Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The central concern of Lord of the Flies is the conflict between two competing impulses that exist within all human beings: the instinct to live by rules, act peacefully, follow moral commands, and value the good of the group against the instinct to gratify one’s immediate desires, act violently to obtain supremacy over others, and enforce one’s will. This conflict might be expressed in a number of ways: civilization vs. savagery, order vs. chaos, reason vs. impulse, law vs. anarchy, or the broader heading of good vs. evil. Throughout the novel, Golding associates the instinct of civilization with good and the instinct of savagery with evil.
The conflict between the two instincts is the driving force of the novel, explored through the dissolution of the young English boys’ civilized, moral, disciplined behavior as they accustom themselves to a wild, brutal, barbaric life in the jungle. Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel, which means that Golding conveys many of his main ideas and themes through symbolic characters and objects. He represents the conflict between civilization and savagery in the conflict between the novel’s two main characters: Ralph, the protagonist, who represents order and leadership; and Jack, the antagonist, who represents savagery and the desire for power.
As the novel progresses, Golding shows how different people feel the influences of the instincts of civilization and savagery to different degrees. Piggy, for instance, has no savage feelings, while Roger seems barely capable of comprehending the rules of civilization. Generally, however, Golding implies that the instinct of savagery is far more primal and fundamental to the human psyche than the instinct of civilization. Golding sees moral behavior, in many cases, as something that civilization forces upon the individual rather than a natural expression of human individuality. When left to their own devices, Golding implies, people naturally revert to cruelty, savagery, and barbarism. This idea of innate human evil is central to Lord of the Flies, and finds expression in several important symbols, most notably the beast and the sow’s head on the stake. Among all the characters, only Simon seems to possess anything like a natural, innate goodness.
As the boys on the island progress from well-behaved, orderly children longing for rescue to cruel, bloodthirsty hunters who have no desire to return to civilization, they naturally lose the sense of innocence that they possessed at the beginning of the novel. The painted savages in Chapter 12 who have hunted, tortured, and killed animals and human beings are a far cry from the guileless children swimming in the lagoon in Chapter 3. But Golding does not portray this loss of innocence as something that is done to the children; rather, it results naturally from their increasing openness to the innate evil and savagery that has always existed within them. Golding implies that civilization can mitigate but never wipe out the innate evil that exists within all human beings. The forest glade in which Simon sits in Chapter 3 symbolizes this loss of innocence. At first, it is a place of natural beauty and peace, but when Simon returns later in the novel, he discovers the bloody sow’s head impaled upon a stake in the middle of the clearing. The bloody offering to the beast has disrupted the paradise that existed before—a powerful symbol of innate human evil disrupting childhood innocence.
The struggle to build civilization forms the main conflict of Lord of the Flies. Ralph and Piggy believe that structure, rules, and maintaining a signal fire are the greatest priorities, while Jack believes hunting, violence, and fun should be prioritized over safety, protection, and planning for the future. While initially the boys, including Jack, agree to abide by Ralph’s rules and democratic decision-making, the slow and thoughtful process of building an orderly society proves too difficult for many of the boys. They don’t want to help build the shelters, maintain the signal fire, or take care of the littluns. The immediate fun and visceral rewards of hunting, chanting, and dancing around the fire are more attractive than the work of building a sustainable society. Near the end of the novel, even Ralph is tempted by Jack’s authoritarian regime, regularly forgetting why the fire and rescue is so important.
The fact that the main characters in Lord of the Flies are young boys suggests the potential for evil is inherent even in small children. Jack, for example, is initially keen for rules and civility, but becomes obsessed with hunting, frightened and empowered by the promise of violence. Jack’s desire to control and subjugate proves more powerful than his desire for empathy, intellect, and civilization, and Jack becomes a brutal and leader. Even Ralph and Piggy, who both strive to maintain their sense of humanity, ultimately join in on the mass murder of Simon, momentarily surrendering to the thrill of violence and mass hysteria. While Piggy tries to ignore their participation, Ralph is devastated when he realizes that he is no better than Jack or Roger, and that he has a darkness inside as well.