Lord of the Flies Summary, Themes, and Expert Analysis
July 15, 2023
If you haven’t read Lord of the Flies, the 1954 novel by Nobel-prize-winning British author William Golding, you may still recognize its oft-cited title. Ever since its publication, Golding’s tale of a group of young boys stranded on a desert island and the ruthless infighting that ensues has become a critical shorthand for stories of that same mold. David Shariatmadari of The Guardian has used it to describe uncannily similar real-life psychological experiments at a 1950s boys’ summer camp. And the actress Melanie Lynskey invoked it in a recent interview when she described the gender-flipped conceit of her hit show Yellowjackets as “Lord of the Flies with teen girls.” Seventy years later, the novel has become more relevant as political tribalism has returned to the forefront. We provide a Lord of the Flies summary and analysis. Further, we explain why it has such a broad and enduring appeal.
Lord of the Flies Summary
The novel begins as a fair-haired boy of twelve named Ralph approaches a tropical lagoon, having shed some of his heavy school uniform. He quickly meets a shorter and chubbier boy wearing thick spectacles, and the two question the whereabouts of the pilot and other children. We glean from their conversation that they were part of a group of boys being evacuated from war. Their plane has crashed following what they suspect to have been an enemy attack. The heavier boy never reveals his name but tells Ralph that childhood bullies had given him the cruel nickname “Piggy.”
Ralph and Piggy discover a large conch shell and, realizing the absence of adult caretakers, blow into it to summon other survivors. Small groups of boys emerge in response to the sound and gather around Ralph. They immediately seem to respect Ralph’s authority because he holds the conch shell, which makes him resemble the men with megaphones who had helped with the evacuation.
Then a larger party of boys emerges from the forest, marching in unison and wearing matching uniforms. The group is revealed to be a church choir, led by an ardent redhead named Jack Merridew. Jack and his followers are quick to antagonize Piggy for his weight, glasses, and asthma, and Ralph makes matters worse by revealing Piggy’s hated nickname to the others. Additionally, one of the choir boys faints in the oppressive heat. Eventually, Jack demands a vote for who will be chief of the survivors. Obvious candidates are Piggy, who is evidently the most intelligent of the boys, and Jack, who evinces a hunger for leadership. However, the group selects Ralph based on his large size, calm demeanor, and possession of the summoning conch shell.
Lord of the Flies Summary (Continued)
Ralph then selects Jack and the boy who fainted, named Simon, to go on an exploratory expedition of the island. The trio head for higher ground to survey the surrounding area. While traveling, Jack nearly kills a piglet he finds caught in underbrush but hesitates with his knife. After reaching the peak of a mountain, the three boys confirm they are on a small island and return to camp.
During a second meeting, Ralph encourages the boys to establish a system of rules in the absence of adults. Jack supports Ralph, suggesting that rules are the backbone of English cultural superiority and what can distinguish the boys from “savages.” Ralph also explains that his father is in the Navy and that naval ships are sure to find them eventually. Despite these reassurances, one small boy with a birthmark on his face expresses fear of a snake-like “beastie” on the island.
Following the meeting, Ralph and the others build a fire at the top of the mountain. They use Piggy’s glasses to spark the flame. They hope that smoke from the fire will serve as a beacon for any nearby ships. However, this first major project is also the group’s first major failure. The fire grows too large and spreads to part of the nearby forest. Piggy notes that they have failed to make a headcount of the many younger boys, which the group calls “littluns,” and worries whether some have been caught up in the flames. The others dismiss his concern, but notably, the small boy with the birthmark is missing after the fire.
Lord of the Flies Summary (Continued)
Some time afterward, Ralph, Jack, and Simon are busy with different tasks and frequently quarrel about what should be prioritized. Ralph is most concerned with maintaining the fire, while Jack is eager to hunt for meat. Meanwhile, Simon has been working to erect shelters for the littluns. Many of the other boys devote most of their time to play, doing little work. There is also generalized fear of the “beastie” and a sense that there is something ominous about the island. One day, Ralph notices a ship dotting the horizon and is dismayed to realize that the fire has gone out. He discovers that Jack has recruited the two boys responsible for the fire for a hunt. Ralph confronts Jack, who is eager to celebrate his first successful pig hunt. In the ensuing heated argument, Piggy’s glasses are broken on one side.
Subsequently, tensions escalate as Jack continues to contradict Ralph’s appeals for order. Increasingly defining himself as a hunter, Jack urges the others to value their strength and power over the world of the island. Fears of monsters further complicate matters, as a rumor spreads that the beastie comes from the ocean to hunt the boys. At the same time, a plane is shot down in an aerial dogfight far above.
