Green Paint: Mysteries of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

(An essay that’s away from my usual topics, nothing to do with the Great War. But I thought I’d upload it anyway.)

The forest near them burst into uproar. Demoniac figures with faces of white and red and green rushed out howling… the tallest of them, stark naked save for paint and a belt, was Jack”

It’s one of the iconic images of twentieth century literature, known to anyone who takes fiction seriously, and to a vast number of ex-GCSE students, for some of whom Lord of the Flies has been the only grown-up novel they have ever read. The book has been a predictable fixture on the English Literature syllabus for decades. Yet this is an image that raises one or two questions of a different type from the ones they set on the exam papers.

The first question is: where do they get their green face paint from?

In chapter four, Golding tells us that Jack paints himself with red and white clay and draws black lines with a charcoal stick, but says longingly, “If only I’d some green,” because that would be the best colour for camouflage when pig-hunting. By chapter eight, some of the boys have magically acquired green paint. Golding doesn’t tell us where it has come from. This mystery needs investigating.

As every GCSE student ought to know, Lord of the Flies is a book that takes pot-shots at a sitting target – R.M.Ballantyne’s The Coral Island, a book decidedly out of fashion even when Golding published in the nineteen-fifties. Writing a hundred years earlier, Ballantyne lands his three young sailors, Jack, Ralph and Peterkin on an island where they have to struggle for existence, and the best chapters of the book describe them discovering foodstuffs, building shelters and so on, in the spirit of Robinson Crusoe. When dark-skinned “savages” come to the island, the three boys show their British pluck by defending a (slightly lighter-skinned) woman from a ferocious male, whose utter savagery is demonstrated when he dashes out the brains of a baby. Eventually, and rather implausibly, the boys help some missionaries to convert the native islanders to Christianity.

Ballantyne had researched the South Seas carefully before writing. He was annoyed when he discovered that he had committed a small ‘blunder’ in The Coral Island, describing coconuts growing without husks, ‘in the same form as that in which they are usually presented to us in grocers’ windows’. He vowed never again to write an adventure novel without first visiting the location.

Apart from its racial stereotyping (and I know that that’s a very big “apart from”) The Coral Island is a cheerful and positive book, encouraging a can-do spirit in its readers, and presenting its characters as able to adapt to difficult circumstances, make the best of a recalcitrant island and change for the better. Which is the opposite of Golding’s grim and negative fable.

Golding’s Island is a paradise, and belongs to theological rather than Darwinian nature. The boys find fruit so plentiful that fruit and blossom are found on the same bough, just as in John Milton’s Garden of Eden, promising an eternal supply, unaffected by the rotation of the seasons. None of the plants on the island seem to be poisonous or harmful; eating too much of the fruit gives some of the littluns the runs – but that is their fault, not the fruit’s. There are no dangerous animals (the wild pig is represented in the least aggressive of all acts, suckling its young). This paradise’s only snakes are in the dreams of the littluns. Every prospect pleases; only the boys are vile.

Which brings us back to the face-painting. Anyone who has attempted pottery knows that clay wouldn’t make very effective warpaint. Not only would it quickly dry out to a lighter muddy colour, it would powder off very soon, and the wearer would be left looking more grubby than warlike.

The people of the South Seas used vermilion for their red paint, but they didn’t produce it locally. It came from European traders, who could charge very high prices for the pigment. Yellow came from grinding the dried roots of the Curcuma longa plant (which we know better as turmeric). So far as I can discover, they had no recipe for green.

Golding imagined the boys on his island painting on black with a burnt charcoal stick, in the way that some of us gave ourselves moustaches with burnt cork when we were children. This would be more effective decoration than the clay, but would probably soon fade. The Fijian method of making a usable black face or body paint was from the soot of burnt candlenut or kauri resin, or from fungus spores or charcoal, mixed with coconut and other oils.

Golding’s whole book seems to be based on an implicit assumption that any product of an indigenous culture could easily be knocked up by English prep-school boys in a few minutes. But could an inexpertly-made wooden spear really penetrate a pig’s hide? When thrown by a twelve-year-old? Do even privately-educated humans so quickly generate scapegoat rituals?

I’m not just complaining about the factual implausibilities in the book (though it’s well-known that poor myopic Piggy’s glasses wouldn’t really be any use for starting fires). More importantly, the novel is based on certain cultural assumptions.

For Ballantyne’s heroes, the savage was black, cruel and in need of conversion to Christianity; he was definitely the Other, someone else. The more perceptive of Golding’s boys come to understand that “the savage” is within themselves. But this realisation still depends on thinking of “the savage” as an inferior, a native in war-paint flourishing a spear. The symbolic pattern of Lord of the Flies implies a fixed hierarchy of cultures. No more than Ballantyne can Golding see body adornment and face-painting as the indicator of a complex and developed indigenous way of life. He does not consider that wearing vermilion face paint was something that could only happen when islanders were part of a complex trading culture. No. For him, there are British standards and there is savagery.

Golding presents Piggy as the character who sees most clearly what is happening on the island. In his desperation at the end of the book he calls the other boys “a pack of painted niggers.” He surely has Golding’s approval when he uses this racist term to denote a degeneration from British civilisation.

Lord of the Flies is a novel that many school students respond to, because it makes them think about complex matters. But I do think it odd that teachers and exam boards so regularly choose this particular book as the one serious novel that some of them will ever read.


  1. Sarah Lopez
    Posted November 7, 2006 at 11:02 pm | Permalink

    Interesting piece. I am an English major at University of North Florida in Jacksonville and am taking a course in Adolescent Literature. We just finished reading Lord of the Flies. I was looking for similarities in The Coral Island and wondering why there were so many explicit references to it. That’s when I came across the free e-book. It was cool seeing all of the similarities, and also discovering why Ballantyne was so popular in and of himself. The reason I write this is to explain my disposition. What Im wondering is: Was Golding himself racist? According to Wikipedia(.com) he thought of Ballantyne as racist. I haven’t discovered if he disliked Ballantyne and derided him as wrong in his publication (on man’s aptitude for victory) or if he just thought it unlikely and felt it important to demonstrate what mankind is capable of. I was wondering if you knew for fact that Golding was racist. Let me know if you have time. Or if you have anything else interesting on the matter. Please don’t sell my email as promised! Thank you.

    • sd
      Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      by the standards of Golding’s day he was not particularly racist, but by today’s standards he was as racist as one can possibly get (outside the KKK).

    • Casey
      Posted April 4, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      I’m also an English Major from the University of North Florida taking an Adolescent Lit class working with Lord of the Flies. Just wanted to comment to say how ironic it was that I found this article and comment. Though depending on how the internet truly works, perhaps it’s not all that ironic.

      • Your mother
        Posted November 18, 2013 at 4:43 pm | Permalink

        you are a ignorant son of a bitch

  2. James Thurgood
    Posted April 12, 2007 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    Very perceptive! When you started off with the business of the green paint, I was expecting a bit of frivolous entertainment … I have just completed the first draft of a paper on this very topic, and reach conclusions virtually identical to yours. I decided to avoid getting into detail about what a “savage” culture is likely to be all about in reality, to limit the length of my paper (it’s actually part of a longer essay), but your observation that “Golding’s whole book seems to be based on an implicit assumption that any product of an indigenous culture could easily be knocked up by English prep-school boys in a few minutes”, along with your illustrations of same, is so important that, if you don’t mind, I will have to work it into my re-write – with appropriate credit given, of course.

    This issue is of particular interest to me because I teach Cree high school students in Alberta, and this novel has been on the provincial Approved Text List for, as you say, decades. I’m not saying it shouldn’t be – I think it’s a terrific novel – but I’m disturbed that there seems to be so little awareness of its “cultural assumptions”.

    Thanks for making this essay available!

  3. kdja k djdk
    Posted April 14, 2008 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

    I just finished reading this book… it opened my eyes to understanding what psychological things we see from this book than what the author meant us to understand. Thank YOu!!!

