I had a whole plan for this post. I was going to rant about how Lord of the Flies is so often universalized to be about human nature, when its subjects were really specific. I was going to talk to you about the very unexpected Tumblr fandom I bumped into around Lord of the Flies, whose members make memes and fan art and ship Jalph (Jack/Ralph) — consider that the first thing that likely didn’t get covered in your high school English class.
It was going to be silly and informative. I’d start by telling you the journey I’ve had with the book: how it was assigned in school and I finished it early and hated it, and then I read it again to try to understand why it was so revered and still hated it. About how I grew up to be (briefly) an English teacher, and reading it as an adult, I found new appreciation for the language, and more importantly, I learned that it was meant to be a response to books that paint British school boys as angelic.
Look! See? I had memes! Here’s another!
But instead of “fun facts” about LOTF, I learned a few disturbing facts, so this isn’t the fun post I wanted to write. It’s definitely not something I got taught in school about the author or this book, though, so let’s start here.
William Golding admitted to attempting to rape a teenage girl as young man.
Golding often referred to himself as monstrous to his family and vacillated between drinking heavily and abstaining completely. He wrote a never-published memoir detailing some of his inner demons, addressed to his wife, titled Men and Women Now. In it, he described attempting to rape a 15-year-old girl when he was on holiday from his first year at Oxford. The girl had taken piano lessons from Golding, and he described her as “depraved” and “sexy as an ape.”
This memoir and other unpublished writings of Golding’s were used to inform the biography The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by His Daughter by Judy Golding, in case you want to learn more about the author.
Golding was a teacher and experimented psychologically on his students.
Golding’s father was a teacher, and he joined the family profession in his 20s and would go on to teacher for 20 years — though there is a gap when he served in the Navy. He taught English and Philosophy, and there are mixed accounts of how effective a teacher he was. He was clearly more interested in his writing.
Prior to publishing Lord of the Flies, he took students on a field trip to Figsbury Rings, the site of ancient ruins. He separated them into two groups: one to attack the fort, and one to defend it. Then, he describes that he “gave them more liberty, and I gave them more liberty, and more, and more — I drew further away. My eyes came out like organ stops as I watched what was happening.” Although he gave no details of what the boys did, he implied it quickly got serious: “Give me liberty, or give me death — well it was a point where these were no longer simple alternatives.” (William Golding: The Man who Wrote Lord of the Flies by John Carey)
This was only an exaggeration of something Golding did often: he encouraged students to take opposing, extreme positions to see what would happen. He admitted in a lecture to introducing a “certain measure of experimental science” in his teaching, which left some student feeling manipulated and used (Carey).
Although there is some debate about whether the main characters of Lord of the Flies were directly inspired by students of his, he did tell his class (as he handed out excerpts), “You might recognize bits of yourself” (Carey).
Those are the facts that really changed my perspective while researching this post. We can argue about separating art from the artist, but if this book is being taught as a sweeping generalization about the nature of human beings, it seems worth noting that the author admitted to some pretty disturbing things. His well-known quote, “I think women are foolish to pretend they are equal to men, they are far superior and always have been” reads differently now, for me.
I don’t know how to talk about this book with this information in mind, but it felt disingenuous to leave out or to bury at the end. So I’m going to leave it to you to decide how that informs your perspective of the book, and move on to facts specific to the novel.
Lord of the Flies is a satire of The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne.
At once point, the genre of “boys get stranded on an island and have a merry adventure” was a popular one, epitomized by The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne, which Golding read several times as a child and also read to his children.
In the wake of a world war and the threat of nuclear war, though, these adventures began to look different. They always depicted white, upper class boys who thrived in these exotic locales. In fact, they often encountered native inhabitants and taught them their superior ways: it’s an imperialist narrative.
Golding had real doubt about the idea that British school boys would behave this way outside of the strict structures and power dynamics they were used to — partly because of his years as a teacher, and partly because the war was proving how barbaric this supposedly civilized nation could be.
Golding described that The Coral Island had “rotted to compost” in his mind, and in its place, “a new myth put down roots” (New Perspectives on British Authors by Rama Kundu). In fact, he even uses the same names for his main characters, keeps the same setting, and includes a character comparing their situation to The Coral Island.
This was the key that made me better understand the story: if I had been taught that is was in conversation with these earlier works, I think I would have better understood as a student the tone and pessimism of the novel.
It was never meant to be universal.
What frustrated me most about how I was taught Lord of the Flies was this idea that the book demonstrates the True Nature of Humanity. This, I was led to believe, was how anyone would behave if we didn’t have strict structures of powers and a system of law and enforcement. Not only did that idea not match my own opinions, but it also didn’t seem to be convincingly argued by the text. I can see how that’s true of this group of people, but how are they meant to be representative of all people?