The dead pilot is parachuted onto the island near the top of the mountain where the fire is kept. Sam and Eric discover the body in the night. They are horrified when the figure appears to move as wind pulls at the parachute. Believing this to be the feared monster, Ralph, Simon, Jack, and a boy named Roger conduct a search. They stumble upon the body in the night, witnessing the same phenomenon as the wind picks up, and scamper away.
Lord of the Flies Summary (Continued)
Ralph presides over a panicked meeting back at the camp. Jack interposes to question Ralph’s authority, comparing his cowardice to the ostracized Piggy. He calls for a vote to remove Ralph as chief. This coup initially fails, as the other boys refuse to take action to remove Ralph as chief. A humiliated Jack storms off into the forest. With the entire group believing the monster has taken up residence on the mountain, Ralph decides to build the fire closer to the beach. After the meeting, several of the boys, including Roger, covertly slip away to the forest to join Jack. He leads them on a hunt of a sow, driving her away from her litter of newborn piglets. After killing and dressing the sow, Jack leaves the pig’s head on a sharpened stick as an offering for the beast.
Eventually, the hunters realize they will need to steal fire from Ralph’s camp to cook the meat and hatch a plan. While sleeping in their shelters, Ralph, Piggy, and the other boys awaken to a violent attack. Naked and covered in body paint, Jack’s band of hunters steal some of the fire for themselves. Meanwhile, Simon discovers the severed pig’s head, now swarming with flies amid its decay. An imagined conversation begins between Simon and the pig’s head, which is revealed as the titular Lord of the Flies.
As ominous storm clouds amass overhead, the Lord of the Flies taunts Simon in the voice of a schoolmaster. Significantly, he repeats Jack’s imperatives that the boys should have fun. Simon eventually faints once again when he is overwhelmed by the Lord of the Flies threats. When Simon later awakens, he comes to discover the parachuter’s body and realizes the boys’ earlier mistake.
Determined to share this good news with the others, Simon heads down to the beach. There, Ralph and Piggy discuss how much of their camp has deserted since the attack. Many of the boys have been enticed to the other camp with the promise of a pig feast, which Ralph and Piggy decide to investigate. At the feast, Jack and Ralph resume their argument over who should lead the group. Piggy urges Ralph to leave with him before the situation escalates.
The other boys begin playacting their hunting ritual, which includes the chant, “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”. This play hunt becomes real when a mysterious figure emerges from the forest and moves toward the group. All the boys, including Ralph and Piggy, violently attack and kill the figure. They realize too late that it is Simon, coming to relay his news. The tide of the ocean carries his dead body away.
Lord of the Flies Summary (Continued)
Afterward, the only boys who remain loyal to Ralph are Piggy, Sam and Eric, and a few littluns. Ralph and Piggy feel immense guilt for Simon’s death. They fend off another attack from Jack and his crew in the night, but this time Piggy’s glasses are stolen. Ralph expresses dismay at how the boys have become “savages” and lost sight of their central objective of being rescued. He decides to confront Jack at his camp. There Jack orders the others to seize Sam and Eric. Piggy attempts to return the group to order, invoking the power of the conch he holds. His impassioned speech for rules and a rescue plan fails to make an impression. Above him, the sadistic Roger uses a lever to push a great rock on top of Piggy. It instantly kills him and shatters the conch shell. Again, Piggy’s body is sucked away into the tide.
Lord of the Flies Summary (Continued)
Jack’s tribe then attacks Ralph, who immediately flees. While running away, Ralph discovers the Lord of the Flies with its evil grin. He strikes it twice, causing it to fall to the ground and break. Sneaking back to Jack’s camp, Ralph encounters Sam and Eric. They have been coerced into serving as Jack’s guards. Out of loyalty to Ralph, they beg him to leave. They warn him that Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends. While Ralph is confused by the meaning of this, we can infer that Jack intends to make Ralph the new Lord of the Flies. Although Ralph finds a good hiding place, the others create a large fire to smoke him out. In the novel’s final climax, Ralph assumes the role of the boar in a hunt conducted by the other boys.
Mirroring the beginning of the novel, the fire quickly gets out of control and engulfs much of the island. Ralph makes a final desperate sprint for his life, falling to his face at the beach. When he stands, he sees in front of him a man in a naval officer uniform. The officer surveys Ralph and the spear-toting boys who have followed him. After confirming that the boys are British, he suggests that they are having “fun and games.” The large fire has drawn the officer’s ship to the island and the boys are effectively rescued. The alarming appearance of the boys seems to disappoint the officer, who says he would expect better of British children. Ralph begins to explain how the situation on the island deteriorated. However, the officer interrupts to suggest that their ordeal mirrors the plot of Ballantyne’s novel, The Coral Island.