  4. anon
    Posted April 19, 2008 at 1:49 am | Permalink

    I’ll take your word about all the environmental research that you’ve done, but I’m not so sure you’re right about the “cultural assumptions.” Golding isn’t unconsciously saying that indigenous culture is on a lower level than “British civilisation.” He’s condemning the violence that breaks out amongst them. That they use spears and war paint to help them in this violence is a result of the fact that they’re on an island.

    In fact, in the version I recently read, there was a quote from Golding at the end of the book that explained the message he was trying to get across in the conclusion. Basically, Golding said that the reader is often relieved when they find out that the naval officer has stepped in to save the boys from the madness of the hunt. What the reader may fail to realize is that the officer will get back in his cruiser and participate in a hunt of his own (I’m assuming against some sort of a German naval vessel). Golding asks, “who will save him and his prey?”

  5. Posted April 19, 2008 at 7:46 pm | Permalink

    “That they use spears and warpaint” when they get violent shows that they (and Golding) go to other cultures when they want an imagery that suggests violence.

    Fair point about the conclusion – except that while the wider context of war may have been clearer in the huge manuscript that Golding submitted to Faber (from which LOTF was filleted by editorial expertise). It’s not at all strongly stressed in the ending of book that we have.

  6. 60 Stadia
    Posted May 12, 2008 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

    I agree with “anon.” What other cultures besides those that use spears and warpaint do you suppose are available to Western kids on a tropical island? In fact, what’s it mean to “go to other cultures” for an imagery that suggests violence? Don’t forget that Jack brought his knife from home. Is the knife indigenous to Europe? Were spears ever used in Europe’s past? Are jungle-dwelling peoples the only ones to use camouflage when hunting? Looking closely to find “cultural assumptions” in this novel is maybe a little too unwieldy an enterprise. Most critics remark about its theological and anthropological assumptions — I think rightly so.

    My Riverhead edition, as well as my Perigree Books edition, does not have Piggy saying, “‘a pack of painted niggers.’” In these editions he says, “‘a pack of painted Indians.’” Thought you all might be interested in that, since it’s not so racially charged a term, at least for most people, I think.

    • Posted June 14, 2009 at 2:04 am | Permalink

      you bring up good points stadia butwhen you say that english background included spears and such (im not saying that it didnt)many an english person, or at least many an english person in golding’s time, would have avoided that fact like the plague and discredited it at any oppertunity

    • Aali Rehman
      Posted July 28, 2010 at 6:11 am | Permalink

      I think Mr Simmers does have a point. English schoolboys may have played primitive hunts and hunting with spears; they would have played cowboys and indians — indians with spears and arrows, primitive weapons — and these are what they revert to when they find themselves on a “savage’ island which is everything that they would have read about or been told about primitive living. As “English schoolboys,” members of a superior culture they should actually have thought up wildly innovative and superior things — such as the members of the Star Trek crew of the Enterprise do when they find themselves on a primitive planet! English superiority would have manifested itself much more powerfully that way. But I guess The Coral Islan was too much in Golding’s mind.

  7. Posted May 12, 2008 at 7:04 pm | Permalink

    Yes, I’d heard that some editions, especially in racially conscious America, tone down Piggy’s comment. I’d like to know when this happened, and whether Golding thought it was a good idea, or whether it was forced on him by nervous publishers.
    Actually, isn’t “a pack of painted Indians” equally offensive? I don’t think he meant Indians from India, because Indian men don’t paint themselves on the whole, so it presumably means Native Americans. Back in the 60s/early seventies, when I would guess this change was made, “niggers” was recognised as ae term too offensive for casual use, but “Indians” could still be used in a derogatory manner by Americans to mean “savages”. I hope things have changed since then. It was in the 60s that publishers changed the title of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Niggers” to “Ten Little Indians.”
    “A pack of painted Indians.” is not a phrase I can imagine coming from 50s English schoolboy Piggy. I was a 50s English schoolboy myself, and to us the Sioux and Cheyenne were wonderfully exotic, rather than deplorably so.
    By the way, 60 Stadia, I don’t get your distinction between anthropological assumptions and cultural ones. Surely anthropology is the study of cultures. As for theological assumptions, I think that Golding’s need to be questioned very closely indeed.

  8. 60 Stadia
    Posted May 12, 2008 at 8:44 pm | Permalink

    No, I was not using the term that way; my apologies. I use it slightly more specifically than to mean the study of everything related to human origins, culture, society, behavior, etc. Perhaps I ought to have hyphenated ‘theological’ and ‘anthropological’ (although I suppose that wouldn’t have helped). At any rate, all I meant by the remark was that to interpret the novel as Golding’s critique of any particular culture (or set of them), rather than as a universal moral tale, seems to be a reading that weaves into the text propositions that, to me, don’t seem to be there. I could be wrong.

    No, I don’t think ‘painted Indians’ is as offensive as ‘painted niggers.’ If, in the imaginations of prepubescent English boys of the 50s, Native Americans were a people always on the war-path, and thus painted, then it seems a little heavy-handed to consider the novel as betokening Golding’s cultural favoritism. Maybe he meant to show how even in his final sympathetic moments Piggy can be somewhat of an elitist. Although that somehow strikes me as silly. But, aside from quibbling over politically correct or incorrect terms, surely it’s possible at the moment Piggy refers to ‘Indians’ or ‘savages’ or ‘niggers’ — or whatever he actually says — that he does not share your boyhood romanticism about the exoticism of Indians? Cheers.

  9. Jonothan
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    I’m only 18 and not taking English in college so I hope I dont sound dumb but I’d like to say how much I liked this article. The author clearly one ups Goulding for not being 21st century politically correct when attempting to convey the idea that barbarism is not black but human, despite mocking Ballantyne for his racism.

    Its plain from the evidence presented that Goulding thought islanders were inferior because he either did not know or overlooked the fact clay doesnt make good face paint and red is bought from traders, so the boys must have made it, which makes them better than indigenous islanders. (And fictional islands cannot have fictional clay I guess.)
    I would guess most islanders know how to make fire but the boys didn’t, the fact they have to rely on a factual implausibility to light it further shows Gouldings preconceived british superiority in relation to other races.

    It’s a pretty complex argument though , let me try and get it right…
    Okay, so the easy face paint means the boys are superior, and because simon realizes everyone has a capacity for barbarism,(“the savage is inside”)it cant mean that he is using the stereotyped (face paint, spears etc) savage as a symbol of our ills to change the readers notions of what a typical turk is, but because a savage wears face paint, and primitive cultures wear face paint, we should disdain the black fellow in us, and black fellows in general. He did imply though that the very white, prim british naval officer, without any magic paint was a savage in his own way too right, with the world wide hunt?
    Is that it or am I on the wrong track?

    It follows that piggy’s pack of painted niggers comment is just Gouldings way of condemning the appearance and traits of the primal man instead of a desperate ploy to alert the others how completely they have morphed into the stereotyped savage using language vile as possible.

    So Goulding, while appearing to write a book about how everyone was able to be primitive and evil given the right circumstances (or any), he unintentionally wrote about how primitive cultures are primitive and evil.

    The author really is clever for finding these flaws in the work of a nobel prize winner.

    P.S In Ch3 pg 46 jack is hunting and finds “pig droppings…they were olive green,smooth and steamed a little.” If this was what they used as green face paint it would show how far they have deviated from normal civility and stuff (which what the novel is apparently about) and could be intended to give a shock to readers, but I suppose it can only be a coincidence cuz the above article showed how Goulding doesnt know anything about these fictional islands and also is pretty much a racist.

  10. Jonothan
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    And you know what else,another supposedly classic book, To kill a mocking bird didnt just insinuate or imply that blacks/islanders/ races other than white were inferior to civilised whites, but actually depicted them in a subservient role, cooking food for chilluns, and working in gin mills and such, with people openly slurring against them. Kids respond to it because of complex ideas like tolerance and prejudice in society, but maybe its even odder that that is so regularly being picked as examinable.
    This article has really got me thinking!