The answer, it turns out, is that they aren’t. Golding was specifically replying to those The Coral Island–style narratives of (white) British boys as angelic representatives of the strength of the empire. He addressed why he didn’t include girls in the story by saying that, one, he was more familiar with the childhood experiences and nature of boys (both by being one and by teaching them), and two, that “if you land with a group of little boys, they are more like a scaled-down version of society than a group of little girls would be.” He also didn’t want the group to be boys and girls because he didn’t want to address the idea of sex in the novel.
While Golding followed that up by saying, “this is a terrible thing to say because I’m going to be chased from hell to breakfast by all the women who talk about equality,” I think it’s reasonable that when Golding was addressing British society, which has positions of power dominated by men, he did so through male characters.
The problem becomes taking this specific set of concerns — one that is reminiscing about The Coral Island (a story hardly any high school student now will have heard of), concerned with nuclear war (still a problem, but likely not the first one teenagers think of as a threat to society), and specifically critiquing British politics and social norms of the 1940s and ’50s — and applying it as equally relevant to all people across all time periods.
While there is value in looking at some of the themes of the novel and how they are relevant now, it does a disservice to the story to isolate it from the original context: not just the time period (which is usually taught in high school English classes), but also the class, gender, and race specificity.
There was a real-life Lord of the Flies situation. It played out differently.
In 1965, six boys from Tonga ran away from boarding school by taking a fishing boat — but then they got shipwrecked and stranded for more than a year. By the time they were rescued,
the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.
Tellingly, while the fire in Lord of the Flies is at the center of much of the conflicts in Lord of the Flies, the real life stranded boys managed to keep a fire going continually that entire time.
The kids agreed to work in teams of two, drawing up a strict roster for garden, kitchen and guard duty. Sometimes they quarrelled, but whenever that happened they solved it by imposing a time-out. Their days began and ended with song and prayer.
When one of the boys slipped and broke his leg, they set it with sticks and took care of him. When he was finally able to see a doctor after rescue, they found it had healed perfectly.
Of course, this isn’t the exact scenario of Lord of the Flies. They weren’t white British boys, for one, but they were also all friends. While they struggled, especially in the dry summer months, they also eventually discovered a volcanic crater where Tongans had lived and then abandoned 100 years ago, but where chickens, taro, and bananas had continued to thrive.
But that’s entirely the point: Lord of the Flies can’t be applied to all of humanity. It’s a story commenting on a specific moment in time and the systems of power that exist there.
Lord of the Flies was initially unsuccessful, and Golding went on to dislike it.
The manuscript for Lord of the Flies was rejected many times, including by editors within Faber & Faber. If you thought the book was boring, Polly Perkins, the editor who did most of the fiction screening for the publisher, agreed with you. Her note read, “Absurd & uninteresting fantasy about the explosion of an atom bomb on the Colonies…Rubbish & dull. Pointless.” While another editor picked it up and took a chance on it, it sold fewer than 5,000 copies and went out of print. It was only in later years that it began to receive critical acclaim.
Speaking of later years, as the book rose in popularity, Golding began to resent it overshadowing all of his other work. When he was convinced to reread it in 1972, he pronounced it “boring and crude. The language is O-level stuff” (Carey).
I highly recommend any high school student who was assigned Lord of the Flies and is hating it to bring up that quote in class: “I think this book is boring and crude, and the author agreed with me.”
Stephen King is a big fan of the book.
Let’s end this on a lighter note. Stephen King wrote a foreword for the 2011 edition of the book in which he talked about how pivotal it was to his reading and writing life:
It was, so far as I can remember, the first book with hands — strong ones that reached out of the pages and seized me by the throat. It said to me, “This is not just entertainment; it’s life-or-death.”
So those are eight things about Lord of the Flies they probably didn’t teach you in high school. (If they did teach you about the Tumblr fandom, I am very surprised.) While I went into this thinking I had finally made my peace with this book, the research has only unsettled me more.
I will say that when I observed classes teaching this book, I noticed a few things. One, that the idea of what human nature is and how people do evil things and descend into immorality is a compelling subject for teenagers. Two, that the language and specifics of the book are huge barriers to entry. While there is a lot of symbolism to unpack, it can feel so dense as to be impenetrable for the average high school reader.
Why do we keep teaching this book that is so intensely of its time, a reflection of that era’s concerns? It’s not the only one to grapple with issues of morality or human nature, and there are many, many examples that students would enjoy reading more. Why do we still insist on teaching books that students find boring, that turn them away from reading? While it’s important to be challenged in classes, it needs to be at an appropriate level, and one that doesn’t convince further students that reading isn’t for them.
I hope that in the future, we move away from Lord of the Flies as a staple text in the high school English classroom. I think it can be great as a book chosen by interested students who get the appropriate context for it, but there’s no need for every student on the continent to read it. Teenagers right now have their own justified fears and frustrations, including the very present threat of climate catastrophe. They deserve to have conversations about these ideas, not critiques of another country’s society a lifetime ago.