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William Golding was inspired by his experiences in the Royal Navy during World War II when he wrote Lord of the Flies (Beetz 2514). Golding has said this about his book:
The theme is an attempt to trace the defeats of society back to the defects of human nature. The moral is that the shape of society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable. The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil as the symbolic life of the children on the island. (Epstein 204)
In the novel he displays the two different personalities that mankind possesses, one civilized, the other primitive. Golding uses the setting, characters, and symbolism in Lord of the Flies to give the reader a detailed description of these two faces of man.
The story’s setting is essential for the evolution of both sides of man. When an airplane carrying a bunch of school boys crashes on an island, only the children survive. The island the children find themselves on is roughly boat-shaped (Golding 29; ch. 1). It is ironic that the children are stuck on an island shaped like the thing that could save them (a boat). Despite this irony, they are trapped. They are surrounded by ocean and no one knows where they are. The boys, isolated from society, must now create their own.
The children soon realize that there are, “No grownups!” (Golding 8; ch. 1) This means that the boys must fend for themselves until they are rescued. There are no parents or adults to give the boys rules or punish them if they do wrong, so they must learn how to control and govern themselves. Their first attempt mimics the society that they have grown up with, that of a civilized democracy (Michel-Michot 175). A conch shell is used to call assemblies and decisions are voted on (Golding 17, ch. 1). The fire that they try to keep going on the top of the mountain is a symbol of their civilized society because it represents their hopes for rescue and a return to their ordinary lives (Michel-Michot 175).
Unfortunately, the children soon grow tired of this civilized life. They want to have fun and quickly lose interest in whatever job they are doing. Ralph states the problem when he says to the group of children, ” ?We have lots of assemblies. Everybody enjoys speaking and being together. We decide things. But they don’t get done. We were going to have water brought from the stream and left in those coconut shells under fresh leaves. So it was for a few days. Now there’s no water. The shells are dry. People drink from the river.’ ” (Golding 79; ch. 5) All of their resolutions soon degrade and fall apart. The society gives into its more primitive side and now only concerns itself with having fun. Hunting, which originally was only a practice of getting food so that they could survive until they were rescued becomes all important. (Michel-Michot 175-6) All of the children’s fears become condensed into a monster that they fear and awe. They make sacrifices to “the beast” to appease it and keep themselves safe (Golding 137; ch. 8). In the end, their grand society becomes no better than a bunch of savages in this lush island setting.
The island is abundant in resources, with lots of fresh water and plentiful fruit ripe for the picking. “He walked with an accustomed tread through the acres of fruit trees, where the least energetic could find an easy if unsatisfying meal.” (Golding 56; ch. 3) Although rich with nature’s splendor, the children are sorely lacking in the technology with which they have become accustomed to. They do not even have matches. If not for Piggy’s “specs”, they would not be able to create fire (Golding 42; ch. 2). This lack of technology both hinders their attempts to be civilized and hastens their progression towards savagery.
The story’s characters serve as archetypes that display the struggle between man’s quest for civilization and his urges to become primitive. The most important characters in the story are Ralph, Piggy, Simon, and Jack. Roger, Sam, and Eric, although not as important as the others, also serve to add color to the story and lend to its progression towards savagery.
Ralph is the story’s protagonist. He is a natural leader because of his superior height, strength, and good looks (Rosenfield 172). He is also the democratic man, the keeper of the civilized ways (Spitz 173). He was chosen chief by a vote from his peers and strives to maintain order, to “rule through persuasion, with the consent of the governed.” (Spitz 173) Ralph is “every man” and his body serves as the battle ground between reason and instinct. (Rosenfield 172)
Ralph loses this battle and eventually starts to regress to a primitive state. This is shown near the end of the story when he has trouble reasoning things through. “Then, at the moment of greatest passion and conviction, that curtain flapped in his head and he forgot what he had been driving at.” (Golding 163; ch. 10) Ralph’s regression continues until he is no more than an animal, who uses its most basic instincts to escape the fire which threatens to burn the island down and the rest of the tribe who want to hunt him down (Babb 11). “He [Ralph] shot forward, burst the thicket, was in the open, screaming, snarling, bloody.” (Golding 199; ch. 12)
Piggy is fat, nearly blind, and asthmatic. He also embodies reason and intelligence. Piggy represents rationality, logic, science, and the ways of thinking that a civilized society depends on (Taylor 170). He has a strong urge to distinguish and to order until reduced to a manageable system (Magill 826). He insists on collecting the names of all the stranded children, using the conch to call assemblies, and having meetings (Babb 11).
Piggy is the brains behind Ralph’s leadership. Piggy is the first one who suggests using the conch Ralph found to assemble the others (Golding 17; ch. 1). He is the one who brings Ralph back to the topic at hand near the end of the novel when Ralph’s reasoning starts to deteriorate under the constant pressure of trying to remain civilized (Babb 22). He assumes that civilized society is all powerful because it seems more reasonable for people to co-exist with rules and mutual respect, rather than obedience and terror (Beetz 2515). ” ?Which is better- to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?’ ” (Golding 180; ch. 11)
Simon is the Christ figure of the book and the voice of revelation (Spitz 172). He consistently reveals a kindness that no one else seems to possess whether it be through his comforting of Ralph, offering of food to Piggy , or getting fruits for the younger children (Babb 24). He is the most self-conscious of the boys, and prefers to withdraw into solitude for lonely mediations (Magill 827). He is the first to suggest that there is no beast, that, ” ? . . . maybe it’s only us.’ ” (Golding 89; ch. 5). Simon seeks to confront his fears and comes to accept the evil that exists both in him and in everyone (Babb 30-1). He does this by speaking to a pig head that was put on a stick and climbing the mountain to find that the “beast” is really just a dead pilot (Golding 137; ch. 8). Simon is mistaken for the “beast” when he comes back to explain to the rest of the children what he found and is ironically killed by those he wished to save (Golding 152; ch. 9).
