Alternative Explanations For the Societal Breakdown
in William Golding's Lord of the Flies
© Copyright 1999, Skylar Hamilton Burris
In William Golding's Lord of the Flies, Ralph asks Piggy, "[W]hat makes things break up like they do?" (127). It is a question that has given rise to much speculation in critical circles. What causes the societal breakdown on the island in Lord of the Flies? Golding himself has said the cause is nothing more than the inherent evil of man; no matter how well-intentioned he is, and no matter how reasonable a government he erects, man will never be able to permanently contain the beast within. But other critics have offered alternative explanations, most of which are based on the assumption that the beast can, in fact, be contained. Bernard F. Dick argues that the suppression of this natural, bestial side of man results in its unhealthy eruption and the consequent societal breakdown. John F. Fitzgerald and John R. Kayser suggest that, in addition to original sin, society's failure to reconcile reason with mystery causes the breakdown. Finally, Kathleen Woodward contends that when the beast is not suppressed strictly enough, when law and order is lax, evil erupts. Although we need not automatically accept Golding's explanation of his own text, when alternative views fail to provide an appropriate rationale, it is not unreasonable to assume the author's viewpoint. The three aforementioned critical views can be refuted, and Golding's simple summary can explain what these more complex theories do not. Golding's own explanation for the breakdown of civilization in Lord of the Flies was delivered in a lecture given in 1962 at the University of California at Los Angeles. He describes the breakdown as resulting from nothing more complex than the inherent evil of man: "So the boys try to construct a civilization on the island; but it breaks down in blood and terror because the boys are suffering from the terrible disease of being human" (Golding, "Lord of the Flies as Fable" 42). For Golding, the structure of a society is not responsible for the evil that erupts, or, at least, it is responsible only insofar as the society reflects the nature of the fallen man. The shape of the society the boys create is "conditioned by their diseased, their fallen nature" (Golding, "Fable" 41). Indeed, Golding claims to have intentionally avoided inserting some things into the novel that might have led readers to conclude that the society itself, rather than the fallen man, is responsible for the breakdown: The boys were below the age of overt sex, for I did not want to complicate the issue with that relative triviality. They did not have to fight for survival, for I did not want a Marxist exegesis. If disaster came, it was not to come through the exploitation of one class by another. It was to rise, simply and solely out of the nature of the brute. (Golding, "Fable" 42) Many critics, in spending time explaining the breakdown, talk about what the children did (or failed to do) to make the breakdown occur. The implicit assumption behind all of these explanations is that if the children had simply done something different, the breakdown might not have occurred; in other words, the beast within man can be contained under certain circumstances. But Golding's explanation provides no such hope. Disaster arises "simply and solely out of the nature of the brute." Of course, we need not accept Golding's explanation for the breakdown in Lord of the Flies simply because he is the author. New Critics, for instance, will argue that meaning is inherent in the text itself, and Reader-Response critics will tell us that it is the reader who creates meaning. (In discussing the accuracy of the various explanations for the breakdown, I will be looking to the text itself.) Whatever an author's intention may be, his work may end up communicating something quite different. As even Golding himself...