This lesson looks at elements of human nature in William Golding’s 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies, which asks ~’what are the essential characteristics of human behavior?~’
Human Nature in Lord of the Flies
Have you ever wondered what would happen in a society if all of the sudden there was no one around to enforce the law or rules? Maybe it would be a wonderful event where everyone could live according to his or her own dictates and goodwill would prevail. Or maybe, the opposite would occur and chaos and mayhem would ensue.
These are a few of the questions that author William Golding asks in his novel, Lord of the Flies. Are people inherently good and evil is an external condition that invades that goodness? Or is evil an internal condition kept in check by the rules and norms of society?Golding wrote this novel as a response to Coral Island, an earlier novel that espoused the idea that people are basically good unless they are tempted by evil and give in to it. Golding, however, utilized the teachings of psychologist Sigmund Freud, who suggested that there is evil in everyone that must be kept in check by the conscience. Interestingly, if we look at Lord of the Flies as an allegory or cautionary tale, we can see elements of both sides of the inherently good or inherently evil argument around human nature.
Premise 1: Humans are Essentially Good Unless Tempted by Evil
Early in the novel, we see elements that support the idea that humans are inherently and essentially good people until they are tempted by evil. For example, early in the book, the boys have just been through a harrowing ordeal that leaves them stranded on a deserted island without adult supervision or any construct of their society.
Yet, they set about replicating that society in a democratic and fair way. As one of the protagonists, Jack, exclaims,We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we are not savages.
We’re English and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things.Even though he references a biased position (English are the best at everything), as readers, we are comforted knowing that the boys will rely on what they have been taught and what has been instilled in them because they are good boys. They are listening to their consciences and working at creating a microcosm of their home society: allocating jobs, electing a leader and using the conch to make sure that all voices are heard. These are concrete examples of our first premise that essentially humans are good unless they are tempted by evil. Yet, as we will soon learn, the internal battle between good and evil will reach a turning point with catastrophic consequences.
Premise 2: Human Nature has a Dark Side
The opposite position of the idea that humans are essentially good is that human nature is easily tempted and needs laws and society to keep us in check.
Since the boys’ initial attempt to replicate their home society was successful, their descent into hedonism and loss of conscience is all the more striking. As time passes and their morals begin to decay, they begin to fear a superstition they call ‘the beast.’ However, as they soon discover, the real ‘beast’ is the monster of the dark side of their own human nature.In Chapter 5, the boys are discussing the threat of the beast. One of the protagonists, Simon, wonders about the origin of the beast:What I mean is;maybe it’s only usAlthough as this point, he does not fully understand his own musings, he suggests the possibility that perhaps the real evil to fear is already within them. Later in a vision, the Lord of the Flies (a severed pig’s head left as an offering to the Beast) speaks to him, confirming his earlier hunch:There isn’t anyone to help you.
Only me. And I’m the Beast;Fancy thinking the Beast is something you can hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?In increasing measure for the duration of the novel, Golding illustrates his own belief in the inherent dark side of human nature, culminating in the savage murder of Piggy (representing reason and intellect) to the loss of the signal fire (representing the boys desire to remain in their now barbaric condition).While one might look to the circumstances as being the reason the boys descended into savagery, Golding would disagree. He did not view the boys as victims. Instead, he portrays this loss of innocence as the natural progression when humans are left to their own devices without the civilizing force of society.
In this lesson, we explored ideas around the true nature of human behavior as they are portrayed in the classic novel, Lord of the Flies by William Golding. One premise is that humans are essentially good at heart, unless they are tempted by evil. The opposite premise is that humans have a dark side that must be kept in check by the laws and behavior norms of society.
While the true nature of human behavior is most likely located between these two positions, Lord of the Flies urges us to look deep within our own natures and confront whatever beasts may be lurking there.