William Golding’s novel, “Lord of the Flies”, may be set on a remote island sparsely populated with young boys who have become stranded and who are trying desperately yet ineffectively to establish and maintain order; however, the lessons that “Lord of the Flies” holds for the reader about the purpose and peril of government remain relevant as metaphors of modern politics. The naïve, inexperienced boys who have unexpectedly found themselves dropped into a place where there are no adults, no social institutions, and no order try to mimic the social organization that they think would reflect the adult world faithfully. One of the most important themes in ”Lord of the Flies” is government and its creation and shape. It is created out of necessity: they identify a leader, select symbols that give their society-building enterprise significance, establish rules and norms, and make attempts to fulfill their basic human needs while maintaining workable relationships with one another. Although all of these activities mirror the society from which they have become alienated—a society, which it is worth noting, is experiencing its own collapse due to war—the boys are ultimately unsuccessful in maintaining a workable and livable microcosm. What Golding seems to be saying about government in “Lord of the Flies” is that its institutions and norms will only have meaning and will only be effective if the people who make them and the citizens who agree to them are truly concerned about the greater good and if they understand why these elements of society were established and how they function.
When the boys wreck and find themselves stuck on an island, they are shocked to discover that there are no adults anywhere, and no immediate possibility of rescue is evident. They decide to impose order amongst themselves in a setting that is clearly without order. In terms of the theme of society and government in “Lord of the Flies” the boys believe that if each can be assigned and fulfill a particular role, they will survive on the island until someone happens upon them or until their parents come to look for them. The characters in “Lord of the Flies” efforts are well-intentioned, especially because they do have enough insight to recognize that they will simply not live unless they cooperate with one another and share responsibility for tasks of daily living, such as providing for the basic needs of shelter and food. The boys elect a leader, Ralph, who has already shown his creativity by blowing into a conch shell and calling the boys together. Although it is true that Ralph does show particular promise at this point, the boys fail to evaluate whether Ralph possesses the leadership qualities that will be necessary to function effectively in his role for an indeterminate period of time. They make their decision to elect him as their leader based on a single act.“They obeyed the summons of the conch,” the narrator says in one of the important quotes from Lord of the Flies by William Golding, “partly because Ralph blew it, and he was big enough to be a link with the adult world of authority….” (50). What Ralph represents symbolically is more meaningful to the boys at this point than his actual skills. Over time, they will come to regret this decision. Only in retrospect will they have a better understanding of what a leader is and what kinds of qualities he should possess.
Each of the other boys has a role to play in the construction of a utopian government in “Lord of the Flies”. A boy named Jack is appointed to all tasks related to food gathering, while the rest of the boys are expected to play citizen roles and in the division of labor. Each is to participate in building the infrastructure of the society, however temporary they expect it to be, and to support the activities that will promote their survival. One of the failures of the boys’ system, though, is that the leaders fail to evaluate the abilities of the citizens and make resources available to them which will help them fulfill the roles expected of them. The youngest boys, referred to as “littleuns,” do little to support the concrete work of society building; instead, they busy themselves with “play, aimless and trivial” (Golding 49). The shortcoming of this political system becomes evident almost immediately. The boys who have been told to keep a signal fire burning get distracted and the fire goes out of control. The fire is a loss in more way than one. The raging fire kills one of the boys, but when it finally burns out, the boys have lost an important symbolic and practical resource. This event creates conflict and divisiveness among the boys, starting their slow descent into social chaos. What makes the situation painful for the reader is that all of the negative consequences of the fire were avoidable. What Golding seems to be saying with this episode is that mistakes or oversights which are preventable in governments are common, but that these seemingly insignificant episodes tend to mark a tipping point. Inattentiveness to small issues will escalate matters until they become unmanageable and the consequences much more dire.
The fire marks a turning point for another reason. Some of the boys are so disappointed by the fire keepers’ oversight that they begin to split into competing groups; in doing so, they lose sight of the need to maintain a commitment to the good of the entire group, rather than the petty needs or interests of individuals. The already loose social order begins to unravel; boys who were assigned to certain tasks failed to fulfill them and began to pursue their own interest. The competing groups become suspicious of one another and thus begin to act in ways that do not foster the strength and survival of the community. The boys begin to become petty with one another, and act out in violent ways. It is at this point that the more mature boys recognize that “The world, that understandable and lawful world, was slipping away” (Golding 79). It is not only the survival of the social system, the loose optimistic form of governmentthat the boys have established that is in question, but the very survival of the boys themselves. Golding is pointing out that the structure of government has the power to protect and sustain when each individual in the society plays the role that has been assigned to him; however, when the responsibility is avoided, the government cannot rescue them.
The boys recognize that their government, their society in ”Lord of the Flies”, is falling apart, but their recognition of this fact does not help them determine how they can restore order. Some of the boys attempt to do so by insisting upon adherence to a strict code of conduct. “[T]he rules are the only thing we got!” (Golding 79), one says in an impassioned speech. He appeals to any remaining attachments and memories that the boys might have of the adult world by asking, “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or savages? What’s grown-ups going to think?” (Golding 79). The boys are not convinced by the speech, however. They continue to pursue their own individual or small group interests and their society loosens its grasp on any semblance of normality and functionality. The boys do indeed become savages, inconsiderate of each other and more so, inconsiderate of the idea of the society building enterprise, the central work of which involves establishing a functional government.
In ”Lord of the Flies”, novelist William Golding is not government-bashing. In fact, he seems to genuinely believe in the power and potential of a thoughtfully organized and executed government, especially one that is democratic in its ideology and structure. The situation that he establishes in Lord of the Flies demonstrates that the power and potential of government about which Golding is so confident is incredibly vulnerable to threats. Such threats are not limited to external enemies; indeed, the most significant threats may come from within the government itself. In “Lord of the Flies”, the boys enthusiastically pursue the project of developing a government that will help them establish and maintain social norms and expectations, and which will provide for their basic needs. However, the project is doomed for the outset. They choose a leader based on a single criterion rather than a thorough evaluation of his capacities. They assign roles without assessing citizens’ abilities and resources. They have no checks and balances to compensate for social unrest. For all of these reasons, the boys’ society-building project fails. One can read “Lord of the Flies” as a cautionary tale. While the novel is about children with limited insight striving to establish a society, the same challenges and threats they confront are common today.
Other essays and articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include : Utopias and Dystopias : A Comparison of Lord of the Flies and Animal Farm
Work Cited / Sources
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin, 1999.