N4 artists and educators examine the social experiment proposed by Golding’s novel. Access this Learning Resource to use these ideas and explore Lord of the Flies with your students.
Why Read Lord of the Flies?
Phil Klay is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps. His short story collection Redeployment won the 2014 National Book Award for Fiction and the National Book Critics' Circle John Leonard Prize for best debut work in any genre and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by The New York Times. His debut novel, Missionaries, was released in October 2020 with Penguin Press.
I used to know what this book meant. When I read Lord of the Flies in school, I could have confidently picked out the heroes (Ralph and Piggy) and the villains (mostly Jack). It was all rather tidy.
Then I joined the Marine Corps and went to war, and I saw some things. Marines back from the battlefield, their limbs rent by explosives. Two men who had been tortured near to death. An injured child, his body riddled with shrapnel from a suicide bomb, looking up from the midst of a crowd of horribly injured people, not even crying because he was so weak from the pain and loss of blood. At the time, I thought I knew who to blame—the Jacks of the world. The ones who don’t care a damn about civilization, or rules, or basic decency. The ones who take pleasure in cruelty.
It was a self-serving story. One that said that the only reason there was chaos and violence here was because of the bad people fighting us.
Years later, I returned to Iraq and met a Kurdish man in a refugee camp. He had metal pins sticking out of his leg—he’d been injured in a rocket attack. His two sons and pregnant wife were living with him in a tent, awaiting the winter. When I talked to him, he wasn’t only angry at the militias who’d destroyed his hometown, shattered his leg, and sent his family fleeing. He was angry at the United States, for its inconstant, feckless, and poorly thought-out military policy. And it was hard to argue back.
Now, reading Lord of the Flies, I see the heroes differently. I see how judgmental Piggy is, how poor a job he does listening to those around him, how little effort he puts into persuasion. He thinks that because he has the right answer he should be listened to. But that’s not how conversation works. And then there’s Ralph, who understands what needs doing, but who fails to truly lead. The boys don’t just want shelter and hope of rescue. They want meat, and excitement, and fun. They’re afraid of the beast, and they’re full of dangerous energy that only Jack is willing to channel. Which is why when it takes power, it isn’t by force. The boys leave Ralph of their own free will, quite democratically. They want more than mere survival, and the hope of rescue.
Politics is not a morality play. You don’t win because you were abstractly right. You need to appeal to your fellow citizen’s head, heart, soul, and appetites as well. Some leaders inspire greatness, and we see “the better angels of our nature.” Others inspire violence and hatred.
Now, when I read the book, it isn’t enough for me to pick out the good guys or the bad guys. Now, I wonder, how might a better leader have changed things? Where did it go wrong, and where might it have gone right? It’s a question I ask myself as I read the book, and as I look out at American politics more broadly. There are always plenty of Jacks out there, after all.
Questions and Understandings for a Unit
Students could explore the following questions:
Students could investigate the following understandings:
Sample Teaching Ideas
Meeting and Defying Low Expectations Lord of the Flies feels like it could be a social science experiment – drop some schoolboys on an island and see what happens. There are similar experiments that study how humans interact with each other, with the intention of showing that we are worse than what we might think.In the Stanford Prison experiment, participants were randomly assigned into prisoner and guard categories. Even though the prisoners hadn’t committed any real crime, the guards still treated them awfully. The psychologist who created the experiment was pleased that he could replicate the behaviors seen in a real prison. His arrogance was called out by a young female psychologist who said, “Yes, these young college students are just like the prisoners and the guards, but you are the prison warden who is making all this misery happen.” He saw his error and immediately stopped the experiment. The female psychologist later became his wife.
The Milgram Shock Experiment asked participants deliver a shock of increasing intensity to a “fellow participant” in the next room if they answered a question incorrectly – 65% of the participants kept delivering shocks to a degree that would have killed their colleague if it had been real. The study showed that people would follow orders from a stern leader regardless of whether the instructions were moral. Assignment: So, it’s a given, most people can be manipulated to doing wrong. Investigate each experiment and identify what made them more likely to do that. Also, look into the people who defied the negative expectations. What did they choose to do instead? Does knowing that make it more likely that you might make different choices in the same circumstances? How can positive and negative models expand or limit us? Can you think of other examples of this?
Forms of Knowing: A Child’s Point of View The novel shows the world from a child’s point of view. There are other great works of art that explore a child’s point of view. Here are a few films you might want to watch:
The Bicycle Thieves
The 400 Blows
The White Balloon
Beasts of the Southern Wild
Assignment: Sometimes adults have a kind of ageism where they believe young people can’t understand what adults do. While experience can bring wisdom, it is also true that young people can sometimes more easily see the truth than the adults around them. Pick one of these films and consider the kinds of knowing the children show. How does the director, an adult, show empathy for the struggle of children?