William Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies is probably not the best book to read if you want to feel good about humanity or feel comfortable about babysitting a family of little boys all by yourself on a Friday night. It is also not a good beach read for pig lovers. Instead, it is a blunt allegorical look at what can happen when civilization’s law and order vanishes, and humanity is left to its own beastly instincts.
Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of British boys marooned on a remote island—without adult supervision, mind you— in the Pacific Ocean after their plane crashes. The boys, ranging from age six to twelve, have to fend for themselves. They try to establish order and strategies to increase their chances at survival and perhaps rescue, but as boys will be boys, they become pig-headed (pun definitely intended) over what’s more important: maintaining a constant signal fire to alert passing ships or violently hunting down poor little mama pigs. Naturally, two headstrong boys who head each respective cause—Ralph and Jack—disagree, and the battle for island power begins.
The most memorable takeaway from the book is the lasting image of the rotting pig head aptly named “Lord of the Flies” (you can probably guess why). Being that the novel really sets itself up as an allegory, the pig head is typically read as a potent symbol of the evil savagery that lies within all human beings. After all, a pack of wild twelve-year-olds did violently kill, decapitate and skewer the pig’s head like a shish kabob to make a offering to the imaginary beast they are all frightened of. Childish innocence? Nope. No such thing, unless you count Simon, and Piggy but no one ever counts Piggy. In fact, poor little Simon—who is arguably a symbol of human goodness as he suggests that the beast is “only us”—hallucinates that the rotting pig head is talking to him, saying: “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill…You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?” This instinctual savagery, so says the pig head, is an unavoidable part of the human psyche and experience—much like death. One could easily recall Hamlet quotes and that iconic scene when Hamlet is pondering and turning over a human skull in his hands, pontificating on how death can easily reduce life and reason to a discarded bunch of bones, much like the Beast can reduce a group of proper British boys to complete savages.
In fact, Shakespeare was a big fan of investigating the internal struggles and evils that exist in us mere humans—as well as how our heads screw with our perception of reality. Enter Macbeth. This Scottish king-killer is not unlike those island boys, losing his head—literally and figuratively—due to his thirst for power that prompted him to commit ruthless murders. In the Macbeth summary the Scottish nobleman comes across a trio of witches who prophesize after kicking major battlefield butt while fighting for King Duncan, even disemboweling a dude. It is likely no coincidence that we hear about Macbeth gutting some guy before we actually meet me—gives us a taste of what we’re in for. Anyways, the witch encounter gets Macbeth’s ambition bubbling. He ends up killing King Duncan while he sleeps (prompted by his famously emasculating wife Lady Macbeth), becomes king and then starts to slew anyone and everyone he considers a threat, including another Scottish nobleman Macduff’s entire family. What a jerk.
The play ends with Macbeth’s severed head served to King Duncan’s surviving sons by Macduff, having properly avenged his family and order restored. Again with the heads. While a decapitated pig head symbolizes our inner beast, Macbeth’s bloody noggin suggests the consequences of giving in too easily to that inner beast, which causes us humans to lose our heads. If both a bunch of pre-teen boys and a noble Scottish man could wreak such havoc because of their inner, evil ambitions, surely the whole of humanity can. Gulp.