The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. —William Golding
Well over half a century since its first publication in 1954, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies wields the power to rivet readers’ attention and to pose questions about human nature, civilization, and evil. War is raging in the outside world and it does not take long for the group of children stranded on what should be a tropical paradise to also erupt into violence. This is a novel that engages students in thought-provoking discussion, as well as one that provides the opportunity for students to practice literary analysis skills.
The three lessons in this unit all stress textual evidence to support observations and generalizations. The assumption is that students have completed reading the novel before beginning the unit. Lesson 1 focuses on the four major characters (Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon) and on ways William Golding used both direct and indirect characterization to portray them. Lesson 2 deals with major symbols: the island itself; the conch; the pig’s head on a stick; fire. Students also consider ways the boys themselves can be considered as symbolic personality types. Lesson 3 grapples with Golding’s themes related to human nature, roles of law and authority, and the apparent inevitability of war.
The Internet provides many websites dealing with the novel. While these can be helpful for study and review, they tend to be reductive and can interfere with the reader’s independent comprehension and analysis. Encourage students to do their own reading and thinking and to avoid using these sources as shortcuts to understanding the novel.
Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
Cite the textual evidence that most strongly supports an analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to the characters, setting, and plot; provide an objective summary of the text.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, first published in 1954, takes the timeless story of castaways on a deserted island and turns it on its head. In this case, the island is nearly idyllic. The castaways are preadolescent boys from an English preparatory school where some were talented members of the choir. In Golding’s scenario, these characters gradually deteriorate to savagery and nearly end in self-destruction.
The novel is so well known that even those who have never delved into the text can usually describe the basic story line. It is eminently teachable and is found in curriculums from grades 6 through 12 due to its clear-cut characters, precise symbols, and gradually evolving themes. The novel has been rendered in a number of movie adaptations, including the black-and-white version from 1963; the color motion picture from 1990; and a 2013 low-budget film created by college students. It has also been made into a stage play.
What led Golding to write this remarkable and long-lasting work? He once explained that, after reading a children’s adventure novel entitled The Coral Island to his son, he realized that its optimistic scenario was highly unlikely. In addition, from 1940 until after World War II, he was in the Royal Navy, an experience about which he later said, “Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey, must have been blind or wrong in the head.” Lord of the Flies certainly conveys that view.
In 1983, Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature for “his novels which, with the perspicacity of realistic narrative art and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today.” At the time, he was near the end of a long career of which the most long-lasting accomplishment was his first published novel, Lord of the Flies. Many critics were highly skeptical and bitterly critical of the Nobel committee’s choice, claiming the greater merit of other writers, some of whom actually later received the prize. According to apocryphal legend, one critic went so far as to describe Lord of the Flies disparagingly as a “paint-by-numbers” book, insufficiently complex for Nobel attention.
Nevertheless, what we have in this novel works splendidly in the classroom and can facilitate students’ work with close reading and with analysis of characters, symbols, and themes. One initial drawback can be the fact that no female characters are included, but most readers quickly transcend that fact to recognize that the events are not gender-specific and enter into conjecture about ways outcomes might have been different if the castaways had been from a coed or an all-girls school.
This unit refers to one of several published editions of the novel: William Golding, Lord of the Flies (New York: Perigee, 1954).
Write an essay focusing on the role of one character or one symbol in events on the island. Relate that character or symbol to the novel’s central themes. Provide textual support in the essay, including carefully chosen quotations. (Worksheet 7 provides a useful rubric for student writing and revision and for teacher evaluation.)
If you feel that classroom discussion and earlier assessments have thoroughly covered this topic, you may want to substitute one of the following writing assessments that involve synthesis of material covered in the unit:
Lesson 3 involves distinguishing between a literary topic and a literary theme. It articulates a variety of William Golding’s themes implicit in the novel Lord of the Flies and has students recognize the dominant theme of human nature’s propensity for destruction.
Lesson 2 is a study of symbols in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. After reviewing the general concept of symbolism, students focus on four of the most dominant symbols that permeate the novel: the island itself; the conch; the “Lord of the Flies” effigy; fire.
The lesson involves analysis of major characters in William Golding’s novel, Lord of the Flies. Simon is the first character used to demonstrate the interaction of direct and indirect characterization in the text. Individual small groups then analyze and share information about the three other major characters: Ralph, Jack, and Piggy. The lesson closes with a brief discussion of minor characters.
Rockwell Kent, Moby Dick: Volume I, page 273, 1930. linecut on paper.
Credit: Bequest of Sally Kent Gorton to Plattsburgh State University.
The novel is an encyclopedia of forms, a narrative chowder that combines dictionary, whaling manual, comedy, tragedy, epic, prophecy, sermon, soliloquy, drama, bawdy humor, and tales within tales. … Melville looks at the whale, with relish, from an exuberant assortment of literary angles, encompassing them all into one mighty compendium and in so doing breaking the boundaries of what it means to be a book. —Elizabeth Renker, Introduction to Moby-Dick
Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville, is widely recognized as one of the centerpieces of the American Renaissance. This text is more than a chronicle of Ahab’s quest for the great white whale, the novel offers insight into the whaling industry that shaped the New England seacoast in the 19th century. Melville himself spent time at sea and fashioned many of the details in Moby-Dick after his own experiences traveling aboard a whaling vessel in the South Pacific. Though seldom praised during Melville’s lifetime, Moby-Dick remains relevant today, as it helps builds our perceptions of America’s unique literary culture.
This unit is a study of the shifts in narrative voice and literary genres that Melville makes throughout Moby-Dick. It serves to introduce students to several unique features of the novel without demanding as much class time as would reading the entire text. The lessons comprise a series of close readings of passages from the novel.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understand the perspective of other characters.
