Biblical symbolism of the plot and characters in William Golding`s

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Biblical Symbolism Of The Plot And Characters In William Golding’s Novel
Lord of the Flies
Mirjana DANICIC
University of Belgrade
1. Introduction
The paper deals with the biblical symbolism that can be detected in biblical allegories and
parables in William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies. Its main aim is to draw readers’ attention to
a number of parallels existing between the novel and the Holy Scripture where the author found
inspiration both for the plot and characters. The method we used was parallel reading of the novel
and the Bible in such a way that every biblical name, quote, paraphrase, parable focused our
attention to the original source. Many critics found the novel to be retelling of biblical episodes,
which may be a certain simplification of the plot. Still, after a meticulous comparison, we reached
the conclusion that author’s debt to the Bible was significant and that echoes of Christian themes
and scenes could be easily noticed. Their purpose, however, is only to underline the main ideas of
the novel.
William Golding is a 20th-century British novelist who received the Nobel and Booker prize
for his contribution to world’s literature. One of his primary interests in the novel Lord of the Flies
is examining the ways in which humanity projects its internal evil into something external 1. He
wants to show that evil is not something existing in the outside world, but is an inherent part of all
human beings.
2. Subject of the novel
The title of the novel itself bears reference to the Bible since it is English translation of the
Hebrew name (Ba’alz būb) of God’s greatest enemy - Satan. In the New Testament the name is
usually mentioned as one of Satan’s pseudonyms, e.g. in Matthew (12:24) the name is used for “the
prince of the devils” 2. The name suggests decay, destruction, demoralisation and therefore fits in
very well with Golding’s theme. The Devil, however, is not present in any traditional religious
form, but it is Golding’s modern equivalent – the evil, anarchic, uncontrollable driving force. Even
though Golding admits in one of his personal letters that such religious topic may appear trivial, he
still thinks that the phenomenon of evil has regenerated and acquired new forms.
The subject itself is biblical – the fall of man, loss of innocence of a group of young boys
who accidentally found themselves on a deserted island and soon became blood-thirsty hunters with
no wish to return to the civilised world. The deserted island appears to be the reflection of Eden.
Their loss of innocence is not the result of the process of their growing up and passing from
childhood into boyhood and adolescence, but of their becoming aware of their dark side. To grow
up means to realize that this dark side is inherent, innate in all human beings. Golding decides to
describe this evil side of human nature in a story about experiences of young boys, probably trying
to fight the traditional Christian view that childhood is a state of innocence. In Matthew (18:3)
1
K. McCarron. 1994. William Golding. Plymouth: Northcote House in association with the British Council. p. 10.
“But when the Pharisees heard it, they said, This fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Be-el’ze-bub the prince of the
devils” (Matthew 12:24).
2
Jesus, answering his disciples’ question who is greatest in heavenly kingdom, says: ”Except ye be
converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven”. Children
act intuitively, in accordance with nature, satisfying natural desires and needs. That is the reason
why the boys are, immediately upon their arrival to the island, very happy and joyful – they freed
themselves from the pressure of the outside adult world.
In the very first chapter Golding gives clues to his readers that the context of the novel is
going to be deeply Christian as the life of his characters was before they came to the island. Jack,
one of the main characters says: “I ought to be a chief, because I’m chapter chorister and head boy.
I can sing C sharp”.3 Choir is a religious institution, which will not stop Jack and his hunters later to
commit some of the most serious crimes on the island. Golding analyses such disturbing connection
between religion, violence and sacral victims in the early phase of his career, particularly in the
novel Spire.
Theological implications can be noticed from the very beginning of the first chapter. These
are some instances: “taking their cue from the innocent Johnny, they sat down on the fallen palm
tree”.4 Boys themselves are fallen, because the plane that evacuated them fell down on the island
after having been hit in the air. The plane thus becomes an economical literary device: besides
being the cause of the fall i.e. prima causa of the plot, it is also a picture of the present state of the
world heading to its self-destruction. This fall from the sky i.e. heaven symbolically represents their
fall from the state of innocence. The end of innocence in the novel takes place just after the first
chapter – boys feel very comfortable and pleasant in the jungle trying to hunt down wild piglets. At
the end of the second chapter the first victim falls – one little boy with a mark on his face is
missing, probably caught by the huge fire the boys lit and burnt to death.
