by Dr Jennifer Minter (English Works Notes)
As Ralph and Jack vie for authority over the stranded school 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.
Piggy, who is the first to label and recognise the value of the shell/conch, refers to it as expensive, “ever so valuable” and “breakable”. It is “ever so valuable” because it has the power to draw people together into a community so that they can share ideas. (Piggy used “to blow it and then his mum would come”.). However, the conch is potentially “breakable” which is an ominous sign.
Ralph, who has the “trumpet thing”, is chosen as the natural leader. Although Piggy names the conch, his asthma prevents him from taking control. And as Ralph lifts the conch, and commands the attention of others, he announces, “seems to me we ought to have a chief to decide things”. Ralph commands respect, gathers up the boys scattered around the island and organises activities.
Although he is the “chapter chorister” who can “sing C Sharp”, Jack is characterised by “simple arrogance” right from the start and has a contemptuous streak. Increasingly, he envies Ralph’s natural authority, and is determined to undermine his system of governance.
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. In his turn, Jack uses the hunt to cement his authority over the kids.
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.
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.
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.
The descent into savagery
After having explored the island, and ascertained that they are alone and that it “belongs to them”, the boys weave their way through forest back to the security of the open land, the platform and their meeting place which becomes synonymous with their community spirit. However, it is in the “beginnings of the thick forest” that Ralph and Simon, following Jack, come face to face with the terror that will eventually strangle them. The “curtain of creepers”, the undergrowth and the unseen squealing of the pig are ominous signs of their darker impulses that surface as Jack raises the knife. At first he hesitates. “The pause was only long enough for them to understand what an enormity the downward stroke would be”. What each boy senses, is that the blow and the desire to kill, to shed blood, would be an enormous contradiction of the “civilised” values of the community that they are seeking to form. The “downward stroke” would bring disunity and disruption to the team of boys who are trying to cooperate together with the assistance of the conch.
On this occasion in the darkness, they are not motivated by hunger, so the pursuit of pig appears more as an act of sport, or enjoyment. And it is this thrill of the hunt and the baying for blood that leads to a moment’s hesitation and shame. After the pig escapes, and they confront this missed opportunity Jack “brought his arm down replacing the blade in the sheath”. The boys laughed “ashamedly”, and Jack tries to justify and find excuses for what he begins to see as a moment of weakness. He vows that “next time”, he will show neither shame nor mercy. He stares the boys down, “daring them to contradict”. It is only after this secret bond of shame and this confident pledge of the choirmaster that they emerge from the darkness of the undergrowth and step “out into the sunlight”. They devour food and move towards the platform. It will only be a matter of time, before Jack realises that his authority is associated with the knife and the power to kill becomes his best asset.
Gradually, the rules slip, and so too does their dependence upon, and their respect for, the conch. (100). Eventually Ralph fears that if he blows the conch no one will listen. (114)
Golding uses the “beast” as a metaphor of the boys’ instincts for savagery that lie “within” rather than without. IN may ways, the “beastie” or the “snake thing” becomes a sign of their own irrational fears that are projected onto a nebulous and ill-defined physical object.
The young “littluns” are the first to recognise the “beastie” or a “snake thing” and the first to articulate their fear: they become fearful of the dark, fearful of the solitude and fearful of the shadows. As a result, they project this fear onto a “beastie” type character that is indefinable. Ralph intuitively senses that he is “facing something ungraspable” as the boys elaborate upon the “snake thing” that seems to be changing shape in the dark. One of the kids, who typically magnifies his fear, states that it is “ever so big”; it comes and goes and “wanted to eat him”. It turned into “ropes in the trees and hung in the branches”. He wonders if it will “come back tonight”.