The next two lessons serve to orient students to several of the genres in this novel. Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading dramatic script as it surfaces in chapter 37 to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives on character that this chapter elicits within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist—the multifarious character of Captain Ahab.
Lesson 3 guides students through examples of Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—hymn, sermon, scientific writing, and drama into the novel. It moves into an analytical discussion of Moby-Dick as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Moby-Dick stands as a testament to Melville’s ingenuity and timelessness. The text remains relevant today, both in its characterization and its form. Melville brings us into the world of New England whaling, but he has us navigate more than just the high seas. Melville leads us through different literary genres in the same way as the Pequod chases the whale, bringing us on a literary journey to parallel the physical and psychological ones of his characters. This unit explores these characters and literary genres using several key excerpts from Moby-Dick selected to expose the variety and life of the text.
The two main characters of the novel, Ishmael and Ahab, represent different facets of Melville’s belief in the importance of freedom in American society. As Ishmael sets out to sea, and he joins up with a band of men to ease his land-bound troubles. Ahab sets out on a quest for revenge against the whale that stole his leg, which Ahab symbolically replaced with an ivory prosthesis. Ishmael is the democratic everyman foil to Ahab’s elite and dictatorial captaincy. The story of Moby-Dick—of Ahab’s hunt for the elusive whale—remains primarily Ishmael’s story because of his first-person narration. The shifts in point of view—a preacher’s sermon, scientific notes on whales, soliloquies, dramatic script—allow Melville to transcend the limitations of the novel, and even perhaps fiction.
Melville’s narrator, Ishmael, believes in the power of the sea and is drawn to it whenever his life on land depresses him. He believes in the power of the common man and does not want to be in an authoritative role. Melville creates a character with whom contemporary readers could easily relate: a humble man who does not position himself above the reader or as better than any man within the text. Melville’s references to Christianity and the Romans, the universal call to the sea, and a penchant for adventure combine to make Ishmael seem both educated and relatable to the reader. Ishmael also describes the sea as a panacea for his troubles as he idealizes its power. Though it would be dangerous to assume Ishmael is a mouthpiece of Melville, the narrator conveys aspects of the story that must have been personal to Melville, a common sailor in his day.
This unit introduces students to the expansiveness of the novel’s scope through the eyes of Melville’s most relatable sailor. They will also discover the ingenuity of his masterful narration and sample the variety of perspectives to be found throughout this maritime journey and hunt for whales.
The extended background provides additional context on topics covered in this unit: Melville’s Whaling World, Allusions and Literary Genres.
Have students write a short piece using the narrative voice of either Ahab or Ishmael. “Call Me Ahab” would be written from the perspective of the character Captain Ahab. “I, Ishmael” would be written from the perspective of the crew member Ishmael.
While students include the content about their character gleaned from one chapter, they should write in the style of the other chapter. Students will use evidence drawn from “Loomings,” chapter 1 or “Sunset,” chapter 37 as appropriate.
The “Call me Ahab” piece will draw on the content about Captain Ahab found in “Sunset,” chapter 37, but will be written in the style of “Loomings,”chapter 1 as a first-person narrative. The account will be narrated by Ahab.
The “I, Ishmael” scene will draw on the content about crew member Ishmael found in “Looming,” chapter 1, but will be written in the style of “Sunset,” chapter 37 as a dramatic soliloquy. The scene will be expressed from Ishmael’s perspective.
In a follow-up paragraph, students will then defend the choices they made regarding character traits in an explication using evidence from the text.
Have students take a different chapter in Moby-Dick, one not discussed in class, and analyze how well it operates as a literary genre. You may have students use genres already researched and discussed in Lesson 3 of this unit, or you may challenge them to tackle a chapter where Melville uses a literary genre you did not cover in class.
Have them use the questions posed in Worksheet 5 from Lesson 3 to build an understanding about their chapter and genre. Be sure to have them include what function the shift to a new literary genre has on the novel. Also have them discuss what impact it will have on the reader. Students must defend their choices in a follow-up explanation using evidence from the text.
A student assessment sheet and rubric has been provided to introduce students to the options for composition and offer self-evaluation opportunities using the assessment criteria. (A teacher version of the rubric is available for your own assessment of the students’ work.)
Lesson 3 guides students through Melville’s seamless integration of several literary genres—sermon, scientific writing, drama, and hymn—and moves into an analytical discussion of "Moby-Dick" as a masterwork that goes above and beyond the appeal of its fictional genre.
Lesson 2 has students perform a close reading of one genre, dramatic script, in Chapter 37, to examine Melville’s characterizations of Ahab as a foil to Ishmael. Students then analyze the shifting perspectives that this chapter provokes within the novel, and delve deeply into Melville’s complex protagonist – the multifarious character of Captain Ahab. Finally, this lesson addresses the impact this drastic shift has on the reader.
Lesson 1 has students explore Melville’s development of his first person narrator Ishmael through a close reading of Chapter 1. Students will consider Ishmael’s positioning of the Fates in the novel and the extent to which this positioning makes a narrative shift necessary to understanding the perspective of other characters.
By Ed Marks and Dan Cummings, revised by Joe Phelan
In the spring of 1849, Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821–1881) faced a Russian firing squad. He had been accused of the political crime of promoting utopian socialism, a popular ideology that threatened the deeply conservative government of Czar Nicholas I. Just as the order was being given to the firing squad to shoot, a messenger appeared with an edict from the Czar commuting the sentence to four years of hard labor in Siberia.