Civilisation and Savagery in William Golding’s
“Civilization is like a thin layer of ice upon a deep ocean of chaos and darkness.” (Werner Herzog) This quote explains and represents the novel, Lord of the Flies in many ways. In Lord of the Flies, written by the Nobel Prize winner William Golding, identity and civilization occur as fragile parts of society. The book was written after World War II, and the aftermath of this event heavily influenced the people, especially the authors and poets.
Golding wrote the novel based on his own experiences, as he fought in World War II, he was part of the Navy and he was involved in the invasion of Normandy.
He discovered the true nature of humans; he was disappointed in humankind. (Spitz, 22) The novel draws attention to the loss of identity and the transition between civilization and savagery with the help of symbolism. Golding shows a world of violence and moral desolation through his book to the reader. The main conflict is between two characters, Ralph and Jack, who are the representatives of civilization and savagery. Their continuous fighting for power has an effect on the rest of the boys throughout the novel, as they are slowly losing their humanity and they sink further and further into chaos.
The book starts with a plane crashing into an uninhabited island. A group of English boys are the passengers, and the first two characters, who are introduced, are Ralph and Piggy. Ralph is the one who discovers that they are on an island, which is described very appealingly:
“Out there, perhaps a mile away, the white surf flinked on a coral reef, and beyond that the open sea was dark blue. Within the irregular arc of coral the lagoon was still as a mountain lake–blue of all shades and shadowy green and purple. The beach between the palm terrace and the water was a thin stick, endless apparently, for to Ralph’s left the perspectives of palm and beach and water drew to a point at infinity;” (Golding, 6)
The island seems good enough due to the fact that it has food –fruits, pigs to hunt -, trees and shelter. It is possible that it is a biblical symbol for The Garden of Eden. Before the fall of mankind, The Garden of Eden was considered as a paradise, just like the boys considered the island as a paradise, before they ruined it. (Bufkin, 43) As the story develops, they sink further and further into savagery slowly drifting away from the civilized society, and eventually burn down the island. The scar that runs through the island symbolizes how destructive mankind is.
As they are bathing in the lagoon they find a conch, which is the first symbol of civilization.
Ralph, for Piggy’s suggestion, blows it to gather the rest of the boys. As everyone wonders out from the forest to the sound of the conch, the reader encounters the rest of the characters. The biggest contrast is between Ralph and Jack, who become the representatives of civilization and savagery. Ralph is the one who symbolizes order and civilization. He is described as the typical and perfect English boy: he has blonde hair, blue eyes and he is considered attractive. The conch is associated with him; he is someone to be respected and that is why he is elected as the leader. The conch is a symbol for power because whoever has it can speak up, and everybody has the same amount of respect and right when they are holding it:
“I’ll give the conch to the next person to speak. He can hold it when he’s speaking.” […]”And he won’t be interrupted: Except by me.” (Golding, 24)
Ralph also represents democracy; he wants everyone to be the part of the civilized society he plans to establish during their time spent on the island. Despite that, his powers are limited as it depends on order and rules. In the beginning, he becomes a leader to survive, but toward the end of the story, his ego comes before survival as he lost his civilized side. His new identity does not fit for leading, he fails to unite the boys and he is unable to bring order among them. He appoints Jack to be the leader of the hunters, who later on tries to convince the boys to leave Ralph and go with him, and at some point he succeeds. He and Ralph share an odd relationship; they are constantly fighting from the beginning, but at the same time they have respect for one another.
Jack represents dictatorship and savagery. In the beginning, he tries to “sell” himself with his singing ability and his leadership of the choir boys. He tries to prove the others that he would be a good choice as a leader. He eventually succeeds and becomes the new leader of the boys. Jack’s priority is killing and he attracts the boys to him with this. They cannot live out their “need” for killing with Ralph, so they eventually leave him for Jack. At the beginning of the story, he hesitates when he has to kill a pig, but as the story develops he becomes hungry for hunting. He becomes more violent and aggressive: “_Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood._” (Golding, 52). This quote shows that after he kills his first pig, it is clear that he no longer cares or feels guilty about what he has done.
He realizes that he has the ability to destroy something, like life, and this is something they can dominate with over the island. The boys also choose Jack over Ralph as a leader, because he believes them when they inform him about the “Beast”. Although, this so-called “Beast” is only a creature of their imagination, Jack does what Ralph failed to do as a leader. He does not believe in the “Beast” – he is using “if” in his speech every time they talk about it -, but he knows the others do: “There isn’t a snake-thing. But if there was a snake we’d hunt it and kill it. We’re going to hunt pigs to get meat for everybody.
And we’ll look for the snake too-“ (Golding, 36). While Ralph straight up refuses the idea that there might be a “Beast” on the island, Jack manipulates the boys, with his carefully chosen words, implying to the others that he believes what they said. Later on, he starts using words like “will” and “snake” instead of “if” and “snake-thing”, which implies that he acknowledged the existence of the Beast. Ralph might be the one who takes responsibility for everything they have done, but Jack is the one who believes in them and actually has an opinion about this “creature” the boys made up. For them, their belief on the “Beast” is stronger and stronger as they become more savage. They do not find Ralph very appealing as a leader anymore, especially after this conversation; the only opinion he has about the “Beast” is rejection and that “there isn’t a beastie”. The Beast can be the representation of the true evil within humans as well, which is on the surface as soon as they lose everything that connects them to civilization.
Although, the facts that they put on their “face paint” made of mud and clay, slaughter a boar and dance around the fire like a primitive tribe, indicate that they have turned into complete savages. During this scene, they mistake Simon for the Beast and they kill him. Other turning points of the book are when Piggy’s glasses and the conch breaks. Piggy’s glasses were the symbol of intelligence and science, because the boys were able to light the fire with them.
The glasses can also signify as a window which can distinguish good from evil. Piggy used his glasses not only to see, but to decide what is good for all of them. He was more mature than the others, and he had the knowledge of leadership. When Jack broke and stole his glasses, he lost not only his eyesight, but he also his ability to differentiate between what is good and what is evil. Civilization comes to its end when Piggy dies, and the conch breaks. The shell was the last thing which held the boys together and it was the last pillar of democracy, which is also destroyed with the conch: “the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.” (Golding, 181)
Taking everything into consideration, Lord of the Flies is a novel that shows us how evil is hidden in everyone, which only needs time and some change of circumstances to show itself. In the case of the boys, this change was the island. They were alone in an uninhabited island without adult supervision, and despite the fact that they were trying to stay civilized, the freedom they possessed completely changed them. Being civilized is not natural or necessary, unless you want to survive.
This shows us that we need rules to stay alive. Golding uses the main characters to show, that humankind is more evil than good. The continuous power struggle between Ralph and Jack results in their loss of identity; they shred off their “masks” as the proud English boys and replaced it with savagery
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