Published in 1954, Lord of the Flies was Golding's first novel. Although it was not a great success at the time—selling fewer than three thousand copies in the United States during 1955 before going out of print—it soon went on to become a best-seller. It has been adapted to film twice in English, in 1963 by Peter Brook and 1990 by Harry Hook, and once in Filipino (1976).
The book indicates that it takes place in the midst of an unspecified nuclear war. Some of the marooned characters are ordinary students, while others arrive as a musical choir under an established leader. Most (with the exception of the choir-boys, Sam, and Eric) appear never to have encountered each other before. The book portrays their descent into savagery; left to themselves on a paradisiacal island, far from modern civilization, the well-educated children regress to a primitive state.
Golding wrote his book as a counterpoint to R.M. Ballantyne's youth novel The Coral Island, and included specific references to it, such as the rescuing naval officer's description of the children's pursuit of Ralph as "a jolly good show, like the Coral Island". Golding's three central characters—Ralph, Piggy and Jack—have been interpreted as caricatures of Ballantyne's Coral Island protagonists.
In the midst of a war-time evacuation, a British aeroplane crashes on or near an isolated island in a remote region of the Pacific Ocean. The only survivors are boys in their middle childhood or preadolescence. Two boys—the fair-haired Ralph and an overweight, bespectacled boy nicknamed "Piggy"—find a conch, which Ralph uses as a horn to congregate all the survivors to one area. Due largely to the fact that Ralph appears responsible for bringing all the survivors together, he immediately commands some authority over the other boys and is quickly elected their "chief", but he does not receive the votes of the members of a boys' choir, led by the red-headed Jack Merridew. Ralph establishes three primary policies: to have fun, survive, and to constantly maintain a smoke signal that could alert passing ships to their presence on the island and thus rescue them. The boys create a form of democracy by declaring that whoever holds the conch shall also be able to speak at their formal gatherings and receive the attentive silence of the larger group.
Jack organises his choir into a hunting party responsible for discovering a food source. Ralph, Jack, and a quiet, dreamy boy named Simon soon form a loose triumvirate of leaders with Ralph as the ultimate authority. Though he is Ralph's only real confidant, Piggy is quickly made into an outcast by his fellow "biguns" (older boys) and becomes an unwilling source of laughs for the other children while being hated by Jack. Simon, in addition to supervising the project of constructing shelters, feels an instinctive need to protect the "littluns" (younger boys).
The semblance of order quickly deteriorates as the majority of the boys turn idle; they give little aid in building shelters, spend their time having fun and begin to develop paranoias about the island. The central paranoia refers to a supposed monster they call the "beast", which they all slowly begin to believe exists on the island. Ralph insists that no such beast exists, but Jack, who has started a power struggle with Ralph, gains a level of control over the group by boldly promising to kill the creature. At one point, Jack summons all of his hunters to hunt down a wild pig, drawing away those assigned to maintain the signal fire. A ship travels by the island, but without the boys' smoke signal to alert the ship's crew, the vessel continues without stopping. Ralph angrily confronts Jack about his failure to maintain the signal; in frustration Jack assaults Piggy, breaking his glasses. The boys subsequently enjoy their first feast. Angered by the failure of the boys to attract potential rescuers, Ralph considers relinquishing his position as leader, but is convinced not to do so by Piggy, who both understands Ralph's importance, and deeply fears what will become of him should Jack take total control.
One night, an aerial battle occurs near the island while the boys sleep, during which a fighter pilot ejects from his plane and dies during the descent. His body drifts down to the island in his parachute; both get tangled in a tree near the top of the mountain. Later on, while Jack continues to scheme against Ralph, twins Sam and Eric, now assigned to the maintenance of the signal fire, see the corpse of the fighter pilot and his parachute in the dark. Mistaking the corpse for the beast, they run to the cluster of shelters that Ralph and Simon have erected to warn the others. This unexpected meeting again raises tensions between Jack and Ralph. Shortly thereafter, Jack decides to lead a party to the other side of the island, where a mountain of stones, later called Castle Rock, forms a place where he claims the beast resides. Only Ralph and a quiet suspicious boy, Jack's closest supporter Roger, agree to go; Ralph turns back shortly before the other two boys but eventually all three see the parachutist whose head rises via the wind; they then flee, now believing the beast is truly real. When they arrive at the shelters, Jack calls an assembly and tries to turn the others against Ralph, asking for them to remove him from his position. Receiving no support, Jack storms off alone to form his own tribe. Roger immediately sneaks off to join Jack, and slowly an increasing amount of older boys abandon Ralph to join Jack's tribe. Jack's tribe continues to lure recruits in from the main group by promising feasts of cooked pig. The members begin to paint their faces and enact bizarre rites, including sacrifices to the beast.
Simon, who faints frequently and is likely an epileptic, has a secret hide-away where he goes to be alone. One day while he is there, Jack and his followers erect a faux sacrifice to the beast near-by: a pig's head, mounted on a sharpened stick, and soon swarming with scavenging flies. Simon conducts an imaginary dialogue with the head, which he dubs the "Lord of the Flies". The head mocks Simon's notion that the beast is a real entity, "something you could hunt and kill", and reveals the truth: they, the boys, are the beast; it is inside them all. The Lord of the Flies also warns Simon that he is in danger, because he represents the soul of man, and predicts that the others will kill him. Simon climbs the mountain alone and discovers that the beast is only a dead parachutist trapped by rocks being moved by the wind. Rushing down to tell the others, Simon is seen by the boys who are engaged in a ritual dance. The frenzied boys mistake Simon for the beast, attack him, and beat him to death.
