Lord of the Flies (William Golding)

The Lord of the Flies: the descent into savagery (William Golding)

by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works)

As Ralph and Jack vie for the leadership of the stranded boys, William Golding (in Lord of the Flies) explores the fragile veneer of a civilised social order that gradually and imperceptibly falls away.  Whilst Ralph, Simon and Piggy rely on common sense, logic and cooperation to build a sense of community, Golding suggests, there is hope.  As a mark of their civilising role, they build huts, construct and protect the fire and honour the conch. However, owing to his thirst for power, Jack has other plans and cajoles and badgers his “choir” troops into having fun, hunting and fighting. And, as he installs his leadership, strengthened by the fear that grips the boys, and, as they give vent to their “natural” and primordial bent for savagery, Golding suggests that the evil lies within, rather than in some ill-defined “beastie” floating out there.

As an articulate natural leader, Ralph respects the need for community values and standards and implements the conch as a symbol of democracy. Logical and practical, Ralph is constantly concerned about being rescued and is preoccupied with the fire, which he knows is critical to their chances of success.  He clings to the memory of a civilised authority and believes that his father, the commander in the Navy, who, when he “gets leave, he’ll come and rescue us”.  (100, 114)

Prophetically, Simon tells Ralph “I just think you’ll get back all right”.

The conch: “We’ve got to have rules and obey them”

Ralph is elected a leader of the island because he was the one who found the conch. In the conch and the process of elections, Golding suggests, lie the beginnings of government.  Ralph commands respect, gathers up the boys scattered around the island and organises activities.

Jack is determined to undermine this system of government and is contemptuous of the conch from the start (126). And as the rules slip, so too do their dependence upon, and their respect for, the conch. (100). Eventually Ralph fears that if he blows the conch no one will listen. (114)

Cause of alarm:

Not only does Ralph fear the lack of respect for good governance. Correspondingly, he also becomes increasingly alarmed at the erosion in standards of cleanliness and hygiene. (135- 136). The filthy hair, the lack of soap, the dirty nails are a sign of the lapse in civilizing standards.  Also, they are not using the right place as a lavatory.

Ralph’s friendship with Piggy renders him vulnerable to Jack’s scornful ways; Jack despises Piggy and deprecates the friendship.

Gradually, Ralph loses heart and knows that without a sense of community, they cannot keep the fire alight – their only hope of rescue.

Upon Piggy’s death, Ralph cries for his last supporter; the one who did not betray him.

A power struggle

The conflict between Ralph and Jack escalates into a struggle for power.  Whilst Jack breeds fear to cement his authority, Ralph struggles to allay fears about monsters.  He criticises Jack’s excitement for the hunt and for blood and believes he has abandoned his defences at his peril.

When Ralph enters the hunter’s world, for the first time, he tries to see it as “just a game”. He even feels the desire to “squeeze and hurt” which is “overmastering”. Ashamed at the reflection of one’s capacity for evil in Jack, Ralph belittles the hunters and calls them “boys armed with sticks (155). The lack of respect enrages Jack who calls a meeting and splits the group.

As Jack takes over the leadership from Ralph and cements his rule, Golding describes the descent into savagery and into the “darkness of man’s heart”.  Jack manipulates the rules and uses them to his advantage and most of the markers of civilisation disappear. Jack becomes intoxicated by the “dark” side of existence which is evident in the ritualistic killings of the pigs.  The boys wear masks (“painting like niggers” 222) to hide their savage intentions.

Golding presents Jack as a boy-leader who is both terrified and enthralled by the act of killing.  Even worse, he becomes intoxicated by power itself. He sets himself up as a demi-god or idol in order to increase the social distance. If the boys are fearful, then Jack is able to exploit them and have total control.  If the boys are fearful, they are less likely to question his actions.

Aware of his own importance as a lead choir boy, Jack easily intimidates the choir members who vote for him with “dreary obedience”.  At first, Jack is ashamed of his quest for blood, but gradually becomes attracted to the thrill of the hunt. It also gives him an aura of exoticism as he exploits his position of power.

Jack is jealous of Ralph because Ralph is elected the preferred leader. Jack is often caught smirking and he despises the other’s attempt at building communities. Humiliated, power hungry and envious, Jack eventually forces a vote and thrives on division. He issues a challenge; he is ‘going off by myself” and forces the followers to choose.

The hunters gradually rely upon the process of ritualisation whereby they channel their excitement and hysteria into the hunt which conceals their raw thirst for blood. Jack is the first one who turns into a savage by painting his face like a barbarian.  The mask seeks to sublimate and tame their fear through a deliberate act of control.

At first he justifies, the hunt on the grounds of survival.  So he is superior to Ralph, who is “not a hunter. He’d never have got us meat”. Jack returns from the hunt with the pig meat and encourages Ralph and the boys to participate in the feast.  He tries to explain his raw feelings of excitement during the hunt and his thirst for blood.

During a typical hunt, (142) Jack kills the pig and they all mime the hunt in a circle: “a heaving circle cheered and made pig dying noises”.  Jack suggests that they “use a littlun”  (143)  as the victim if they can’t find a pig to hunt and dance around, which shows their growing intoxication.  They prefer hunting to following rules.