Rendered mute, Ralph recalls the early Edenic paradise of the island that contrasts with the recent atrocities he’s witnessed. He begins to cry, which gives way to a choir of sobbing as the boys around him join in. The narrator explains that “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.” With his stereotypical stiff upper lip, the British seem embarrassed by this display of emotion. In the novel’s final moment, he looks away to the horizon to allow the boys to collect themselves.
Lord of the Flies Themes—Morality and Realpolitik
The central theme of Lord of the Flies concerns the tenuous nature and questionable origins of human morality. Golding principally examines this theme by setting the novel during a time of war and focusing on child characters. While it is initially easy to see the boys as purely victims of adult cruelty, they quickly shed their innocent guise. With planes occasionally sparring high above, the war that breaks out on the island offers a microcosmic example of man’s inhumanity toward man. While the following sections examine other themes within the novel, it is arguable that they all stem from this main consideration of human morality.
The novel offers little indication that the boys’ early effort to form a community of rules and care stems from a coherent set of ethics or moral codes. As with most of their behavior on the island, their early bid to form a democratic society seems to be just another form of play. Without a commonly shared view of morality, the boys are swayed by Jack’s sadistic realpolitik, or power politics based on practical rather than moral considerations. Moral considerations also disappear in the face of hunger and coercive violence. Both factors force more and more boys into Jack’s camp. From beginning-to-end, the novel concerns the ease through which codes of morality fall before strong personalities and survival instincts.
Lord of the Flies Themes—Religion and Secularism
The title also clues us into the way the novel poses provocative questions about the ostensibly religious source of human morality. “Lord of the Flies” is another name for Beelzebub, or Satan in Christian theology. This fact has provoked a range of criticism examining the novel as a Christian allegory, in which various characters stand in for Biblical figures. For example, it is easy to interpret Simon as analogous to Jesus Christ. Like Jesus, Simon is caring of the meek. Further, he seems to have prophetic abilities, is derided for his madness, and dies a sacrificial death. But importantly, Simon is also the character to discover that the feared beast is a dead human body.
Subverting expectations established by the title, Simon’s discovery shatters the shared illusion of a supernatural or cosmic evil inhabiting the island. In other words, the novel’s most likely stand-in for Jesus Christ ultimately espouses the message of secularism. Rather than focusing on religious tradition as the source of morality, the novel suggests that humanity often erroneously looks to superstition for moral guidance. The boys kill Simon and continue to believe in the beast, which spurs their increasingly immoral behavior.
Lord of the Flies Themes—Intelligence and Power
Even as the novel draws attention to how illusions can negatively influence human behavior, it is also surprisingly cynical about the ability of intelligence to counter forms of ignorance. The obvious representative of intelligence in the novel is Piggy, who is regularly distinguished as smarter than the other boys. Further, Piggy’s glasses symbolize not only his intelligence but human ingenuity more broadly through their ability to create fire.
However, Piggy is tellingly marginalized by the other boys from the very start. He remains a social outcast until his assassination. And his glasses ultimately spark conflict, as Jack steals the symbol of Piggy’s intelligence for his own ends. In an era of nuclear warfare, perhaps the novel’s skepticism about the role of intelligence in countering ignorance or securing morality is unsurprising. Within the world of the island, intelligence is martialed for the use of those in power. Or, it is eliminated when it becomes inconvenient to them.
Lord of the Flies Analysis—Genre and Satire
Lord of the Flies harkens back to Robinson Crusoe, one of the very first novels in English. Robinson Crusoe concerns the story of a sailor stranded on an island that he makes home. Massively successful, Robinson Crusoe has inspired countless stories about desert island adventures. For example, Swiss Family Robinson or even Tom Hanks in Castaway. Critics have grouped all these stories into a single genre called the “Robinsonade.” But unlike other, earlier examples of this genre, Lord of the Flies is a Robinsonade that is distinctly darker and more cynical in tone. This aspect, along with the fact that it directly references nineteenth-century texts of the same genre, helps us see how Lord of the Flies works as a satire of the Robinsonade.
When the naval officer assumes the boys had a wholesome adventure on the island, it is important that he uses The Coral Island as a reference point. The Coral Island was a popular boys’ adventure novel published by R. M. Ballantyne in 1857 and is a key intertext for Lord of the Flies. Not only is this Robinsonade mentioned at least twice in the novel, but it is most likely the source for the names of Golding’s main characters.
