After an atomic bomb attack on England a group of British boys, all between six and twelve years old are evacuated by aeroplane and dropped on an uninhabited island somewhere in the tropics. The plane goes down in flames, so that no one in the world knows where the boys are. Ralph uses the conch-shell found by Piggy to assemble the boys and establish some kind of organization. His rival Jack wants to be leader, but the boys vote for Ralph.
In order to pacify Jack, Ralph decides that Jack and his group of former choir-boys shall be hunters and provide them all with meat. Ralph, Piggy, Simon, the twins Sam and Eric, and some other boys are to build shelters against the rain and the wind. The hunters undertake the task of looking after the fire which the boys light on a hill-top by means of Piggy’s spectacles. The smoke sent up by the fire is their only chance of being rescued. But Jack’s boys are far too much absorbed in the exciting game of pighunting to bear this responsibility, and the fire is left to die. Ralph and Piggy are dismayed to find a ship passing the island without noticing them. Ralph accuses Jack of having neglected his duty. The latter works off his anger at Piggy and breaks one of his glasses.
Things are going wrong on the island. Jack and his hunters become a pack of savages who paint their faces and enjoy primitive dances. There is plenty of talk among the boys, but they fail to co-operate and get things done. When Ralph calls an assembly in an effort to rouse them to positive action, the meeting loses itself in a fruitless debate on the mysterious ‘Beast’ in the jungle that inspires them with fear.
The dull job of building shelters and keeping their place clean is left to Ralph and Piggy, the other boys going off to swim, play and catch fish or gather fruit. The smaller boys are forgotten by everyone except Simon, who sees to it that they get enough food. It is Simon, too, who feels the urge to be alone now and again.
One night while the boys are asleep an airman comes down by parachute, dead. In order to find out if the dark shape spotted by Sam and Eric is really the Beast, Ralph and Jack, whose antagonism is steadily rising, set out on an investigation. When they see the dim outline of the corpse held by the parachute, moved by the breeze and facing them with a horrible grin, they mistake it for some huge ape and flee in terror.
The confirmation of their worst fears is the cause of further trouble. Jack declares himself chief of an independent tribe of hunters. In spite of himself Ralph joins them in a pig-hunt. Killing a sow in a wild orgy of blood and primitive ritual they leave its head in the jungle as a peace-offering to the Beast. When Simon, weak and feverish, withdraws into his secret refuge in the jungle, the head seems to be speaking to him. It tells him that the Beast is the product of the boys’ fear and that the evil is within themselves. When the head seems to open its huge mouth to devour him, Simon faints. Regaining consciousness Simon climbs the hill-top and discovers that the Beast is just the dead body of a man. Lie runs down to the beach to tell the others the good news.
Jack and his savages have just eaten the roasted meat of the pig and are now celebrating the kill with a primitive dance, chanting their hunting-songs. When Simon staggers into their midst and drops on all fours, the frenzied dancers take him to be the Beast. While a terrible thunderstorm breaks over the island they beat, tear and claw him to death. Jack and his tribe fortify themselves on a high cliff, leaving the beach to Ralph, Piggy and the others. Needing Piggy’s remaining glass to make fire, Jack’s savages attack them at night and carry it off. The next morning Ralph and Jack face each other for the final show-down. Piggy is killed by a rock. Sam and Eric are forced to join Jack’s tribe. All alone now, Ralph is hunted by the savages who are out for his blood. Just as they are about to kill him, a British cruiser comes to the rescue. As if by magic, the bloodthirsty hunters are transformed into the little boys they used to be.
Ralph, the hero, would have been the just, reasonable leader in different circumstances. Brave and great-hearted, yet weak and helpless, he attempts to create an organized society and makes valiant efforts to establish law and order, even if he feels the temptation of perfect freedom. Ralph is supported by his wise, true and loyal adviser Piggy, whose intelligence and common sense fight a losing battle against the burning, uncontrollable ferocity of the belligerent Jack. Ralph’s other supporter is the saintly, philosophical Simon, silent and withdrawn, whose mystic experience reveals to him the true nature of the evil in which the boys are caught. Simon’s counterpart is the natural sadist Roger, who becomes the torturer and executioner for Jack’s tribe.
Throughout the story the author makes us realize that it has far deeper implications than the bare facts would seem to suggest. This effect is created by Golding’ s use of symbolic images. The central symbol of the sow’s head represents evil and death. The decay of rational influence is symbolized by the gradual destruction of Piggy’s spectacles. The conch-shell, the accepted token of law and order, is destroyed when Piggy is killed and Jack and his ‘tribe’ get the upper hand. The ‘Beast’ in the jungle embodies the irrational fear that lurks in the deepest recesses of the human heart.
The impact of the story is strengthened by the ironic contrast between appearance and reality. Children, traditionally regarded as innocent, lovable and loving creatures, are revealed as murderous savages, the most ferocious among them being the leader of a group of choir-boys. Their stay on the island promises to be a boy-scout adventure full of fun and games. It turns out a nightmare. They are rescued by a fine, spotless warship which carries the seeds of death and destruction, and is thus involved in the same evil that poisoned their life on the island.
As the title implies, the book deals with evil. Golding sees evil as the natural condition of man. He shows us man stripped of the rules and restraints of civilization, man in his essential brutality. Thus he illuminates the contrast between reason and primitive instinct, between a society governed by law and order and one in which authority has vanished. Golding himself has said that ‘the theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.
Treatment of the theme
Isolating a group of boys on a desert island Golding makes a kind of laboratory experiment. It enables him to analyse the process of deterioration in a society that lacks mature guidance. The author shows us how the fabric of civilization is gradually destroyed by the basic savagery of man. The implicit warning is that what happens to the boys on the island may happen in the world of adults when leadership and organization give way to lawlessness and chaos.
The title is a translation of Beelzebub, one of the names by which the Devil is referred to in the Old Testament. It is applied to the central symbol of the book, the sow’s head, which suggests the decay, destruction and demoralization that are essential parts of Golding’ s theme.
The levels of meaning
As its primary level the book may be read as a thrilling adventure story. Golding’s treatment of the theme turns it into a satire of man’s failure to cope with his own primitive instincts. At a third level we find what is perhaps the most powerful element in Golding’s story: a bitter tragedy of ‘the end of innocence and the darkness of man’s heart’.
The book is based on Coral Island, an adventure tale written for boys by R.M. Ballantyne in 1858. In Ballantyne’s story, which reflects the liberal optimism prevailing in Victorian England, three boys are cast away on a desert island. They civilize the natives, stamp out cannibalism and set an example of Western enlightenment. Coral Island voices the nineteenth-century belief in progress and evolution. Golding writes a terrifying comment on the ideas that form the basis of Ballantyne’s tale. The virtues of the British boys now appear to be no more than a thin veneer which hides the destructive savagery and bestiality underneath. The reign of blood and terror established by Jack calls up memories of the Nazi Regime.