Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Often, I consider superior writing to be more important than a superior story: if it is written well, I don’t care so much about the story because the powerful writing can carry my interest in the book.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding, however, failed that test. I loved the writing: Golding’s prose is magical as he describes the tropical island. All description is incredibly powerful, and his writing and characters are strong throughout the novel. Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1983 and I believe that is probably well deserved. But in the beginning, the middle, and the end of Lord of the Flies, I hated the story. To be honest, I had a queasy feeling in my stomach as I listened to the audiobook, and I listened to the last two-thirds with absolute horror.

In Lord of the Flies, Golding creates a nightmare: dozens (probably about 50) young boys, aged 6 to 12 years old, land unharmed on a deserted tropical island after their plane, which was taking them to an English boarding school, crashed. No adults survive the crash, and since a world war is going on, there is little hope of rescue: no adults know where the boys are.

At first, the boys delight in the adult-free world. The lagoon is tempting and the acres of fruit trees are refreshing. Ralph is elected “chief” and the group of “biguns” cares for the “littluns.” Ralph directs the group in building shelters and keeping a signal fire in hopes that a boat can rescue them. His key helpers are Jack, who leads a group of boys in hunting the wild pigs on the island, and Piggy, an overweight boy with plenty of brains but little respect from the others. Ultimately, however, Jack and others determine that hunting the wild pigs is more fun than staying, night and day, by a fire pit. The group becomes violently divided as sanity disappears in chaos.

As a mother, I was disgusted from the beginning as I considered so many very young boys stranded on an island, especially the very young boys. Whenever a “littlun” spoke, I thought of my seven-year-old nephew, who (I think) still cries when he falls and skins his knee. I thought of the nightmares such young children would have being on a deserted island for weeks and months at a time. Then I thought about how immature 12-year-olds really are. What do they know about leadership? Diet? Sanitation? The ideas abhorred me. When the boys began acting like “savages” during the hunt for the pig, I was all the more disgusted.

William Golding, who narrated the audiobook, spoke at the end of the narration about what the book is about. He said he thinks it’s ultimately about law: what happens to society without law? (Of course, he then says that no one can tell you what a book is about; you must determine for yourself.)

I personally think Lord of the Flies is also about human nature: what are our true desires, and what do we do if no one is watching us? I think that is why classes read it in school. I decided to read Lord of the Flies now simply because I had never read it: when others in my high school read Golding’s classic, I was in the advanced English class, which read To Kill a Mockingbird (thoughts here).

In a sense, both classics are about similar things: human nature. But there are significant differences. To Kill a Mockingbird is grounded in the 1940s south, where children are learning that diverse people still are people and that one should treat others like they would like to be treated. Scout changes from innocent to slightly less innocent through the course of the book as she loves those around her, despite their race and socioeconomic class. Lord of the Flies, on the other hand, shows that a lack of society (i.e., rules) can turn people, even young children, into savages and murderers simply because that is our base nature as humans. Ralph learned violently what it means to grow up.

I much prefer the more positive and realistic look at a child’s growth.

I understand why Lord of the Flies has a place on the classic lists: it is a beautifully written book that shows an important side to humanity, albeit a disturbing one. There is plenty of symbolism that hints to this depressing side of human nature. But I don’t think Lord of the Flies should be studied in schools. It is disturbing in an unnecessary way, and I shudder to think of a teenager discussing it in a class setting. It is simple enough that one can understand it without a class setting, and there are so many better stories out there for students to study.

In searching for other reviews (linked to below), I’m finding that most people who review this book absolutely loved it, whether as a teen or as an adult. I am seriously amazed. I couldn’t stand the story, and I would hate to have read it in a class setting, let alone discuss it in a class. The symbolism seems pretty obvious and the negative portrayal of human nature seems pretty, well, depressing. Why study it in a class? Yuck!

But I’m apparently in the minority.

Did you read Lord of the Flies in school? What did you think? If you are an educator, why would you choose Lord of the Flies above To Kill a Mockingbird or any other book?

Other Reviews:

If you have read Lord of the Flies on your site, please leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I often hear this is a love it or hate it book. I loved it. It was one of the only books I read in middle school or early high school that I felt I could really understand and connect with. I loved discussing it in class. It’s been well over a decade since I read it, and I think it’s time I revisit. We recently bought a copy at a used book sale because we figured our kids will probably have to read it at some point, and it’s good to have around. But I’m glad to have it just for myself.

  2. I did read this one in high school (grade 11 English) during our unit on “The Darkness of Humankind”. I think you can’t really get a better book for that topic, although I can’t remember loving (or hating) it. It’s very intense and raw, and it’s almost impossible not to get what it’s about, but in a way I think that’s probably why it IS good for students to read it. Because I know that a lot of people who didn’t really enjoy reading or didn’t think much of the books we did read, did connect to this book, and did feel they could contribute to discussions about it. It may be an extreme view of what lies within us (and what might happen if there were no laws), but I think it’s worth exploring.

    For what it’s worth, I also read Mockingbird in high school (though in well before Lord of the Flies), and I am not sure that I believe one could easily be substituted for the other. Lord of the Flies may be difficult and even a repulsive read, but even if your response is “I don’t think people would ever really do this”, it’s an interesting discussion to have. Certainly philosophers such as Hobbes based their ideology on the notion that man was fundamentally selfish and violent, so I think those questions are worth exploring. Mockingbird absolutely talks about important questions as well, but I personally felt it was about fundamentally different issues (but it’s been ages since I read it, and I didn’t love it as much as everyone else in the world does, so I wouldn’t wager an arm on it or anything!).

  3. Thanks for a very thoughtful review, Rebecca. I read this in high school and I remember being disturbed by what happens. I also remember being totally engrossed in the book (sort of like watching a train wreck). After reading your review, I’ve decided I probably need to re-read this one as an adult to form an opinion.

  4. I remember watching this movie in high school and being totally creeped out. I still want to read the book though! (Maybe I have more issues than I thought. . .)

    Lezlie

  5. Rebecca – I completely agree with you on this one. I read it in middle school as part of a unit on Eutopias. I remember thinking it was well written but was absolutely horrified by the actual story. I didn’t think about it until reading your review, but Lord of the Flies is like the children’s version of Heart of Darkness, in a way. Both explore what is at the very base of humanity. If we are stripped of everything, what is left? It is a scary thought.

  6. I am perpetually in the middle of this one! I just can’t seem to finish it, but haven’t given up yet. Most everyone I know read it in high school, but I didn’t, so I feel a little left out.

  7. Jackie, I’d suggest reading the other reviews I link to at the bottom of the post. Most love it!

    Amanda, I do think it’s a love it or hate it book. So many people do love it! Maybe I would have connected better if I was a kid but I sure didn’t now.

    Steph, I agree that Mockingbird and Lord of the Flies are not appropriate substitutes for each other. And yet, the regular English class read Lord of the Flies and the advanced English class read the other one. Why?

    I agree the extreme view of human nature should be explored, I guess, but I wonder if it needs to be in school with this particular book….ugh. And I think humans could resort to a society like the Lord of the Flies society. It’s repulsive because it could happen, even though I do think it’s a bit extreme and less likely.

    Wendy, I’d be interested to see your thoughts after a reread. I was listening to the audiobook and even though I was disgusted and horrified for most of the six hours I was listening, I too wanted to know what would happen. I understand your “train wreck” analogy!

    AK, I haven’t really read Heart of Darkness (i.e., I may have but I recall nothing about it so it doesn’t count) so I need to try that one too. This book is a scary thought.

    Shelley, I was feeling left out too! I hope you ultimately get it finished, just because the end is poignant.

  8. I’m COMPLETELY with you. I loathed it. I had to read it in middle school, and I remember feeling filthy from the author’s view of humanity. Ugh.

    I just read The Heart of Darkness last year, and it didn’t give me the same feelings at all. Yes, there are some horrible characters in The Heart of Darkness but a) it’s based on Conrad’s real experiences, which I think gives it a lot more validity and b) there are good people too who are horrified by what the bad people have done. I think that makes all the different, you know?

  9. Hmm, yes, I had to read “Lord of the Flies” in high school and I remember thinking the last part of the book was horrifying. I don’t remember the quality of writing though! I have never felt the urge to re-read this book.

    “To Kill a Mockingbird” I know I read in HS also but I’m trying to remember if I read that on my own or as a class requirement. That one I’ve re-read since, but a long time ago.

    Wow, this is bringing back memories of the books I was required to read back in HS!

  10. When I was in grade 9 we studied Lord of the Flies, and in grade 10 we studied Mockingbird. I loved them both – they were actually a few of the only books I had to read in class that I actually enjoyed. Even though it is disturbing, it kept me completely engrossed in it.

    I think the thing with the disturbingness of Lord of the Flies is that it takes the side that humans are inherently evil to an extreme in the debate as to whether deep down we’re good or bad.

    I’ve been meaning to reread this for a long time – hopefully I’ll get around to that soon.

