consider their physical characteristics and personality traits. How successful is each in gaining power? How does each boy acquire power? Are these ways respectful?
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Power is often a source of violence in Lord of the Flies. The desire for power breaks down the boundaries set by rules and order, causes strife and competition, and governs the actions of many of the boys on the island. Once achieved, power has the ability to either improve or corrupt its holder. Ralph, the more noble of the two leaders on the island, is bettered by his position as chief; whereas Jack, the usurper, abuses his power for personal gain.
The text makes it clear that Ralph is elected chief because he’s handsome – “attractive” and “fair,” as the text informs us. But Ralph is more than attractive. He also has the conch, which symbolizes power. The conch is what enables Ralph to call the boys to the first assembly, setting him up as a natural choice for leader right from the start.
“But wait,” you say, “Ralph ended up being a great chief!” True, yes, but that brings us to the chicken or the egg question of whether he was a good man for chief or whether being chief made him a good man. Ralph rose to the occasion, but the occasion could have created in him abilities and skills he might not have otherwise displayed. Ralph’s own thoughts lend some credibility to this latter notion when he decides “if you [are] a chief, you [have] to think, you [have] to be wise […] you [have] to grab at a decision.”
But let’s look at some of his innate abilities. To begin, Ralph is level-headed. He seems to be saying, “Look, as much fun as it would be to run around killing each other, let’s build a signal fire already and get off this island.” He believes in order, rules, and not pooping where he eats (literally). He also rocks out in some interesting moments of profundity and wisdom. When the boys break up the meeting by leaving early, Ralph refuses to call them back on the grounds that, if he blows the conch now and it fails, its power will be lost forever.
But we think Ralph’s most interesting line comes when he insists “this is a good island.” That brings us to the novel’s major question: are the boys corrupted by their environment, or were they corrupt to begin with? You could argue that the boys are merely helpless victims to circumstance; they’re stuck on an island with no adults, food, rules, or toilet paper, and what can you expect from young boys but chaos and disorder? That’s all well and good, but then you remember that Lord of the Flies is an allegory, and the British boys on the island are likened to adults in the real world who are living their own savagery otherwise known as war. So then what can you say: adults aren’t at fault, they’re just corrupted by their surroundings? Not easily. Ralph’s comment “this is a good island” argues implicitly that the problem isn’t the island – it’s the boys. Ralph solidifies this thought at the end of the novel, when he cries for “the darkness of man’s heart.”
So evil is just inherent in man…right? Maybe – that’s the question Golding forces you to ask, and the question that Ralph in his own way and his own wisdom takes a shot at.
Yet, despite all his wisdom and leadership and so forth, our young protagonist is far from perfect. To begin with, he’s kind of a jerk to the one guy who supports him through thick and thin: Piggy. Ralph makes fun of the kid’s asthma, won’t defend him to the others, and reveals to everyone Piggy’s undesirable nickname. It’s more the bloodthirsty stuff that raises our Ralph-examining eyebrows. In case you missed it, check out the end of Chapter Seven, when Ralph hits the pig with his spear and feels a rush of testosterone, thinking that maybe hunting isn’t so bad after all. Or you could look at Simon’s death scene, which Ralph not only took part in but was able to later convince himself he didn’t witness. We even start to think that Ralph got sucked into “the game” at the end of the novel when he feels his sharpened spear and “grins with amusement” that whomever he stabs “will squeal like a stuck pig.”
Ralph deteriorates in other ways as well. Ralph’s one firm stand throughout the novel is his insistence that they keep the signal fire going. But as order and rules go by the wayside, so does the order within Ralph’s own head. He can remember that he wants a signal fire, but he can’t remember why. He knows it’s something to do with smoke, but then he can’t put two and two together. Piggy has to help him out repeatedly, and the gap in Ralph’s train of thoughts worsens as the novel progresses.
You might have reacted to this the same way we did, primarily, “What is going on!?” To answer this question, we went to Ralph’s big philosophical moment, right before he calls the meeting in Chapter Five. At this point, Ralph is getting over his anger at the boys for missing their opportunity to get off the island. This is still early in the novel, yet Ralph is already losing touch with reality. He notes that the shadows look different in the evening and asks himself, “If faces [are] different when lit from above or below – what is a face? What is anything?” To translate: as different places, objects, and yes, people are transformed on the island, they start to lose their meaning. This is what happens to the signal fire in Ralph’s mind, as well as to the “savages” who he later decides are completely different beings than the British boys who came to the island. To Ralph, this break in logic is a way of coping, a way of dealing with the horrors of his circumstance.
Jack is, in many ways, the complete opposite of Ralph. Then again, Jack is a lot like Ralph. It seems we have some explaining to do. Like Ralph, Jack is charismatic and inclined to leadership. Unlike Ralph, he gets off on power and abuses his position above others (think about Jack Merridew at the beginning of the novel, letting Simon faint under his watch). If Ralph is made better through his role as chief, Jack is corrupted by it, becoming worse and worse as he gains more and more control over the others. Like Ralph, Jack is brave; the two of them together climb the mountain to face the beast, one of many moments of odd camaraderie between the two. Yet while Ralph clings to the rules and order of his British upbringing, Jack revels in the fact that there are no grown-ups! He gets to swear, play war games, hunt things, and paint his face, without risking being sent to his room for playing rough and accidentally killing the neighbors.
