Short Study Guide to

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Short Study Guide to Lord of the Flies

There are many excellent study guides to this novel, which is frequently taught in public schools. Rather than duplicate what they say, I’ll give a short run-down of the characters and some of the story’s essential conflicts and ideas.

Lord of the Flies is an allegory, which is a story in which the main characters, conflicts, situations, objects, and aspects of the setting are all symbolic. For example, Ralph and Jack are prototypes of two different kinds of leaders in human society. They have more than you might think in common. But Ralph is influenced in a positive way by two other symbolic characters, Simon and Piggy; whereas Jack is influenced in a negative way by a fifth symbolic character, Roger. Taken together, the boys represent:

  • Jack: the impulse to violence, brute force, and controlling others through fear. (He’s someone who “rules with the stick.”)

  • Roger: the enforcer, the torturer, the killer.

  • Ralph: the impulse to reason, order, and social justice; controlling others through offering benefits. (He’s someone who “rules with the carrot.”)

  • Piggy: the scientist, rational man; also the grown-up who always resorts to rules of order. (For example, see pages 78, 84, and 92.)

  • Simon: the person (rare, in Golding’s view) who is simply born to be good. He also represents the natural instinct for goodness, love, and hope. For this reason, it’s significant that he’s the first main character to die. Simon is also seen by Golding as a symbolic version of Moses climbing Mt. Sinai. (See chapter nine, pages 145-7.)

  • Samneric: They’re actually twins, Sam and Eric, who always think and act alike. Because they’re so similar to one another, they represent ordinary citizens who think alike and are easily swayed by others. Thinking alike, they also act alike, almost mechanically.

There are also two distinct societies on the island. The Biguns (Big Ones, that is, the older boys) are divided into two gangs, the hunters (Jack’s gang) and the builders (Ralph’s gang). These also represent two different types of adult societies; that is, two paths a society might take. The Littluns (helpless dependents) are at first drawn to the builders, but ultimately prefer the hunters. This is partly for an obvious reason—the hunters offer an essential food the builders don’t (meat). However, as fear takes over in a dangerous situation, they shift their allegiance to the hunters for another reason—as killers, the hunters can also defend against whatever might want to eat human beings. (For evidence that fear becomes the main issue, see pages 85-90.)

There are also some other more subtle reasons why the hunters triumph. To begin with, the builders are less effectual at what they do because what they want to do is harder to accomplish. (See “Huts on the Beach,” chapter three.) Moreover, later passages also show that the painted faces of the hunters offer that society an inherent emotional advantage. The face paint hides the boys’ individual identities, and therefore makes moral transgressions easier, offering a greater immediate outlet for anger and fear. (See “Castle Rock,” pages 172-6.) The face paint also allows for the dehumanization of victims. (See “The Shell and the Glasses,” page 160, where the boys deflect responsibility for the killing of Simon by arguing that the thing they killed wasn’t really Simon; it was the monster in disguise.) In other words, the hunters offer the boys emotional license to do whatever their feelings suggest. This emotional license allows the hunters to react to their island world without thinking of consequences and without accepting moral responsibility for what they do. That’s an easier way to deal with their dangerous situation. In the short run, it seems like a better way to cope.

One of the best places for understanding the allegorical conflict between the builders and the hunters is the beginning of chapter four, “Painted Faces and Long Hair,” especially pages 59-62. (Notice here how the boys’ vision is distorted by mirages, especially on pages 58-9.) The Littluns at first attempt to build sand castles in imitation of the civilized society they’ve lost. But Roger and Maurice are easily able to destroy these sand castles. As a result, the Littluns see the ease with which organized labor is destroyed by those who wield animal power.

The story also has several symbolic objects that enhance the central conflict about the two types of leaders and the two types of societies. Most notably, these are the conch, Piggy’s specs, the dead parachutist at the top of the mountain, and the boar’s head (called the “Lord of the Flies”). These objects can be understood first of all by looking at their functions. (Generally to understand the symbolism of an object, you should assume that objects represent what they do.) The conch helps Ralph to call others to an orderly assembly. Therefore it represents law, order, and the impulse to join others to achieve a common purpose. Specs (eyeglasses) help you see. Therefore they represent vision and hope. The dead parachutist represents the unknown, which includes their own possible deaths on the island. The boar’s head is a totem to the boys’ fear. It represents enslavement to fear, despair, and magical thinking.

In my edition, the symbolism can be seen on the following pages.

The conch: 16-17, 35-7, 42, 82-90, 125-6, 181.

The specs: 40-1, 64, 67, 71-2, 168.

The dead parachutist, also called the Beast: 95-6, 123, 146-7.

The boar’s head: 136-8, 143-4, 145-6, 185, 187.

There are also natural forces that have a life of their own once unleashed. For example, think of the fire (page 44.) Also think of the two sides of the island, representing the two tribes (pages 110-11).

More use of symbolic description:

  • Near the beginning, stages of the boys’ discarding of clothing equals stages in their discarding of civilization: Ralph & Piggy, pages 10, 11, 14; random boys, page 18; Jack’s choir, page 19 (irony: they are ultimately the least civilized, but at first they’re the most over-dressed; why is this fitting?). Jack is the first to become nearly naked: page 48. Ralph is the first to see that old, dirty clothing is uncomfortable: page 76, page 109-10.

  • Near the beginning, the island itself is civilized, like the interior of a house: page 12. Yet the wild sea encroaches: page 61. And what at first seemed to be a perfect place to hold meetings eventually begins to deteriorate and decay: page 77. Finally the semblance of shelter on the beach completely collapses: pages 166-7. The aftermath: pages 184-5.

  • The fire as a character with a life of its own: page 44; pages 197-200.

  • The jungle as a character with a life of its own: pages 31, 49, 57, 132-3.

  • The harsh sunlight creates mirages that mirror their false sense of security: page 58.

  • Roger and Maurice attack the Littluns’ attempts to build castles in the sand, which represent their attempts to hold on to memories of civilization: pages 59-60.

  • The face paint: pages 63-4.

  • The wildness of the sea breaking on the cliffs on the far side of the island: page 105, 110-11, 116-17.

  • The first kill: page 135. Simon and the sow’s head: page 138, 143-4.

  • The building thunderstorm as a character with a life of its own: page 145, 151-3. The aftermath: pages 173-4.

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