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.