William Golding once said that “the shape of a society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable” (186). He believes that problems with society can be traced “back to the defects of human nature” (186). In Lord of the Flies, Golding uses two boys from the traditionally socially rigid country of England to illustrate the idea that, if left unchecked, the animalistic nature that resides deep within the hearts of human beings will overcome society’s rules and mores.
The characters in the novel are left to their own devices on an uninhabited island and must form their own political system. The true ethical nature of the boys, representative of humans in general, becomes more noticeable as time passes. Ralph is the example of civilization and democracy while Jack is the epitome of savagery and animal behavior. The novel opens with a scene of two young boys on an island after a plane crash in the sea. These boys, Ralph and Piggy, make their way across the isolated island and find a small pool of warm water near a large, pink granite rock.
After they find a conch, Ralph blows into it; the noise draws boys from all over the island who are also victims of the plane crash. The major characters include Jack, the leader of the choir, as well as Sam, Eric, Simon, and Roger. After an initial meeting, the boys decide that their group should have a leader, although this is more of a game than a means of organization: “This toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch” (22). The conch and the system of voting are both remnants of the English society the boys inhabited.
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Ralph defeats Jack after a vote, but Ralph places the choir, under the supervision of Jack, in charge of hunting. It is obvious throughout the novel, however, that this token position does not satisfy Jack and that he wants to become chief. Initially, however, Jack says that “[he] agree[s] with Ralph. Almost immediately, the leadership is beset by a small boy who claims to have seen a nightmarish Beast. Ralph begins by assuring him that such a Beast does not exist, but the young boy insists that the Beast is real and demands o know when it will return. Jack interrupts Ralph to tell the boy, “There isn’t a snake thing . . . but if there was a snake we’d hunt and kill it. We’re going to hunt . . . and we’ll look for the snake too - “(36). Ralph is “annoyed and . . . defeated” (37) by Jack’s usurpation of his authority and is at a loss as to how to deal with it. For the moment, the group of boys waits for the pendulum of authority to swing one way or another. It happens to swing in Ralph’s favor as he assures the boys that they will be rescued.
They believe his claim, “unbacked by any proof but the weight of Ralph’s new authority” (37), and he finds that the assembly “liked and now respected him” (37). Jack, however, merely smirks and claps half-heartedly. One of the most poignant examples of the remnants of civilization occurs when a boy named Roger begins to throw rocks at a small child named Henry building sandcastles. He throws stones but purposely misses, because, “there was a space round Henry, perhaps 6 yards in diameter, in which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong was the taboo of the old life” (56).
Even after his long time away from adults, he is still socially conditioned to avoid harming others. However, this civilization was declining rapidly: “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that… was in ruins” (56). The decline of civilization's hold is unnoticed by Ralph; he becomes fixated on the fire that is built to attract the attention of any nearby ships or planes. Encouraged by Piggy, Ralph feels that “the fire is the main thing” (102) and insists that a signal fire be kept up at all times. Ralph focuses on a return to civilization and normality.
Jack, however, focuses on living by instinct - hunting pigs becomes his obsession. He has a bloodlust: “He tried to convey the compulsion to track down and kill that was swallowing him up” (51). He is more than content to live on the island, without civilization; he is happy to do so. The two boys differ on the issue of government, as well. Ralph insists on democracy and allows the group to vote on certain issues. All boys are allowed to speak at meetings if they have a mind to do so; a conch found at the beginning of the novel is held by a boy when he wishes to address the group.