3. The Beast
The author uses boys’ fear of the mythical beast to illustrate generally prevailing attitude
that evil comes from the outside world as a consequence of certain circumstances and not from
within ourselves. In the beginning, in boys’ minds the beast takes shape of a snake – the very shape
that Satan takes when trying to persuade Eve to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge. As Eve
disobeys God, breaks His law and is expelled from Eden, the boys start to break the rules they have
made and thus ruin their own paradise-like island.
When Jack’s tribe kills a sow, its head is cut off, impaled on a stick and offered as a trophy
to the Beast, a terrible creature that children are afraid of and which seems to be lurking on the
island. Thus boys’ irrational fear and blind terror release forces of death and the devil on the island.
Looking at the novel in the context of biblical parallels, the Lord of the flies recalls the devil, just as
Simon recalls Jesus. This complicated symbol becomes the most important image in the novel when
Simon confronts it in the glade and it seems to speak to him, telling him that evil lies within every
human heart and promising to have some “fun” with him, which foreshadows his murder in the
following chapter.
When the corpse of a dead parachutist is discovered on the top of the mountain, without
knowing what it really is, the boys regard it as corpus delicti of the existence of the beast. The fact
is that a beast of different nature and form actually wanders around the island. It is the source of the
boys’ primeval impulses and soon their deeds become triggered by animal, beast-like instincts.
Thus the beast has no physical shape, but represents the inner evil power lying deep down in human
souls.
Golding insinuates that murders and worshipping the false idols i.e. Lord of the flies which
is a pig’s head on a stick are continually repeated in the macro world which the boys fled. Thus the
two worlds interact. This interaction is dramatically underlined by appearance of the dead
parachutist. He is a scapegoat killed in the war being waged in the adults’ world, symbolically he is
a sign of increasing madness both in the macro world and in island’s micro world. His appearance
3
4
W. Golding. 2000. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group. p. 22.
W. Golding. op.cit. p.18.
gives the opportunity to the boys to externalise evil and neglect Simon’s profound suggestion that
“maybe it’s only us”.5
4. Salvation
In the beginning, the symbol of salvation is a conch. It also stands for power: “Let him be
chief with the trumpet-thing”.6 It bears the power of church bell ringing for common prayer, for
union.
Later in the novel, salvation is associated with fire, because smoke can be SOS signal which
may be seen by a crew of some ship sailing by the island: “Life became a race with the fire. … To
keep a clean flag of flame flying on the mountain was the immediate end and no one looked
further”.7
Traditionally fire has been associated with hope, warmth and friendship. However, in
the novel fire is the cause of conflicts, destruction and death. At the end of the second chapter, fire
has already taken its first victim – one little boy with the mark on his skin disappears in huge fire
recklessly set up by others. The conflict between two leaders, Ralph and Jack, arises because at one
point Jack decides to go hunting and forgets to keep the fire burning. Ralph is angry with Jack:
“The fire is the most important thing on the island. How can we ever be rescued except by luck, if
we don’t keep a fire going?” 8 The intensity of Ralph’s anger tells us that he sees fire as the only
possibility of salvation, which will paradoxically prove true at the end of the novel when Jack’s
tribe set the whole island on fire so as to make Ralph an easy target to be hunted down and killed.
Every reader naturally feels relieved when Ralph stumbles upon a white-clad naval officer – his
saviour. Still, this officer is a warrior, a participant in the massive nuclear war in the adult world, a
gun-carrying saviour. He dislikes the blood and filth of the boys, he is embarrassed by Ralph’s open
display of tears, even though Ralph’s grief is absolutely human. 9 Thus the outlook of the novel is
pessimistic.
5. Characters
Ralph and a small group of boys gathered around him behave completely different from the
majority of boys gathered in Jack’s tribe. Ralph becomes an outcast because he “had some sense” 10
and, expressed in biblical terminology, the conflict between good angels and fallen demons arises.
Like other boys Ralph also loses his innocence on the island, but he reaches an understanding of
human nature. He realises that evil is a universal characteristic inherent in all human beings and in
order to win the battle with it, one should possess intellectual power embodied in Piggy, mysticism
and spirituality embodied in Simon and hopes and dreams embodied in Ralph. When a naval officer
rescues him from a certain death, Ralph starts to sob and weep “for the end of innocence, the
darkness of man’s heart”.11
Piggy is an island on an island. Being extremely intelligent and rational, he cannot
communicate with anyone except Ralph. He remains in the background taking the role of Ralph’s
counselor. “Life is scientific, that’s what it is”.12 When ethics, discipline, human dignity disappear
on the island, Piggy says: “It’s them that haven’t no common sense that make trouble on this
island”.13 He is the first to realise that Jack hates Ralph and that Jack is an embodiment of the beast
i.e. a demonic being. His belief that evil is somewhere else, not in everyone, is his tragic flaw that
5
W. Golding. op.cit. p. 89.
Ibid, p. 22.
