Golding wrote that the civilisation on the island ‘breaks down in blood and terror because the boys are suffering from the terrible disease of being human”. What do you think Golding is saying about human nature and evil in this novel?
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies shows allegorically the inherent evil that lies inside every human being. Each character and symbol renders this possible by what it represents. Ralph and Jack are opposing leaders and represent different sides of human nature and society. Jack as the dictator and hunter with his spear sharpened at both ends and Ralph as the democratic leader with the conch. The ‘terrible disease of being human’ is revealed to be the capability of all humans to do evil, also known as ‘original sin’. It is something we possess from birth and is a result of the sins of our ancestors. Golding uses British schoolboys on an idealic tropical island to show the shocking degeneration of well bred, innocent children into wild savages.
By writing about children, Golding dispels all speculation that savagery is limited to adults. Golding later said ‘When children go wrong they can often go wrong with a vengeance’. Jack and Ralph are keen to get along at the beginning of the novel; they seek unity and recognise the importance of rules. ‘I agree with Ralph. We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages.’ Jack’s words display dramatic irony as the boys descend into savagery at a later stage in the novel. Without the moral guidance of parents and adults the island collapses into chaos.
The conch shell is described as being ‘interesting and pretty’ and is used to summon the boys together at the beginning of the novel, after the crash. In this way it brings them together and is a symbol of unity and civilisation. It governs their meetings and gives each boy the right to speak. So it is a physical representation of democratic power. However, as the civilisation on the island begins to diminish, so does the value and influence of the conch. Later on in the novel, when Ralph tries to blow the conch into Jack’s camp to restore order, Jack’s tribe ignore him and throw stones at him. The conch, once a gleaming, white shell, grows paler and paler and eventually explodes ‘into a thousand white fragments’ as civilisation completely breaks down with the death of Piggy.
According to Golding there are ‘conditions in which cruelty seems to flourish…chaos is one, fear is another ‘. These conditions are both physical and mental. The island acts as a setting to the cruelty that takes place. It has different physical features being both high and low, rocky and forested and friendly and unfriendly. ‘Inside was peacock water, rocks and weed…outside was the dark blue of the sea.’ The island therefore represents the different sides to human nature and suggests that good and evil are not necessarily separate but often go hand in hand. The island goes from being a place of beauty and adventure at the beginning of the novel to a fiery prison at the end, suggesting that you can only cover up inner savagery for so long before it breaks out, given the right situation.
The beast is used as a symbol to represent the evil inside everybody. When Sam and Eric come across the dead parachutist they assume that it must be the beast. Their overactive imaginations convince the rest of the boys that the beast is a tangible creature with terrifying teeth, claws and eyes and it therefore must be hunted. This hunting instinct is visible in Jack and is what Golding said was the ‘capacity of the young male to maim and torture [being similar to the] forgotten beginning as a hunter and killer’. Only Simon seems to know the truth about the beast. ‘Maybe it’s only us…Simon became inarticulate in his efforts to express mankind’s essential illness.’ Golding describes inherent evil as ‘mankind’s essential illness’ to show that it is not limited to specific people but humans from all walks of life. Simon has fierce determination to climb the mountain and reveal the truth about the beast. Having worked out that it is just a dead parachutist he proceeds down the mountain and is killed in the frenzy of the tribal dance. He knows that ‘the beast is harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible.’ He is a martyr, dying for the truth and this reveals humanity’s barbarism and its battle against civilisation and truth.
The severed pig’s head on a stick is offered to the beast as a sacrifice as gratitude for a successful hunt. This shows that the boys, although ordered by Jack to forget the beast, have enough respect for it to make it into a god-like figure worthy of a sacrifice. There are similarities between the way the boys treat this deity and the way some of them seem to idolise Jack. He is a ‘lord’ over them and they are his ‘flies’. The way Simon communicates with the Lord of the Flies, with its ‘school master’s’ voice represents the voice of authority in Simon’s head. ‘The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life.’ The Lord of the Flies is a sinister reminder of a world beyond the island.
The degeneration from man to savage is perhaps most visible in Roger in his descent from middle class choir boy to pre meditated killer. He is Jack’s right hand man but surpasses him in his barbarism. At the beginning of the novel, Roger begins to display tendencies of violence when he throws stones at Henry. He is described as having a ‘shock of black hair… [which] seemed to suit his gloomy face and made what had seemed at first an unsociable remoteness into something forbidding.’ Here Golding is hinting at how people’s physical features can sometimes reveal a lot about their personalities. Roger’s violent actions escalate out of control and he seems to become Jack’s personal torturer and in the case of Piggy, executioner.
On the day of Piggy’s murder, Ralph’s tribe realise that their camp has been attacked and their vital resource, Piggy’s glasses used for making fire, has been stolen. The glasses were the only advantage that the group had over Jack’s tribe. When they try to approach the savages, Piggy immediately speaks up and calls Jack’s gang ‘painted niggers’. He asks a vital question: ‘Which is better- law and rescue or hunting and breaking things up’? Piggy’s willingness to speak up shows the greater courage and confidence he has gained since the start of the novel. It is this confidence that kills him, as Roger leans his weight on the lever holding the rock with ‘delirious abandonment’ and it goes tumbling down. Roger’s ‘abandonment’ in his killing of Piggy makes him seem detached and happy to be killing him. ‘The rock struck Piggy…the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments…Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit like a pig after it had been killed.’ Here, Golding likens Piggy to the vulnerability of the pigs on the island and shows how at the very moment Piggy dies, the conch, the remaining symbol of democracy on the island, also ceases to exist.
The ultimate battle between good and evil is displayed in the hunting of Ralph. Ralph hears from Sam and Eric that Roger has ‘sharpened a stick at both ends’ but Ralph fails to recognise of the significance of this lethal weapon… The boys try to burn him out, resulting in the whole island bursting into flames. The boys have turned the once ‘paradise like’ heaven into a fiery hell. A chase soon follows between Ralph and the boys symbolising the savages they have become as none of them would ever dream of acting in that way at the beginning of the novel. This gives Jack’s earlier words ‘after all we’re not savages’ even more irony as they have clearly become savage in their actions and morals. The boys are rescued by a navy officer and only at this point, when they see an adult from a world beyond the island, do they realise the atrocities that have taken place. ‘Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart’. It is this ‘darkness of man’s heart’ which Golding later described as the ‘terrible disease of being human’.
Golding once said, in talking about thoughts on utopia and the living in a perfect society:
‘If they are to be treated as anything but trivial exercises of the imagination, we have to say to ourselves, how would I myself live in this proposed society? How long would it be before I went stark staring mad?’
He is therefore saying that it is impossible for perfection to be achieved without the basic human instinct of evil to take hold. Golding believed that the natural state for humans is one of chaos and evil and once reason is abandoned only the most powerful can survive. On the surface, the story of young boys on an island seems to be an idealic adventure story, but before long the boys descend into savagery with devastating consequences.