Closer Readings Commentary

Surviving the “Lord of the Flies”

All is not evil in the world of mankind, and all is not black in William Golding's imagined world. According to him, man has two characteristics—the ability to murder is one, belief in God the other. Innocence is not entirely lost. —Nobel Prize press release (1983)


William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, 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 and the castaways are preadolescent boys from an English preparatory school. In Golding’s scenario, these children gradually deteriorate into savagery and nearly end in self-destruction.

The manuscript for The Lord of the Flies was rejected by many publishers before a junior editor recognized it’s potential and encouraged Golding to make changes. Upon its initial publication, the novel was largely ignored. Soon after, it became a cult favorite among both students and literary critics who likened it to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye.

Variably labeled an adventure tale, a parable, an allegory, a myth, a morality tale, a parody, a political treatise, even an apocalyptic vision, the Lord of the Flies defies categorization. Golding’s attention to the spiritual aspects of the human condition sets him apart from the social realism that often defines the 20th-century novelists writing in that time period and places this text in a class by itself. This novel is found in secondary school curriculums from grades 6 through 12 and is eminently teachable due to its clear-cut characters, precise symbols, and gradually evolving themes.


Golding once explained what led him to write this remarkable and long-lasting work. After reading The Coral Island to his son, he realized that its optimistic scenario was highly unlikely. He had served in the Royal Navy during WWII, 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 his jaded view of human nature.

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.” Some of the literati approved, but many were critical of the Nobel Committee’s choice, claiming the greater merit of other writers who should have been named in his place. According to literary legend, one critic went so far as to disparage Lord of the Flies as a “paint-by-numbers” book. William Boyd chalked up the mixed reception to Golding’s work on the author’s maverick nature, saying “this ‘strangeness’ explains how throughout his life, after his initial success, the critical responses were so violently divided. You either loved William Golding, it seemed, or you hated him.”

Curriculum applications

Lord of the Flies is often touted as a “perfect” selection to teach tolerance at the middle and high school grade and development level. A close reading of this novel will also facilitate secondary students’ careful analysis of characters, symbols, and themes.

One initial drawback to the novel can be the fact that no female characters are included; however, most readers quickly recognize the plot is not gender-specific. This presents the teacher with the opportunity to conjecture with students about the novel’s action and conclusion—would the story have evolved and/or ended up differently if the castaways had been from an all-girls school?

EDSITEment’s new three lesson curriculum unit, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies for the Common Core, poses the essential question that has plagued humankind: What causes individuals and groups to wage war against each other?

The entire unit aligns with Anchor Standard CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.1: 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.

  • Lesson 1 focuses on the four major characters (Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon) and on the ways William Golding used both direct and indirect characterization to portray them.

  • Lesson 2 deals with major symbols: the island itself; the conch; the “Lord of the Flies” effigy; 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 unit as a whole articulates the dominant theme of human beings’ propensity for destruction and focuses on the necessity of a system of law and order for maintaining civilization. At the unit’s conclusion, students can be evaluated by several summative assessment options: writing a creative narrative modeling Golding’s style; moving the plot action to sometime in the future; or writing an essay relating Golding’s portrait of human nature to current events in today’s world.