7
Ibid, p. 41.
8
Ibid, p. 80.
9
S. J. Boyd. 1990. The Novels of William Golding. London: The Harvester Press. p. 14.
10
W. Golding. op.cit. p. 186.
11
Ibid, p. 202.
12
Ibid, p. 84.
13
Ibid, p. 132.
6
will make him lose his head. He refuses to believe that people like Simon and Ralph, who defend
values of civilisation, also bear inherent evil in themselves. Therefore, he believes that Simon’s
death is an accident and not a premeditated murder. Piggy’s morality seems to be as pragmatic as
his mind. This is why Golding’s decision that Piggy should die in a similar way as Simon ought not
to surprise readers. When Roger, Jack’s executioner, smashes Piggy’s head, his intelligence
becomes useless. Due to his firm belief in the superiority of Ralph’s reason and leadership, he is
killed, failing to adapt to the circumstances in which the Beast in boys has come to the surface.
Simon has a role of a religious and spiritual visionary. His name is of biblical origin – two
apostles bore this name. The name also refers to Simon Magus who offered money to the Apostles
Peter and John for the gift of conferring the Holy Ghost. Similarly to Piggy, Simon is also isolated
from the rest of the group. He believes in the strength of intuition, introspection, spiritual world.
Even though Piggy’s belief in common sense prevents him from understanding Simon’s mysticism,
the two of them join intellectual and spiritual approach to life, two aspects which can hardly exist
one without another. The spiritual inspires the intellectual and vice versa.
Simon is different from other boys primarily because he constantly takes care of younger
and more fragile boys. His help to the weaker makes him a saint, a Jesus-like figure. His nurturing
of the boys has a gospel connotation of Jesus helping the poor. On one occasion Jesus fed five
thousand people with only two fish and five loaves of bread (Luke 9:16). Both Jesus and Simon
symbolically feed human spirit, not only human body. Simon’s physical appearance resembles a
saint: “He was a small, skinny boy, his chin pointed, and his eyes so bright they had deceived Ralph
into thinking him delightfully gay and wicked. The coarse mop of black hair was long and swung
down, almost concealing a low, broad forehead. He wore the remains of shorts and his feet were
bare like Jack’s”.14
Simon reaches the abstract understanding of latent evil in human nature: “However Simon
thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and
sick”.15 This represents Golding’s vision of human kind. The author places Simon to a position
usually occupied by visionaries and mystics in a society – at the margin of social surrounding
because of the rejection of the majority. Simon makes questions that nobody on the island can
answer: What is dirtiest among us? What else can be done? His tone here is reminiscent of Christ’s
when in Matthew (9:4) he asks: “Wherefore think ye evil in your hearts?” Simon persistently wants
to prove that there is no other evil but that inside the boys. He discovers the true nature of the beast
– a dead parachutist, because he strongly believes that confronting the truth can be liberating for the
boys. However, his discovery remains secret to other inhabitants of the island, because they are not
ready to face the truth and Simon becomes a scapegoat and is killed in a ritual, tribal dance by
Jack’s hunters.
Like a modern Moses, Simon climbs down the mountain to make public the truth, to share
his knowledge with everyone. A traditional role of a prophet has always been to raise awareness of
human sins and to foretell the future. Simon fulfils both conventional tasks. Simon the prophet goes
to the mountain to reveal the truth. In spite of being warned by the Lord of the flies i.e. Satan that he
will be killed if he continues his mission16, he does not quit. This dialogue with the pig’s head (lord
of the flies) resembles Christ’s sufferings in the garden of Gethsemane. Simon bravely walks up the
mountain, finds the corpse and returns to convey the truth to others. Nevertheless, he is killed by
modern Israelites who worship false gods. His murder ironically confirms the rightfulness of his
knowledge.
While walking up the mountain, the hunt becomes more intensive, his face is covered in
blood because of his epileptic seizure. He is both physically and spiritually transformed: “The usual
14
Ibid, p. 55,56.
Ibid, p. 103.
16
“So don’t try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else we shall do you. See? Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert
and Bill and Piggy and Ralph. Do you. See?” in W. Golding. op.cit. p. 144.