This is perhaps one of the strongest remnants of his time in civilized England: the belief that all people deserve representation, regardless of their abilities. Jack, however, adopts more of a dictator like an attitude, as illustrated when he says to Ralph, “It’s time some people knew they’ve got to keep quiet and leave deciding things to the rest of us” (102). He symbolizes the idea that the strong survive, so the strongest must govern. Ralph and Jack have a sort of mutual respect for each other, but they are very different and do not know exactly what to do with one another. They walked along, two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate… They looked at each other, baffled, in love and hate” (55). Jack is jealous of Ralph’s position as chief, however, and after a long meeting during which Ralph sets forth new rules for the group, Jack leaves and starts his own tribe. Because Jack and his elite circle of friends have the ability to hunt and get meat, many of the boys join his tribe. Only Sam, Eric, Simon, Piggy, and Ralph remain in the civilized group on the beach. After most of the boys join Jack’s “tribe,” hunting becomes the primary focus for that group.
They spend much of their time hunting and this provides excitement and entertainment for the boys: “[T]he sow staggered her way ahead of them, bleeding and mad, and the hunters followed, wedded to her in lust, excited by the long chase and the dropped blood” (135). After this killing, Jack orders Roger to “[s]harpen a stick on both ends” (136), then proceeds to thrust one end of the stick into the ground. On the other end, he shoves the head of the pig and says, “This head is for the beast. It’s a gift” (137). This grotesque act provides the explanation for the Beast when a boy named Simon finds a pig’s head on a stick in the forest.
Simon has a sort of psychotic episode where the pig’s head - who is referred to as “the Lord of the Flies” (138) - speaks to him. The Lord of the Flies says I’m the Beast. Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are? We are going to have fun on this island! (143-144) The Beast is not an animal that disappeared in the morning, turning “into them things like ropes in the trees” (36). Rather, the Beast is the animal nature within all humans, simply waiting for a chance to escape.
This animalistic behavior is not limited to the gratuitously bloody and almost ritualistic killings of the pigs. After Simon “listens” to the Lord of the Flies, he places the head of the slaughtered sow onto his head. The demented child knows that he is doing something abnormal: “He knew that one of his times was coming on” (143). Simon continues to hear the voice of the Lord of the Flies as he covers his head with that of the dead pig. The voice gives a foreshadowing of the events that will soon follow when he tries to frighten the boy by saying, “We are going to have fun on this island. Understand? We are going to have fun on this island!
So don’t try [the head] on, my poor misguided boy, or else… Or else we shall do you? Do you. See? ” (144) The boy collapses and wakes up after he gets a nosebleed: “With the running of the blood Simon’s fit passed into the weariness of sleep” (145). His fit, however, does not leave him without advice, because now he knows that the “beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible. ” This last shred of hope for the humanity of the island, brought about by the psychotic episode of a young boy, never reaches the boys. By this time, Ralph and Piggy venture to Jack’s tribe to enjoy some meat.
A small argument between Ralph and Jack ensues and Jack decides to have the tribe do their “dance” as a way to show his power and the fun that the boys in the tribe have. Roger plays a pig and other boys pretend to attack him. A chant rises: “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood! ” (152) Suddenly a voice cries out, “Him! Him! ” (152) and Simon stumbles out of the forest, covered in pig’s blood as well as his own. He desperately tries to convey the meaning of the Beast to the boys assembled, “crying out something about a dead man on a hill,” but the boys descend upon him in murderous rapture.
To those children, Simon is the beast: “The beast was on its knees in the center, its arms folded over its face. It was crying out against the abominable noise something about a body on the hill. ” Delighted by the prospect of destroying the Beast, “the crowd surged after it, poured down the rock, leaped on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore. There were no words and no movement but the tearing of teeth and claws” (153). The boys on the island believe that they are killing the beast when in reality, they are setting it free as they descend from the civilized heights of humans to the frightening, murderous behavior of animals.
Even this episode of violence is merely a glance into the darkness in the hearts of the boys. Simon's death could be looked upon as a momentary lapse in judgment, brought about by the fear of the boys. When Ralph suggests murder, Piggy insists that “It was dark. There was that - that bloody dance. There was lightning and thunder and rain. We were scared! ” (157) He later puts the blame on Simon by saying, “It was an accident… Coming in the dark - he hadn’t any business crawling like that out of the dark. He was batty. He asked for it. It was an accident” (157).
