The Very Unhappy Ending of Lord of the Flies
William Golding's Lord of the Flies indeed has a happy ending in the literal sense. The boys are rescued as their foolish cruelty reaches its apex by the loving, caring, and matured outside world. On the other hand, by whom and what are the boys rescued? Symbolically, the "happy ending" is exactly the opposite. Far from sacrificing artistic excellence, Golding's ending confirms the author's powerful symbolism.
Readers know ample about the boys society and where it heads long before the "rescue." Ralph will be killed and to remain a perpetual gift to the "beastie." The boys' xenophobic view of the beastie is ironically unfounded because the beastie emerges from within the boys: they themselves are the dangerous and scary monsters for all to fear, and they kill the first person to suggest so (Simon). Although the parachutist may symbolize civilization's archetypical fall, he is only a "beastie" insofar as civilization is to be feared. (The boys' fear of the beastie may, then, be well-founded, but only symbolically). As action progresses, readers see no signs of a veer from the boys' self-destructive course. Shortly before the boys' "rescue," they expect the boys to perish either from the fire (which actually ends up saving Ralph), a tragedy of the commons, or internal war. Golding could either have extended the book to its predicted bloody end, or he could have changed course. The surprise course of action becomes Golding's central theme.
Golding's theme is not just the obvious evils of the boys' society; it includes the notion that the boys are a microcosm of society. While readers may be able to ascertain his theme immediately prior to the ending, the connection to the real world is weak and underdeveloped. Critics who claim that something was sacrificed for the sake of a "happy ending" fail to understand Golding's thesis: the boys are allegorical of society as a whole, yet are "rescued" by that very society which they symbolize. In a sense, the boys swap one war for another. Instead of being at war with other children, they re-join a society which is at war lead by adults who are supposedly more mature than the boys. Like the island, the world is an isolated entity, but no one can rescue the world. Golding's boys are symbolic of the world, but he cannot juxtapose the world and the boys without the rescue.
Moreover, the "rescue" provides the logical continuation of Golding's loss of innocence theme by cementing the parallels between the boys and society. The boys' killing of a mother sow was, at least, shocking, but similar events occurred in Golding's time: Hitler's Holocaust and blitz of Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland; the Japanese Rape of Nanjing and "Hidden Holocaust;" and Britain's brutal imperialistic exploits. The loss of innocence represented by the sow's murder leads to brutal killings, much like Hitler's anti-Semitism lead to the brutal killing of nations. The military "rescue" brings the symbolism full circle by fusing the symbolism. The boys may be rescued, but no one can rescue the earth should savagery go out of control as on the island.
Another parallel is rather inverse. The boys are on a paradise island, but they dirty themselves as they become more vicious. The officer who rescues the boys, however, has a clean white uniform complete with medals and epaulets. As the boys become dirty, they become savage, but as adults become savage, they are awarded cleaner uniforms. Golding again asserts that adult society is little more than a clean, orderly-appearing version of the boys' savage island.
Golding's ending, then, is not an escape, but the capstone of his allegory. He welds the boys' symbolism to that of the outside world. He presents an ironic ending which beseeches readers to recognize their own helpless quagmire of `clean' savagery. Golding does not have a "happy ending" for the sake of either happiness or an ending, but for the purposes of powerful symbolism.
Golding's conclusion serves a final purpose. Golding creates dramatic irony with the officer's blunt ignorance of the boys' savagery. Perhaps he is at a loss for words, but the officer treats the boys as if they were playing a backyard game. "Jolly good show, like Coral Island," he remarks, followed by the inquiry, "You're all British, aren't you?" (184). The officer thinks that the boys have formed an enlightened, orderly society like in the novel Coral Island, but he fails to realize that even the British, "the best at everything," can fall into the trap of brutish war (40). The officer shreds readers' stereotypes of themselves as superior to war because he shows that war is a virus which can infect everyone.
In short, Golding's ending is as symbolic as it is unhappy. The ironic rescue transcends the remote island to affect readers, especially the British, to recognize their potential for evil. The naval officer points to how far the boys have fallen and why their "rescue" wasn't really so happy.