So there you have it. Ralph and Jack: polar opposites who are almost one-in-the-same. They might have been best buddies had they not come up against each other in the big election. Jack is obviously humiliated by his loss and spends the rest of the novel nursing his wounded ego back to health, right up to his secession from Ralph’s union and oh-so-telling declaration, “See? They do what I want.”
That’s not all. Jack also has the quality of bigotry, as he says things like “We’re English, and the English are best at everything.” Kids say the darndest things. And unfortunately, kids also jump on bandwagons, and Jack happens to be riding the A train. The A-MORAL train, that is. Did you notice how easily the boys are persuaded to join the pig-eating, Simon-murdering, Bacchic-frenzied crowd over the restrained, hard-laboring, fire-making, shelter-building camp that Ralph is running?
Now because this is Lord of the Flies and because it matters everywhere else, we have to take a look at religion in Jack’s character. Jack gets strangely superstitious as he gives in to his savage yearnings; he insists that the boys leave offerings for the beast, he sits garlanded like a god at his feast, and he has the boys perform ritual, ceremonial pig-hunts, complete with dancing and chanting and other spooky stuff. This, of course, only gives him more power, the power of a religious idol; how else could Jack get his tribe to do whatever he wants (hunt Ralph) for little reward (just some pig
So, Piggy is kind of the social outcast of the group. What’s more, he’s going to get smashed to an untimely and tragic death by a large rock.
But let’s talk about this rock-related injury. We were rather intrigued by the line that said, in Roger’s eyes, Piggy just looked like a “bag of fat.” This sounded familiar, so we went back a few chapters and found that the pigs were referred to as “bags of fat” as well. Then we sat around and thought about how Piggy’s name is PIGGY, and about how the boys went gradually from killing PIGS to killing PIGGY. Then we abused the use of capital letters to get our point across.
It seems the boys start to see Piggy as just another animal, and he is therefore killed as though that’s just what he is. The interesting thing is that the boys, because they kill Piggy, sort of become animals themselves. It’s a slippery, slidey, downward slope of atrocity. But animals aside, there’s another key point in Piggy’s death, and that is that the conch dies with him. The conch is smashed into thousands of pieces, which is about as close as an inanimate object is going to come to dying at all.
So what was it about Piggy and his relationship with the conch that warranted their duo death? To answer this question, we have to go back to the beginning of the novel, where Piggy, a.k.a. the “fat boy,” was discovering the conch along with Ralph. While Ralph finds the conch, Piggy is the one to identify it and tell Ralph how to use it. He then becomes the conch’s staunchest defender, always insisting on rules and order. He’s the character who makes such a big deal about learning names; he sees each boy as a fellow human being, and wants to give him the right and privilege of being called by his proper name. The sad part is that Piggy is the only one denied this privilege (except the twins, but more about that later). Having names is an important part of the system of order that Piggy defends. Even in the moments before his (and the conch’s) death, he is still asking the boys to think about laws and discipline instead of running around sticking spears into various hides. When the last defender of law and order (Piggy) dies, so does the last semblance of that law and order (the conch).
But go back to that first scene again for a minute, where Piggy tells Ralph all about the conch. Piggy knows what to do (blow into the shell), but is too weak physically (because of his asthma) to do it. This is basically a metaphor for Piggy’s entire existence: intellectual superiority, physical inferiority.
It’s also the governing principle for Piggy’s relationship with Ralph. Ralph is attractive, confident, and a natural-born leader. He’s smart enough, but he’s not on par with Piggy when it comes to brains. Ralph even admits this, and we repeatedly see Piggy help him out when he starts to go a little “barmy” as Piggy so delicately puts it. Piggy is essentially Ralph’s right hand man, but he’s still stuck in the role of an outcast. One of the relationships we watch develop over the course of the story is the one between Ralph and Piggy. Ralph gradually comes to accept him, to treat him better, to want him around, and Piggy, aware of this change, is beyond pleased.
Piggy isn’t just bright; he’s innovative as well (think about the sundial idea). He also uses science as a defense for his fears; there’s no such thing as ghosts, he says, because the world is science.
Golding was sure to make Piggy wear glasses. Still, Piggy’s glasses are more than just a pair of lenses – they’re an ingrained aspect of his entire persona. Did you ever notice how, in literature, writers say things like “his eyes flashed”? Several times in this novel, we see that “Piggy’s glasses flashed,” as if they are a part of his face, as if they are talking and reacting and, well, emoting. It makes sense, then, that this integral part of a character whose focus is science and technology, is used for the purposes of…science and technology. While the boys revert to their primitive and animal ways, the glasses become a symbol of the opposite sort of transformation: advancement, discovery, innovation. We’ll go into more detail in the Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory section, but in talking about Piggy it’s important to note that, in this way, he is the character most needed on the island. Without his glasses, the boys never would have been able to start a fire.
Far from being happy to help, however, Piggy is none too pleased with the use of his “specs” as a lighter. He’s extremely defensive, mostly because he can’t see a thing without them. We think there must be some deeper reason, however, why Piggy resents this manipulation of his eyewear. But we’ll let you take over from here.