    • Posted June 14, 2009 at 2:11 am | Permalink

      i think that “to kill a mocking bird” was written during a time where slavery was rampant and so those occurances was fairly commonplace (i would comment on the story but i have only read it fleetingly)

  11. 60 Stadia
    Posted May 23, 2008 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    How on earth does one arrive at the notion that Golding thought himself (leastways the British in general) superior simply because red clay must be bought from traders? – or, more confounding, because the boys could not really (according to the laws of refraction and such) have started a fire with lenses made to correct myopia?

    Has anyone ever heard of poetic (artistic) license? Surely Golding is not writing to persuade his readers that what science has shown to be implausible (starting fire with a certain kind of prescription lens) is in fact plausible. Nor, surely, does he write to have his readers doubt what Mr Simmers has said about the availability of red or green clay, or both; I doubt very much that a reader who knows nothing about the history of clay interprets the boys’ using it as facepaint as an indicator of cultural superiority. A reader who knows about all this may be entitled to point out an historical inaccuracy, but to conclude, on these grounds, that Golding earnestly believes that British civilization is better than all others over-taxes sober judgment. In writing LOTF, Golding is primarily an artist, not a politician, nor a scientist. He may have had racist opinions, but we cannot defend this proposition based on what he writes in LOTF. Historical and scientific misprisions in his story do not severely flaw the narrative, precisely because he is writing neither a history nor scientific treatise. Similarly, when John Keats (in his poem “On first looking into Chapman’s Homer”) mistakenly has Cortez discovering the Pacific, instead of Balboa, the mistake does not diminish the image the poet creates (the late Laurence Perrine has some wonderfully insightful remarks about why this is so, even arguing that “one may even be glad for the blunder” – on poetic grounds).

    Sorry to be so windy here, but it troubles me that so often I find how little care schools give in teaching students how to read literature, or, to say it another way, how common (easy) it is to read literary art with a spirit of “debunking” it, of putting the human experience it conveys into convenient “scientific” pigeon-holes, and walking away from a book thinking, with polished self-congratulation, how clever we are for having “figured out” the author. I do not attack Mr Simmers’s person, nor ‘Jonothan;’ I merely lament a certain kind of thinking.

  12. Posted May 25, 2008 at 7:20 am | Permalink

    Well, 60 Stadia, I don’t think we’ll ever agree.
    You’re so impressed by Golding’s allegory that you want to gloss over the points where it doesn’t fit the facts. I am more suspicious of the message about human nature that is encoded in his book, and so am interested in the points where his novel becomes factually inaccurate.
    I am confused by your suggestion concerning the “little care schools give in teaching students how to read literature”. You seem to be suggesting that schools should present texts like Golding’s as something to be accepted without debate. Yet the book is to provoke argument and thought, not bland acceptance.
    I am more concerned by the teachers (and I have met a few) who present texts like this as monuments of culture, whose merits are not to be questioned.

  13. Brian
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink

    I think that the book is intended to provoke argument and thought. However, I’m a bit confused myself.

    Mr. Simmers, Mr. Thurgood, and Mr. Jonothan: are you proposing that fables are supposed to be documentaries? Because frankly, I don’t see that the technical inaccuracies of face paint have any relevance whatsoever to Golding’s plot or theme. As it stands, Simmers’ article has not made an argument–it has merely made some extraordinary claims. I await the extraordinary proofs.

    Otherwise, it is easy for me to say you folks are so impressed with scientific mistakes that you gloss over the allegories. Before you smote the dogma in the English teachers’ eyes, tend to the dogma in thy own.

    The key for me to understand your positions, then, may be found in this statement: “I am more suspicious of the message about human nature that is encoded in his book, and so am interested in the points where his novel becomes factually inaccurate. (sic)” What an interesting revelation. I suspect your suspicions have something to do with your own assumptions.

  14. Brian
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    While I wait–in the spirit of debate–I make my own claims: Golding not only opposed cultural hierarchies, but he viewed ethnocentricity as a factor in all human violence including World Wars I, II, and the Cold War. *Lord of the Flies* specifically portrays a model cycle of human civilization: from birth, to peaceful peak, then following its march into a military complex, in order to explain the horrors of 19th and 20th Century imperialism.

    I even have some evidence handy for these claims. *Lord of the Flies* states that, “The theme is an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way. And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?” (pg. 238, 1997 Riverhead Books edition).

    Now, I noticed Mr. Simmers claimed: “That they use spears and warpaint” when they get violent shows that they (and Golding) go to other cultures when they want an imagery that suggests violence. (sic)”

    Surely, Mr. Simmers, Mr. Thurgood, and Mr. Jonothan–you all noticed the European images of violence? Such as Jack’s knife? And the revolver, the submachine gun, and the cutter at the end of the book? The downed and dead pilot who is mistaken for a beast? The boys themselves are delivered to the island by an act of high tech violence—-their plane is shot down. And at the conclusion, the very last image is that of a warship–a potent symbol of mechanized violence in my eyes.

    On the other hand, if Golding was not trying to say that modern civilization itself tends towards malignancy, then he would not mention a war at all. Because war contradicts the idea of British civilization being a healthy solution to the jungle island. The boys would see cargo planes in the sky and fishing boats in the sea. Both of these craft represent food and supplies needed to sustain civilization, while the fishing boat is an additional reference to Christianity. I think Golding would want these symbols of peace to contrast the boys’ descent into violence…

    I admit I find this invigorating. If Mr. Simmers real purpose was simply to stir up an intellectual hornet’s nest, congratulations. I also hope I have given Mr. Thurgood and Mr. Jonothan some additional things to consider.

  15. Hodge
    Posted May 29, 2008 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    “To kill a mocking bird didnt just insinuate or imply that blacks/islanders/ races other than white were inferior to civilised whites, but actually depicted them in a subservient role, cooking food for chilluns, and working in gin mills and such, with people openly slurring against them” – Jonothan

    Forgive me if I misunderstood your point, but you’re saying that because black characters were in subservient roles in ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’, it is therefore reinforcing this stereotype? As I recall, the book is set in an era where black people would only have been employed in such roles. I don’t believe you can criticise the book’s historical accuracy as an attempt to reinforce a racial agenda.

  16. Posted May 29, 2008 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Hodge -
    A society “where black people would ONLY have been employed in such roles.”
    Shouldn’t it be “where black people would TYPICALLY have been employed in such roles”?
    If you think blacks were ONLY subservient then, maybe that proves Jonathan’s point about the power of stereotyping.
    I can think of black poets and musicians of the period who were not subservient, and I bet there were a good number of black entrepreneurs, etc – not represented in the novel.
    Though I still think that To Kill a Mockingbird is a far better book than Lord of the Flies.

  17. Brian
    Posted May 30, 2008 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    “If you think blacks were ONLY subservient then, maybe that proves Jonathan’s point about the power of stereotyping.”

    Except, of course, that Jon’s point lacks both evidence and logic in the first place. He simply assumes that because the book contains non-whites in slave positions, that the author condones racism. He further fails to consider that the author included such subservience in order to condemn it or to bring racial inequity to people’s awareness. His premise is so shaky that the weight of Hodge’s own “bias” can’t help but topple it.

    I am not trying to be rude, but the author of this article and his supports are so busy tending to the dogma in their opponent’s eyes that they do not tend to the dogma in their own.

    Mr. Simmers spends breadth to correct Hodges on a technicality while repeatedly failing to address the arguments themselves. I am still waiting for your evidence and connecting logic to demonstrate that Golding was significantly and inappropriately ethnocentric, and that *Lord of the Flies* is suspect, and exactly why you find it suspect.

    I am also waiting for you to contend with my counter-arguments, including the evidence I presented. I am especially interested in your response to Golding’s own explanation of his theme.

    I have more evidence of the European images of violence, by the way. Such as Ralph pretending to be a fighter plane machine-gunning Piggy, and Piggy’s references to an atom bomb detonating before the crash. These are not mistakes, but systematic inclusions, in which the war is not merely a back-drop, but a thematic shadow looming over the whole story.