  11. Somehow I missed having to read this one in school. I do know the basic story, though, so it’s never appealed to me.

  12. Like you missed this one in school and read it only a couple of years ago. It knocked my socks off. I hated it, but I loved it. I mean, the story disturbed me profoundly, but I thought it was told so perfectly and so believably. I think it justifiably deserves its reputation as a masterpiece, but in the way that some really creepy paintings are masterpieces

  13. Lord of the Flies is definitely one of those love or hate books. I personally liked it because of that fact. We read it as one of our summer reading choices in our Advanced English course (along with Heart of Darkness and To Kill a Mockingbird in College Prep) and I have to say that Lord of the Flies was more heavily discussed and resounded better with my classmates. It can be depressing, yes. But only if you lose sight of the good. What’s that I said? Good in Lord of the Flies? *Gasp!* But yes, there is good in Ralph, Piggy, and Simon. Those characters possess noble characteristics that get looked over because of the horrific things happening around them. And is this not a dipiction of human nature? When the boys are rescued by a battle ship on its way to war does that not symbolize everything that happened on the island? But because the ship is on its way to war does that mean that the men rescuing the children are bad men? Not by any means. You have to look deeper and beyong the horrible things SOME people (Jack and the hunters) do to see that not all people succumb to the horrible temptations in life (Ralph, Piggy, Simon). That, in my opinion, sums up life on this planet pretty perfectly.

  14. Eva, Yes, for me the view of humanity I guess is pretty depressing. I agree that it didn’t feel “real” but as I mentioned in my response above I do think it could happen, I just don’t think it’s as likely…

    Valerie, To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my favorites, so I’m biased here but I definitely think you (and everyone) should reread it as an adult.

    Court, maybe I should clarify that while I hated it, I was also engrossed in it! I was very disgusted as I listened to the audiobook but I even found myself driving around the block when I got home so I didn’t have to stop at a weird point — I always wanted to know what was coming next.

    Kathy, well, it’s a love it or hate it book: as you can see from these comments so many people loved it!!

    Rose City Reader, I completely agree that it deserves it’s place as a masterpiece/classic. I just am shocked that so many people (1) read it in a school setting and (2) loved reading it and discussing it in a school setting. I leaned towards the hate side of the equation simply for the story, but I do think it was beautifully written and engrossing!

    Kristi, oh yes, I do realize and acknowledge that there were good people in the book. Simon, I thought, was the most adult and sensible of all of them, yet he lacked confidence. Piggy was pretty smart, but he did not get any respect. And Ralph had all the confidence and not enough brains to really succeed (at least, not without Piggy whispering in his ear). They were all good, even though they did succumb to some of the bad (i.e., during the “dance”).

    I thought the ending was pretty much a cop-out. I think the chances of them over being rescued were horribly slim and it was very convenient it all worked out in the end.

    I really did see that the “deeper” meaning of this book but I still think it was pretty horrid subject matter. I like to focus on the good in people, especially children, and this book, while it did have some good characters, was a pretty horrid look at the bad in people. Yes, there are pretty horrid people on the planet, but I don’t like to focus on them either. Not my favorite subjects.

  15. When we first began reading the book sophomore year, I disliked it. However, the farther and father we got into the story, the more I liked it.

    I had the same reaction to To Kill a Mockingbird as I did with Lord of the Flies when I read that for summer reading before freshman year. In my book, TKaM is the superior book. Yet, I think kids can relate better to LotF. Every kid wishes at some point in their lives there were adults, there were no rules. LotF shoes what can happen in the society. Kids have a hard(er) time relating to TKaM.

  16. I loved this book. I read it as a sophomore with some other disturbing stories like A Separate Peace, and the short story, the Cold Equations. I had nightmares. But really, it’s a book that sticks with you, it gets to you, and it’s powerful in that regard.

  17. I honestly can’t remember if I loved or hated this book when I read it. I think I probably liked it well enough, despite how horrifying it is. I suppose people still read it in school because, in a weird way, it’s sort of accessible. And it’s not at all boring, so I think the story draws people in that might otherwise not bother to read an assigned book.

  18. We read both in school, but Lord of the Flies was certainly more memorable. I think it’s important for young people to be aware that human nature can go either way, to heroism or violence, and even more important for them to feel the horror of violence, especially as they are so desensitized to it by video games, movies, etc. I don’t think we lack hero stories, but we do lack stories that show the true repugnance of violence.

  19. Isn’t this story messed up? We read it in my sophmore year and I was just appalled. Of course, I plan on re-reading it someday but only when I think I can stomach it… or until I forget everything about it- whichever happens first.

