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Lord of the Flies Summary and Analysis

by William Golding

Chapter Two: Fire on the Mountain

Back with the group the same evening, Ralph blows the conch shell to call another meeting. The effects of abandonment are visible in the boys' attire: the sunburned children have put on clothing once more, while the choir is more disheveled, having abandoned their cloaks. When the group of boys give Ralph full attention, Ralph suffers a brief lapse in confidence and is unsure whether to stand or sit while conducting a meeting. He looks to Piggy for affirmation of his authority. Ralph announces to the boys the results of the morning's explorations. He explains that they are on an uninhabited island. At this point, Jack interjects and insists that they need an army to hunt the pigs. Ralph, Jack, and Simon excitedly describe to the others their encounter with the piglet, Jack insisting defensively that it "got away" before he had the chance to stab and kill it, and vowing again to kill it "next time." To demonstrate his sincerity, Jack dramatically plunges his knife into a tree trunk, and the children, made uneasy by Jack's boldness, fall into silence.

Recognizing that the meeting has devolved into disorder, Ralph announces that they will have to establish rules, not only in meetings, but also to organize day-to-day life. He states that, in meetings, the boys will have to raise their hands, like in school, so as to ensure that they speak one at a time. The boy whose turn it is to speak will receive the conch shell, which he will hold while talking, and then will pass it along to the next speaker. Jack interrupts to approve of the imposition of rules, and he begins excitedly explaining the punishment that will result from breaking them. Piggy, grabbing the conch from Ralph, reprimands Jack for "hindering Ralph." He says that the most important thing is that nobody knows where they are and that they may be there a long time. The boys fall into an anxious silence.

Ralph, taking the conch again from Piggy, reassures the other boys, explaining that the island is theirs-and until the grown-ups come they will have fun. He says that it will be like a novel, and the others, excited once more, begin shouting the names of their favorite island adventure novels: Treasure Island, Swallows and Amazons, and The Coral Island. Ralph quiets the assembly by waving the conch. A small six-year-old boy whose face is half-covered by a red birthmark stands hesitantly to request the conch. He appears as if he is about to cry; once he has possession of the conch, he asks Ralph what the group will do about a snake-thing, which he describes as a "beastie" that appeared to him in the forest. Ralph assures the group that such animals only live in large countries, like those in Africa, so the boy must have dreamt the beastie in the aftermath of the crash. The boys seem largely reassured, though Ralph notices some signs of doubt on the faces of the younger children.

Ralph tells the boys that their goal while stranded shall be twofold: one, they should try to ensure their rescue, and two, they should try to have fun. He assures them that, as his Naval Commander father told him, there are no unknown islands on the planet, and thus they will be rescued. The others break into spontaneous applause at Ralph's confidence in their rescue. He then explains to the group the details of his rescue plan. Ralph suggests that they build a fire on the top of the mountain, for the smoke will signal their presence to passing ships. Jack summons the boys to come build a fire on the mountaintop, and they immediately follow, leaving Piggy and Ralph behind to discuss the outcome of the meeting.

Piggy expresses disgust at the childish behavior of the boys as Ralph catches up to the group and helps them carry piles of wood to the mountaintop. Eventually, the task proves too difficult for some of the smaller boys, who lose interest and search for fruit to eat. When they have gathered enough wood, Ralph and Jack wonder how to start a fire. Piggy arrives, and Jack suggests that they use his glasses. Jack snatches the glasses from Piggy, who can barely see without them. A boy named Maurice suggests that they use green branches to ignite the fire. After a few attempts, the glasses concentrate the rays of the sun and start a fire. Though the boys are mesmerized by the fire, it soon burns out. Piggy, disheartened by the waste of their only firewood, chastises Jack, and the two argue bitterly.

Ralph grabs the conch from Piggy and again reminds the group of the importance of rules. Jack agrees, explaining that they are not savages, they are English, and the English are the best at everything, so they must follow the right rules. Ralph concedes they might never be saved, and Piggy claims that he has been saying that, but nobody has listened. They get the fire going once more. While Piggy has the conch, he loses his temper again, telling the other boys they should have listened to his earlier orders to build shelters first while a fire is of secondary importance. Piggy worries that they still do not know exactly how many boys there are, and he mentions the snakes. Suddenly, one of the trees catches on fire, and one of the boys screams about snakes. Piggy thinks that one of the boys is missing.

Analysis

In the novel's second chapter, Golding uses the progress of the boys on the island as a metaphor for early human development. The boys' first achievement on the island is to build a fire, which like the conch shell brings the entire group of boys together in awe and wonder. According to Piggy, the next step should be for the boys to build some sort of shelter, again a mirror of the historical development of early human society. The "government" established by Ralph also develops during this chapter. Golding uses these developments to signal that the island is becoming a society with rules that mirror Western democratic culture. The conch shell, which authorizes its holder to speak and is available to all, is a particular symbol of the ideal of democratic freedom and equality. But, since Ralph decides who gets possession of the conch, the freedoms of the island are decided by authority. Though Ralph is a benevolent leader, the implication here is that democracy still depends on its leaders for justice.

