Introduction: With Lord of the Flies

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Mr. Juhl’s Draft of Lord of the Flies essay with direct quotations
With Lord of the Flies, William Golding makes a powerful statement about humanity: that what we think of as ‘civilization’ is actually merely a more organized form of savagery. He attempts to drive this point home, that our ‘civilization’ is not in fact ‘civilized’ at all, but an illusion or a mask we wear to convince ourselves we are not really predatory animals driven by instinct (when we actually are), through using an island as a microcosm for the world. The island is a place where the disintegration of a society of stranded British schoolboys into war and savagery reflects the savage wars waged by civilization outside of that island. The final irony of the book is that though the boys are ‘rescued’ as they had always hoped, to be brought back to ‘civilization’—they have no civilization to which they may return, because there never was any civilization, merely savagery masquerading as something higher and nobler. The events on the island are always connected, through metaphors and symbols and language, to the larger events going on in the world beyond the island. These include the boys’ arrival on the island, the symbolism of ‘the Beast’ and the ‘Lord of the Flies,’ the destruction of both the conch and of the character Piggy’s glasses, and lastly the ironic ‘rescue’ of the boys. The first major event to demonstrate Golding’s point would be the way the major characters got on to the island setting for the book.
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When readers first encounter the first two major characters, the natural leader Ralph and the intellectual (but social outcast) Piggy, they have just survived a plane crash on to the island. When they meet, they recount how they got there, speculate on how many of the other schoolboys survived, and whether or not any adults would know where they were and thus come to rescue them. Ralph insists grown-ups would know where they were because someone would have told his father (who is in the Navy) at the airport when the boys were being loaded on to a plane, but Piggy insists: “Not them. Didn’t you hear what the pilot said? About the atom bomb? They’re all dead” (14). With this revelation, the reason for the boys’ being on the island becomes clear: England has become ground zero for a nuclear holocaust, the atom bomb has been dropped: the world is at war. The boys were bound for a safer place, evacuated on to planes, and they were shot down. Piggy describes: “We was attacked! … When we was coming down I looked through one of them windows. I saw the other part of the plane. There were flames coming out of it” (8). From the very beginning, the author shows that the world is a savage place; war is the reason for the boys’ arrival on the island.
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Briefly, there shines a hope that the boys—there are many—may be able to build a society on the island based upon rules and order, law and justice. Ralph is elected as ‘chief,’ establishes a semi-democratic Senate where every boy has the right to be heard, and makes up rules to govern the boys. The boys make a signal fire to attract rescue by using Piggy’s specs (glasses) to focus the light of the sun on to sticks. Piggy’s glasses symbolize hope of rescue as well as clarity of thinking, rationality, reason and logic. However, things fall apart very quickly—this deterioration is accelerated by the boys’ fear of a ‘Beast’ or monster on the island. It begins with some of the younger children’s seeing vines and mistaking them for snakes, then the ‘Beast’ transforms over the course of the book, taking different shapes in their minds, terrifying them whenever they are alone or in the dark of night. As things begin to fall apart, Piggy tells Ralph how “Grownups know things. They aren’t afraid of the dark. They’d meet and have tea and discuss. Then things ‘ud be all right” (94). Ralph replies, desperately, “If only they could get a message to us … If only the could send us something grown-up … a sign or something” (94). Pointedly, in the very next chapter, Golding writes of how Ralph’s prayer is answered: “But a sign came down from the world of grown-ups,” (95) a fighter-pilot who parachuted out of his plane but died on the way down. His body, still strapped into his uniform, helmet, and parachute, drifts down to the island at night, where two of the boys (who were supposed to be watching the signal fire, built and maintained to signal a passing boat or plane to rescue them) happen to glimpse it after waking up in the early morning. In the dark, the parachutist appears to be the ‘Beast’ of their imaginations. The effect is enhanced by the wind, which somewhat fills and inflates the parachute, lifting the body up briefly, pulling its cords like a marionette puppet, before it sinks back down again. This ‘Beast’ is a symbol: the dark side of humanity, the savage that lives within. Hidden inside of a neat pilot’s uniform, face hidden by a standard-issue helmet, wrapped in the trappings of civilization, the pilot represents organized savagery’s most horrific accomplishment: war. ‘Civilization’ has perfected and refined savagery, elevating it to the arena of the noble and lofty: this man, to many, is a hero. To Golding, and to the boys, he is a terror: the symbolic embodiment of savagery and brutality. Civilizations make war allegedly to defend ‘civilization,’ yet in so doing, they reduce civilization to rubble and ash, destroy life, and breed atrocities such as rape and torture (both of which show up—the first metaphorically, the second literally—on the island as things fall apart even more). This pilot is what the intuitive, perceptive Simon sees in his mind whenever he tries to visualize the Beast: “a human at once heroic and sick” (103). This pilot was a hero, and believed he was defending civilization by practicing war, which is savagery. This is the essential sickness of humanity that Simon alone seems to truly understand and that he tries—and fails—to convey to the other boys. He knows the Beast lives within them all. Some of the boys try to protect themselves from the Beast they are all now convinced is on the island by placating it with a gift: the head of a pig they kill to eat. Simon’s insight into humanity’s illness is confirmed when Simon converses (in his mind) with the pig’s head, covered in flies, and which Golding names ‘The Lord of the Flies.’ The pig’s head tells Simon that he is the Beast, he is the reason things go wrong, and that he is close—the symbol of man’s savagery tells Simon: “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? … I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?” (143). In a later chapter, Simon discovers the true nature of the parachutist, but the rest of the boys remain ignorant of the truth; in a frenzy, at night, they kill Simon as he emerges from the forest, mistaking him (at first) for the Beast.

