Paul O’Flinn


Them and Us in Literature


1. William Golding and Original Sin

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one of the most influential post-war novels. First published in 1954, it caught on in a couple of years and by the end of the decade Penguins could scarcely print it fast enough. It was made into a reasonably successful film and soon found itself required reading in school syllabuses all over the world. Lord of the Flies, it’s generally agreed, is a modern classic.

What’s it about? If it’s a while since you saw the film or read the book it’s worth recalling the story. It’s set in a future of atomic war with “the reds” as the enemy. A party of English private schoolboys, ages ranging from six to twelve, are being evacuated when their plane is shot down over the Pacific. They climb out of the crash to find themselves on a desert island paradise – coral reef, palm trees, lagoon, the lot The rest of the story is about how this paradise is turned into hell by the nature of the boys themselves. Discipline starts to break down. A few – Ralph, Piggy, Simon – try to maintain standards but the majority end up following the vicious Jack, end up, in Piggy’s phrase, like “a pack of painted niggers”. Simon is ritually slaughtered and Piggy is pushed off a cliff. Next there’s a savage manhunt: Jack and his mob chase Ralph across the island, reducing it to a blazing wreckage with fires designed to smoke Ralph out. But help is on the way. The flames have attracted the British Navy. The book closes with the boys in tears at the feet of a puzzled officer and a group of ratings who have landed to see what the trouble is.

So far so good. Golding has selected and isolated some middle-class private school boys, has put them under a microscope and has decided that they are on the whole a vicious and nasty lot. The rest of us are sorry to hear this about the middle classes and hope they soon get better because in small but occasionally worthy ways they have something to contribute.

Perhaps it’s not true, perhaps they aren’t such a loathsome and vicious mob as Golding makes out. And yet he’s uniquely well qualified to judge: four years at Oxford University, five years as an officer in the navy during the War, then twenty years as a grammar school teacher – more or less a lifetime spent almost exclusively in the company of middle-class males of all ages. Golding should know, and if he says they are a heap of crap, so be it. Certainly it’s a verdict that one has heard repeated from time to time by disgruntled foreigners, Marxists, members of the British working classes and the like.

But what’s this? James R. Baker claims that the purpose of Lord of the Flies “was to show that the perennially repeated fall of man is caused by defects inherent in his own nature”. [1] William Golding agrees, and says that the book’s aim is “to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature”. [2]

So here we are at the heart of the matter. It’s not just British middle-class males who are rubbish, it’s everybody, it’s human nature, says the novel and its author. That’s why our fall is perennially repeated’ and that’s why any of us would reduce a paradise to a flaming hell in a couple of hundred pages. In short, as Bernard S. Oldsey and Stanley Weintraub put it, “Golding writes ... with the eyes of someone who has seen the Empire crumble and witnessed twentieth century manifestations of Original Sin.” [3] Amen.

How do we respond to dismal pieties of this sort? Respond to them we must, because if Golding is right and if what destroys all attempts to create and maintain a decent society is “the darkness of man’s heart”, as the novel’s lst page has it, then we might as well pack away our socialist illusions, go home and pray.

Argument of this sort withers away once we stop for a moment and look at our actual situation. I wrote this book, a compositor set up the type, you are reading it. That means that the three of us are literate, something that probably wasn’t true of our ancestors, say, a hundred and fifty years ago. Then again, the fact that I have time and money to sit and write this book and you have money to buy it and time to read it means that the pair of us are not fully occupied in struggling for the bare necessities of food, clothing and shelter – again, something not true of many of our ancestors. Or take the mere fact that you and I and the compositor are alive and yet as children we all had measles, flu, chickenpox and so on. The odds are that in any generation before today’s one or more of us would have died from one of those childhood ailments. So in all sorts of small and not so small ways humanity has progressed, we have evolved and moved forward, we are not perennially condemned to trip up and remain stuck in the same groove.

Reactionaries, of course, can handle this line fairly easily. Ah yes, they explain patiently, agreed that the quantity of life has improved, that materially we’re better off. But what about Standards? What about the Quality of Life? As Golding himself puts it, boys nowadays “will have a far less brutish life than their nineteenth century ancestors, no doubt. They will believe less and fear less. But just as good money drives out bad so inferior culture drives out superior.” [4]

At the risk of sounding repetitive, the very fact that William Golding is able to raise the question of the decline of superior cultural standards, and that you and I and the compositor can eavesdrop on his complaint, is evidence of immense progress. Formerly; you’d have been illiterate, I’d have been a serf and the compositor would have been dead, so none of the three of us would have given a twopenny damn about declining cultural standards. Now we know it’s an issue, we’ve the leisure to contemplate that fact and can, if we agree with Golding’s analysis and have nothing important to do, busy ourselves about superior cultural standards (need for raising of).

