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The Failure of Civilization in Golding's Novel

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William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is not simply a book about outward conflict between individuals. It is, rather, a novel about one’s inner being. When the formerly-civilized British boys of Golding’s novel are stranded on a desert island and must fight for survival, many of them surrender to the “Beast.” Yet, contrary to the beliefs of the boys in the novel, the “Beast”, or the Lord of the Flies, is not “something you could hunt and kill” (164). Instead, it is a spirit that dwells inside of a soul, slowly reducing one into complete and utter savagery. Therefore, the real conflict on the island–as shown through the character of Ralph–is inside each boy’s mind. To symbolize this battle, Golding particulary uses the motifs of the pig dance, the conch, and the masks.

By dancing and singing to celebrate the brutal murdering of a pig, the boys enter into a society, or even a cult, that emphasizes brutality and sadism. The first time the boys perform this ritual, Golding describes their actions as “relieved and excited…making pig-dying noises and shouting” (81). Clearly, the boys feel a rush of exhilaration and ecstasy when they can escape their civilized manner and become a member of this vicious sacrament. These feelings serve only to propel them deeper into this cult, as one can see through their future “pig dances”. Later in the novel, Golding describes Ralph’s feelings during the next pig dance: “The desire to squeeze and hurt was overwhelming” (130). Even one of the most civilized boys on the island can still be overcome with this savage “desire”. The reader can see that the young boys are drifting further away from their civilized norms. By one of the last “pig dances” mentioned in the novel, it is obvious that the experience has become much more atrocious and brutal: “There were no words, and no movements but the tearing of teeth and claws” (175). It is in the midst of this “pig dance” that the boys mistake little Simon for the beast. They viciously stab him with their spears before he even has a chance to share with them the news of the Beast that he has just gleaned, killing him in the first death on the island. Thus, through the ritual of the “pig dances”, the reader is able to interpret Goldings’ theme that a man without civilization is savage and corrupt.

Another clear symbol Golding employs is that of the conch, representing social order and development. For example, the first person to hold the conch is Ralph. Ralph also ends up being the leader of the group for the majority of the story. In fact, it is only when the conch is broken near the end of the novel that Ralph completely loses his influence over the boys, as if it were contained in the shell and escaped when it shattered. During the first meeting with the conch, the boys are eager to embark on an adventure of living as young civilized British boys on this deserted island: “We’ll have rules!…Lots of Rules! Then when anyone breaks ’em-…” (33). Clearly, the boys are used to a system of order, most likely stemming from their private schools, and feel more comfortable functioning when order is in place. Near the middle of the novel, however, the system begins to disintegrate. Jack threatens to create his own tribe, which Ralph and Piggy know will only lead to more havoc. They have no choice but to confront the said “savages.” Ralph and Piggy demand that they first give Piggy’s specs back after stealing them in the night, and second, that all the boys stick together, as it is possible they all might be there for the rest of their lives. Later, Ralph gives Piggy the honor of carrying the conch to their fort, and “Piggy sought in his mind for words to convey his passionate willingness to carry the conch against all odds” (198). The reader can see that the conch has a power over Piggy, and he feels humbled by the privilege to carry if for a few minutes. However, his joy quickly disappears. Roger begins to throw rocks down at Piggy. Then he rolled the great rock: “The rock struck Piggy…the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist” (209). From this point on, Ralph sees that he is now fighting against his own kind; he is alone, with no one on his side. Thus begins his fight for survival, one of the many that took place on that island. Through the symbolism of the conch, Golding is able to portray to the reader the belief that order and civilization must be present for citizens to maintain kindness, loyalty, and lives worth living.

A third symbol integral to Golding’s novel is that of the “mask.” Whenever one of the boys creates a mask on their face using pigs’ blood and other substances, he becomes a completely different creature altogether–one that marvels in the infliction of pain and fear upon others. For example, when Jack first discovers the power of the mask, Golding writes, “his laughter become a bloodthirsty snarling…the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness…the mask compelled them” (68). Often, the boys will talk about the “painted savages” with fear and awe in their voices. Ralph even comments that he’d “like to put on war-paint and be a savage” (162). Thus, all the boys on the island are affected by the painted masks, even if they personally refuse to participate in the experience. One of the most profound examples of the influence of the masks is Golding’s description of Jacks thoughts: “…the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness…the mask compelled them” (69). Through the mask, Golding shows that their need for civilization is so great that they will resort to the most brutal solutions to satisfy their needs.

In sum, by using motifs such as the pig dance, the pigs head, and the mask, Golding is able to portray the theme that without civilization and order, man is susceptible to giving in to the forces that will transform him into a complete and utter savage. Golding might also be trying to show, through Biblical references like the island originally resembling the Garden of Eden and the character of Simon symbolizing the Savior, or Jesus Christ, that there is something more than just what man has inside of him that is required to defeat these internal forces. These motifs show the drastic change that occurred in many of the boys without being disciplined and commanded what to do. When one is outside of their comfort zone, one is vulnerable to being influenced by the thing inside them that tempts them to turn to savagery and disorder; this thing is the Lord of the Flies. Although the book was written nearly four decades ago, its theme reminds us that, even today, we must fight against the same forces.

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The Failure of Civilization in Golding’s Novel. (2018, Jun 10). GradesFixer. Retrieved October 20, 2021, from
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