Nothing scares me more than evil children. Any movie that is advertised as featuring a possessed child, or a creepy child, or a murderous child will not be getting my popcorn and jujubee money. So just the summary of Lord of the Flies gives me the creeps: “British schoolchildren survive a plane crash on a desert island and have to form their own society, but their island utopia soon turns to chaos.” No good can come of British schoolchildren being stranded on a deserted island. No good.
Lord of the Flies by William Golding was published in 1954, in the midst of the Cold War. The beginning of the novel explains that the plane is evacuating the students from Britain; there is a subtle nod to a nuclear-esque war going on and the plane has been shot down by a nameless enemy. Two of the children (who range in age from about 6 to 14) are the first characters on the beach — Ralph and the unfortunately named Piggy, who is chubby and has asthma and glasses. Poor Piggy doesn’t stand a chance on the playground, much less on a deserted island.
Ralph and Piggy find a conch shell on the beach and blow it to alert any other survivors to their whereabouts. Kids start coming towards them from all directions, including a large group of kids in identical choir robes. The head of the choirboys, Jack, makes himself known pretty quickly and he and Ralph discuss the need for an organized plan. Jack makes the argument for himself in possibly one of my favorite election speeches ever:
“I ought to be chief,” said Jack with simple arrogance, “because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.”
Somehow the boys are unconvinced that the ability to sing C sharp is a valuable life skill for getting rescued off an island, and they vote Ralph to be the leader. Ralph, in order to keep the choir boys from performing a mutiny, suggests that Jack and the Choir Boys work as an army and hunt for the group — maybe not the best idea, in hindsight.
Ralph, Jack, and a boy named Simon walk around and determine that they’re on an island and that there are no discernible signs of human civilization; they find tracks in the sand, but they’re animal tracks, there is no village smoke or boats on the shore. They find a piglet that they catch and Jack attempts to kill it with a knife; however, once he raises his arm in the air to stab it, he hesitates over the enormity of the act of killing a living creature and the pig gets away. In typical boy fashion, Jack promises that the next time there will be no mercy on whatever animal is under his knife.
When they get back to the others, they make their rules of the island — have fun and try to be rescued. They start a fire using Piggy’s glasses and maintaining the fire becomes the number one priority. They also establish a rule that when they are meeting together, whoever is holding the conch shell is the one who gets to talk. The conch comes to represent the attempts at civilization and order.
As the novel goes on, the Big Three of Ralph, Jack, and Simon begin to take over different roles of leadership; Jack takes the choir boys and becomes in charge of hunting the pigs on the island for meat, and Simon takes control of building shelters, as well as defending and protecting the younger boys. Piggy becomes an outcast; the older boys don’t take him seriously, even though (and probably because) he is a voice a reason, and the younger kids follow suit and make fun of him.
Several things happen to the boys that threatens their fragile civilization. The initial fire that they build by focusing sunlight through Piggy’s glasses is ignored while the kids play on the beach, and the fire gets out of control and burns all of their firewood. After the fire, one of the “littluns” disappears after the fire and is never seen again, presumably burned to death from the fire. On another occasion, Jack and the Choir Boys go off to hunt when they’re supposed to be watching the signal fire. Ralph and Piggy are on the beach, and they see a ship pass by, but when they get back to the fire to make a smoke signal, the fire has died out. Ralph accuses Jack, who has just returned triumphantly with a killed pig whose throat he slit, of letting the fire die. Jack and the Choir Boys, with face paint on their faces and blood still on the knife, are too preoccupied with the excitement and adrenaline rush of their first kill, and they put on a frenzied, crazed recreation of the hunt. Piggy tells Jack that he shouldn’t have left the fire and Jack punches Piggy in the stomach and then slaps him in the face hard enough to make Piggy’s glasses fly off and break one of the lenses.
Ralph calls an assembly to try to get their heads in the game and focus on their main goal: keeping the fire up so they can be rescued. At the meeting, the littluns start talking about their fear of a beast living on the island. Jack, with his usual sensitive nature, states that there is no beast, and he should know, as he’d covered every inch of the island during their hunts. Piggy brings up the point that there is no beast on the island and no reason to fear anything other than people (enter ominous music here). The littluns insist that there’s a beast; some say that it comes out of the sea, some say that it lurks in the caves, and they all agree that it comes out at night. Jack, in a moment that brings chaos to the meeting, speaks without holding the conch and declares that if there’s a beast, he and his boys will hunt it down. At this, the meeting splinters, with boys running away in all directions, leaving Ralph, Piggy, and Simon watching after them fearfully, discussing what “the grownups would think” if they could see how quick to violence and chaos the boys all are.