    • sd
      Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:33 am | Permalink

      what you and Hodge (and others?) are not getting here is that Jonathan was being sarcastic. he wasn’t sincerely criticizing the portrayal of blacks in To Kill A Mockingbird, he was using it as an example to reinforce his criticism of Simmers’s (and others’) disdain/suspicion of Lord Of The Flies. virtually every sentence of Jonathan’s posts are dripping with sarcasm, the heaviest of them being this one: “The author really is clever for finding these flaws in the work of a nobel prize winner.”

      go back and reread Jonathan’s comments with this in mind and you will (or at least should) see what I mean.

  18. Brian
    Posted May 30, 2008 at 12:11 am | Permalink

    “Breadth?” I meant “breathe”.

    • sd
      Posted October 20, 2011 at 2:27 am | Permalink

      I think you actually meant “breath”.

  19. Hodge
    Posted May 30, 2008 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    “Shouldn’t it be “where black people would TYPICALLY have been employed in such roles”?”

    – It absolutely should, and I apologise for my careless choice of words: ‘typically’ was precisely my meaning, though my conveyance failed entirely.

    “Except, of course, that Jon’s point lacks both evidence and logic in the first place. He simply assumes that because the book contains non-whites in slave positions, that the author condones racism.”

    I’d like to echo this statement, because this was in fact the point I was trying to make earlier. This statement sums up how I understood Jonothan’s argument, which I felt the need to query. At a basic level, if the book is accurately written about a period of history where blacks would typically (Thanks George!) have been employed in such roles, then it seems hasty to assume any sort of racial intent.
    I believe that “the author included such subservience in order to condemn it or to bring racial inequity to people’s awareness” (Thanks Brian!), but even if he hadn’t, the historical accuracy of the setting suggests we should not leap to label it as intentionally racist.

    I don’t wish to derail this debate any further, and would certainly like to hear a response to Brian’s points. Goulding uses violent images from multiple cultures, both “civilised” and “savage” to illustrate the beast within human beings – I find it difficult to draw an ethnic bias in that respect.

  20. Brian
    Posted May 31, 2008 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    “Goulding uses violent images from multiple cultures, both “civilised” and “savage” to illustrate the beast within human beings – I find it difficult to draw an ethnic bias in that respect.”

    Interestingly enough, I found a full essay skeptical about Golding’s messages. On

    Just so you know my own take on it, I find the essayist’s premise to be flawed. Because while he acknowledges that Golding was writing a fable aimed at a population, he also insists that one cannot comment on human behavior as a whole by using a small party of white Britains.

    I disagree because, beneath the cloak of ethnicity and nationality, these characters are classical human archtypes, which appear in many cultures and their myths, in various forms. Golding himself was a student of Ancient Greek mythology, stemming from a notoriously tribal collective of people who were not attending the Church of England–but who nevertheless helped birth Western Civilization. My own Roman ancestors, some of them who were olive-skinned pagans, played with archtypes in their myths.
    I myself am reading an anthology of Asian fiction, in which I am meeting the Indonesian and Japanese equivalients of Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and Jack.

    So while Golding has a particular surface emphasis on his own culture, he also has a broader applicability located deeper within.

    In a way, the essayist is racist, because he or she seems unable to look beneath Jack’s skin to see the myth beneath.

    But that is my take.

  21. Brian
    Posted May 31, 2008 at 5:34 am | Permalink

    Sorry, but it deleted the link. Just look up “Golding” and “enthnocentrism” on Google.

  22. Hodge
    Posted May 31, 2008 at 1:55 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the pointer to the essay, Brian, it proved to be interesting reading. (That’s assuming I found the right one, of course!) I was very interested in the comments on androcentrism in ‘Lord of the Flies’. I seem to recall reading (somewhere) that Goulding had intentionally written about pre-adolescent boys in order to avoid the complications of developing sexuality – which could have been construed as a source for their violent behaviour.

    Could it be that he avoided including females for some similar reason? I suppose the idea doesn’t hold up so well if the characters were still pre-adolescent, but then again the dynamic of a male/female society on the island would likely have been somewhat different than the male society Goulding wrote. Further still, in the aftermath of war which saw primarily male combatants, I can’t help but think it likely that Goulding felt males were the best example of the ‘beast within’.

  23. Brian
    Posted June 1, 2008 at 1:18 am | Permalink

    I myself thought that the presence of female students would not only complicate the plot, but even invite charges of putting children into inappropriate pornographic situations–nevermind the fact that being stranded on an island during World War III is obscene enough.

    I do not view this gender exclusion as a general rule, but particular. Reading *LotF*, it appears to employ the “single-effect” theory of story-telling, in which all contents are directed around a central theme. This also means eliminating content that detracts from that theme.

    I don’t believe Golding is entirely successful at this, mind you. Although his book is fable, he sabatoges himself somewhat by trying to paint the adventure in a hyper-reality, in which the author throws in a lot of little technical bits. This has two consequences: it spoils rather than enhances the immersion because I have to slog through the fat in his prose. And it opens him up to the very charges made by these articles, both of Simmers and that .pdf posted by “M. Schwartz”.

    One of the nice things about Simmer’s article and his subsequent claims is that it inspired me to reconstruct the book in my head to account for 21st century diversity sensibilities in the United States.

    On the one hand, it illuminates Golding’s choices. I find that working with monotone flesh and culture made it easier to carry the archtypes beneath, because otherwise people will distract themselves with egotistical musings. If you make Ralph black, then people say, “Sure, make the white guy the villian!”

    But if you make Jack black, then people will complain, “Sure, make the black guy the villian!”

    Ethnic hairsplitting can be a pitfall of pop culture. The author of that weblink him or herself points out that the effort to make the school pack more ethnically diverse backfired in the 1990 film. Because it fell into stereotypes, notably in the handling of the black character as a thug.

  24. Posted June 2, 2008 at 1:58 am | Permalink



    • B.A.S
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:14 pm | Permalink

      the tribes you r referring to have their own form of government. he;s referring to the lack of society and a strong government, not necessarily a specific region

  25. Posted June 2, 2008 at 2:01 am | Permalink

    amen to that!

  26. Brian
    Posted June 3, 2008 at 10:10 am | Permalink


    No he does not.


    Nothing that he isn’t already saying about Europeans and Americans.

    • B.A.S
      Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

      I have to agree with you on that one

  27. Posted June 3, 2008 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, I go away for a few days, and a wild debate breaks out in the vicinity of my dear old two-year-old essay, with Golding-lovers rather anxiously defending their man, and a Golding-hater exploding into capitals. How enjoyable.

    Brian, from what I can make out of his argument, is trying to answer my essay by caricaturing it. He claims that I insist “that one cannot comment on human behavior as a whole by using a small party of white Britains” (meaning “Britons”, presumably?). I certainly do not so insist; a large proportion of the books that I most admire are about the doings of small groups of British characters. The analysis of characters rooted in a place and time is what novels are for, and I would certainly agree that the characters of Piggy and company in this novel are on the whole thoughtfully imagined and interestingly developed.

    LOTF uneasily straddles the line between realist fiction and allegory; it is a book with a message. Brian seems to be so taken by the message that he assumes the realist details don’t matter, saying: “I don’t see that the technical inaccuracies of face paint have any relevance whatsoever to Golding’s plot or theme.” Well, if he wants to treat the book as a sacred text, protected from questioning, let him do so, but he mustn’t expect me to follow.

    The symbols of the book point beyond the actual human interactions on the island, and offer to tell a universal “truth” about human nature rather than a limited one about these characters. The central action of the book is the boys becoming tribal, and taking on the supposed attributes of indigenous South Sea islanders – including face-paint and scapegoat rituals. (So central is this action that I think the fact that one or two modern weapons are mentioned on the periphery of the novel is – well – peripheral). The face paint becomes a crucial symbol for the boys taking on the role of “savages.” My essay questions this symbol, asks what South Sea face paint actually was, and asks what Golding’s incuriosity about this shows about his cultural assumptions. I don’t know what research has been done on his anthropological reading, but it seems likely that he is following Sir James Fraser, and maybe Jane Harrison and others, who earlier in the century had presented a model of human society and human history in which the primitive underlay the civilised, and sacrificial rites were likely to bubble up from the collective memory at the least provocation. Modern anthropologists have moved beyond this kind of thinking, but Golding’s book is a monument to it.

