William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies, published in 1954, can usually be found on the reading lists of high school curriculums; and anyone who has read it as an adolescent has probably been moved by the work in a very deep way. Golding’s novel, though, has proven to be one of the most challenged books of the last several decades. The present essay is part of a series of blog posts on banned books provided by Ultius, and it will specifically focus on the novel Lord of the Flies.
Click here to read Part I of the series, here for Part II, and here for Part III.
This sample essay will have four main parts. The first part will consist of a summary of the plot of the novel. The second part will highlight cases in which people have called for a ban of the book. The third part will consider themes from the novel that may have especially aroused the attention of potential censors. Finally, the fourth part will consist of a reflection on whether the concerns of people who have called for a ban of the book have a justified basis.
The main premise of Golding’s Lord of the Flies is that an airplane has crashed on a desert island, and the only people who have survived are a bunch of boys who are somewhere between 6 to 12 in age. The book essentially chronicles the attempt, and failure, of the boys to maintain a civilized social order on the island while awaiting eventual rescue from their predicament.
Four of the main characters are: Ralph, a level-headed figure and natural leader; Piggy, an overweight boy who quickly becomes an outcast within the group; Simon, a dreamer with a great deal of insight; and Jack, a charismatic and aggressive figure who exerts a dominant influence over the group.
The general arc of the plot has been summarized effectively by Chavez:
Lord of the Flies takes place on an island, where there are no adults so the kids make up the rules. They pick a leader among the group . . . and start building fires. Later in the story Ralph loses order and kids are murdered because everyone wants power. The book ends with the kids being rescued because a ship saw the fire.
The plot begins with Ralph and Piggy finding a conch shell and using it to call all the boys on the island together. Ralph is chosen as the leader of the group, but he quickly enters into a rivalry with Jack; and Simon also becomes part of the leadership, primarily as a result of what could be called his natural wisdom.
Basic agreements are initially reached among the boys, but these agreements begin to fall apart under the strain of internal politicking. The boys begin to begin inventing what is almost a primitive mythology involving a “Beast” (which is really the corpse of the pilot); and Jack facilitates the growing bloodlust of the boys. Both Simon and Piggy are eventually killed, and Ralph is saved just in time by the arrival of a naval officer at the end of the novel.
The title of Golding’s novel is a reference to a severed pig’s head as seen in an almost hallucinatory vision by Simon. Here is a quote from the novel that captures the general flavor of the scene:
Nothing prospered but the flies who blackened their lord and made the spilt guts look like a heap of glistening coal. Even when the blood broke in Simon’s nose and the blood gushed out they left him alone, preferring the pig’s high flavor. (145)
The main lesson imparted to Simon by the Lord of the Flies is that there really is no such thing as the Beast, and that the Beast actually lives in the heart of the boys themselves: it is the power that caused them to invent a creature called the Beast in the first place, and which caused them to degenerate into treating each other in such a savage way (Public Legal Education Association). When Simon attempts to convey this wisdom to the group, though, he is killed by the boys, who have been whipped into a frenzy by Jack.
Cases of challenges
Golding’s Lord of the Flies has never been subjected to a general national ban; however, several schools over time have insisted on removing the book from their libraries. Doyle has summarized several of these cases.
For example, the Owen, NC High School challenged the book on the grounds that it is ”
demoralizing inasmuch as it implies that man is little more than an animal;” the Toronto, Canada Board of Education decided that that the work “is racist and recommended that it be removed from all schools;”
Olney, TX Independent School District challenged the book on the grounds of “excessive violence and bad language;” and the Waterloo, IA schools challenged it on the grounds of
“profanity, lurid passages about sex, and said statements defamatory to minorities, God, women and the disabled.”
This is quite a litany, to be sure. And what all of the complaints have in common is that Golding’s novel is in various ways immoral and not suitable for reading at the high school level.
As the blogger, Words for Worms, has summarized and then proceeded to rebut the matter:
“This book has been challenged countless times. According to the ALA [American Library Association] website, these complaints typically take issue with the book’s excessive violence, bad language, and racial and sexual slurs. Seriously though. Have you heard pre-pubescent boys talk? it’s not gratuitous, it’s just realistic” (paragraph 2).
In other words, the people who have called for a ban of the book Lord of the Flies surely are correct that all the elements they are concerned with actually are present in the book. However, what is not clear is whether they are right that it would be good a thing to shelter children from such content, and also whether they are not really just uncomfortable because the book gets too close to the nature of actual social reality itself.
Themes of concern
It is undeniable that Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies presents a very dark picture of human nature. It is essentially suggesting that even pre-adolescent children, when left to their own devices, will almost naturally end up producing a society of that degenerates into utter savagery. At the end of the novel, Ralph weeps for what he calls the end of innocence. As Rosenfield has pointed out, however:
“Even though Golding himself momentarily becomes a victim of his Western culture and states that Ralph wept for the ‘end of innocence,’ events have simply supported Freud’s conclusion that no child is innocent” (93-94).
