Are we still living on the island?

Written in the post-war period, and published during a time of nuclear tension, William Golding’s 1954 novel Lord of the Flies, explores notions of abandonment and home when “a pack of British boys” find themselves stranded on an island in the South Pacific. The isolated setting allows Golding to present the swift fall of these boys from civilised to “savage”, and, as the novel unfolds, critique ideas surrounding the role of the parent or adult, security, and British society itself.

Abandonment came long before the boys in Lord of the Flies found themselves on the island. Other than Piggy, who stayed home because of his asthma, the boys were all likely at boarding school. We know for certain that Ralph was as he has flashbacks to his childhood in chapter seven. When remembering the cottage on the edge of the moors it is described that “this one stood out with particular clarity because after that house he had been sent away to school.” It is interesting to note that this flashback, and nostalgia for a sense of safety that comes with having a “home” where “everything is right” is nestled between two descriptions of violence: first, a description of the wild and relentless Pacific Ocean, and second, the frenzied attempted killing of the boar. Golding’s use of juxtaposition clearly highlights the “miles of division” between him and safety, and it is in this moment that Ralph realises that he is “clamped down…helpless…condemned”. The action of sending a son to boarding school, some as young as five years old, results in long-term damage as they are wrenched from an environment of love and safety at an early age. This damage seems to manifest itself in the boys’ increasingly violent actions.

Despite not receiving what would have been seen as a ‘good English Education’, and speaking in an accent that can be recognised as from a lower class to the other boys, Piggy is the most educated boy on the island, who constantly critiques the actions of the other boys. Piggy questions the rest: “which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?” and, until his very end, holds onto The Conch as a symbol of civilisation and democracy, which shatters into a “thousand white fragments” and “ceased to exist” at the moment of his death. Throughout the novel, the boys’ response, led by Jack, to Piggy’s insights is violence – first cruel words, second a punch to the stomach, and ultimately his death. Does a ‘good education’ result in good “British boys”, or, as Golding may be suggesting, is it the British Boarding School education itself that breeds violence and cruelty?

Only Ralph and Piggy seem to have any substantial memory of home that we see as readers, therefore they are the characters who see the importance of creating a sense of home – they build huts, make attempts at hygiene, and recognise the fire as a symbol of hope and rescue.  Alternatively, Jack seems to have no apparent memory of home, and instead sees the fire as a tool for the product of his hunting. It could be suggested that this is because Jack has no memory of early safety and love. British Boarding Schools were (and are) places of loneliness, violence, and learned cruelty. The so-called ‘British Values’ that were taught are the very notions that enable the boys to fall so easily and quickly into savagery. Ironically, just before the uncontrolled fire ravishes the side of the mountain and kills at least one littlun’, Jack states “we’re not savages. We’re English”. Golding chooses to follow this statement with “and the English are best at everything”, an overt suggestion that what “the English” are actually best at is destruction and violence.

The Conch, while a symbol of civilisation and democracy, can also be a symbol of home. A shell is a home in itself for sea creatures, and The Conch is first found along with Piggy’s dialogue about a conch being used to summon a mother: Piggy explains to Ralph that someone “used to blow it and then his mum would come.” However, the boys are separated from society, habits, and mothers, so while The Conch is used to summon, it does not summon safety and love, or, in short, a mother. Mentions of mothers are rare in Lord of the Flies – the only maternal figure on this island is the sow the boys choose to hunt and kill. The sow is a mother that they hunt, rape, kill, and finally eat. She is a mother who fails (to no fault of her own). Is this a symbol of the mothers who have failed these boys before their time on the island? Who have sent them away to boarding school? Perhaps their actions towards her are ones of anger towards their own mothers that stems from their sense of abandonment. The boys receive nourishment from this mother, the sow, in the form of meat, but it is not the nourishment they actually need – love and safety. It is no surprise then that this sow turns into a beast: The Lord of the Flies.

Another form “the Beast” takes is the form of the dead parachutist. Despite Ralph and Piggy almost summoning this adult in ‘Beast from Water’ through their lamentations – Piggy declares that “grown-ups know things”, and Ralph’s desire to be sent “something grown-up…a sign or something”, they are unable to recognise this “sign” when it arrives. Despite the dramatic irony used by Golding, in which the reader knows what and who this “beast” is, this “beast” is still terrifying as it is human without a face and without action, once again, an adult who cannot be what they need him to be.

When a “grown-up”, the Naval Officer, finally arrives on the island the first thing he does is display disappointment and embarrassment of the boys. He chides the boys for not being able to “put up a better show”, and “a little embarrassed…turn[s] away” when the boys, including Ralph, weep. This is a man (likely a product of boarding school too) who is unable to comfort or offer emotional support to a crying child. These boys will likely return to a broken world and, with the threat of war looming, be sent into battle – something they have already faced on the island, but this time it will be violence condoned by society, even praised. The adult world will not offer them the comfort, the safety, and the love that they long for. Instead they are met with typical “British” civility: a product of the British Boarding School. The novel ends here: rescue but not. Golding closes the book on a moment that suggests the boys are collected, but will never be truly rescued.

British Education, values, and society itself has moved on from the memory and fear of world war that permeated the context of Lord of the Flies. But the novel itself remains disturbingly relevant. It is taught in British schools to British students who live in a government dominated by boarding school boys. The world’s violence is no longer overt – it is quiet, it is online, it is private. Children are still separated from their families, and the adults of this world are making decisions that are contrary to their children’s futures. Children have begun to take action where there is inaction from adults. Is this an indication that, if Lord of the Flies was to happen today, there would be hope and progress on the island? Or are the damages too deep, the world too destructive – with no one to depend on?

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