To understand the context [context: The social, political and historical circumstances surrounding a text. ] of Lord of the Flies you need some background on the writer himself and his experiences during World War Two. It's also useful to do some thinking about the 'desert island' as it has appeared in earlier stories.
William Golding was born in 1911. After leaving Oxford University, he worked as an actor, producer and writer, and then as a teacher in a boy's public school.
During World War 2 Golding was lieutenant in the Royal Navy, in command of a small rocket ship. While carrying out his duties he ordered the destruction of German ships and submarines and he shelled German troops from sea during the D-Day landings.
Golding was horrified by what war revealed about people's capacity to harm their fellow humans. He was appalled by what happened in the Nazi concentration camps, and by the way the Japanese mistreated their prisoners. He was appalled too by the consequences of the British and American mass bombing against civilians - and even by what he himself did as a naval officer.
During the war the British justified all the destruction they wrought on the grounds that they had 'right' on their side, but Golding came to question this smug assumption. He gradually learned to see all human nature as savage and unforgiving: he knew that even the 'goodies' can become 'baddies'. In the novel Ralph and Piggy get as involved in the dance that leads to the killing of Simon as Jack and his tribe are.
World War 2 ended in 1945. The United Nations was set up after the war to try to ensure that a global conflict never happened again, but in 1954, when Lord of the Flies was published, the threat of a nuclear war was still very real. It was entirely plausible to the novel's original audience that an atom bomb really could destroy civilisation.
Most imaginary desert islands are peaceful paradises where the shipwrecked traveller manages to continue living pretty much as before - think of Robinson Crusoe or Desert Island Discs!
In a book called Coral Island by RM Ballantyne, published in 1857, 100 years before Golding's book, three young British boys are shipwrecked on a desert island and have to survive without any adults. Brave and resourceful, they thoroughly enjoy their experience and there is never a hint of trouble. As one of the characters, Peterkin, says, There was indeed no note of discord whatever in that symphony we played together on that sweet coral island.
From his experience as a teacher, Golding knew that the idyllic life of Coral Island could never exist in real life. So, he set out to write a novel that showed his ideas about the darker side of human nature starting from the same basis: boys stranded on a desert island, away from all civilising influences. Lord of the Flies was the result.
The island plays an important part in the novel. We see it first as a paradise - it is a place of 'enchantment', where 'flower and fruit grew together on the same tree.' Yet it is also full of dangers.
The table lists some of the things the boys find on their island, with descriptions that suggest either an island paradise - or something more frightening or sinister. You can probably think of other aspects of the island that at first seem welcoming, but turn out to be the opposite (print out the table and add more examples if you can...).
|Paradise||Hell on Earth|
|The sea:||"The white surf flicked the coral reef."||"...the long, grinding roar of the breakers on the beach "|
|The heat:||"The water was warmer than [Ralph's] blood and he might have been swimming in a huge bath."||The heat hit him.|
|Fruit:||"Everywhere was the scent of ripeness."||"They were now used to stomach-aches and a sort of chronic diarrhoea."|
|The lagoon:||"Inside [the lagoon] was peacock water, rocks and weed showing as in an aquarium."||"The swell... seemed like the breathing of some stupendous creature."|
The boys are initially excited about being in such an apparently perfect place, just as they are excited about being away from adults. Yet they gradually find out that the island is dangerous, just as they find that life without adults and civilisation is dangerous.
(The Hellish side of the island is symbolised by the Lord of the Flies itself. See the Themes section for more about this.)