Title: Boys' Club--No Girls Allowed: Absence as Presence in William Golding's Lord of the Flies
Author(s): Paula Alida Roy
[(essay date 2003) In the following essay, Roy discusses how the lack of female influences in Lord of the Flies impacts the lives of Golding's schoolboys not only on the island, but also at home.]
William Golding's Lord of the Flies is peopled entirely by boys and, briefly, adult men. The absence of girls and women, however, does not prohibit interrogating this text for evidence of sexism/gender bias. We might begin by questioning the implicit assumptions about male violence and competitiveness that permeate Golding's Hobbesian vision. Today's sociobiologists will embrace these boys, whose aggressive reversion to savagery "proves" the power of testosterone-fueled behavior. In fact, one approach to studying this novel could involve research into the rash of books and articles about male violence, about raising and educating boys. Teachers might ask if or how this story would be different if girls had been on the island. Complementary books about girls include John Dollar by Marianne Wiggins, and Shelter by Joyce Anne Phillips. More interesting, however, is the text itself, in which the very absence of girls or women underscores how feminine or female stands in sharp contrast to masculine or male in Golding's island world.
The three major characters, Ralph, Jack, and Piggy, form a sort of continuum of attitudes toward life as it develops on the island in relation to their past memories of "civilized" British boarding school. Ralph and Jack are both masculine boys, handsome, fit, strong. Piggy, on the other hand, is fat, asthmatic, and physically weak. Jack, the choir leader, enters equipped with a gang; the development of this group from choirboys to hunters and Jack's deterioration from strong leader to cruel tyrant offer opportunities to look at male bonding and group violence, especially when we examine rape imagery in the language of the sow-killing scene. Ralph enters the book first, alone, and develops as the individualist who struggles to maintain some sort of order amid the growing chaos.
Piggy is the pivotal character: Not only do his glasses ignite sparks for the signal fire, but it is also he who defines the role of the conch in calling assemblies and he who insists on reminding the other boys over and over again of the world of manners and civility back home. Of the three boys, in fact of all the boys, only Piggy makes constant reference to a maternal figure--his "auntie," the woman raising him. We hear no reference to Jack's mother and we learn that Ralph's mother went away when he was very young. Some of the littl'uns cry at night for their mothers, but in general, only Piggy makes repeated and specific reference to a mother figure as an influence on him.
As Golding sets up the influence of Piggy's "auntie," we see that it is a mixed message about women. On the one hand, Piggy offers important reminders of civilized behavior and serves as a strong influence on and later the only support of Ralph in his efforts to keep order. On the other hand, Piggy's weakness and whining seem to be the result of the feminizing influence of his "auntie." He is, in fact, a somewhat feminized figure himself, in the negative stereotypical sense of physical softness, fearfulness, nagging. The early homoerotic connection between Ralph and Jack is underscored by Jack's jealousy of Piggy, his sarcastic derision of Ralph's concern for the weaker boy. Piggy's nickname, in fact, links him to the doomed pigs on the island, most notably the sow killed in a parody of rape by the hunters "wedded to her in lust," who "collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her" (154). The identification of Piggy with the slaughtered pigs is made explicit in Piggy's death scene: "Piggy's arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig's after it has been killed" (209). If Piggy and the sow are the only female or feminized creatures on the island, then we can see that the one is useful only for meat and as a totemic figure and the other, the fat asthmatic boy, serves as scapegoat, victim first of ridicule, then physical abuse, and finally murder at the hands of the now savage boys under Jack's command. To the extent that he chooses to remain with Piggy, to hang on to elements of civilization, Ralph too becomes a hunted victim, "rescued" only by the appearance of the naval officer, Golding's ironic personification of adult male violence dressed up in a formal officer's uniform.
Searching the text itself, we find the female pronoun applied only to Piggy's auntie and to the sow. There are very few references to mothers, none to other women such as sisters or grandmothers. There is only one specific and direct mention of girls, quite late in the novel, when Ralph and Piggy and Sam and Eric seek to clean themselves up in preparation for a visit to Jack's camp where they plan to make a reasonable attempt to help Piggy recover his stolen glasses. Piggy insists on carrying the conch with them, and Ralph wants them to bathe: "We'll be like we were. We'll wash" (199). When he suggests they comb their hair "only it's too long," Piggy says, "we could find some stuff ... and tie your hair back." Eric replies, "Like a girl!" (199). That single reference stands, along with the references to Piggy's auntie and the contrast set up by the absence of all other female figures, to identify the female with "civilization," ineffectual, far away, and dangerously weak. To return to the details of the rape-murder of the great sow, it is important to note that the sow is a mother figure, "sunk in deep maternal bliss," nursing her litter of piglets. The rape/murder of the sow and the final murder of Piggy suggest that the final movement into savagery involves the killing and defiling of the maternal female. Golding would not be the first to identify the female with attempts to control or tame male violence; he concludes that the female is unsuccessful because she is too weak, flawed, flesh-bound to overcome the ingenuity, craftiness, and sheer brutality of male violence.
Golding's Hobbesian view of human nature carries with it a whiff of misogyny or at least a suspicion that what women represent has little impact, finally, on culture or civilization. The island is a boys' club shaped by the theme of "boys will be boys" when left to their own devices. Obviously allegorical, the novel invites the reader to consider the absence of girls as a symbolic presence and the perils of ultramasculinity.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Riverhead Books, 1954.
Kindlon, Dan and Michael Thompson with Teresa Barker. Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys. New York: Ballantine, 1999.
Source Citation: Roy, Paula Alida. "Boys' Club--No Girls Allowed: Absence as Presence in William Golding's Lord of the Flies." Women in Literature: Reading Through the Lens of Gender. Ed. Jerilyn Fisher and Ellen S. Silber Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 2003. 175-177. Rpt. inChildren's Literature Review. Ed. Tom Burns. Vol. 130. Detroit: Gale, 175-177. Literature Resources from Gale. Gale. DISCUS. 16 Dec. 2009 .