Whilst the group of boys seek to dismiss these fears as baseless, and seek to humour the boys (there are “laughter and cheers”) Ralph struggles to find the means to assuage these anxieties. “Here and there among the little ones was the dubiety that required more than rational assurance”. And the more he struggles with that something more, the more he fails to counter Jack’s tendency to exploit weaknesses. Whilst Jack denies the “snake thing” he nevertheless signals his willingness to use this fear as justification for the hunt. “We’re going to hunt pigs to get meat for everybody: and whilst Ralph is grappling with his exasperation and anger, Jack presents the search for the “snake thing” and gives these fears a sense of legitimacy, in order to expand his leadership control: “And we’ll look for the snake too.” (48-9)
Although Piggy and Ralph dismiss these sightings as pure “imagination”, Golding increasingly shows how such fantasies coupled with fear have the potential to undermine their powers of reason and destabilise their sanity. With regards to the boys, the beast is the unleashing or a manifestation of their savage instincts that they struggle to control.
This lust for control and mastery is evident in a “fascinating” way to Henry when he plays with the myriad scavengers on the beach. He pokes them and tries to crowd them into “little runnels” made by the tide. Golding states that he becomes absorbed “beyond mere happiness as he felt himself exercising control over living things”. This state that is “beyond mere happiness” is difficult to define, but as Henry orders and traps the insects he gains a “illusion of mastery” that inflates his sense of power and gives him an impression of invincibility. At various times, many of the boys share this same sense of awe.
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 civilized standards. Also, they are not using the right place for their lavatory. Gradually, Ralph loses heart and knows that without a sense of community, they cannot keep the fire alight – their only hope of rescue.
There are many signs of the easing of restraints, starting with the erosion of rules.
When Roger throws stones at Henry he is symbolically challenging the ring of authority and the protective ark of morality. (78) Despite the impulse to throw the stones at Henry, he “picked up a stone” and “three it to miss”. This moment of hesitation, which echoes Jack’s during his first encounter with the pig, is the only thing that separates Roger from his desire to harm another. Golding remarks that around Henry there was an invisible taboo – an adult taboo – “of the old life” that consists of those authority figures responsible for restraint. It is the “protection of parents and school and policemen and the law”. “Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilisation that knew nothing of him and was in ruins”. And, it is this sense of moral and social “conditioning” that Golding suggests leads to a significant moment of hesitation, showing that Roger is for now, still restrained by the discipline of his former life. When Roger kicks over the castles that the young ones are making one senses that the pull of evil will gain sway.
As Golding suggests, our natural instinct is towards barbarity and this impulse is kept in check by rules and regulations. (Initially, Jack had refrained from killing the pig owing to a sense of shame.) Unchecked, man degenerates into barbarity, which will be camouflaged by the boys through the process of ritualization, dance and the mask.
The hunters gain control
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 and their irrational fears that subconsciously remain underground. Here, they believe the beast obviously leaves no tracks. In other words, Golding suggests, 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 forces of evil. 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 shows an even greater 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)
A fat boy with spectacles, Piggy is an unlikely hero. When Ralph reveals Piggy’s name everyone typically laughs. Uncharacteristically, this is the first act of betrayal that already suggests a problem of leadership. Piggy reveals his name to Ralph in confidence and implores him not to “tell the others” – a truce that is shortlived. And, as Ralph says, “sucks to your ass-mar”, which prevents Piggy from any physical activity. Although Piggy seems to be smarter and more intelligent than the other boys, 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 (thanks to his asthma) and the bravado of the choir-boys turned hunters. (Likewise, Simon). In particular, Piggy is victimised by Jack who develops a fierce hatred towards him.
Ralph’s friendship with Piggy renders him vulnerable to Jack’s scornful ways; Jack despises Piggy and deprecates his friendship with Raph. For example, while Ralph is scolding Jack for failing to keep the signal fire going, Piggy interferes, which enrages Jack. Furthermore, 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 a murder and the triumph of evil becomes ever clearer. Upon Piggy’s death, Ralph cries for his last supporter; the one who did not betray him.
Simon: the light on the hill
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 the loss of the boys’ 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.
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).
To improve your persuasive and reasoning skills and written expression, see The Language of Persuasion: become an expert. Download the key exercises and work through the suggested responses and extension activities. You will soon see a difference in your expression, sentence construction, and more sophisticated use of vocabulary.