constructed a rational social structure to protect themselves, these instincts will clamor for release and destroy that structure. At that point, one dominant order arises that demands total fidelity. Once this order becomes oppressive, however, or fails to nourish the depraved instincts of the loyal, loyalty falters, restlessness takes root, and reason limps forth to offer at least temporary balance.

On Golding’s island, order lasts only until the boys become aware that there is no one to enforce it but themselves. Because they have never known the reason behind order, they have no reason to respect its function. What they feel is a sense of freedom: freedom from restraint, from discipline, from rules they never understood and that seemed to be imposed only to keep them from enjoying whatever they wanted to enjoy. Freedom for them is freedom from reason, or freedom to indulge instincts.

These instincts, according to Golding, are aggressive. The boys kill primarily for the sake of killing, and after that, for sacrifice. Killing for food runs a poor third. Their killing is mixed up with power, sex, and fear. They are driven by the desire to dominate, to violate, and to feel threatened by mysterious forces. Their feelings are, of course, the basic impulses behind political, social, and religious institutions, and their recrudescence is to the earliest known manifestation of these impulses: the primitive hunting society, led by a fierce oligarchy, circumscribed by a rigid code of social obligation, and dedicated to the pacification through worship of and sacrifice to a mysterious, threatening force.

Slowly, irresistibly, the supporters of Ralph, who represents the social order of the outside world, are drawn toward the charismatic Jack, who becomes the virtual dictator of the other boys. Finally there are only four holding out: Ralph, Piggy (a nearsighted, thoughtful boy), and the twins Sam and Eric. Then the twins are captured and Piggy is killed. Ralph is alone, a civilized man alone against the powers of darkness. Readers are left with the awful suspicion that he remains “civilized” only because Jack must have an enemy, and Ralph must be that enemy. Excluded forever from Jack’s group, Ralph encourages exaggerated sympathy because he is so terribly alone; a victim always seems somehow more civilized than his tormentors. Nevertheless, much of the power of the book derives from the fact that one’s sympathies must be with Ralph and that readers therefore can feel the vulnerability, the awful weakness, of flimsy rationality at the mercy of a world gone mad. There is no place to run, no place to hide, no exit. Rescue is only temporary and is perhaps ultimately more horrible than quick and early death.

Significance

Readers who were attracted to Lord of the Flies in the 1950’s were at odds with a world that was sinking into complacency as a reaction to a half-century of economic and political upheaval, punctuated by wars of unprecedented horror. They saw a world that they feared was recycling itself for more disaster. They were concerned about social inequalities that festered but were ignored, and they were worried about the atomic bomb. Golding’s book gave them the explanations for which they were looking. It made human selfishness and indifference a cold fact of human nature, and it made the metaphor of the burning island only too relevant to fears of a world in radioactive flames.

The book also spoke to confusion about the world’s shifting and baffling political alliances. Americans who once had been convinced that the Germans and the Japanese were less than human were beginning to suspect that these people were not really monsters. They were even more puzzled by the Russian bear, who was suddenly chasing about the world gobbling up the defenseless and threatening his former keepers. Whom could you trust? No one, said Golding, and especially not yourself. A knowledge of the human heart of darkness, however, cold comfort as it might be, was at least some defense against dread. Those who could admit common beastliness could perhaps do something to contain it.

Golding appealed to those who were deeply suspicious of humanity and who believed that human instincts required constant restraint. Unfortunately, when they neglected to include themselves among the tainted, they tended to assume the kind of lofty attitude the book unfortunately encouraged. Golding’s thesis is an absolute that allows no room for balanced judgment. One can either deny one’s own depravity or sit back and wait for it to ruin oneself.

The discomfort that the boys willingly endure in Lord of the Flies is exceeded only by the pain they enjoy inflicting on one another. It is the politics of pain at its most basic: One is either a giver or a receiver of pain. The boys in Lord of the Flies accept Jack’s tyranny because it excuses their own licentiousness. Their minds are possessed by fear and by the handmaidens of fear, which are hate, lust, and anger.

Those who took Golding’s thesis to heart were able to torture themselves by searching out their own depravity and either exaggerating it or capitulating to it—or both. To them, this unalterable truth about their own natures soured every deed and thought. They grew suspicious of their own intentions and found in everything they did a selfish motive. To them, civilization was a fraud, an artfully constructed facade designed to deceive both oneself and others while the forces of self-aggrandizement were at work. Smiles, cooperation, and united goals were also masks for the advancement of the self, and this advancement meant nothing more than self-gratification.

Golding’s most ardent followers turned reactionary. Humanity’s depravity had been revealed to the world most horribly and visibly in the two world wars of the first half of the twentieth century, and there was every reason to believe that it was necessary to retreat to the safer ground of an earlier order, if only to postpone the inevitable Armageddon. Power was too diffuse, society too open, religion too ineffectual, education too liberal to retard the decline.

Governments had to be stronger, and there was even an upsurge of interest in the machinations of recent dictators, not to rejoice over their failures but to learn how not to go wrong. If the world gave in to leaders like Jack, the world deserved them. How could Jack be blamed if others submitted so willingly? Recent world dictators might be called depraved; Jack was simply shrewd. At worst, he was the one-eyed king in the land of the blind; at best, he was a model of the leader responsible only unto himself and not to those who chose to follow him instead of his example. The persistence of tyranny, violence, and even genocide into the twenty-first century indicates the tenacity of evil in the modern day, providing Golding’s Lord of the Flies with modern audiences who can appreciate his insight into the darker side of human nature. The book inspired movie renditions by Peter Brook in 1963 and Harry Hook in 1990. Lord of the Flies (Golding)

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Babb, Howard S. The Novels of William Golding. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1970. Lucidly written but tentative. Its attempt to assess a career in midstream is necessarily limited, but what it says about Lord of the Flies remains remarkably relevant.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Baker, James R. “The Decline of Lord of the Flies.” South Atlantic Quarterly 69 (1970): 446-460. Attributes the decline of the book’s reputation to the mood of the 1960’s and views about Vietnam, Aquarianism, a naïve view of humanity, and rejection of original sin. An original if debatable thesis, well argued and provocative, and interesting for its close-up look at the 1960’s.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. William Golding: A Critical Study. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1965. The first major critical study of Golding, scholarly but readable. What Baker has to say about Lord of the Flies is both profound and prophetic.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Carey, John, ed. William Golding: The Man and His Books. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1987. A satisfying overview of Golding’s life and works and the peculiar relationship between the two. Avoids the abstractions of the textual critic in favor of the substantive virtues of biographical and psychological criticism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCarron, Kevin. William Golding. 2d ed. Tavistock, Devon, England: Northcote House, 2006. Brief monograph analyzing Golding’s work and legacy; published by the British Council. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meitcke, W. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron’s, 1984. A good, readable consensus of mainstream responses to Golding’s most famous novel. Very good for any reader encountering the novel for the first time.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelson, F. William, ed. William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”: A Source Book. New York: Odyssey Press, 1963. A splendid toolbox for anyone interested in the fascinating background of a novel that is very much in the tradition of the boys’ adventure genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Scott, James B. Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”: A Critical Commentary. New York: Barrister, 1966. A good, early commentary that remains curiously undated in spite of all the criticism that has followed. Addresses most of the issues that have either puzzled or provoked critics, without sounding like the last word.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Whitley, John S. Golding: “Lord of the Flies.” London: Edward Arnold, 1970. A sophisticated study guide in the Studies in English Literature series. Especially good for its historical value as a challenging piece of earlier criticism.

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