Also like a democratic system, the makeshift government on the island sparks debate and dissent. Jack and Piggy have differing perspectives on what particular end Ralph's rules will serve. Ralph takes a rational perspective based on ideas of justice: the rules will allow the boys to live fairly with one another, a belief that fits well with his democratic sensibility. Jack relishes the idea of rules as a means for control and for punishment, a reflection of his dictatorial ethos and tendency toward violence. Piggy, as the most intelligent of the three central characters, views the rules as useful tools for survival. He views all aspects of the boys' behavior on the island in terms of whether they will contribute to their eventual rescue.

Golding continues to present Ralph as a calming, authoritative presence among the boys. When fear sets in among some of the younger boys, only Ralph has the presence to restore order and hope. Despite Piggy's clear thinking and appraisal of their situation, his contentious manner and rude dismissal of the younger boys unfortunately causes his ideas to be dismissed. Even more importantly, he is a cynic who can do nothing to comfort the others, instead instilling in them a sense of fatalism. Piggy, whose pessimism and sadness make him a likely martyr, is established in this chapter as a prophet whose words are not heeded until it is too late. Golding uses Piggy's advice as foreshadowing: failure to heed Piggy, however absurd he may sound, leads to dire consequences. Chapter Two contains the first example of Piggy's prophecy: after the trip to the mountain, one of the boys seems to be missing. The implication is that if the others had heeded Piggy's advice and allowed him to keep track of the number of boys and their names, there would be no confusion over whether one is missing.

Despite the boys' dislike for Piggy, they appear to recognize that he is an important presence on the island. His glasses enable them to start a fire on the mountain. In particular, Piggy is useful for Jack, who remains more interested in hunting and causing pain and disorder than in contributing or constructing anything of use. It is significant that the development he is most supportive of is building a fire, which is by nature destructive even though it can be used for good. In this chapter, Golding also establishes Jack as a boy who tends to dominate. Jack's statement about the English being the "best at everything" also suggests his nationalistic impulses. Jack adheres to the colonial English position that depended on the perceived superiority of the British to justify the colonization and forced development of other peoples, foreshadowing his brutal behavior in subsequent chapters. His statement that they are "not savages" will, by the end of the novel, appear deeply ironic as Jack and his tribe devolve into unthinkable depths of brutality and self-destruction.

The boys' childishness is again highlighted as the boys face the challenge of meeting their basic needs for survival. The immediate dangers that the boys face are few, for on the island there is fruit, plus the pigs, to eat, yet as children they are overcome with irrational and diffuse terror. Golding suggests that their own sense of fear is the greatest danger to these boys. It is fear over a snake that causes the younger boys to panic and to exaggerate the dangers on the island, causing disorder and commotion. Both Jack and Piggy contribute to this sense of dread. Jack does so through his aggressive stance, which contains the implicit notion that they are in danger and must defend themselves from some unknown force. Piggy does so through his constant fatalism. It is here that Ralph best demonstrates his superiority for leadership, displaying the most calm of any of the characters and encouraging the others to be confident in their rescue. Ralph is established here not only as a political leader but also as a parental figure whose job is to reassure the scared boys and protect them from their own fears and doubts.

As the narrative moves closer to dramatic conflict and tragedy, Golding distinguishes Lord of the Flies from the romantic adventure stories that were popular among boys of the mid-twentieth century. In the second meeting, Ralph encourages the boys to have fun on the island and to think of the experience as one that would happen "in a novel." Immediately, the boys begin shouting out the names of their favorite island adventures, including The Coral Island. The Coral Island (1857), written by R.M. Ballantyne, was a popular nineteenth-century novel that followed the happy adventures of three unsupervised boys on a tropical island. Golding, who found the narrative of The Coral Island naive and unlikely, wrote Lord of the Flies partly as a response to this novel. The mention of these idealized island narratives at the outset of Golding's dystopian tale is thus ironic because the events to follow are nothing like the entertaining experiences of the boys on The Coral Island. Through the explicit comparison, the reader is encouraged to recognize Golding's work as a critical commentary on popular adventure fiction on the basis of its optimistic unreality.

Also in Chapter Two, Golding introduces more symbols that will recur throughout the novel and which highlight important developments in the dramatic action. The fire that the boys build signifies the group's hope for their rescue and return to the Home Counties. A powerful symbol of human civilization, the fire is a marker of the imposition of human industry on wild, untamed nature; the boys' inability to maintain the fire indicates the waning possibility of both rescue and maintaining civilized order on the island. We may also note the introduction in this chapter of the "beastie," or as it is later known, the "beast." The idea of the beast is first mentioned by one of the younger boys though it is dismissed by most of the older children. As Ralph reassures them, he sees a glimmer of doubt in many of their expressions, an observation that mirrors the group's eventual acceptance of the beast as a legitimate if improbable reality. The beast becomes an important motif that establishes the power and danger of group-think among the boys.

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