    I do not think that the factual inaccuracies totally invalidate the book. But I do think that they are worth pointing out. And I don’t particularly want to call Golding a “racist” He shared the assumptions of his time, and that is worth pointing out, since it usually goes unrecognised. But many very good writers, from Shakespeare to Kipling, have sometimes used racial stereotypes. Sophisticated readers deal with this, and don’t take the easy option of utterly rejecting an otherwise interesting text because of it. But they don’t ignore or cover up problem areas, either.

    I dislike calling books “racist” just because they use a few stereotypes– because that sort of labelling tends to claim a too easy superiority to the text, and to divide the world into smug us us racist them. I wonder which of our own cultural assumptions will look pretty shaky in fifty years time?

  28. Brian
    Posted June 4, 2008 at 1:05 am | Permalink

    “He claims that I insist ‘that one cannot comment on human behavior as a whole by using a small party of white Britains’”

    No, I refered to a different article by an anonymous author in this case, which specifically made this claim. I shall be more careful to indicate which article I mean.

  29. Brian
    Posted June 4, 2008 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    I’m not trying to be a troll, and I apologize if my posts are viewed as spam. But I am not half as interested in defending William Golding as I am in hearing a well-supported argument.

    Thank you for the concise response, Mr. Simmers. But it makes claims I have already addressed. Far from forbidding the questioning of a sacred text, I question interesting assumptions about a modern novel, assumptions I perceive from several quarters. I’d like to see these ideas turned into interesting arguments, and I have tried to make my own.

    But I have said enough, and I understand if people have other projects to worry about. Thank you for this stimulation, for it inspired me to write an essay. I hope my participation has been fruitful for other readers.

    • Anonymous
      Posted November 2, 2013 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Have you read Goldings darkness visible?

  30. Posted June 16, 2008 at 1:58 am | Permalink



  31. Posted June 16, 2008 at 1:59 am | Permalink

    OH SNAP!

  32. Posted July 2, 2008 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    he is not being racist he is talking about the whole world and the British society. How any person with no rules will turn on each other. African tribes and aborigines have their own rules and laws and often have chiefs or elders to enforce them

  33. joshua
    Posted July 14, 2008 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

    I agree with “anon” and with Johnathan’s scathing sarcastic response to this essay. To say that war paint or camo is restricted to any given culture or society is in itself absurd. To further say that depicting war paint as a tool to mask one’s humanity and a sign of savagery is racism, is also absurd.
    It is clear in the novel how the boys put the paint to use – it allows them to diffuse from their normal identities and abandon the more civilized parts of their psyche without offending their conscience. It allows them to merge into a “single organism” which does not feel guilt and acts on base instincts alone. Is this to say that this is always the intended use of war paint, and thus typify societies that have used it as savage and evil? Obviously not. Such a leap of logic is completely unfounded. This essay seems to be nothing more than an elitist reassuring himself of his intellectual might by “debunking” (as mentioned above) through illogical rationalities a powerful, deep, and complex work.

  34. Anonymous
    Posted October 18, 2008 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    Does whether or not it was considered racist at the time it was written really matter? Does the idea of Golding writing this book from a racist viewpoint have any real repercussions today? No. The truth is that this novel has themes that are socially unacceptable in today’s world. Its Christian viewpoint and narrow minded ideas about good and evil are outdated. So the question should be, why is this still part of the curriculum in public schools today? There are many other pieces of literature that are written just as eloquently with powerful themes and messages.

  35. Edward George
    Posted October 24, 2008 at 5:40 pm | Permalink

    well,I am a student and i feel that William Golding has good point about things, also bad points about things/issues etc…
    I really enjoyed this particular essay. It really opened my eyes a bit,realizing that all people have problems, issues. The point that Golding was racist is irrelavent, also really enjoy all of these comments because we are all looking at the same issue, we all are right…but we are looking from a different point of view. That’s all…
    I also agree with anonymous because there are books out there that portray better themes and stronger, more powerful images throughout the entire novel; such as Watershipdown…

  36. golding_hater
    Posted February 3, 2009 at 4:06 am | Permalink



    • fati
      Posted December 11, 2009 at 1:15 am | Permalink

      umm.. there are many authors who are racist, or write books about racism. that doesn’t mean the book is going to stop being published. LOTF is such an eye opening book just about humanity itself. I doubt the silly claim that “he is a racist” is actually going to stop such a successful book from being published.I think the reason Golding didnt scrutinize every detail about the island is because thats not what the central point of the book was. Golding just wants to show the world how the evilness of human nature can alter the way you think.

  37. Anonymous
    Posted February 28, 2009 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    I find many of the above remarks to be ignorant and meaningless. I find it so interesting that many of the previous commentors focus on whether or not Golding was a racist. That may be the least relevant part of this book to discuss. The underlying themes in the novel are those of civilization, good and evil, and the dark, destructive qualities of humans that ‘culture’ tries to hide. Lord of the Flies is a brilliant work and people like golding_hater merely pick up on the fact that others view the book as racist. They then proceed to condemn the noevl with no real background. I sincerely doubt that golding_hater has ever read the book at all. This golding_hater brings around extremely short-minded points. Anyone who has an appreciation for literature can punch gaping holes in his arguments in mere seconds. He is not specifically talking about African tribes or Aboriginal peoples. He is writing about the very core of human nature, that is, ALL human nature. Furthermore, these English boys have probably never encountered said peoples and therefore they try to imitate the most savage tales they have ever heard. I believe that is what Golding was saying. I don’t think the novel’s views are ‘outdated’ either. Or that his Christian viewpoint is narrow-minded and shallow. The novel stands the test of time and teaches a lot about human nature and social tendencies. THAT is why this novel is read in schools. In conclusion, most of you that condemn this novel are entitled to the views you have expressed though those of you that are in fact ‘narrow minded’ and ignorant are not. You are stupid.

  38. Anonymous
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 1:24 am | Permalink

    i read this book in sixth grade and i thought it was a great book it taught you to make the right choises. my favorite checter was simon. it was a shame he died a terrible death ( being bitten, stabbed and limbs being torn off.) even if it was grousom it still was a gret book. did any one notice that piggy is named piggy and that there are pigs on the island that jack hunts and kills?

  39. Anonymous
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 1:26 am | Permalink

    the conch represents civility

  40. Posted May 28, 2009 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    Why do you think that Piggy represents Golding’s view, George? Piggy is myopic (figuratively and literally) and asthmatic, and his belief in scientific rationalism is belied even by his own body. Piggy’s view of human nature is proven wrong again and again.

    The novel points out that we are all ‘savage’. The children in their warpaints at the end of the novel are no worse than the naval officer in his duck, ‘rescuing’ the children from their microcosmic brutality to a world where adults are killing each other by the millions with nuclear weapons. That’s scientific progress for you.

    I’ve seen no evidence of racism in any of Golding’s writings.

  41. Posted May 29, 2009 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I don’t think Golding ‘was a racist’, but I do think that he, like all of us, made certain cultural assumptions. As I point out in my essay, he assumed that the cultural products of indigenous people (such as warpaint) were so simple that a bunch of British schoolboys could mock them up in an afternoon. He does not even start to imagine that South Sea Islander warpaint was something that had evolved culturally, and depended on a fairly sophisticated trading network.
    You say “The novel points out that we are all ’savage’.” Given that the word “savage” was in Golding’s day (and sometimes still is today)used in a derogatory sense to describe people whose way of life is untouched by Western culture, I think that that formulation is problematic. The boys have been separated from the controlling structures of their own culture, and degenerate into gangs, but the novel’s implication is that they have slipped a bit down the evolutionary chain when they discard their school uniforms and take on the warpaint of ‘savages’. As I wrote in an earlier comment, Golding seems to fit in with the ideas of those anthropologists who see a hierarchy of cultures, with the primitive underlying the civilised, and likely to bubble up if control is lost.
    I agree that Golding places some ironies in the conclusion – but I’d argue that these are overshadowed by the more obvious reading that there is indeed a happy rescue – though I can’t argue this in detail at the moment, since I’ve given my copy of LOTF away to a student who had lost his.
    As for Piggy – his judgement surely sums up the conclusion about the boys that Golding wants the reader to make. Indeed, Piggy is not just a mouthpiece for the author, but there are many points earlier in the book when Golding makes ironic mileage out of the fact that myopic Piggy is the only one who can see what is going on (in his insistence about the importance of signal fires, for example). The word ‘nigger’ is deliberately strong, and to some extent shows Piggy’s class background. It is in the mouth of a character, not the author, and Golding presumably does not endorse the word, even if he endorses the judgement of the boys’ behaviour that underlies it.
    Mind you, the word was (in Britain at least) less taboo in the fifties than it is today. I remember my mother buying a rather smart coat that was advertised in the shop as “nigger brown”.

