Somehow I took more English classes than any other person in my high school, majored in English, continue to read obsessively, and had never gotten to Lord of the Flies. Until now.
I think that for the many years it took me to finally read this book it will take the same if not more years to digest it. It’s 180 pages of darkness and evil, the kind that are so horrific because they’re true and somehow natural. If you don’t know the main plot lone of this novel here it is: a group of British boys (around ages 6-10) survive a plane crash and end up on an abandoned island with no parental figure or adult to help. At first, the boys seem to value some kind of organization: they elect a chief (Ralph), agree to maintain watch of a fire to help attract rescue ships, and assign boys in the group with certain tasks to help them prosper. This organization and harmony is inspired mostly by Piggy, the protagonist at the beginning of the novel (this is not his real name but rather an unwanted nickname given to him by Ralph which the rest of the boys take up instantly), Ralph, and Simon. Ralph remains the voice of reason throughout the time on the island, but if it weren’t for Piggy’s reassuring pragmatism and intelligence, Ralph would succumb to the savagery that seems to be inherent in the island. And savagery is exactly what begins to overtake the boys.
Jack, the other seemingly oldest boy and who wanted to be chief, becomes aggressively interested in hunting and providing for the rest of the group. His desire to be needed and a leader speaks volumes about what happens to Jack and the demented, sadistic aristocracy he accepts and carries on. He wants to be needed and will do anything to be seen as necessary. An interesting aspect of this novel is that we know virtually nothing about the boys’ lives before the island- perhaps Jack was the most refined of them all, with inattentive parents and a lack of adventure. His trajectory, however, leads him elsewhere. Jack becomes the leader of the hunters, and one of the moments I keep thinking back to in the novel is when Jack and Ralph corner a pig and Jack cannot kill it. When Ralph asks Jack why he didn’t kill it, the narrator reflects: “They knew very well why he hadn’t: because of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh, because of the unbearable blood.” Here, both boys still cling to humanity and cannot ever imagine severing that tie. To kill is to become something other than a boy, and at this point, not even Jack is ready for this. Soon, however, Jack commits: he and the other hunters kill a pig and in their celebration, end up causing a huge fire that overtakes the island. The inhumane act of killing the pig becomes small in comparison to Ralph and Piggy’s realization: the fire has killed one boy, a boy that they don’t even remember the name of. This is an important part of the novel, for it is here that Ralph and Jack become truly opposite: the death of the pig and the boy disgust Ralph, inspiring him to order more rules, and the deaths empower Jack, inspiring him to continue his savage leadership and domination over the island.
We also cannot forget, as readers, that these are boys; they’ve been conditioned to be strong, to not show weakness or emotion, and to be a part of the fighting crowd of boys. These conditions are echoed by Jack throughout the novel, constantly berating the boys for being anything but tough boys who have no emotions other than anger and excitement. Thus, most of the boys, besides Simon, Piggy, and Ralph, join Jack and the hunters.
By far the most terrifying and thought-provoking instance of the novel (at least for me) happens via Simon’s character. Some of the younger boys claim that they’ve seen a beast on the island, and as Ralph and Jack argue over what to do about the beast, Simon makes a quiet realization that he cannot quite articulate to the rest of the group: “Maybe there’s a beast. Maybe it’s in us.” But the boys don’t take him seriously- “Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind’s essential illness.” These thoughts prompt Simon to seek out the supposed beast for himself. Alone, Simon encounters the head of the pig the hunters have recently killed, offered to the beast as a sacrifice. The head appears to talk to him, revealing himself to be The Lord of the Flies. Here, it tells Simon that his realization, while true, is useless: “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? I’m the reason why things are what they are? You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there- so don’t try to escape! My poor misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?”
Terrifying. Also, insanely creative of Golding to use a literal swarm of flies swarming around one point- the Lord of the Flies- to stand in as a huge metaphor for Beezlebub, a demon (sometimes seen as the Devil himself). (I could also go into a long review of the Biblical metaphors Golding makes throughout the entire novel, but that’s for another time). In this moment the beast is real and imaginary, deathly threatening and only harmful in our minds. “However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.” And poor, smart, innocent Simon chose to believe in the humanity of the boys rather than the truth that he and the Lord of the Flies already knew: the boys had already lost their humanity, had perhaps never had it, had always been the Beast. “The beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible.”