Later, however, the frightening truth about the complete loss of society’s restraints becomes apparent. Jack’s tribe decides that in order to cook their meat, they must have Piggy’s glasses so that they can start fires. A group raids Ralph’s tribe and the glasses are stolen. Piggy is hurt and confused. He insists on going to Jack and telling him, [Y]ou’re stronger than I am and you haven’t got asthma… You can see, I’m goin’ to say, and with both eyes. But I don’t ask for my glasses back, not as a favor… Give me my glasses, I’m going to say - you got to! (171) Ralph replies, “All right. I mean - you can try if you like. We’ll go with you. Ralph, Sam, Eric, and Piggy, the remaining members of that particular tribe, then go to see Jack. When they get to Jack’s fort, they demand Piggy’s glasses back and insist that the much larger group of boys keep up a signal fire: “Your only hope is keeping a signal fire going as long as there’s light to see” (178).
This comment is met with derision and laughter from the tribe and Jack commands his group of boys to grab Sam and Eric and tie them up. They do so, nervously at first, then with excitement and a sense of power. Ralph can no longer remain a diplomat; he yells at Jack, “You’re a beast and a swine and a bloody, bloody thief! (179) They begin to fight but are interrupted by Piggy, who tries to sway the crowd towards civility. Roger, “with a sense of delirious abandonment” (180), pushes on a lever, releasing a large rock that the tribe had set up as a weapon. What follows is horrific: The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, traveled through the air sideways from the rock, turning as he went… Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea.
His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit… [t]hen the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh… and… the body of Piggy was gone (181). Ralph is in shock and his “lips formed a word but no sound came” (181). Jack takes this opportunity to cry “I’m chief! ” and attack Ralph while he is off guard. He does this “[v]iciously, with full intent” (181) and Ralph flees for his life. Jack then allows Roger to use force to convince Sam and Eric to join his tribe. Ralph hides for a while, but later that night, he goes back to the fort when he knows that Sam and Eric are on duty.
Those boys are terrified of Jack and Roger and they insist that Ralph leave. First, however, they warn him that the tribe is “going to hunt” him tomorrow and that they would “throw [their] spears like at a pig” (188-189). As a last warning, he is told that “Roger sharpened a stick at both ends” (190). This indicates that Jack’s plans are no idle threat; he and Roger plan to kill Ralph, then put his head onto a stick and drive the stick into the ground as a sacrifice to the Beast. Horrific as this may seem, perhaps this is the best sacrifice possible because the Beast is the inhumanity in all people and the loss of civilization.
The murder of Ralph would serve as the ultimate concession to murderous desires and blood lust, for such an event would indicate a total abandonment of society’s mores. The hunt begins and soon Ralph’s hiding place in a nearly impenetrable thicket. Even Ralph is shown to have descended into animalism as he considers what he would do in the event that a boy finds him: “He felt the point of his spear with his thumb and grinned without amusement. Whoever tried that would be stuck, squealing like a pig” (193). His safe area is destroyed, however, when the tribe sets fire to the thicket and Ralph is forced to flee.
A chase ensues and Ralph runs onto the beach, falls, and staggers to his feet. Standing before him is a British naval officer, who seems to think that the boys have been playing a game. In an amusing fashion, he asks Ralph how many boys have died and the child responds with, “Only two. And they’ve gone. ” The naval officer is astonished and turns away for a moment. The group of boys begins to sob and Ralph is the loudest of these: And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of a man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy. 202) In the end, a rescue by an English adult is all the saves that boys from the ultimate fall from society’s grace: the planned murder of an innocent. The idea is clear throughout the novel, however, that the social conditioning impressed upon the boy's decreases in influence as time passes with no reminder from a true figure of authority. William Golding proves through his novel that the animalistic nature in all humans is reigned in only by the rigid constraint of civilization.
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