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The final unmistakable proof that Golding believed civilization is merely savagery comes with the ‘rescue’ of the boys at the conclusion. The island has descended into chaos; the conch that represents order and democracy has been smashed, Piggy and Simon killed, Piggy’s glasses—smashed now, representing the blinding of insight and rational thought—hang from the completely savage Jack’s belt as a trophy. The boys who once followed Ralph now hunt him as they once hunted pigs, intending to put his head on a stake as they had done with the pig’s head, a grisly trophy of their ‘victory.’ Ralph stumbles out of the forest—that the savages have set on fire to flush him out so they can kill him—and on to the beach. There, “He saw white drill, epaulettes, a revolver, a row of gilt buttons down the front of a uniform” (200). A naval officer has arrived. The British Navy had seen the smoke from the now blazing forest, and come to rescue the boys. However, the vehicles in which he and the other officers arrived give a clue as to the true nature of the alleged ‘civilization’ they represent: “On the beach behind him was a cutter, her bows hauled up and held by two ratings. In the stern-sheets another rating held a machine-gun” (200). The officer asks them if they have been having fun and games, then asks if they have been having a war or something, to which Ralph responds affirmatively. Golding makes his point again here: the ‘civilization’ that has come to ‘rescue’ them can offer no salvation. Boys with sticks or men with guns, boys rolling boulders down on to each other’s heads or men dropping atomic bombs from planes, it is all the same: savagery. Technology, innovation, ‘civilization’ has merely elevated this savagery to a new level, making it possible to kill millions at a time. The savagery that engulfs the island is merely the ripping away of the mask, the pretense that masquerades as civilization. It is not a devolving into a pre-civilized state of barbarism: it is merely the bringing out into the open of that savagery, exposing the wound in humanity’s soul in all its gory ugliness. Ralph weeps for the realization that there is a darkness in humanity’s soul and they will never get off ‘the island.’ He recognizes that there is no civilization to which he may return—and there never was.
In his novel, Golding argues powerfully that there is no truly civilized civilization in the world. Humanity has never evolved past its savagery, merely improved upon, refined, and perfected it, developing new methods of torture, murder, and war, inventing technologies that increase human misery and suffering with the instruments of mass destruction. He accomplishes this through using the island as a microcosm, constantly using language, symbols (such as the Beast), imagery and metaphor to link the events on the island to the events of the outside world, the war on the island reflecting the world- war. Truly, as the boys discover for themselves, no matter how much we may want to believe we are making progress, or evolving, we are still brute savages—that dress in clothing, drink tea, and fly in planes—but our essential, savage nature remains unchanged. Golding’s thesis is not a hopeful one, but it is realistic and inescapable.

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