  20. Christina, So I guess I would have had to have read it as a kid/teenager to truly compare to these others. As an adult it didn’t work for me…

    Amy, I haven’t read those others either. But yes, this one sure stays with me!!

    Kim, as you can see from the other comments, people sure do remember it!! Good point about the assigned books.

    Sylvia, yes good point about heroes. Although I’d argue that Ralph and Piggy were heroes to some extent, even though the story was pretty gross.

    Ladytink, good luck forgetting! I think this sting of comments has reinforced the fact in my mind that this book is hard to forget!!

  21. I agree, it is an odd choice for school reading — are they trying to teach kids a lesson “What NOT to do on a deserted island”? It is a pretty poor choice for required reading. I really wish schools would consider more contemporary choices in high school, I think the kids would be more interested.

    I honestly think some classics are simply chosen for high schoolers because A) the protagonists are children or young adults, and the students might identify with them more than an adult character; and/or B) length — not too long or no one would ever finish them. The Pearl? Of Mice and Men? I seriously can’t imagine reading these as a child, so depressing. I didn’t read Steinbeck until I was an adult, and if I’d been forced to in HS I’m sure it would have turned me off him forever.

    I did read Lord of the Flies in 8th or 9th grade, but not for assigned reading, so I didn’t get any of the allegory. I’m sure if I read it now, as a parent of an 8 and a 12 year old, I’d just hate it and find it disturbing.

  22. Karenlibrarian, it’s interesting, though, how many people (in these comments) say they LOVED reading it in school. It really seemed to resonate with them.

    I didn’t read any of those Steinbeck stories you mentioned, but I know Of Mice and Men was one of the English classes assignments. Interesting, because I think that is another people related to. Reading this as an adult, I just was disturbed.

    I do agree that school reading choices should be revisited! Maybe we only read what we read because it is what the school has classroom copies for!

  23. Listening in on your conversation here – the difference is that a lot of teenagers don’t feel the same way as adults. Adults often want to escape from depressing things, teenagers want someone to empathize with their depression. That’s why angsty rock music is so popular among teens. It helps them feel like someone out there really understands what they’re going through.

    When I was a teen, I hated books that had nice happy endings. I felt like they were unrealistic. I wanted something I could understand. I didn’t want hope. I wanted realism. I think that’s why people like this sort of book as a teenager, but not as much as an adult. Catcher in the Rye is the same situation. I can’t even remember Catcher (I read it when I was 22), but teens tend to love it and adults, the older they get, hate it. It’s all about who you can understand. Teens don’t think the way adults do, so they view this different.

    I’m glad this book is on school reading lists. I agree that schools often pick books for bad reasons, but this one I think is a keeper.

  24. Amanda, Interesting you say that about Catcher. I LOVED it when I read it at age 16. Just started it and UGH. I hate Holden! HE’s a spoiled rich brat. Maybe I’ll calm down, but I’m not even sure I can keep reading!

  25. That seems to be the common pattern with Catcher. It’s funny that I can’t remember it at all. it’s on my reread list for that reason.

  26. Lord of the Flies for me is a resplendent work not because it is original, or because it communicates some profound metaphysical truth, or even that it is a particularly a great narrative, but because it is crafted with some of the most evocative, lyrical, awe-inspiring prose that I have ever read in my life. The only other 20th century author that may come close is F. Scott, particularly in Gatsby and in certain episodes of Tender. If most novels were written like this we would feel deprived of some substantive, challenging, novel aesthetic. As most serious readers of fiction are mindful of, (i know this sounds pretentious, but i think it is still generally true) we crave profundity from time to time; something that is cognitive, nuanced, juicy and Joycean, with myriad symbols, allusions, layers, etc…But too much of the aforesaid, especially with insufficient poetics, can also engender a feeling of aethetic deprivation. Thus the truly great writers sinthesize both aforementioned aesthetic facets; both the profound and the poetical, the Joycean and Goldean. Writers of this order that come to my mind are Pynchon and Nabokov. For instance, in Pynchon, by way of majestic discourse, he employs scientific/natural axioms (such as entropy; the law of uncertainty) as a vehicle by which he can explore, investigate, integrate philosophical matters…in a effort to distill some essence of existence. But getting back to Lord, even though it is certainly no Ulysses or Crying of lot 49, it is still a beautiful book for perchance no other reason than its lyrical beauty. So despite what some critics might say–such as the ever-over-rated Harold No Leopold Bloom–Lord is ‘not essentially a period piece,’ and certainly not a ‘non-event.’

  27. Pingback: Lord of the Flies, by William Golding « The Zen Leaf

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