Jack identifies the monster, (150)  “I saw a thing bulge on the mountain” and gradually uses fear to entrench his authority and keep the others completely dependent upon his reign of terror. At the same time, he mocks the fear of the young ones and says that he has explored the whole island and has not come across a beast. There is, however, one part of the island that he has not yet explored – the dark wilderness which becomes a symbol of their own darkness. Here, they believe the beast obviously leaves no tracks – evil leaves no marks once the conscience has been assuaged.

Jack realizes that he can use the hunt to entrench his authority and gain power over the other kids, but he first must silence his dissenters and those who would seek to shame him and question his dependence upon the irrational.   He humiliates Piggy in order to silence him and Ralph. (89) and harms their efforts at cooperative community building by raiding their fire (169,175). Also in another act of defiance, he kills the sow (mother pig) and impales the head leaving it near  Simon’s hideout.

Jack becomes an idol: a dictator figure who uses fear to implement his reign of terror.   Roger is one of the choir boys and represents the sadist, the individual who enjoys hurting others. He follows Jack but sometimes shows a great capacity for evil because he has fewer scruples. Roger’s shock of black hair seemed to suit his gloomy face and made what had seemed at first an unsociable remoteness into something forbidding” (76)

Simon: the light on the hill

The child-philosopher, Simon, reminds those who will listen that the evil lies within.  He identifies “mankind’s essential illness”, which refers to the horror of which, Golding suggests, we are all capable. It is the capacity to spread fear with the purpose of inflicting unimaginable evil on another person.

Kind and generous, artistic and sensitive, Simon reveals an innate and intuitive sense of morality. A voice of reason that complements Piggy’s, he reminds each of them about their need to resist, and rely on a sense of community and a sense of harmony with nature.  He alone, does not fear the beast; he cultivates his own secret place in the jungle.  (70–71).

The beastie

Golding uses the “beast” as a metaphor of the boys’ savagery. Golding suggests that the beast “is within”; it is a mark of their own fear that is projected onto a physical object.  The young “littluns” are the first to recognise the “beastie” which is a snake thing.  Sam and Eric see the parachute blowing in the wind. They believe it is finally the beast.

Although Piggy and Ralph dismiss these sightings as pure “imagination”, Golding increasingly shows how such fantasies coupled with fear have the potential once again to undermine their reasoning powers. With regards to the boys, it is the unleashing of their savage instincts that they struggle to control.  Also with Jack, it is the desire to construct a beast in order to control the boys.  The fear complements his power.

With its religious overtones, Simon, alone, encounters the Lord of the Flies (171) on the top of the mountainside. He names the fear that previously does not have a name and grasps the true nature of the island – that the beast is a figment of their imagination – their deep and dark desires.

There is a practical reason for the “beast” thing: it was a parachutist who had fallen from the plane.  One of the pilots parachutes out of his plane but dies upon or before landing.

When Simon comes down from the mountain to tell the others the truth, he finds them completely absorbed, irrationally and rhapsodically, in a dance-like trance.  Simon’s brutal murder, as he protests the truth, strips away the last vestige of order on the island. Symbolically, his death signifies that the boys are losing their moral equilibrium and their sanity.

Simon’s death is the second on the island. When the little boy disappears, it is evident that a careless mistake has been committed. The boy disappears after they run to the mountain to light the fire before Piggy completes the list. (59) In Simon’s case, whilst the murder is not intentional, it becomes a by-product of their thirst for power and their increasing savagery.


A fat boy with spectacles, Piggy is an unlikely hero. When Ralph reveals Piggy’s name everyone typically laughs. He seems to be smarter and more intelligent than the other boys but he is set up for ridicule owing to a sense of difference. His dependence upon his glasses leads to a constant sense of insecurity and he lacks the athleticism and bravado of the choir-boys turned hunters (likewise with Simon).  In particular, Piggy is victimised by Jack who develops a fierce hatred towards him.

For example, while Ralph is scolding Jack for failing to keep the signal fire going, Piggy interferes, which makes Jack angry.

Intuitively Piggy rejects the beastie thing; there is no rational explanation and Piggy is always concerned with the reason for things.

Piggy’s is the third human death on the island. He is killed by Jack’s savage henchmen. In the last two deaths, there is an element of accident. However Piggy’s death is attempted murder

Mankind’s essential illness

There are many signs of the easing of restraints, starting with the erosion of rules, the lack of hygiene and cleanliness and the erosion of a sense of community. When Roger throws stones at Henry he is symbolically challenging the ring of authority and the protective ring of morality. (78)  Around Henry  there’s an invisible taboo – an adult taboo – of his old life, showing that they are still restrained by the discipline of their former lives. Later, Roger kicks over the castles that the young ones are making. (76)

As Golding suggests, our natural instinct is towards barbarity and this is only kept in check by rules and regulations. Unchecked, man degenerates into barbarity, which is camouflaged through the process of ritualization.

Jack and his hunters show a formidable ability to manipulate others so as to entrench their power and inflict evil on others. They use terror and violence to brutalise the youngsters.

(English Works, Dr Jennifer Minter)
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