That night, there is an air battle over them, and a parachutist falls to the ground while the boys are all asleep. Two of the boys, twins who are interchangeable and are therefore known collectively as “SamnEric”, wake up and see the parachute fluttering; they panic, convinced that the beast has come in from the air. Ralph, Jack, and some of the hunters agree to go and look for the beast. On the search, they come across a wild boar and they try to catch it. When it gets away, they make a pretend hunting circle, enclosing on one of the boys, Robert, and pretend that they’re hunting him. They engage in their hunting ritual, which includes a chant:
“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!”
Creepy kids. Not okay.
Ralph and Jack go up the mountain and see what looks like “a great ape” asleep in one of the trees. They run back to the other boys and report back that they found the beast. While they’re discussing what to do, Jack declares that he’s no longer going to follow Ralph; Ralph is too preoccupied with his precious little fire and he’s a coward, so he’s going to take his hunters and kill the beast. When the other boys don’t elect to remove Ralph’s power, Jack calls his hunters and they run off to the beach. Ralph gets the other boys to help him rebuild the fire, but by the time they’ve finished, most of the boys have defected and joined Jack’s tribe. Ralph notices that Simon is gone as well, to which Piggy replies, “He’s cracked.”
Simon has gone off on his own to look for the beast. He finds a gift for the beast that Jack and the Choir Boys made, which is the head of one of the pigs killed by Jack that they impaled on a stick; it is covered in flies, and Simon thinks of it as “Lord of the Flies.” He has indeed cracked. The Lord of the Flies begins to talk to him and it is the creepiest thing yet:
“You are a silly little boy,” said the Lord of the Flies, “just an ignorant, silly little boy.”
Simon moved his swollen tongue but said nothing.
“Don’t you agree?” said the Lord of the Flies. “Aren’t you just a silly little boy?”
Simon answered him in the same silent voice.
“Well then,” said the Lord of the Flies,” you’d better run off and play with the others. They think you’re batty. You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you? You like Ralph a lot, don’t you? And Piggy, and Jack?”
Simon’s head was tilted slightly up. His eyes could not break away and the Lord of the Flies hung in space before him.
“What are you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you afraid of me?”
“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”
Simon’s mouth labored, brought forth audible words.
“Pig’s head on a stick.”
“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you?” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
And then Simon faints. Thank god. I don’t know how much more of that conversation I could take.
When he wakes up, he sees that the flies have moved to a different spot. He sees that it’s the body of the parachutist that became tangled in the tree and realizes that the dead body is what Ralph and Jack thought was the beast. He rushes back to the other boys to tell them that it’s harmless and that they’re mistaken.
Meanwhile, Ralph and Piggy have gone to find Jack and the others, seeing as how there are no boys left in Ralph’s tribe. They find them on the beach, painted with face paint and looking dirty and wild. And crazy. When it starts to rain, they form a circle and do their weird little hunting game, pretending that the boy Roger is a pig. Ralph and Piggy find themselves unable to resist the game and join in. The boys start chanting:
“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”
Simon bursts through the woods, shouting to them about the man in the trees, and the boys, in their bloodlust and mob mentality, mistake him for the beast. They form a new circle around “the beast.” Simon stumbles on the beach, and they attack and kill him with their bare hands and teeth. Then the mob breaks up and the boys all wander away, leaving Simon’s body bleeding and dead in the rain. As it rains, the tide rises and washes Simon’s body off the beach and into the ocean.
Ralph and Piggy, now that the spell of the mob has broken, are horrified that they took part in the murder of Simon. Jack, on the other hand, is not so upset. He and his tribe have taken solace in a place they call Castle Rock, where he is holding court like a dictator. Jack has decided that his tribe deserves a fire, so they are going to sneak to Ralph and Piggy’s camp and steal Piggy’s glasses. All that is left of Ralph’s tribe is Ralph, Piggy, and the twins Sam and Eric, so the security on the place is rather subpar. The boys pretend to be the beast and attack them, stealing the glasses in the chaos. Once the glasses are stolen, Ralph plans to steal them back.
Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric go to Jack’s tribe and Ralph accuses Jack of being a thief. Apparently even on a deserted island this is a disrespect that will not be tolerated, as Jack calls for Sam and Eric to be tied up in order to show Ralph that he can basically do whatever he wants; his “painted savages” are completely loyal to him. One of the boys, Roger, was up on the rock and was dropping stones on them. Piggy, frustrated with all of this foolishness, grabs the conch and appeals to the boys:
“I got this to say. You’re acting like a crowd of kids.”
