When Ralph’s life is saved thanks to the timely arrival of the British officer, he weeps –the narrator says- “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy”.
In this final fragment of the novel Golding words the main issues he was interested in when writing this his first novel and which were to become recurrent themes along his production, namely in later novels such as The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, and Free Fall. Though not taking a specific Catholic viewpoint, Golding hovers round the great absolutes of good and evil, and the nature of man. Paraphrasing the title of one of his novels, the experience on the island of the wrecked group of children is a kind of “rite of passage” from childhood into adulthood, from light into darkness, from an apparent initial innocence to the discovery of inner fear, brutality, and evil: the cycle of man’s attempt to rise to power or righteousness, followed by his eventual fall from grace.
The place where this process is played out is an island surrounded by unsurpassable reefs, only vaguely located in both space and time, some post-nuclear future that is still at war. The children who have survived the plane crash are all miraculously unhurt and are not very affected by their situation; quite on the contrary, they seem playful and content of being free from adults. And, as children, we assume them as innocent. Initially this microcosm represents Paradise. In the Biblical Paradise Adam and Eve lived according to God’s rules, until the Fall. (After loss of innocence, knowledge ensues, though dearly paid for.) However, in this paradise there is no god, so the children set about organising themselves into a society with a democratically elected chief, a symbol of power, the conch, the distribution of tasks and some basic rules.
Yet, in spite of this, their society fails and paradise becomes hell. A fatal schism divides Jack and Ralph and the children. Struggle over power draws them apart, as well as the experience of killing –necessary for survival- that Jack acquires from being a hunter. Jack and his pack are curiously fouled by this contact with real life, while Ralph and his group remain aloof and clean. Power over life and death triggers of evil. This evil has nothing to do with either supernatural or religious matters, for Golding rejected these as origin of human evil. The source is life itself, added to the fact that man is alone on Earth such as the children are alone on the island.
One is only too tempted to think all this happens because they have no god, and thus their social rules are not strong enough or lack chastisement, but eventually they do have a god. On discovering the presence of the disturbing and numinous Beast, and being unable to track it down, they offer it the head of the wild sow they have hunted, which becomes the icon of this Beast-God. It is an ugly god, yes, a rotting head covered by flies, and its name, Lord of the Flies, is Ba’alzbub, one of Satan’s pseudonyms. Moreover, it has a prophet, Simon, who is also to become its martyr in a rephrasing of Jesus’ lot. But it is a honest god: it tells Simon evil lies in himself, in man himself, in life itself. It also warns him that if he says so he will pay for it: he will not be listened to or believed. Man is not ready –will he ever be?- to admit such a truth about himself.
Golding was deeply pessimistic about man. In a private letter to a friend he said “One of our faults is to believe that evil is somewhere else”. Therefore, his aim is to dismantle all subterfuges man has to discharge himself from guilt. He writes a Christian allegory but does not let Simon bring any salvation to humankind. What is more, his death brings only more bloodshed and violence. He presents two options for society, with a spiritual (Simon) and a rational (Piggy) basis, and condemns both to destruction by the brutal forces of evil. The order Ralph imposes is only temporary, being soon overcome by the more enduring, though destructive impulse of man’s irrationality, represented by Jack. A violence that, eventually, would lead to the destruction of the whole island, which is set on fire at the end of the novel just to facilitate the capturing of Ralph. If the officer was not to turn up, Ralph would have been killed but the others would not have been able to survive on the destroyed island.
At the very end, an officer suddenly appears to rescue the children. His presence makes Ralph cry. The children become children again, and as James Gidding says, “suddenly (…) adult sanity really exists. The horror of the boys’ experience on the island was really a childish game, though a particularly vicious one. (…) The rescue is ultimately a “gimmick”, a trick, a means of cutting down or softening the implications built up within the structure of the boys’ society on the island”. What follows this moment is only suggested and embedded between lines. As Golding said, “The officer having interrupted a manhunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruise which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?” David Richter points out, “The rescuers who stop the island war are themselves men of war, as Golding says, “dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil” we have seen in all the children: the viciousness and savagery of human nature”. Moreover, he adds, “By the introduction of actual adults, Golding’s symbolic narrative is broadened to include the grownup world about”, extending “beyond its own immediate significance the morality play which has been enacted on the island. “The darkness of man’s heart” is not evinced merely by the slackening of the bonds of civilization; it is not to be found only on coral islands: it is, in fact, always with us, the ultimate source of all human pain and misery”.
Thus, we wonder. What is this “innocence”, this “wisdom” the loss of which Ralph mourns? Innocence never was and wisdom brings no redemption. And “the darkness of man’s heart”? It is a must. Baker says, “Golding implies that the long course of evolution has brought no fundamental change in human nature. We are today essentially what we were in the past”. And what were we? One only has to read The Inheritors, written after Lord on the Flies, to know what Golding thought about this. The Neanderthals, a comparatively innocent, primitive people, end at the hands of superior Homo Sapiens, in fact a dubious and evil people. Evil –darkness- goes back to man’s roots.
In the end, Golding does not leave man any way out of his particular horror.
Daryl L. Houston, Golding’s Themes, 1995
James R. Baker, William Golding, A Critical Study. New York: Martin’s Press, 1995
James Ginding, “Gimmick and Metaphor in the novels of William Golding, Modern Fiction Studies 6, nº2, 1960
Mirjana Danicic, Biblical Symbolism of the plot and characters in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies.