William Golding came of age during one of the times of greatest disillusionment in human history: the years between 1910 and 1950. These decades featured not one but two world wars and saw the advent of biological weapons, with the nerve gas that wreaked havoc on servicemen in World War I, as well as the ultimate terror of nuclear weapons, that ended World War II. In between the wars was one of the largest influenza epidemics in recorded history, an economic depression without peer (until the latter 2000’s, anyway). After World War II, the world quickly divided into democracies and communist nations, settling into a nervous tension that regularly featured the possibility of nuclear conflict. This backdrop made Golding quite pessimistic about the possibility for good within human nature, and as a result, he wrote Lord of the Flies, which shows what happens when a group of youths is stranded on an island (Olsen). Rather than work harmoniously with one another, the peaceful group of children quickly becomes an aggressive, backbiting group of savages who are intently focused on one virtue and one virtue alone (by and large): self-survival, even at the cost of friends and fellow sufferers. Through setting, symbolism and foreshadowing, Golding expresses the loss of innocence that each boy experiences after the shipwreck.
The descriptions of the setting in the story help to set the stage for the children’s loss of innocence in the story. In Chapter 3, the children go for a swim inside the lagoon, and the scene is a happy, even idyllic one. While an experience of shipwreck would be horrifying, as would the loss of adult protection, the boys appear to have moved beyond that fear, swimming and playing as young children. Also, the pastoral imagery in the forest glade, also in Chapter 3, suggests innocence as well – no human forces have corrupted this glade, and as Simon sits and contemplates recent events, the setting around him seems like it will be a very peaceful place to live.
However, that glade does not remain peaceful for long. As the boys change, so does the nature – and the appearance – of the island. The boys swiftly take the materials at hand and turn them into weapons, into ways to gain control over the weaker ones. A parallel between this and historical events during Golding’s lifetime would be the discovery of nuclear power. The irony of this powerful technology is that nuclear fusion and fission can both provide electricity to homes. While it is necessary to ensure that the power plants are run safely, and while the waste products of this power generation require safe storage for thousands of years, the process itself is cleaner than burning coal, and it does not use fossil fuels. However, fusion and fission also can be used to create bombs of power unlike anything else that humans have discovered. The scientists who worked on the atomic bomb knew both sides of the equation – the benefits and the possible horror for humanity (Jones). When Simon returns to that pastoral glade later on, he finds the bloody sow’s head on a stake – an offering to soothe the “beast.” The setting has been shattered by the violence of the sow’s death, and the idea that this sort of sacrifice can undo basic elements of human nature.
The sow’s head also serves as a powerful symbol. Between their arrival on the island and the point where Simon finds the head, this gang of youths has developed a ruthlessness that really was unnecessary – had they decided to live in common and share with one another, they could also have survived on the island, and in a much happier way. However, as Golding suggests, that sort of happiness is not compatible with the envies and instincts of humanity. The frightening “beast” is also a symbol – of the corrupted human nature that lies in wait, ready to kill the innocence in each child.
Foreshadowing also plays a role in the erosion of these children’s innocence. The Lord of the Flies promises to “have some fun” with Simon; for an innocent, such a promise would be welcome (Lipschutz). However, the fact that this “fun” turns into Simon’s demise shows that these children’s innocence has abruptly come to an end. The promise actually ends up foreshadowing Simon’s death.
Throughout Lord of the Flies, setting, symbolism and foreshadowing all play a part in the development of the children as characters, moving from innocent victims of a shipwreck to jaded savages, bent on individual survival and the cruel subjugation of others. This development mirrors the changes that take place in the world between the dawn of the twentieth century and the end of World War II; as someone who grew up during that time period, William Golding (and a number of other writers, including fellow Briton George Orwell) developed a view of humanity as flawed and doomed as that sow – the difference is, though, that while the sow had no control over its destiny, each of us has control over our own moral and ethical decisions.
Jones, Steven. “Dickens on Lost: Text, Paratext, Fan-Based Media.” Web. Retrieved 21 January
2012 from http://www.rc.umd.edu/reference/wcircle/sejones.pdf
Lipschutz, Ronnie. “Flies in Our Eyes: Man, the Economy and War.” Millennium. Vol. 38 (2):
Olsen, Kirstin. Understanding Lord of the Flies. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group,