Jack and his rebel band decide that the real symbol of power on the island is not the conch, but Piggy's glasses—the only means the boys have of starting a fire. They raid Ralph's camp, confiscate the glasses, and return to their abode on Castle Rock. Ralph, now deserted by most of his supporters, journeys to Castle Rock to confront Jack and secure the glasses. Taking the conch and accompanied only by Piggy, Sam, and Eric, Ralph finds the tribe and demands that they return the valuable object. Confirming their total rejection of Ralph's authority, the tribe captures and binds the twins under Jack's command. Ralph and Jack engage in a fight which neither wins before Piggy tries once more to address the tribe. Any sense of order or safety is permanently eroded when Roger, now sadistic, deliberately drops a boulder from his vantage point above, brutally killing Piggy and shattering the conch. Ralph manages to escape, but Sam and Eric are tortured by Roger until they agree to join Jack's tribe.
Ralph secretly confronts Sam and Eric who warn him that Jack and Roger hate him and that Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends, implying the tribe intends to hunt him like a pig and behead him. The following morning, Jack orders his tribe to begin a hunt for Ralph. Jack's savages set fire to the forest while Ralph desperately weighs his options for survival. Following a long chase, most of the island is consumed in flames. With the hunters closely behind him, Ralph trips and falls. He looks up at a uniformed adult – a naval officer whose party has landed from a passing war-ship to investigate the fire. Ralph bursts into tears over the death of Piggy and the "end of innocence". Jack and the other children, filthy and unkempt, also revert to their true ages and erupt into sobs. The officer expresses his disappointment at seeing British boys exhibiting such feral, warlike behaviour before turning to stare awkwardly at his own war-ship.
At an allegorical level, the central theme is the conflicting human impulses toward civilization and social organization—living by rules, peacefully and in harmony—and toward the will to power. Themes include the tension between groupthink and individuality, between rational and emotional reactions, and between morality and immorality. How these play out, and how different people feel the influences of these form a major subtext of Lord of the Flies. The name "Lord of the Flies" is a literal translation of Beelzebub, from 2 Kings 1:2–3, 6, 16.Its stances on the already controversial subjects of human nature and individual welfare versus the common good earned it position 68 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 most frequently challenged books of 1900–1999.
It was awarded a place on both lists of Modern Library 100 Best Novels, reaching number 41 on the editor's list, and 25 on the reader's list.
In 2003, the novel was listed at number 70 on the BBC's survey The Big Read.
In 2005 the novel was chosen by TIME magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to 2005.
There have been three film adaptations based on the book:Lord of the Flies (1963), directed by Peter Brook
Alkitrang dugo (1976), a Filipino film, with female cast members
Lord of the Flies (1990), directed by Harry Hook
Nigel Williams adapted the text for the stage. It was debuted by the Royal Shakespeare Company in July 1996. The Pilot Theatre Company has toured it extensively in the United Kingdom and elsewhere.
In October 2014 it was announced that the 2011 production of Lord of the Flies would return to conclude the 2015 season at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre ahead of a major UK tour. The production is to be directed by the Artistic Director Timothy Sheader who won the 2014 Whatsonstage.com Awards Best Play Revival for To Kill A Mockingbird.
In June 2013, BBC Radio 4 Extra broadcast a dramatization by Judith Adams in four 30-minute episodes directed by Sasha Yevtushenko. The cast included Ruth Wilson as "The Narrator", Finn Bennett as "Ralph", Richard Linnel as "Jack", Caspar Hilton-Hilley as "Piggy" and Jack Caine as "Simon".
- Fire on the Mountain
- Painted Faces
- Beast from the Air
- Gift for Darkness
Many writers have borrowed plot elements from Lord of the Flies. By the early 1960s, it was required reading in many schools and colleges.
Stephen King's fictional town of Castle Rock, inspired by the fictional mountain fort of the same name in Lord of the Flies, in turn inspired the name of Rob Reiner's production company, Castle Rock Entertainment, which produced the film Lord of the Flies (1990).
Stephen King got the name Castle Rock from the fictional mountain fort of the same name in Lord of the Flies and used the name to refer to a fictional town that has appeared in a number of his novels. The book itself appears prominently in his novels Hearts in Atlantis (1999), Misery (1987), and Cujo (1981).
Stephen King wrote an introduction for a new edition of Lord of the Flies (2011) to mark the centenary of William Golding's birth in 2011.
The novel Garden Lakes by Jaime Clarke is an homage to Lord of the Flies.
The final song on U2's debut album Boy (1980) takes its title, "Shadows and Tall Trees", from Chapter 7 in the book.
Iron Maiden wrote a song inspired by the book, included in their 1995 album The X Factor.
Blues Traveler wrote a song called "Justify the Thrill", in which a small part of the lyrics are in reference to the book:
"The pig's head on a stick does grin. As we teeter on the brink. He's singing you are all my children. My island's bigger than you think."