Lord of the Flies

Lord of the Flies Summary and Analysis of Chapter One: The Sound of the Shell

On a tropical island, a twelve-year-old boy with fair hair is climbing out of plane wreckage (referred to as "the scar") on a beach and towards a lagoon. He faces another child around his age, a fat boy with glasses. The two, who have not previously met, begin a conversation. The fair-haired boy introduces himself as Ralph, while the heavy boy accidentally reveals his nickname at school: "Piggy." Against the other child's protestations, Ralph insists on calling him Piggy. Through their conversation, it is revealed that the boys have survived a plane crash in the Pacific Ocean, and no adults are present among the survivors. They confirm that both the pilot and "the man with the megaphone"-perhaps some sort of rescue worker-both died in the crash. The boys appear to have been escaping from an atomic war in their country, a place referred to only as the Home Counties (signaling England). When Ralph insists that his father, a Commander in the Navy, will rescue the stranded boys, Piggy reminds him that "they"-perhaps the military, perhaps the adult population-were all killed "by the atom bomb."

Ralph, excited by the idea of living without adult supervision, immediately takes advantage of the freedom on the island. He disrobes and invites Piggy to join him in a swim. Piggy nervously declines, explaining that his asthma prevents him from swimming or running, but eventually-and with much self-consciousness-removes his windbreaker. While Ralph is enjoying the new sights and pleasures of the tropical water, Piggy reveals that his parents are both dead and that he lives with his aunt, who operates a candy store. While Ralph is playing on the shore, Piggy spots a conch shell in the lagoon. He explains to an ignorant Ralph that a conch is valuable, and the two retrieve it from the water. Piggy, who cannot breathe well due to his asthma, instructs Ralph about how to blow into the shell so as to produce a loud whistle. After a few failed attempts, Ralph sounds the shell successfully. The two boys are surprised to see that the sound has attracted other survivors from the crash, among them Sam and Eric, two young identical twins, and abrupt, red-headed Jack Merridew, who is accompanied by a party of boys wearing strange black cloaks and caps, marching in two organized lines. Jack reveals that the group is a boys' choir and that he is the leader.

Once a large group is present, Piggy suggests that everyone state their names. Jack insists on being called Merridew, for Jack is a kid's name, and demands that he be established the leader of the survivors, for he is the head boy of his choir. The group decides to settle the question of leadership by vote. While Jack has natural leadership qualities and Piggy rational intelligence, Ralph has a calm personality that invites the others' trust, so he is elected chief. Once appointed, however, Ralph concedes that Jack may still lead his choir, who will become hunters. He further insists that the group stay assembled near the lagoon while three of the boys explore the territory to determine whether or not it is an island. For this task, Ralph chooses himself, a mild-tempered boy named Simon, and, at his own insistence, Jack. When Piggy requests to join the explorers, Jack dismisses the idea, humiliating Piggy, who is still ashamed that Ralph revealed his hated nickname.

Ralph, Simon and Jack search the island, climbing up the mountain to survey it. On the way up, they push down the mountain a large rock that blocks their way. When they finally reach the top, they determine that they are indeed on an island. The island is described as "boat-shaped," bordered by rocks and containing both lagoon and forest areas. Ralph, looking at the landscape, says assertively, "this belongs to us." The three decide that they need food to eat, and continue to explore the island, this time in search of food.

The boys descend the mountain into brush area, where they consider and then decide against eating some foliage they call "candle-buds." Shortly thereafter, they discover a piglet caught in a curtain of creepers. Jack draws his knife but pauses before he has a chance to stab the pig, which frees itself and runs away. Jack insists that he was merely looking for the right spot on the pig on which to stab it, but his white face suggests that he is unaccustomed to such violence. But he vows that next time, he will show no mercy toward his prey.


The opening chapter of Lord of the Flies establishes the novel as a political allegory. As a whole, the novel explores the need for political organization and dramatizes the clash in human nature between instinctual and learned behavior. In Chapter One, Golding depicts the deserted island as a place where the abandoned boys have a choice between returning to a pre-civilized state of humanity and re-imposing social order upon the group. Thus, the situation tests a Hobbesian hypothesis by throwing the children almost fully into a state of nature. The first chapter of the novel confirms that the boys have no society, no rules, and no concerns beyond personal survival. All they have is a set of histories. The narrative thrust of the novel traces how the boys develop their own miniature society and the difficulties that inevitably arise from this development. Chapter One foreshadows these events by depicting the boys as alternately frightened, ignorant, and exhilarated in the face of their newfound freedom.

Accordingly, Chapter One immediately establishes the tension between the impulse towards savagery and the need for civilization that exists within the human spirit. Freed from adult authority and the mores of society, Ralph plays in the beach naked, a practice that at the time of Golding's writing was commonly associated with pre-industrial cultures believed to be "uncivilized" or "savage." Yet if Ralph's nudity is an uncivilized practice, it is also a reference to another popular conception of pre-civilized life, that of the Garden of Eden. Ralph does not panic over the children's abandonment on the island, but he approaches it as a paradise in which he can play happily. The reader, aware of the outcome of the Biblical Eden, should treat the boys' "paradise" with similar skepticism. Like Eden, the island paradise will collapse; the questions are how and why.

