What is the Lord of the Flies?

Learnt pathology.

When Simon hallucinates with the pig’s head talking to him, berating him, Golding reveals one of the driving themes in the novel: the beast is inside of all of us. However, with Simon’s inner voice clearly not his own, but likely a schoolmaster’s: ‘poor misguided boy’, Golding reveals that the voice is not necessarily an inherent evil forged by nature and genetics, but one shaped by the environment. The novel then serves to make transparent the inner voices of the central characters, and develop the notion that without societal boundaries to keep in check these learnt psychological defects, that they become exacerbated, destructive, and lethal. 

The most influential of the characters is the central antagonist, Jack, immediately introduced in the novel as a metaphoric shadow, controlling the group of exhausted choirboys.  The need to control those around him is Jack’s learnt defect, perhaps the result of imperious parenting or schooling depriving him of any sense of control or freedom. His ‘mortification’ when Ralph is voted as chief, and petulance when outvoted for a second time: ‘I’m not going to play any longer’, is telling, and his angry intimidating reaction to his embarrassment of not killing the pig, slamming the knife into the tree and looking around challengingly, forebodes further troubles for other characters not able to withstand such a force. Perhaps the most indicative action to avoid the inner beast is his painting of his face, the mask, without accident in the colours of the Nazi party, ‘liberating him from shame and self-consciousness, and allowing him to unloose his pent anger. 

The lack of boundary usually curbing the expression of psychological pathology is fully developed with the character of Roger, a character continuously connoted with negative description: ‘swarthiness’, ‘furtive’, ‘inner intensity of avoidance’, ‘a terror’, but one whose negative societal influence is only partially explored with his secretive presence. When he throws stones at Henry, but deliberately misses, because of teachers and school and policemen and the law, Golding suggests it is only this knowledge, emphasised by the polysyndeton, which prevents him from satisfying his desires. The realisation however, that society is not there to restrict him, eventually leads to the death of Piggy, and premeditated murder. Jacks explicit condoning of the action by then chasing Ralph is the realisation of being able to take away a life, a sensation akin to ‘a long satisfying drink’, and is the ultimate sign that society’s boundaries have vanished, and that their civilisation is obliterated. 

Piggy’s inner voice is clearly shaped by his past, the death of his parents leading to his aunty overcompensating him with sweets, turning him overweight, and resulting in his continuous social exclusion and lack of self-confidence: the boys were a closed circuit of sympathy with Piggy on the outside. His indignance is apparent all through the story, with even Ralph admitting he ‘can’t think, not like Piggy’, yet it only serves to provide easy opportunity for others to vent: ‘you shut up you fat slug’, and express their anger through violence, culminating, disturbingly, in his death. 

The ultimate irony in the story is Simon’s inability to confidently speak to the group, and become ‘inarticulate in his effort to express mankind’s essential illness.’ It is he who understands the nature of the beast. The ‘blackness inside’ the pig’s mouth that Simon falls deep into is symbolic of the domination over his intense sensitivity by the beasts in his world. Simon, symbolically forced to walk until fainting on first introduction, is so broken in the story that he is completely at the mercy of the dictatorial Jack. His death, essentially caused by Jack and his evocations of savagery, is metaphoric on several levels: the allusions to Christ, from the temptation of the beast and the crucifixion of Simon to the heathens; and how in society sociopathic characters destroy the lives of those around them. It is this sociopathic behaviour that Golding abhors, and drives the despondent, disconsolate tone to the story. However, the fatalist vision of human kind endures not because of innate evil, once ambiguously intimated by Golding himself, but because characters such as Jack are inescapable. 

I’m Paul Moss. Follow me on Twitter @edmerger, and follow this blog for more English resources and other educational discussions.


  1. “Characters like Jack are inescapable”. I recently attended a philosophy cafe about psycopathy & social ethics, which began with the prisoner’s dilemma. What I learned was essentially the same as your thesis on LotF: psychopaths will always be with us & we need to balance our evolved empathy with a healthy dose of scepticism against Nature’s Jacks. I say nature because while society can foster them, they initially grow out of that rich loam of natural selection. Thanks for the insights.


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