Jack is the novel’s antagonist. He is the opposite of Ralph, distinguished by his ugliness and red hair (Rosenfield 172). He loses both elections when voting on who will become the leader of the group and is obsessed with power. This is why he is so intent on hunting, it is a way of imposing his will upon a living thing (Babb 9).
Jack’s rise to power first begins when the younger children’s fears start to distort their surroundings: twigs become creepers, shadows become demons, etc. (Rosenfield 173). Jack uses this fear to become the younger children’s protector. If they do what he says, the “beast” cannot get them. Jack soon decides to form his own society. It becomes based on this kind of ceremonial obeisance to himself and is shown by those sacrifices by which the tribe creates its beast, thereby sanctifying the fear and irrationality that govern the children’s actions (Babb 21).
Roger is Jack’s henchman. He has a sadistic soul and delights in tormenting others. An example of this is when he throws stones at a younger child when nobody is watching (Golding 62; ch. 4). As the children’s society degrades, Roger slowly loses the inhibitions that society has imposed upon him. Where once he was afraid to hit a child with a stone when no one was around, he soon becomes a deadly enforcer. He kills Piggy by pushing a bolder on him while in plain sight of everyone and also tortures Sam and Eric until they tell him where Ralph is hiding (Golding 180-1; ch. 11). Roger gladly enacts the evil deeds that help the story progress in its downward spiral towards savagery.
Sam and Eric are identical twins in this novel. In the beginning, they are two separate beings, but as time goes on they merge into one being, “Samneric” (Golding 182; ch. 11). They represent the average man of good who will stick to his principles for as long as possible, but will eventually join the majority when it becomes too hard to stand alone on his own ground (Michel-Michot 177). This is shown by their fierce loyalty to Ralph, even when almost all of the other kids have abandoned Ralph’s group for Jack’s fun tribe. Only after being tortured do they agree to become part of Jack’s tribe (Golding 188; ch. 12).
The symbolism in the story lends a deeper meaning to the chain of events that eventually unfurl. Most of these symbols can be divided into two groups: symbols that represent civilization and order, and symbols that represent chaos and savagery.
The conch used to regulate the assemblies is the symbol of democracy and free speech. Although adequate when used to gather the boys together, it holds little power when confronted with violence and tyranny (Michel-Michot 176). This is shown to us when Roger destroys the conch with the same bolder that kills Piggy, effectively destroying the last remnants of Ralph’s civilized society (Golding 181; ch. 11).
The signal fire, and Piggy’s glasses (which are used to light the fires), are also symbols of civilization. The signal fire represents rescue, but it is also a distant end that will only be reached at the price of an everyday effort (Michel-Michot 176). Like most things in our society, culture and education to name a few, it is a duty that must be done for no immediate end (Michel-Michot 176). Piggy’s glasses serve as a marker for their society’s progression into darkness. As Piggy loses his sight, so too, do the boys lose sight of their original goal: rescue (Rosenfield 173). One of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses breaks after a fight with Jack. The fight started when Jack let the signal fire die out while a ship was passing, thereby costing them a chance at being rescued (Golding 71; ch. 4).
Golding names the pig head that Jack puts on a stick as a sacrifice for the beast, “Lord of the Flies” (Golding 138; ch. 8). It symbolizes the anarchic, amoral, driving force of Jack’s tribe (Epstein 205). Only Simon knows that the reason why the beast cannot be found outside is because the beast lives inside all of us. We all have a little of the Lord of the Flies in us.
The “beast” becomes a sign of the children’s unrest (Michel-Michot 175). It goes from being a nightmare in some little boy’s dreams in the beginning of the novel to something very real that requires sacrifice if one is to be safe (Golding 37; ch. 2). The beast represents the children’s superstitious fears which become so overpowering that it eventually takes control of the situation (Michel-Michot 175).
The mask that Jack wears takes away his self-consciousness by striping him of his individuality. When the rest of the group begins to wear masks, they cease being individuals and become a mob. By destroying their personal identity they lose their personal responsibility (Magill 827). “He had even glimpsed one of them, striped brown, black, and red, and had judged that it was Bill. But really, thought Ralph, this was not Bill. This was a savage whose image refused to blend with that ancient picture of a boy in shorts and shirt.” (Golding 183; ch. 12) Even to Ralph, who once knew him, Bill has become something completely different once he dons the mask and makeup.
The sequence of killing can be used to track the children’s turning from innocence to savagery (Babb 14-5). First, the boy with the birth mark accidentally dies in a fire (Golding 46; ch. 2). Then, Simon dies in a violent act committed by a group of people (Golding 152-3; ch. 9). Piggy is killed by an individual (Roger) quite deliberately (Golding 180-1; ch. 11). Finally the change is complete and the children have become complete savages. They choose to hunt Ralph down near the end of the novel, knowing full well that the hunt will end in murder and sacrifice (Babb 14-5).
William Golding uses Lord of the Flies to teach us that the most dangerous enemy is not the evil found without, but the evil found within each of us. At the end of the novel, Ralph and the other boys realize the horror of their actions:
The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He [Ralph] gave himself up to them for the first time on the island; great shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence . . . (Golding 202; ch. 12).
Unfortunately, the naval officer who rescues them has yet to learn the lesson these boys have. He will take them back to the “civilized” world, which happens to be engulfed in war at the moment. Ironically, the children have survived one primitive and infantile morality system only to be thrown back into a bigger one, World War II (Rosenfield 175). Evil will always be a part of man’s nature. Golding’s novel was meant to show us that this evil must be accepted, not ignored, or grave will the consequences be.
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