Characterization emphasizes the tension Golding establishes between anarchy and political organization. The first sign of disturbance on the seemingly tranquil island is the appearance of Jack and his choir. Golding describes Jack and his compatriots as militaristic and aggressive, with Jack's bold manner and the choir marching in step. They are the first concrete example of civilization on the island, with a decidedly negative feel. Jack seems a physical manifestation of evil; with his dark cloak and wild red hair, his appearance is ominous, even Satanic. Accordingly, Jack is militaristic and authoritarian. He gives orders to his choir as if they were troops, allowing room for neither discussion nor dissent. Significantly, the role that he first chooses for his choir is that of hunters-he selects that task which is most violent and most related to military values. Yet, as his inability to kill the pig demonstrates, Jack is not yet accustomed to violence. Golding indicates that Jack must prepare himself to commit a violent act, for he is still constrained by his own youthful cowardice or by societal rules that oppose violent behavior. While his authoritarian attitude indicates a predisposition to violence, Jack must shed the lessons of society and conscience before he can kill.

In both temperament and physical appearance, Ralph is the antithesis of Jack. Golding idealizes Ralph from the beginning, lavishing praise on his physical beauty. In the island sun he immediately achieves a golden hue, a physical manifestation of his winning charisma. Ralph's value is not intellectual; importantly, he behaves somewhat childishly in his first encounter with Piggy. Still, Golding suggests that Ralph has a gravity and maturity beyond his years. He is a natural leader, a quality that the other boys immediately recognize when they vote him leader. The vote for chief establishes a conflict between the different values espoused by Jack and Ralph. Jack assumes that he should assume the role automatically, while Ralph, who is reluctant to accept leadership, achieves it by vote. Ralph therefore comes to represent a democratic ethos.

In contrast to the violent Jack and charismatic Ralph, Piggy is immediately established as the intellectual of the group. Although he is physically inept, clumsy, and asthmatic, he has a rational mind and the best grasp of their situation. It is his knowledge of the conch shell that allows Ralph to summon the rest of the boys together and he who shows the most concern for some sort of established order in meetings and in day-to-day life. He has a particular interest in names, immediately asking Ralph for his and wishing that Ralph would reciprocate the question, as well as insisting that a list of names be taken when the boys assemble. This emphasis on naming is one of the first indications of the imposition of an ordered society on the island (it also recalls the naming of the animals in Genesis). For Piggy, names not only facilitate organization and communication but also mark one's position within a social hierarchy. It is significant that Piggy is forced by the others to keep his despised nickname from home, which re-inscribes his inferior social status from the Home Counties in the new dynamic of the island. We may also note that Piggy's name symbolically connects him to the pigs on the island, which in subsequent chapters become the targets of many of the boys' unrestrained violent impulses. As the boys turn their rage against the pigs, Golding foreshadows Piggy's own murder at the close of the novel.

The reinforcement of Piggy's nickname, which clearly humiliates him, also indicates that the boys have imported to the island the cruelty of human social life. Ralph's mockery of Piggy is the first instance of inequality on the island, and it foreshadows the gross inequities and injustices to come. We may also note here Piggy's background (as an orphan who lives with an aunt) and his poor diction ("can't catch me breath," "what's yer name?")-details that indicate that, unlike Ralph and Jack, Piggy is a child from a working-class background. His immediate ostracizing on the island suggests another way in which the social hierarchies of the boys' home lives are reproduced in island life. Golding suggests that Piggy's marginalization is due not only to his unfortunate appearance and poor health but also because he is of a lower class status than the other boys, who have brought with them to the island the class prejudices of the Home Counties.

It is also significant here that Golding emphasizes the establishment of property and subtly critiques the concept of ownership by discovery. Ralph gains status from his possession of the conch shell, which gives him the authority to speak when the boys come together. Also, when he surveys the island from the summit of the mountain he states that it "belongs" to them, almost as an act of colonization or conquering. The invocation of colonial rhetoric suggests the struggles to come over ownership of the key resources on the island (such as the conch and Piggy's glasses) and over the power to rule one another.

The novel's first chapter establishes another theme that recurs throughout the novel: the corruption of innocence. Golding emphasizes the childish nature of the boys from the outset of the narrative, and he suggests that many of the struggles that mark their time on the island have less to do with either the natural brutality of the human spirit or the corruption of political society than with the boys' young age and incapacity for responsibility. Ralph's first reaction to the abandonment is to play in the water, and Jack's impulse to "kill" falls flat when he is confronted with an opportunity to do so. The chatter of the younger boys-who fear a "beastie" and a "snake thing," as well as Piggy's constant mention of his "auntie" at home who gave him candy, are narrative details that underscore the boys' youth and their essential innocence. As the brutality and violence among the boys increase in later chapters, Golding suggests that childhood is a neutral, formative state in which children can either be guided towards morality or corrupted by savagery when they are unguided by conscience or society. The emphasis on the boys' childishness in Chapter One establishes important questions that the subsequent action seeks to answer: is human nature essentially good, bad, or neutral, and how do early childhood experiences inform individual character?