  42. Posted September 3, 2009 at 10:37 pm | Permalink

    does anyone know the validity of this statement and can discuss at least two specific examples from the novel???? “society’s defects stem from the defects inherent in human nature.”

  43. Posted September 4, 2009 at 5:12 am | Permalink

    Rachel -
    Your teacher certainly knows how to set a boring homework assignment!
    If I were answering this, I’d attack the question. LOTF shows boys abstracted from society. Their previous life in England had provided structure that had regulated their destructiveness; without that structure on the island, they go ape. The book shows not society’s defects, but the problems caused when society is missing.
    By the way – did you know that there is a new biography just published of William Golding? I haven’t read it yet, but the reviews suggest that he was a pretty strange man. He was a teacher at a boys’ school before he wrote LOTF, and was fascinated by how nasty boys could be to one another. On one school trip he took his class to an ancient fort, divided them into two armies, and watched them beat hell out of one another. Why not ask your teacher if she will let your class do that?

  44. Anonymous
    Posted November 12, 2009 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    The fictional LOTF became a bestseller in both Britain and the United States
    Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983
    Booker Prize

    profanity, lurid passages about sex and statements defamatory to minorities

    Lord of the flies
    English boys crash
    First there is order
    A system with a leader
    And multiple groups with specialized task
    Hunters with jack as leader
    A chonk for calling assemblies were Ralph is the leader
    Fire starters, using piggy’s glasses
    The daily routine and rhythm is established
    Order may be established but there is no way to enforce it
    Pirating dvds compare situation
    Similar to how this society fell into disorder
    Everyone followed jack
    Only hunters
    Resort to saveragery
    Pigs head on stick sacrifice
    Jack sends group to hunt out jack
    In the end a ship rescues them

  45. David
    Posted January 1, 2010 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    As an English teacher, I assign this novel ONLY because it is, sadly, required reading for all Sophomores. Before I present it, however, I present the students with some excerpts from the writings of Ashley Montagu, an eminent scientist of human behavior, some of whose works brilliantly debunk the widely accepted, but fallacious notion that man is proven scientifically to be an innately aggressive killer of his own kind. For anyone who, like me, finds this underlying philosophical assumption to be a myth of the most vile and dangerous order, akin to Original Sin and Social Darwinism, but have had problems articulating the scientific facts to the plebeian (and sometimes academic) mob that readily ascribes to it, I highly recommend reading, or reading into, some of Montagu’s works: The Nature of Human Aggression, Man and Aggression, to name but two of forty scholarly works on this and related subjects. In these, he deftly deconstructs the junk science of armchair anthropologists and their misreading of the likes of Darwin, Freud,etc. upon which this myth is founded, and he provides ample empirical anthropological evidence to counter it. If I could single-handedly make these works required reading for everyone interested in understanding human behavior, anyone forced to read Golding’s misguided “masterwork,” or for every conservative (usually) politician, teacher, priest, or other propagandist in the world, I would do so. For anyone who reads Lord of the Flies, A Clockwork Orange, or any of their ilk as documents of mankind’s basic, innate, instinctive nastiness, prepare for an epiphany of the most liberating kind in Montagu’s and his fellow scientists’ facts. You may feel compelled, as I do, to spread the good news.

  46. David
    Posted January 2, 2010 at 11:20 pm | Permalink

    For anyone who found my reference to Ashley Montagu’s work of interest, here’s a clip from an early chapter in his The Nature of Human Aggression. It refers specifically to LOTF and other works in a similar vein.

    Man as a Killer: An Acceptable Idea

    The Arts

    These commentators are all respected authorities in their fields, and their views are accorded the attention they deserve in the scientific community. It is small wonder that their opinions, even outside their areas of specialization, also carry conviction among laymen.

    The idea of Man-as-K.iller has found support, too, among novelists and film makers, people whose appeal is emotional rather than rational, and who are therefore considerably more influential than the scholars. William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies) a brilliant and terrifying story, has been read by countless young people on college campuses and in high school English classes. It concerns a group of English schoolboys cast away on a small island, and their struggle for leadership. Ralph, Piggy, and Simon, representing order, intelligence, and religion, are persecuted and crushed by the mob led by Jack, representing sadism, superstition, and lust for power. It is a strong and deeply depressing book. Golding has been quoted as saying that his purpose in writing it was “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.” Whatever his purpose, his effect has been to persuade many thousands of students that human beings are intrinsically evil.

    Golding is no scientist, and so he may perhaps be excused for not realizing that such behavior may be an expression not so much of human nature as of the background and education of the small group with which he is familiar, namely, British schoolboys. Not all children under similar circumstances behave as his fictional characters did. A similar episode, with quite another outcome, is reported to have occurred some years ago in Melanesia. I give it here for what it may be considered to be worth.

    In 1967 Dr. Alphonse van Schoote, a Belgian physician, while traveling among the islands, learned of a Melanesian group, perhaps an extended family, that had embarked upon what was evidently a routine voyage between islands. At some point they deposited six or seven children, ranging in age from two to twelve, on an atoll, planning to return shortly to pick them up, but a storm ensued which kept them away, not briefly but for sO,me months. When the children were finally “rescued,” it turned out that they had got along famously: they knew how to dig for water, evidently copious underground in the form of brackish water wells; they lived mainly on fish; they had no difficulty fashioning shelters, and in general they flourished, without any fighting or falling out or issues of leadership.

    This account was given Mr. Bob Krauss, of the Honolulu Advertiser} by Dr. van Schoote when he was on a journalistic assignment in the Pacific. It points to the relativity of human nature rather than to Its fixity. Native chIldren readily adapt to the kind of situation in which these children found themselves; such conditions scarcely pose a challenge. One can, however, imagine English schoolboys, rendered “nasty” by traditions of infant depravity and the virtues of caning, making a sordid mess of such a situation. But it is imagination of course, bred on Dickens and the exploits of Dr. Arnold of Rugby and all that, which makes it obvious that such wicked creatures should devour each other. “Boys!” said Mr. Jagger on meeting Pip. “I’ve seen a good many boys in my time, and I find them a bad lot!”

    It is much more likely that conditioning rather than “the defects of human nature” were responsible for the anarchy among Golding’s boys. Unfortunately, not many people have heard about those Melanesian children.

    Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange is another book in this genre, made into a chillingly violent-and popular-movie by Stanley Kubrick, celebrating rape, violence, sexual sadism, brutality, and “the eternal savagery of man.” Mr. Kubrick said, in an interview, ”I’m interested in the brutal and violent nature of man because it’s a true picture of him.” On another occasion Kubrick wrote, “I am convinced it is more optimistic to accept Ardrey’s view that we are born risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides.” Later he said, “Man isn’t a noble savage; he’s an ignoble savage. He is irrational, brutal, weak, silly, unable to be objective about anything where his own interests are involved-that about sums it up …. Any attempt to create social institutions on a false view of the nature of man is probably doomed to failure.”

    The star of A Clockwork Orange, Malcolm McDowell, agreed with his director. In a letter to the New York Times McDowell wrote: “People are basically bad, corrupt. I always sense that man has not progressed one inch, morally, since the Greeks. Liberals, they hate Clockwork because they’re dreamers, and it shows them the realities, shows ‘em not tomorrow but now. Cringe, don’t they, when faced with the bloody truth.”

