Generally the books we review here are current, popular fiction. We review, not what we wish kids are reading, but what they’re actually reading. And while Lord of the Flies is certainly not pop fiction, if you have a child between 8th and 10th grade, there’s a good chance he or she is reading or will be reading it this classic. Recently at my school, a parent decided (some eight chapter in to this twelve chapter book) that the content was too disturbing for her child. That is a decision that every parent has the right to make, but perhaps if she had been a bit more informed, she could have made that call in time for the teacher to make an alternative assignment.
So, spoiler alert…this is a fairly detailed synopsis.
Lord of the Flies is a dystopian novel about a group of British boys stranded on an island after the plane evacuating them from boarding school crashes somewhere in the South Pacific. The first two boys we meet, Ralph and Piggy, find a conch shell and use it to call the other boys together. At this first meeting, we are introduced to Jack and his choir (apparently for British boarding school boys being the head of the choir is akin to being captain of the football team, so Jack wields a lot of clout). In any case, after some discussion about there being no grownups, the boys elect Ralph chief. Jack is clearly ticked that he wasn’t elected, but Ralph placates him by asking him to be in charge of the choir. Jack declares they will be the hunters. This role seems to satisfy Jack- for the time being.
At first the boys are elated at the realization that there are no grown ups. They see the whole thing as a big adventure. Thy set about right away establishing rules and a system of order. The conch is the symbol of this order. When Ralph blows it, it is a signal to the other boys to report for an assembly. Any boy holding the conch also holds the power to speak.
The fire is another important symbol in the novel. The boys light their fires by using Piggy’s glasses (another important symbol). Their first fire gets rapidly out of control and one of the younger children is never seen again. Still, Ralph insists that maintaining a signal fire is their best hope for rescue, and he places Jack and his hunters in charge of keeping the fire going. Unfortunately, Jack’s primary interest is in hunting and killing pigs.
Ralph works to build shelters and maintain order. Finally he and Piggy see a ship on the horizon, but their joy turns to panic when they realize the signal fire has gone out. Ralph is furious with Jack for not maintaining the fire and confronts him. But Jack has just returned from his first pig kill. Most of the boys are too excited about the prospect of meat to be too concerned with the missed rescue opportunity. When Piggy criticizes Jack, Jack slaps him breaking one of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses.
The carefree days of freedom the boys enjoyed in their early days on the island are all but gone. Jack becomes increasingly obsessed with hunting. Ralph is constantly frustrated with the lack of order, the filth, the fire, and his hair (another symbol). The littler boys, the Littluns, are having nightmares, fearing a beast that they believe inhabits the island. In fact, even some of the older boys are beginning to have their own fears about the beast. A few nights later when two of the boys (twins named Sam and Eric but simply called Samneric) are tending the fire, they awaken to see the body of a dead parachutist, who has drifted down to the island, hovering over them. They are terrified and run to the others to report that The Beast has attacked them. The boys organize a hunting party, and their fears are only confirmed when they come across the strange “ape-like creature” hanging in a tree.
After this, Jack tries to convince the others that Ralph in no longer fit to be chief because, among other reasons, Ralph was afraid when they were hunting The Beast. When none of the boys support Jack, he runs off in tears and says he’s “not playing.” Before long other boys slip off to join Jack’s tribe. Soon, only Ralph, Simon, Piggy, and Samneric are left to tend the fire. The Littluns are fending for themselves almost entirely now.
At this point, Simon, who has always been a bit of a loner, wanders off into the forest. From his secluded spot he witnesses Jack and the other hunters gleefully kill a mother sow. The boys then leave the pig’s head on a stick stuck in the ground as an offering to The Beast. When they leave and Simon is alone with this ghastly offering, he begins having a hallucination that the thing is speaking to him. She tells him that they cannot kill the beast because the beast is inside them all. The whole thing is very creepy. Simon faints or has a seizure. When he comes to, he goes up the mountain and finds the dead parachutist. Realizing what it is, he staggers down the mountain to tell the others. When he arrives at the beach, the other boys, including Ralph and Piggy, are engaged in a frantic dance in which they reenact the killing of the pig. Simon stumbles into their frenzy and the becomes The Beast in their imagination. They beat him, bite him, and claw him to death. His dead body is swept out to sea.
