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Lord of the Flies | Study Guide

William Golding

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Learn about the historical and cultural context surrounding William Golding's novel Lord of the Flies with Course Hero’s video study guide.

Lord of the Flies | Context


When Lord of the Flies was first published, the world was recovering from the terrible loss of life that occurred during World War II. Between civilians and military personnel, that conflict claimed approximately 60 million lives.

The end of World War II was quickly followed by the beginning of the Cold War. The Communist bloc was led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (U.S.S.R.), which had instituted a totalitarian state after its revolution in 1917—a revolution based on the theories of socialism. Socialism advocated for common ownership of resources for the good of the whole community, not for gaining control of more and more areas, which is what the Communist leaders sought. The capitalist West, led by the United States, feared the spread of communism. With both superpowers possessing nuclear bombs, the Cold War was a tense time.

Both of these historic conflicts serve as the backdrop for Lord of the Flies.

World War II

World War II had a profound effect on William Golding. While in the Royal Navy, he saw active duty in the North Atlantic, took part in the battle that sunk the Bismarck (a German battleship) in 1941, and commanded a rocket-launching ship during the landing at Normandy in 1944.

What Golding saw during war impacted his view of people and society. Golding was shocked by the great human capacity for pain and destruction. In an essay published in 1965, titled "Fable," he wrote, "I began to see what people were capable of doing." It wasn't just the Nazis' horrific treatment of those in the concentration camps and the terrible mistreatment of those imprisoned by the Japanese that appalled Golding. The Allies' actions concerned him as well. They justified destruction in the name of morality, yet such a claim led to a moral gray area where inhumane behavior became acceptable. All of these disparities led Golding to eventually view human nature as savage and unforgiving.

The results of these ideas are explored throughout Lord of the Flies. Jack and his hunters, in particular, perpetrate evil. While they start with animals, they ultimately kill and torture human beings. Even Ralph, who represents society and order, participates in a hunt and the killing of Simon. All humans, as shown in the text, are capable of doing evil.

The Cold War

Lord of the Flies was written during the Cold War, during which humanity lived for the first time under a clear threat of nuclear war and destruction. Atomic bombs had been used twice by the United States to force the surrender of Japan in 1945. Leaders of the U.S.S.R. felt compelled to develop the bomb for both defensive and offensive purposes. By the time the Soviet Union officially became a nuclear state in 1949, the Cold War had begun.

Just as in the text when the boys break into groups that come to mistrust and seek the destruction of the other, nations separated into groups. Most countries fell into the sphere of either the Soviet Union and its communist allies or the United States and the West. Tension was high between the two blocs, and proxy wars such as the Korean War occurred (North Korean invasion of South Korea during the years 1950–53; the United States supported South Korea, while China and the Soviet Union supported North Korea).

The Cold War and its potential for mass destruction, as well as the paranoia between the two sides, is readily apparent in the text. The text begins as the boys are stranded on the island because their plane was shot down. They believe a nuclear bomb has destroyed the world, and they are worried about being found by the Reds, a name members of the Western bloc often applied to communists.

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