    Another film director who subscribes enthusiastically to Ardrey’s view of Man-as-Killer is Sam Peckinpah, director of The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs. This latter movie revels in multiple killing by a variety of hideous methods, double rape, and other refinements of calculated violence. “The myth of the noble savage is bull,” declared Peckinpah as he handed out copies of Ardrey’s books. “People are born to survive. They have instincts that go back millions of years. Unfortunately some of these instincts are based on violence in every human being. If it is not channeled and understood, it will break out in war or in madness.” Mr. Peckinpah, one of the more talented of American film directors, is no scientist, and so perhaps he, too, like William Golding-and like Stanley Kubrick and Malcolm McDowell, for that matter-cannot be expected to weigh the evidence critically, or to recognize the lack of it, in the books he admires so much. And when he states, inaccurately, that all men are violent, or that men are “just a few steps up from the apes in the evolutionary scale,” people believe him, and why not? They admire his movie-making, and they, like him, have only the sketchiest understanding of what constitutes valid scientific evidence, and they, like most of us, tend to confuse their own personal opinions with solid fact. It is I a common failing to mistake our prejudices for the laws of nature.

    These novelists and dramatists provide us, incidentally, with an example of another phenomenon common enough when we discuss a subject no one knows much about, and one that all serious searchers after truth need to guard themselves against constantly, the tendency to circular thinking:

    If one starts with a conviction; one proceeds to illustrate that conviction in dramatic terms; the illustration is then taken as proof of the original conviction. William Golding, for instance, “in tracing the defects of society back to the defects of human nature,” was really not “tracing” anything. He was clearly beginning with his conviction that both society and human nature are filled to overflowing with cruelty, sadism, and murder. He wrote a brilliant book to illustrate it. To many people, however, Lord of the Flies is not so much an illustration of Golding’s profound pessimism as it is searing proof that human beings-even childrenl-are basically evil. In the face of his terrible story, it is in truth difficult to remember that such facts as we have on such a situation do not in the least support his conclusions.

    No wonder, then, that a vast number of people today accept the statements, made by scholars with reputations and by novelists and dramatists with the ability to terrify, and especially when the statements are made by both at once, that human beings in the “right environments” are inescapably and inevitably killers.

    The Comforting Rationalization

    There are other reasons for this wholehearted acceptanceno single reason could possibly account for the wide range of believers. There is the fact that any simple explanation is appealing just for the very reason that it is simple. There is nothing more beguiling. People who in their own areas of special knowledge would not for a moment be conned into accepting an explanation that evidence and personal observation rejected are nevertheless vulnerable to this seduction in other areas of life.

    Also, the particular oversimplification we are discussing has a great deal to recommend it. It is exhilarating, for one thing. People who themselves lead peaceable lives-and this is most people, when you come to think about it-can be titillated by the flat statement that they are, in fact, killers. Why should this be? Perhaps the answer lies somewhere in the general assumption in our society that it is somehow better to be hostile than to be friendly. In any case, some people appear to derive a certain therapeutic value from being told that they are naturally violent.

  47. Jayde Malao
    Posted March 14, 2010 at 3:03 am | Permalink

    Thank you for writing this webiste! I have a seminar about if William Golding was right in claiming that humanity is naturally flawed. I am on the side that thinks he is correct. This has helped me out a lot with my paper on it!

    • Posted March 14, 2010 at 7:14 am | Permalink

      I’m glad my essay was helpful – though I think Golding’s presentation of human nature is extremely dubious. Let me explain.
      Recently, I’ve read some articles and seen some TV programmes about the nature of dogs. These fall into two types.
      One type shows modern pets, and traces their habits and characteristics back to the wolf. It suggests that within the modern pooch there lurks a member of a savage pack.
      The other approach points out that man and dog have co-evolved over millennia, and that the modern dog is the product of selective breeding that has enhanced its intelligence, and its understanding of humans. In this view, which I find convincing, dogs are not savage members of packs (who need to be kept down by a dominant male) but socialised creatures, well adapted to human society.
      Similarly with humans. The Golding view is that there is an unsocial destructive ‘savage’ lurking within the English schoolboy. A different view is that humans are essentially social creatures (and that the cultures implicitly labelled ‘savage’ in Golding’s book are just as social as the cultures that we happen to belong to). Golding performs the thought-experiment of taking boys out of the social institutions that are moulding and controlling them, and watches them descend into uncontrolled chaos (just as in real life, as a schoolteacher, he got his classes fighting mock-battles that turned very savage). He thinks that this shows something about ‘essential’ human nature – but if you take the view that human nature has been formed by human social institutions, this feels dubious. It’s rather like performing the experiment of mistreating your dog (breaking the essential dog-human bond) to see how he’d respond.
      If you’re interested in dogs, try the book ‘Inside of a Dog’ by Alexandra Horowitz.

  48. David
    Posted March 14, 2010 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    I am the English teacher who, in the posts dated 1/2/2010, says he hates having to teach LOTF, and will only do so after educating his students about the junk science upon which Golding (and others) base their “man as innate man-killer” myth. Again, I would urge Jade Malao, Mr. Simmers, and other bloggers to read some of Ashley Montagu’s works (either Man and Aggression or The Nature of Human Aggression)as well as works of others who do not fall into the category of the “armchair anthropologists” with whom Golding was so enamored. I am certain that anyone who maintains the capacity for cool, rational thought on this subject will see the Golding fallacy for what it is.
    The point to consider is this, in a nutshell: man, as nature’s most social animal, has evolved into a being that is virtually without “instincts” of any kind, let alone the instinct to kill members of its own species. What we do have as our genetic predisposition, what evolution selected for us, is the greatest capacity for learning and communicating of all species on earth, but the key words in that statement are “predisposition” and “capacity,” which are not the same as “instinct.” Without the man-made environments, the societies, the cultures in which those capacities are nurtured, however, virtually no “human behavior” will occur, unlike other species that will exhibit a variety of genetically programmed behaviors in a lab environment, and in the complete absence of other members of its species. The capacity for language is the best example. Science has indeed shown that humans are equipped, genetically, with a brain that has the capacity for language, but does a human being “instinctively” begin talking, let alone singing or writing poetry, if he or she develops in the absence of other human beings? Obviously not, as numerous tragic cases of severe infant neglect demonstrate. Even more compelling is the fact that humans, unlike most other animals, even have to be taught to fear fire, though we obviously have the autonomic response to pull away from extreme heat. If we lack such instinctive behavior, how can we be born with an instinct to feel such enmity towards members of our own species that we want to kill them? If such “instincts” were innate, how could the species homo sapiens have survived the hundreds of thousands of years that predate anything like what we label “modern civilization”? Is it not obvious that such enmity, and the aggressive behavior that stems from it, has to be imbibed from the man-made environments in which we are raised? If we want to find the causes for our species’ aggressiveness, we need to look at the aspects of the “civilized” environments in which such aggression is taught, rewarded and encouraged and to stop trying to justify it by misreading the science of genetics, or by relying on the fantasies of armchair anthropologists as Golding and many others have done.
    In other word, lets stop looking for a devil, or a boogie man in our genetic natures on whom to heap our shame, and accept the fact that every behavior we do (beyond the autonomic responses,) we learned to do, albeit because we were genetically programmed, predetermined, predisposed, to learn.
    Is it not obvious that much of the thing we label as “civilization” is actually the source of the frustrations that lead us to act violently toward one another, and that if we use our innate capacity for rational thought to analyze those sources, that we could stop frustrating ourselves into acts of violence?
    It strikes me as the pinnacle of pessimism and poverty of mind to say, in the absence of any empirical scientific evidence, that regardless of what sort of society man may devise for himself and his offspring, no matter how fully every human need is met for every member of such a society, that due to a presumed innate desire to rape, pillage, plunder, and kill his fellow man, man’s existence will be one of endless aggression and violence.
    To anyone willing to buy this line of reasoning, I have one question: why do you even choose to continue living?
    The answer may be that you know that the “man as innate man-killer” myth is exactly that, and so there is still hope that we will one day stop using it to justify and even celebrate man’s inhumanity to man.