Golding’s novel suggests that at the heart of every human being, from childhood onward, there is an intrinsic darkness that is only being kept in check by the structures of society, and that this darkness will break loose and take advantage in the event that those structures disappear, as they did with the boys on the island. This dismal view of human nature has in and of itself been offensive enough for many of the people who have called for a ban of the novel.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that Golding’s entire novel is actually framed by the events of World War II. The boys crash on the island from an evacuation plane; and at the end of the novel, they are saved by a naval officer. However, far from providing reassurance, this frame only makes the events of the novel even more disconcerting. War, of course, is nothing but the emergence of the primitive, savage impulse within the context of human civilization itself: just as the boys descended into savagery over time, civilization itself also has a tendency to descend into savagery over time.
Seen from this angle, Golding’s novel could be interpreted as a powerful social criticism. The captain saved the boys at the end of the novel. But a crucial question still remains: namely, who will save the captain? Again, then, the whole novel may make some people uncomfortable for the simple reason that it hits too close to home.
Additionally, the obvious point can be made that insofar as people imagine that literature is supposed to provide some sort of guideline or framework for how people are supposed to conduct themselves in real life, Lord of the Flies would be an immoral book almost by definition. There surely are a couple admirable characters within the novel, most notably Ralph and Simon; but by and large, the entire social situation portrayed by Golding is increasingly one of savagery.
And he uses the right kind of language and depicts the right kind of scenes in order to effectively capture the full nature of that savagery. The fact that children are portrayed as acting in such a way is, naturally, morally repugnant to many people. However, this misses the point that this is precisely what Golding is trying to say about human nature: he is not portraying how things should be in an ideal world, but rather how things actually happen to be in the real world within which people actually live, and through the real natures that people actually happen to have.
Reflection on basis
On the basis of the above discussion, the general conclusion can be reached that there is no real valid basis at all for the calls of the stakeholders who call for a ban on Lord of the Flies. The fact that the novel portrays an immoral situation does not necessarily imply that the novel itself is thereby immoral. Rather, the exact opposite is probably the case: by making people more acutely aware of the darkness within human nature, Golding may well have created a key tool for actually engaging in combat with that darkness and thereby working toward building a better world.
The people calling for a ban of the novel would seem to imagine that human darkness can be made to go away just by ignoring it. Even basic psychological insight, however, would seem to suggest that when darkness is repressed in this way, it will only return stronger and more unexpected than ever. Only real awareness could ever even possibly dispel that darkness, and Golding has clearly done humankind an admirable service in this regard.
Moreover, it is worth pointing out that Golding is not alone in his assessment of human nature. The political philosopher Hobbes, for example, infamously suggested that in the absence of civilization, human life would be nothing other than nasty, brutish, and short. Golding simply confirms this realistic vision in fictional form. The idea that such a vision is in and of itself immoral is clearly antithetical to the foundations and principles of a democratic society.
Among other things, modern democracy is based on a clear-eyed vision of both the beauties and the pitfalls of human nature—both the light and the darkness—and an effort to pragmatically create a society in which everyone involved can have a more or less reasonably good quality of life. The desire to altogether avoid any vision of the darkness is downright psychologically primitive; and in certain respects, it reproduces the kind of magical thinking that led the boys in Golding’s novel to envision a “Beast” in the first place. If people would like to live in a sane society, it would surely be much better for them to pay a little more attention to Simon’s vision. This would imply not banning Golding’s novel but, on the contrary, making it required reading for every high schooler in the nation.
In summary, the present essay has consisted of an in-depth discussion of the banned book case of Golding’s Lord of the Flies. A key conclusion that has been reached here is that although there are surely several disturbing scenes and themes within this novel, this is exactly where its real human value lies, and that it would thus be a grave mistake to ever ban this novel. This concludes the present part of this series on banned books. The next post will focus on the banned book case of James Joyce’s Ulysses.
Like what you read? Check out our literary analysis of The Light in the Forest, the unbanned story of a boy held captive by the Lenape tribe.
Chavez, Raoul. “Lord of the Flies.” Prezi, 14 Mar. 2011. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .
Doyle, Robert P. “Banned and/or Challenged Books from the Radcliffe Publishing Course Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century.” American Library Association, 2010. Web. 5 Apr.2016. .
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Perigree Books, 2003. Print.
Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan. Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1996. Print.
Public Legal Education Association. Lord of the Flies: The Novel Study. Author, 2013. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .
Rosenfield, Claire. “‘Men of a Smaller Growth’: A Psychological Analysis of William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’.” Literature and Psychology 11.4 (1961): 93-101. Print.
Words for Worms. “Banned Books Week: Lord of the Flies by William Golding.” Author, 5 Oct. 2012. Web. 7 Apr. 2016. .