A Theological Pedagogy of Lord of the Flies: Fear Within

Χριστού ελπίςThe mere mention, even innuendo, of summer reading ignites a visceral response from the high school student. Even my most nerdy, book-wormy students recoil. I am one of those teachers who assigns summer reading, and last summer, my tenth grade students read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.

At its most basic, Lord of the Flies is a story of innocence lost.  A plane crash strands a group of young boys on an island without adults.  The initial attempts to establish order fail and conflict tears the boys into divisive factions. The novel spirals into chaos; first, the boys kill animals, and then they turn on each other.

When my new students walked into my classroom in September, they were not fans of this story. In fact, when I asked them to journal about their initial impressions of the novel, one student wrote, “I have never hated a book as much as I hate this one.”  I had work to do to help these teenagers appreciate the text.

For an English teacher, this allegorical novel is a teaching tool rife with the possibility. And this was why I began the year with it.  There are repeated symbols in the novel that serve as a gateway to the world of abstract analysis for the high school sophomore.

Our initial work together centered on unpacking the myriad symbols in the novel and my students began to see the art and depth behind Golding’s writing. In that way, the unit was a success. But something was missing. Most of my students still felt that Lord of the Flies was a bizarre and intangible narrative.

On one of the last days of discussion, with my students in a circle, I asked them why they thought the island spins out of control.  A few students offered valid ideas: the desire for power, innate greed. Discussion stalled.

And then, a quiet young man spoke up, saying, “Fear. I think that the real cause of the unraveling was fear.” In one sentence this thoughtful student recast the scope of the unit for everyone in the room, including me. The tide of student sentiment shifted.

For the next thirty minutes, we talked about fear. We examined how fear negatively motivates each character. We pondered how the island would have operated without fear. The novel came alive.

Ultimately, my students considered the negative impact that fear has on the lives of teenagers today, including their own. Teenagers understand what it means to be fearful.  They are close enough to childhood to remember fearing the dark. They are close enough to adulthood to grasp fearing death.  Amidst their in-between teenage state, they are afraid of losing their cell phone, of receiving poor grades, and of rejection by peers.  And they recognize that fear robs them of joy.

We live in a world that often feels like it is spinning out of control. Just like the boys on Golding’s island, our innocence has been lost; we daily encounter international instability, human cruelty, and death. But this isn’t new. The Genesis account of the Garden of Eden is the first story of innocence lost. Eve feared that God was not offering her an abundant life. Adam feared being left behind. Through Adam and Eve’s fear, sin entered our world and has been a problem since. When we fear, we think about ourselves, making choices that harm us and harm society. Fear has consequences.

Though William Golding tells the truth about the pernicious nature of fear, he does not provide a solution in Lord of the Flies. It takes God’s Word to do that. From the Garden of Eden to Revelation, God provides an alternative to fear. God’s climactic answer to human fear is Jesus.

This reality is captured in the story of Jesus walking on the dark waters of Lake Galilee toward his terrified disciples. Jesus commands them, “Take courage. It is I. Don’t be afraid.” When we focus on the Jesus, we can live without fear. We are safe in God’s eternal Kingdom, free to live a life of courage and peace.

I assigned Lord of the Flies for the next group of rising sophomores. Rather than organize the unit around Golding’s symbols, I will focus our inquiry around the problem of fear. Ultimately, fear is an enemy to human flourishing, and my students need to have those discussions.

Amy Graham grew up in Bay Village, Ohio and then attended Miami University, studying Adolescent English Education. Upon graduating in 2007, she moved to the Washington, DC area to participate in the Falls Church Fellows Program. After finishing the program, she began teaching high school English and continues to be challenged by that same work today.

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  • Morna Comeau

    Amy – Through your teaching, you continue to gently pry open little tiny cracks — opportunities — for God’s grace to pour into the lives of your students. Your initial insight, combined with your own “teachability” (I’ll do it a new way this year…”) are a gift to your students, and to the rest of us who have an opportunity to learn from you. Thanks for this inspiring blog.