Ballantyne’s book concerns a trio of boys named Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin who are shipwrecked on a small island. Arguably the models for Ralph, Jack, and Piggy in Lord of the Flies, Ballantyne’s characters play games, look for treasure, and successfully fend off threatening “cannibals” (Indigenous islanders). Lord of the Flies effectively rewrites this narrative, removing any non-English characters and capturing a very different situation in which the English boys descend into chaos and violence.
Novels like The Coral Island and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (also referenced in Golding’s book) were part of a wave of imperial adventure fiction for boys in the previous century. In stories of exotic travel and conflict with “primitives,” these types of stories were important in shaping and reflecting notions of English cultural and military superiority. In other words, they are the perfect target for satire in Lord of the Flies. The novel upends the formula of these earlier books, but it also carefully shows how its characters have been raised in this literary tradition. The only flashback in the novel focuses on Ralph’s memory of his beloved books for boys in the library of his father’s cottage.
Lord of the Flies Analysis (Continued)
Through referencing this earlier tradition, Lord of the Flies examines the power of narrative to create broadly appealing myths. But it also traces the harm these myths can have on those raised with them. It takes the English chauvinism and jingoism of books like The Coral Island and turns it sour. Ultimately, the novel shows how it has poisoned the minds of its boy characters.
Lord of the Flies is justly celebrated for its innovation within the Robinsonade genre. It mirrors a wider tendency in twentieth-century fiction to upend generic expectations by incorporating a dark twist. The futurist utopian novels of the nineteenth century were mocked by the futurist dystopian novels of Huxley and Orwell. And the rags-to-riches fables that were popular in nineteenth-century America gave way to deeply cynical novels about the American dream, like The Great Gatsby. However, the significance of Lord of the Flies is not purely literary. To close this analysis, I’ll next consider how Lord of the Flies was part of a wider project of reevaluating of British identity and recent history in the twentieth century.
Lord of the Flies Analysis—The Novel in Context
The most immediate context for Lord of the Flies is recent European history. The long but tenuous peace between European powers in the nineteenth century was ruptured by two successive world wars in the twentieth century. The world witnessed the terrible rise of fascist social and political movements in Germany and elsewhere. The Nuremberg trials, which helped unearth the full extent of Holocaust atrocities, took place only nine years before The Lord of the Flies was published. All this recent history undoubtedly informs the novel’s examination of fragile democracy overrun by power-hungry fascists.
Crucially, however, the novel is not explicitly about German Nazism. Instead, it centers on a seemingly normal group of English schoolboys. Young men who possess a fervent belief that being English means acting morally. As Jack puts it, “We’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” A central thrust of the novel involves turning this statement inside out. As the narrative progresses, Ralph regularly finds reason to call the other English boys “savages.” And when the English naval officer discovers the boys at the end, he is dismayed by their very un-English behavior and appearance. It is possible to read the novel as about a situation when English laws and norms have been suspended in the absence of adult supervision. But the palpable irony of statements like Jack’s suggests that faith in Englishness as a guarantor of cultural or moral superiority is mislaid.
The Novel in Context (Continued)
Through this mode of irony, Golding satirizes beliefs in innate English civility. During the nineteenth century, Britain’s vast territorial empire corresponded to a self-confident mentality that British or English ways are the best ways. Frequently, English culture was compared favorably with that of “savage” cultures. These cultures were thought to occupy a less advanced stage of civilizational development. But in the twentieth century, the rapid diminishment of Britain’s empire corresponded to a sudden loss of that self-confidence. And as more of Britain’s colonies seized independence, doubts about the morality of the British imperial enterprise seeped in.
Just three years before Lord of the Flies was published, the theorist and historian Hannah Arendt was investigating how the British empire was implicated in the origins of twentieth-century authoritarianism. As Anne Applebaum of The Atlantic explains, Arendt sought to explain the rise of Nazism by returning “not only to the history of the Jews in Germany but also to the history of European racism and imperialism.” Even though Britain fought against German fascism, Arendt traces how British history was nonetheless implicated in its emergence.
Correspondingly, Lord of the Flies’ focus on authoritarian politics and its satire of British self-confidence are very much related. The novel ridicules the idea that morality or civility can stem from English cultural nationalism. It also satirizes outlandish fantasies of imperial adventure. Notably, Jack’s choir should represent the Church as the ultimate source of British imperial civility. But of course, the same group becomes a craven band of murderers. Most importantly, the novel’s ironic ending revolves around a contrast between what the British expect of themselves and the horrors that have unfolded. Arriving as the sun was close to setting on the British empire, Lord of the Flies offers a bleak post-mortem of British imperial self-confidence.