Writing in an era following the Second World War known as the ‘atomic age,’ Golding tapped into a widespread cultural panic over nuclear destruction and man’s capacity for warfare in Lord of the Flies. After the first atomic bombs were detonated over Japan at the end of the war in 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States began building their nuclear arsenals, leading many people to fear apocalyptic nuclear conflict. People built bomb shelters, students practiced nuclear bomb protection drills in American classrooms, and the Soviet Union and the United States engaged in a policy of brinksmanship that would come to be known as the Cold War. By placing his novel after a presumably nuclear attack, Golding asked questions that were common for the time period: How will human beings behave if society is destroyed? Are the worlds’ great empires capable of mutual destruction? And maybe most importantly, is human nature intrinsically self-destructive, or does it have the moral capability to act in the interest of the greater good? Golding used the allegory of boys stranded on an island to explore the kind of all-too-human drive for violence and domination that lead to nuclear acquisition in the first place.
As a member of the British Navy during the Second World War, Golding had been the captain of a ship that assisted in the invasion at Normandy, or D-Day, when the allies invaded Nazi occupied France, and this experience directly informed his view of man’s capacity for cruelty. Golding wrote “before the Second World War I believed in the perfectibility of social man.... but after the war I did not because I was unable to. I had discovered what one man could do to another...” Following the war, Golding worked as a headmaster at a boys’ school, which influenced his writing as well. By setting his story among schoolboys, rather than grown men fighting an actual war, he made his themes of brutality and the breakdown of civilization innate and inevitable. He intended his novel to be a direct warning about the specific dangers of nuclear proliferation, but his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith, edited out a lengthy beginning describing a nuclear war that sets the plot in motion, leaving the sense of global apocalypse, and the boys’ swift and inexorable descent toward the warfare that landed them on the island.
Golding does not just critique the inherent dangers of unchecked nuclear armament in his book, but also criticizes the totalitarian regimes rising up in the East. In the 1950s, the Soviet Union was ascendant, and Western countries began learning about Soviet gulags for political dissenters, their violent political purges, and the breadth of the Soviet government’s domestic power. At the same time, awareness grew of the holocaust in Nazi Germany and the fascist regime that perpetrated it. When Jack ties up dissenters and beats them, or Roger delights in terrorizing boys into submission, Golding creates parallels to the use of force to establish a brutal, repressive system of authority. Golding was particularly interested in “groupthink,” a term coined by George Orwell in 1984 to describe how essentially good people are able, through coercion and fear, to excuse or enable injustice. Jack’s reign of terror resembles Hitler’s violent repression of political dissent, or Stalin’s bloody political purges of the 1930’s. While the concerns of the novel are timeless, it would have held particular resonance for readers just recovering from global conflict, and anxious about the fate of the world in the face of fascism, totalitarianism, and increasing nuclear threat.