Civilization in Lord of the Flies: Analysis & Quotes

Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

William Golding's 1954 masterpiece, 'Lord of the Flies,' describes schoolboys' descent into savagery. Golding suggests that civilization, like the presumed innocence of childhood, is nothing more than a foolish dream meant to cover humanity's innate brutality.

Are We Men or Are We Beasts? - Civilization in Lord of the Flies

Remember when you were young and you wanted nothing more than to hang out with your buddies, safe from the prying eyes of parents, teachers, and any adult who might spoil your fun? Well, that's exactly the situation in which the schoolboys in William Golding's iconic 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, find themselves. But we're not talking here about a few stolen hours adventuring in the great outdoors or some legendary teenage party when the parents leave for a night. We're talking here about boys ranging from preschool to preteen age struggling to survive alone on a deserted island.

Presumably, these boys were airlifted, like the thousands of children who were evacuated from the besieged towns and cities of Europe during the bombardments of World War II, taken from their homes, their families, and everything they had known in order to find safety away from the front lines. But these boys didn't make it to safety. Their plane was shot down and the adults who had accompanied them on their flight did not survive. And so these good little British boys, from the nation's most elite boarding schools and best families, had to fend for themselves while awaiting rescue.

Initially, the boys are giddy with freedom, running wild on the beautiful island and drunk with the idea that this world was their own - no rules, no discipline, no punishment. But, as is so often the case, best buddies today become mortal enemies tomorrow. Their descent is both tragic and terrifying.

Left alone on their tropical island, schoolboy skirmishes turn into barbaric cruelty. The petty grievances of childhood become appalling blood-thirst. Golding shows us that childhood is not the land of innocence. He shows us that, all too often, the natural condition of humanity is savagery. Civilization is little more than a frail covering to mask human brutality, a covering that unravels with breathless, sickening speed at the slightest tug of a thread.

William Golding

Where the Sun Never Sets: Britain as the Height of Western Civilization

Golding's schoolboys are proud of their British heritage. For more than 200 years, Britain had been the unquestioned leader of the Western world, a military, political, social, and technological powerhouse. The British Empire spanned the globe, with British-controlled territories thriving across Asia, Africa, North and South America, and Australia.

So the boys see their first task as the building of a new society, one that would honor them as Britons. Jack, one of the two leaders of the group of boys, puts it this way, 'After all, we're not savages. We're English, and the English are best at everything. So we've got to do the right things.'

The (Un)conditioned Arm: Civilization and Violence

The truth is civilization isn't sexy; it isn't fun. Civilization is restraint, as illustrated early in the story, when Roger throws rocks at the youngest children, but purposely aims to miss them. Golding writes, 'Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger's arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.'

These 'ruins' are not just the fact that here, on the tropical island, the shattered plane is the last physical remnant of the civilized world the boys came from. Even more than that is the reality of a modern Western civilization torn to shreds by the second brutal world war in nearly as many decades. Civilization and all the protections it affords, from schools to policemen to parents, are fragile strongholds, indeed, ready to crumble at the slightest blow.

Jolly Good Fun: The Allure of Savagery

In Lord of the Flies, perhaps the most chilling element is how seductive and subtle savagery really can be. Jack's main rival for leadership on the island is Ralph, who, guided by the physically weak but wise-beyond-his-years adviser, Piggy, represents order, restraint, and civility.

Ralph and Piggy soon find their ranks dwindling, as more and more boys defect to Jack's camp, joining his band of 'savages.' One of Ralph's last hold outs, Bill, puts it this way, 'And the hunting and all that, being savages I mean - it must be jolly good fun.'

Jack and his savages signify gratification: they are hunters, feasting on pig meat while Ralph and his civilized tribe subsist on unripe fruit and whatever else might be foraged from the island. Jack and his savages dance and romp and run naked through the jungle, competing against, and often brutalizing, one another in sinister contests of courage and domination.

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