15
brightness was gone from his eyes and he walked with a sort of glum determination like an old
man”.17 A parallel can be drawn between Simon’s climbing to the top of the mountain and Christ’s
climbing to the Calvary. Simon, like Jesus, full of understanding and compassion for human kind,
goes to discover the truth about evil and reveal it to others, even though he is aware of certain death
that awaits him unless he gives up. Both of them know that they will be killed and they willingly
sacrifice themselves. Thus Simon’s death resembles Christ’s - the same mass psychology leads the
boys to condemn Simon to death. In both cases, the mass think that Simon i.e. Jesus is not what he
pretends to be (a prophet, a saviour), but some dark creature whose aim is to hurt them. Simon’s
death is an imitation of Christ’s. The wisdom that Simon wants to share with other boys – that the
Beast lives inside us – is disturbing and seemingly leaves no space for a possibility of repentance
and salvation. The fact that the author introduces such a character in the story tells us that there is at
least one good man ready to follow Christ’s footsteps, which alone is encouraging.
Jack, short of jackal, is a sadistic character who becomes incarnation of the devil himself. A
red-haired, evil lieutenant who strikingly resembles Judas Iscariot, he is the main cause of all
conflicts on the island, because he wants to take over all power from Ralph and become the only
leader on the island. He loses his innocence when hunting wild boar. He encourages the persecution
of Piggy and then Ralph, a democratically elected leader. Like Judas, he betrays the interest of the
group and makes haste towards his goal. His blood-thirst is progressive – the more intensive
barbarism in him, the bigger control and power over other boys he has. Most boys regard him as a
courageous leader and obey him in rejecting moral restrictions.
Jack’s ambition for power and violence is insatiable because they make him feel superior
and more important than others. He quickly learns how to use boys’ fear of the beast in order to
control and manipulate them.
6. Conclusion
Golding hardly believes in any god. After all ugly experiences from the World War II, he
tries “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature”.18 Is there anything more
innocent than a group of young boys singing in a church choir? It is easy for the readers to identify
themselves with these earthly angels. However, we soon discover that the boys’ innocence is
deceiving. In a private letter to a friend Golding says: “One of our faults is to believe that evil is
somewhere else”.19 Our fault is our inclination to externalise evil – the boys, incapable to suppress
the beast within themselves, look for it in their surroundings attaching Satan-like characteristics to
it. Unable to deal with the horrors they are facing, they try to find the source of their fear in an
unknown, external, evil force. Jack’s behaviour however is not the cause of evil, it is only a
symptom of something which exists in everyone – greed, selfishness, power to rule.
Simon’s example gives us a trace of hope. We should accept the fact that human nature is
sinful and that evil is an innate part of our being, but self-sacrificing and goodness can detach us
from such nature. Simon believes that there is something stronger and larger than evil in the world
and this faith of his leaves space for optimism.
Golding turned to the Bible in his profound literary analysis of the source of evil in human
nature and employed biblical parallels to function as a subtle motif in the novel, adding thematic
resonance to the main ideas. Still, the interpretation of Lord of the Flies must not be limited to
Christian allegory – there are significant differences. Simon’s death, contrary to Christ’s, brings no
salvation to mankind (the boys), but triggers more bloodshed and violence. Simon even fails to tell
the boys his findings about the true origin of the beast (the dead parachutist), whereas Jesus spreads
his moral teachings until the very last living moment. The conclusion that we can draw is that
themes as well as ideas in the novel are conspicuously biblical, but such parallelism is not decidedly
17
W. Golding. op.cit. p. 146.
B. Spring. 1976. Lord of the Flies. Dublin: Helicon Limited. p. 60.
19
S. J. Boyd. op.cit. p. 12.
18
carried out in all chapters, but it serves only to underline the central issues and may be the key to
interpretation.
REFERENCES
Golding, W. 2000. Lord of the Flies. New York: Berkley Publishing Group.
Boyd, S. J. 1990. The Novels of William Golding. London: The Harvester Press.
Danicic, Mirjana. 2005. Biblijska simbolika u romanima Mobi Dik Hermana Melvila i Gospodar
muva Vilijama Goldinga. Faculty of Philology at the University of Belgrade. Unpublished MA
thesis.
McCarron, Kevin. 1994. William Golding. Plymouth: Northcote House in association with the
British Council.
Spring, B. 1976. Lord of the Flies. Dublin: Helicon Limited.
The New Testament. 1987. National Publishing Company.
World’s Greatest Classic Books. CD-ROM. Corel CD Home. 1995.
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