But setting aside the whole question of whether superior culture has collapsed or not, there is nonetheless a clear contradiction in the unchanging human nature brigade’s claim that it has collapsed. Either human nature is fixed and unchanging, in which case it will tend broadly to reproduce itself and its conditions unchanged over generations, or human nature is ever-shifting, ever-evolving, in which case it will constantly be caught up in remaking, revolutionising, wrecking and rebuilding itself and its conditions, its culture and its habits. Human nature and the culture that nature generates either stays the same or it doesn’t. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that human nature is always the same and muse on about the eternal darkness of man’s heart, and then with the next breath write articles for the Times Literary Supplement complaining about the way things are changing and getting worse.

The root of contradictions of this sort is the fact that the “human nature” argument is not so much truth as ideology – a conscious or unconscious attempt, that is, by a group or its spokesmen to interpret the world in terms that justify and sustain that group and its interests. What we are offered is not the real world but rather the illusions and fears of a class about that world. Hence the contradictions.

Take another example of contradictions of this sort in Lord of the Flies. Two children are playing on the island’s beach:

Roger stooped, picked up a stone, aimed, and threw it at Henry – threw it to miss. The stone, that token of preposterous time, bounced live yards to Henry’s right and fell in the water, Roger gathered a handful of stones and began to throw them. Yet there as a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins. [5]

Left to ourselves, this paragraph suggests, we’d naturally throw bricks at each other. We don’t because there are various authority figures, thank Heavens, who tell us not to. Take them away and chaos follows, as the novel fully illustrates.

The problem here is that if it’s human nature to chuck bricks at other people, chucking bricks at other people would not be confined to Roger but is something that the various authority figures – parents, schoolteachers, policemen – would enjoy doing too. But authority figures it seems are by and large exempt from the dark, awful, obscene, violent, greedy promptings of nature that the rest of us are liable to.

Human nature, in short, is something that ordinary people have very badly – which is why we need tough laws about strikes and why a spell of discipline in the Forces would do them all a power of good. Human nature, dark, awful, obscene, violent and greedy, is however not something that, say, Margaret Thatcher, Sir Alec Douglas Home, the Queen Mother and your friendly neighbourhood bobby have at all, and you can be thrown out of Conservative Association meetings for suggesting otherwise.

A last example from this sad but in important ways significant book. One aspect of “the darkness of man’s heart” that Golding presents is child beating. Jack’s first action in power is described by his companion, Robert:

“He’s going to beat Wilfred.”

“What for?”

Robert shook his head doubtfully.

“I don’t know. He didn’t say. He got angry and made us tie Wilfred up. He’s been”– he giggled excitedly – “he’s been tied for hours, waiting –” [6]

Beating little boys’ bottoms and deriving a furtive sexual pleasure from the prospect (note that Robert “giggled excitedly”) has absolutely nothing to do with human nature but has a lot to do with the morbid pressures generated by the English education system. It’s a practice that’s unknown in many other cultures. Take, for example, the Cheyenne Indians of the North American High Plains and you’ll’ find no child beating whatsoever. This is not because of some superior moral quality in the Cheyennes but because, in a tiny tribe in a hostile environment, children are greatly loved and valued as insurance for the future and it therefore doesn’t occur to people to hit them.

Views about hitting people in our own ctilture are a curious muddle. Thus a glance at the papers will show you that it’s regarded as very wrong to beat up babies.


>the Sun might confide one morning. And yet it seems that at a certain age – two? four? six? – suddenly a damn good hiding never did anyone any harm, while the Sun’s sports pages will probably tell you that a stiff birching would soon sort out the soccer hooligans. And then apparently at a later age – twenty? twenty five? thirty? – it’s no longer possible to pass messages through the buttocks to the conscience, so that you never see editorial writers calling for a sound thrashing for older delinquents like Lord Lambton and Richard Nixon.

Enough of the contradictions in the flagellation fantasies of British journalists. The point, to get back to Lord of the Flies, is that here as elsewhere what is presented as eternal, as a part of human nature, is in fact only temporary, a feature of the customs and beliefs of our own dearly beloved ruling classes. These customs and beliefs, as Golding magnificently portrays, are in important ways brutal, anti-life, dehumanising and degrading. The response of Golding and his fans is to fall on their knees before the everlasting horror of Man’s Original Sin. We reject extreme solutions of this sort. Our response is much more moderate and sensible. We become revolutionary socialists.



1. William Golding: a Critical Study, New York 1965, p.62.

2. Quoted by E.L.Epstein, Notes on Lord of the Flies, in Lord of the Flies, New York 1959, p.250.

3. The Art of William Golding, Bloomington 1968, p.38.

4. On the Crest of the Wave, Times Literary Supplement, June 17, 1960.

5. Lord of the Flies, Penguin 1960, p.59.

6. Ibid., p.151.


Last updated on 14.7.2001