  49. Roger
    Posted March 15, 2010 at 3:51 am | Permalink

    Actually, nearly all human behaviour is instictive and inborn. It’s what makes us alive and human in the first place.

    • Posted March 15, 2010 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      ‘Nearly all’? Are you sure. I think of my behaviour today. Some reading, some writing, some cooking, some visiting, a game of Scrabble and watching University Challenge. I can’t see much in the way of the instinctive satisfaction of inborn urges there – just activities dependent on socialisation and culture.

  50. slpdash
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 2:47 am | Permalink

    Actually, Roger, your ACQUISITION of the language skill it took to write your comments stands as evidence that one of the very behaviors that makes us distinctly human is not an “instinct.” If it were, you would not have needed the company of any other being to make you start thinking, speaking, and writing in the abstraction known as language. The physical portion of our brains that allows for full self awareness and cognition are not even fully developed at birth, and they only develop properly if we are nurtured in that thing that makes us human, namely the human environment, the company of others of our kind. What would a newborn human “instinctively” become in the absence of all human contact? A thing most aptly called a vegetable. You need to learn a little more about what natural scientists label instinctive behavior, and you’ll come to realize that nothing you have ever done falls neatly into the category. Having a genetic predisposition for learning, thinking, and speaking, and virtually everything else, is not the same thing as having the “instinct” to do those things. To put my point metaphorically (something you and I learned how to do as part of our human language acquisition) an acorn has all the genetic potential to become an oak tree, but it does not have the “instinct” to do so, and it will rot into dust if it does not get from the environment all that it needs to express its genetic potential. What’s more, the quality of oak tree it becomes is very much the product of the quality of the soil, sun, and rain it gets. As a meditation on instinct, put an acorn on your desk and watch it try to behave like an oak tree without any contact with the earth and the sun and the rain. Take your time…

  51. Roger
    Posted March 16, 2010 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    Sorry! For some reason only my first paragraph got through. Not much time now for full exposition, but before we can read, write, cook or acquire language, our hearts has to beat successfully, our lungs must inhale, our digestive and excretory systems must function…
    All of these and many other vital functions have little or no connexion with our concious volition and purpose- they are instinctual.

  52. slpdash
    Posted March 17, 2010 at 11:56 pm | Permalink

    You still don’t seem to get the difference between what you are describing (which are merely autonomic functions) and BEHAVIORS, which can, in some species be,indeed, instinctual, like the example I gave of thousands of miles of traveling in migratory patterns, to name only one. Humans do no such things without learning and thinking about them, which is the definition of “instinctual behavior.” Your heartbeat, and the other things you mention are NOT instincts. Certainly neither is the choice to engage in violence to “solve” a conflict with another human being. We learn to do this through cultural norms that have, granted, been thousands of years in the making, but there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that we do this in the absence of learning, meaning instinctually. I wish you would do some reading into the author I recommended, and I think you’ll understand the myth under which you are laboring.

  53. just me
    Posted May 14, 2010 at 1:51 am | Permalink

    When I was reading the novel the racism and cultural offensiveness seemed obvious to me. I’m happy that someone else at least see’s my side of the issue.

  54. B.A.S
    Posted August 8, 2010 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    im a student doing a project on lord of the flies. does anyone know if golding modeled any of his characters after himself?

    • sd
      Posted October 20, 2011 at 9:07 am | Permalink

      Piggy and, to an extent, Ralph.

  55. Posted January 31, 2012 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    Have you ever thought about writing an e-book or guest authoring on other sites? I have a blog based upon on the same topics you discuss and would really like to have you share some stories/information. I know my visitors would appreciate your work. If you are even remotely interested, feel free to shoot me an e-mail.

  56. taylor
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 12:07 am | Permalink

    Hello, I am a student doing an essay on “Lord of the Flies”. I’ve been looking for a connection Golding created between human nature and a relgion. Christianity keeps popping up and I was wondering if someone could give me some personal insight on what they might think Golding is comparing Human nature to, whether it is a religion or something else with moral values.

  57. David Tarr
    Posted March 1, 2012 at 2:39 am | Permalink

    He is promoting a pseudo-scientific claim that man is innately (instinctively) depraved, and as such is recycling that ancient tribal religious dogma known as “original sin.”
    Scientist and writer Ashley Montague exposes and debunks this nonsense, calling it one of man’s most dangerous myths. See my post of March 1/2/2010 and 3/14/2010 above.

  58. Posted March 7, 2012 at 1:01 am | Permalink

    Primitive tribes that used paint and spears to hunt were savages just as the British colonizers who used steel and armor. Men are brutal and savages in every form. Once we understand this we can really see man for what he really is.

  59. David
    Posted March 7, 2012 at 3:38 am | Permalink

    And then what can we do, Ricard? Destroy each other with gleeful impunity and chalk it off to “the devil made me do it?” That does sound the history of POST neolithic man and what we misname “civil”-ization. Believe as you like. As I see it we’re the product of brutal systems that we’ve agreed to perpetuate despite our better judgement, or “better angels” as Lincoln put it. Just reflect on the power of belief and the fact that what we believe about our world and ourselves becomes and remains our world and ourselves. “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” right? So try another dream and create another reality. The great truth of man is his eminent malleability, not his fixity.
    Is it possible you (and millions) could change your minds and change yourselves and your world in the process? You know,”Be the change.” Or do you want the world as it is?
    You sound almost happy, or certainly complacent, to see “man as he really is,” namely a “savage.” That’s a sure recipe for self-immolation as a species. If this savage homo sapiens has the “instinct” to destroy it’s members, how the hell has he survived 250,000 years? Answer: by way of his true nature, which is one of cooperation and communication. Ever ask yourself why sane man always has to engage in mind-altering rituals to hypnotize himself into killing the ritually dehumanized human being? What is that instinct he is trying to overcome in order to kill? If it were our natural instinct to murder one another, such rituals would not exist, nor need to.

  60. Posted March 7, 2012 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    No, no I should have elaborated more. I agree with you 100% about the systems and institutions been corrupt and to blame for a many of humanities follies YET what I’m trying to imply is that our very nature us just like that, savage and fallen. That doesn’t mean I agree with it, or think that we must continue like this, not at all, my point is we’ve approached humanity from the wrong angle all along. The rich do not oppress the poor, governments do nor truly protect and watch over the interests of their citizens. No, poor people oppress poorer people and governments use their citizens to gain power and economical gains. The human condition is equal in every level of every system imaginable. What we have to do is find a new human nature, a new humanity and forget about all the old institutions. Why? Because just as men they are imperfect and of a fallen nature due to the fact that men created them.
    What I was trying to say in my original post was that savages ARE savages but our definition of savagery is very fine and misleading. Aztecs, the ancestors of my country, were brutal and “primitive” in many of their ways YET British colonizers were also brutal and “primitive” in many ways. It all depends on the angle and the approach, and what the standard is and who wrote the history books.
    And through this idea, that can become a paradox, we can say that men are equally evil and equally good in every civilization. The methods to achieve either stance may vary but the motor, the desire is the same.
    If we trace men’s weakness, and evident fall to the ego much or maybe all of it is explained. We deny a higher power, we deny a greater calling and we proclaim ourselves the only gods of the universe thus sacrificing God or the Gods for another God (men need, have and crave a spiritual guide, no matter what) and this god is ever hungry, it is the EGO which thrives on the inability of the individual to come to terms with his own fears and desires. When races from every corner of the earth fall to this practice they come up with results that are universal among men. Take what I need from the others no matter what and the great lie that preaches “if to to perserve my life I must take your life so be it”. Aztecs were brutal, they had many of the surrounding tribes subdued, heavily taxed and in constant fear. They took from their lands what they needed to survive and when they had enough they wanted more. In this account they are the tyrants but if you read when the spanish came to do practically the same, they are the victims.

  61. Posted March 7, 2012 at 5:01 am | Permalink

    Sorry about the messy grammar, I have to wake up early and I couldn’t revise my post.

  62. Posted March 19, 2012 at 7:57 am | Permalink

    If you’re studying LOTF, you could learn something from a readable article by Nigel Williams, about his meetings with Golding when adapting the book for the stage. It’s at:

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