The following morning Ralph is ashamed and despondent. Piggy refuses to acknowledge what they’ve done, but Ralph calls it murder. Samneric join them at the fire and all four boys try to convince themselves and each other that they weren’t really there the night before at all. Once again, Ralph focuses his attention on keeping the fire going – a much more difficult task with only four boys.
That night while they sleep, Ralph, Piggy,and the twins are attacked by Jack’s tribe. They’ve come for Piggy’s glasses so they can re-start their own fire. They take them leaving poor Piggy nearly blind and utterly helpless. Perhaps it is because of this, Piggy is desperate enough to confront Jack, and he convinces Ralph to get the conch so they can go to Jack’s camp and talk some sense into him. There a fight breaks out between Jack and Ralph, but Piggy holding the conch, commands, for the first time since they’ve arrived, the attention of all the boys. He speaks eloquently and passionately about rules and order. Then Roger, the most evil of all the boys on the island, launches a bolder off the side of the cliff. It hits Piggy and sends him sailing off the side of the mountain to the rocks below, shattering both Piggy’s skull and the conch. Like Simon, Piggy’s lifeless body is claimed by the sea. With the conch gone, so is any lingering sense of order or fairness that Jack might still have possessed. He orders Samneric tied up and Ralph is forced to flee a barrage of spears.
Ralph spends the rest of the day and all that night hiding in terror for his life – especially after he sneaks up on Samneric tending the fire and they tell him of Jack’s plan to have the hunters hunt Ralph. The next day, in an attempt to smoke Ralph out of his hiding place, Jack’s tribe accidentally sets the entire island on fire. All the boys run to the water to escape. As the boys crawl across the sand, Ralph runs smack into a naval officer who had seen the fire. When the officer asks who is in charge, Jack starts forward then retreats. Ralph takes responsibility for the boys – then he breaks down and weeps “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.”
This might be one of the reasons some parents find this book so disturbing. The killing of Simon is horrific. Piggy’s fall from the cliff and subsequent skull shattering is describe in fairly graphic detail. And the slaughter of the pigs is even a bit disturbing. Most teachers (including me) would argue that this graphic violence is necessary to the plot – to illustrate the level of savagery the boys sink to. Still, some parents might want to check it out for themselves The killing of the mother pig is in chapter 8. Simon’s death is in chapter 9. And Piggy is killed in chapter 11.
In chapter 8, when the boys kill the sow, one of them shoves a spear up her anus. Then all the boys get a huge kick out of repeating the phrase, “Right up her ass!”
There is the mysterious beast, that comes to life in Simon’s hallucination. In that moment it is named “Lord of the Flies.” This is actually a biblical reference to the devil Beelzebub in the Bible. In other words, one way to look at it, is that the Lord of the Flies is the devil. At some points in the novel the beast is thought of as a creature apart from the children. In Simon’s hallucination, the beast reveals she is a part of them. Scary stuff.
When I read this novel with my students, I tell them that it reminds me of a slumber party I went to in 7th grade. One of the fun things about slumber parties is that you stay up way later than any grownups. You are, in essence, on your own – or at least it feels that way. At one point in this particular party, someone decided to play a practical joke on another girl. Everyone (including the girl) thought it was funny. So funny, in fact, that some other girls played their own practical joke. One prank led to another, and by 2:00 a.m. we had chosen teams and were in an all out prank war. I remember at one point in the evening thinking that things had gotten out of hand, but I didn’t say anything. I was driven by both fun and anger to keep going. No one was hurt. And no damage was done to anyone’s reputation or self-esteem, but property was destroyed and mother’s were called. In the end, I had no answer for why I went along except that everybody else was doing it. It was a mob mentality. Now, if a few 12 year old girls can get carried away in one evening. Imagine what a group of 12 year old boys would do after several months. Well, we don’t have to imagine it. William Golding has shown us.
– Are people basically good or basically evil?
-What would happen if we lived without rules?
-Is it rules that keep us civilized or is it our natural goodness or sense of right and wrong? Do we need rules to keep us from sinking into chaos or savagery?
-What is a mob mentality? Why are people so susceptible to mob behavior?