“What they might become in darkness nobody cared to think.” And in the darkness, celebrating another kill, chanting and mimicking the hunt, the boys succumb entirely to the darkness. They mistake Simon for the beast, ignore his warnings and shouts to stop, and kill the boy, brutally, in the most inhumane way possible. Their paranoia of the beast, their celebration of being beast-like, their impossible thirst for domination and freedom- these things are the beast. And even Simon’s dead body floating into the ocean cannot shock Jack and most of the other boys into the realization Simon had come to know.
“That was murder,” Ralph admits to Piggy, crying and inconsolable. Ralph and Piggy seem to be the only boys to reflect on the death of Simon, to regret and to mourn. Their mourning is interrupted, however, when Jack and the hunters choose to harm Piggy by taking his glasses in the middle of the night. These glasses serve as a heavy metaphor for the story: they are a symbol of organized society, and throughout the story they’ve been scratched, used, and broken, mirroring what has happened to the boy’s society as well. And Piggy knows that the boys have killed him when they take his glasses. He mourns the life that has been taken from him; ironic for what is to come.
Ralph decides to demand an assembly at Jack’s, to order the hunters to be more civilized and give Piggy his glasses back. But, humanity has subsided completely at this part of the island- the mentality now is that if a boy isn’t going to hunt, kill, laugh, mock, or tease, then he shouldn’t be a part of us. And Piggy, who shows his sadness whilst talking to the hunters, does not fit into these boys descriptions of boyhood or masculinity at all. So what do they do? What they’ve been conditioned to be happiest doing: kill. Piggy asks: “Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?” He dies with this pragmatic, reasonable question in the air. Roger, Jack’s evil henchman, launches a boulder onto Piggy, killing him instantly. Why consider any other way of life when this savage lifestyle leads to domination and freedom, the epitome of every boy’s dream? “See? That’s what you’ll get! That’s what I meant! There isn’t a tribe for you anymore!” Jack forewarns Ralph of what’s to come, and menacingly screams “I’m chief!” proving that his only real desire was to be needed. And the need to be needed was something he’d do anything to realize.
The ending of the novel is full of anxiety. The boys literally hunt Ralph by burning the entire island in the hopes of finding him and killing him. Ralph, knowing he’s seen and soon to be dead, sprints to the beach where he falls at the feet of a naval officer. Ironically, the one fire that attracted rescuers was a fire meant to kill; while Ralph demanded the boys keep up a fire that never worked, Jack’s disastrous and murderous fire does the job. “Fun and games,” the officer remarks: “What have you been doing? Having a war or something? Nobody killed, I hope?” What else is an adult supposed to believe? Of course the sight of 6-10 year old boys holding spears seems funny, for who would automatically presume the evil that has taken hold? That, in fact, three boys have been killed, that killing has been celebrating, that the hunt for survival has turned to the hunt for fun? The naval officer can’t believe that good British boys hadn’t made a better effort to become rescued, a sentiment to which Ralph responds with unstoppable tears. “He gave himself up to them now 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, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
Boys can’t cry. They especially couldn’t cry on this island. But in the presence of an adult, a member of a civilized, human society, the boys become what they truly are: boys. Children. Emotional beings. Golding’s language completely changes due to the arrival of the officer: even the scariest and biggest of the boys, Roger, becomes reduced to the officer’s description of the boy: “a little boy who wore the remains of an extraordinary black cap on his red hair and who carried the remains of a pair of spectacles at his waist… stood still.” As the boys face the truth, that what they’ve done is horrendous and real, that they were never anything more than children and that innocence could produce evil, the officer turns away, waiting.
How significant is it that we are never told Piggy’s real name? That we know nothing of any of the boys’ lives before the plane crash? We know not where they were going or if they knew one another beforehand. One thing that Golding does allude to, however, is the war (I’m assuming WWII based on the 1954 publication date). What a tremendous metaphor for the war. Like the events on the island, the world was made witness to the true savagery innate and available within humankind due to WWII. The Beast was on the island, in the world, everywhere. And WWII welcomed the Beast with open arms.
How are these boys to go on? What are they to do with their lives after playing in this deadly, horrific, real, game? What has been will never be the same again. They will never live without the death of Simon, the death of Piggy, the hunting, the killing, the joy in killing. And how was the world to be the same again after the war? How were we to believe in the good of humanity again? Perhaps we weren’t. Perhaps afterwards we could never ignore the Beast, could never ignore the Lord of the Flies