The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.
“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”
A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.
“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”
The boys decided that yeah, hunting is better than law, as they cornered Ralph and Piggy and readied themselves for an attack. Roger intensified his rock throwing and caused a boulder to fall down on top of them.
Ralph heard the great rock long before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.
The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square, red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.
This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came.
With the shattering of the conch and Piggy’s death comes the total loss of any shred of humanity that Jack and the boys might have still had. Ralph barely escapes as they hurl spears at him. The boys, namely Roger, torture Sam and Eric for not joining their tribe in the first place. Ralph hides all night and day while the boys hunt him like an animal. He runs into Sam and Eric on the beach, and they tell him that the boys forced them to join the tribe and for Ralph to get away while he can. Apparently Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends and it has Ralph’s name on it. Ralph hides in the forest and Jack decides to smoke him out; he has the boys set the trees on fire. Ralph is driven to the beach by screaming savages with spears. He falls to the sand and covers himself with his arms to try to protect himself.
When he gets to his feet, a British naval officer is standing on the beach, staring at Ralph with a “what the hell is going on here?” look. They saw the smoke from the burning forest and came to the island to investigate. A group of the tribe, “their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands,” emerged from the forest, and the officer asks if they’ve been having “fun and games.” When Ralph tells him that two of the boys have been killed, the officer replies that he would have thought better of a pack of British boys.
Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood — Simon was dead — and Jack had…
The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. 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.
The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.
This book is an interesting argument for society — how long does it take civilization to fall apart, what does power or the lack of power do to a person, how does mob mentality influence people to do horrible things, where does the line between emotional and rational responses break down.
Ralph has good intentions for the group and is described as having natural leadership, even if his ideas aren’t always implemented well. He is nonviolent in contrast to Jack’s violence. He takes the leadership role very seriously and tries to set rules and procedures in order; the use of the conch shell during their assemblies, for example.
Piggy is the scientific mind of the group, very logical and rational. He is also the most set on having a civilization; he takes the conch shell with them on the raid of Jack’s tribe and insists on using it to speak to the savage boys. He acts as Ralph’s adviser, as he is the one with the ideas but no sense of leadership and none of the boys take him seriously. He demands order and has an adult sense of reason; he finds it hard to believe that the savage boys of Jack’s tribe would rather hunt and kill rather than be rescued and have order. His death signifies the final spiral into chaos.
Jack is the epitome of human nature when exposed to anarchy and chaos. Though he rather begrudgingly agrees to Ralph as the leader, he slowly takes over more and more power as the leader of the hunting choir boys. He also primal and masculine qualities that aren’t apparent in the other boys, which might be due to his being one of the older boys — when he is unable to kill the first pig they find, due to the potential trauma of ending a life, he feels shame and compensates by vowing to hunt until he kills something, even going so far as to abandoning the fire in order to hunt. His blood lust gets more intense and irrational. He and the hunters begin to paint themselves with body paint, shedding their humanity as they shed their clothes. As more of the boys give over to their primal natures, they leave Ralph’s tribe and join Jack.
Simon represents peace and humanity (see: Jesus figure). Simon takes care and calms the younger children when they’re having their nightmares and he keeps the older kids from teasing them. He is in tune with nature and the ocean, and that is why he has such an adverse reaction to seeing the pig’s head and hallucinates the Lord of the Flies (which happens to be the English translation of “Beelzebub,” a demon synonymous with Satan). His hallucination reveals the truth of the beast to him, and when he tries to explain it to the others, he’s savagely murdered, bringing about the loss of the truth and the boys’ innocence.
The arrival of the naval officer represents the adult authoritative influence on children: what was once a savage hunt and murder is reduced to “fun and games.” As the boys are crying, the officer looks away from the boys and towards his own battleship, juxtaposing the brutality of the children’s experiences on the island with the brutality of the adults’ experiences in war.
Whenever people talk about possibly lowering the drinking age or giving kids more responsibility, Lord of the Flies is immediately what I think of. Kids are not to be trusted with anything other than stuffed animals and need to have good solid role models that will teach them to not to try to kill each other with sharp sticks. I’m looking at you, Kid Nation.
All in all, this book is a study in why I will never have children. The possibility of the kids mutinying and chasing after me with sticks and face paint? No thank you.