Lord of the Flies - William Golding
How deeply ingrained are people's "animal nature?" With all constraints of authority and society removed, how many of us would regress to "savages?" And how quickly? These are the questions dealt with in William Golding's classic 1954 novel, Lord of the Flies.

Of course, the word "savage" can carry a certain prejudicial tone, especially if used as a negative or derogatory attribution for tribal peoples. I don't believe, however, that Mr. Golding was trying to paint tribal people as brutish animals in this book. I think he is offering the suggestion that, without civilization, we are all potentially brute animals, or at least, that is true for very many among us. His story is actually more nuanced than that, but it helps to have a feel for how the word "savage" was used in the mid 1950's. For the sake of appreciating this amazing story, consider it to indicate psychopaths letting loose in all their brutal, sadistic, hierarchical fervor.

So, allowing for that definition, are we savages in suits? Brutes behind cubicles pecking at keyboards?

Lord of the Flies explores the question by stranding a large group of preadolescent boys (the oldest are 12 years old) on a tropical island where there's plenty of food and water, but no adult supervision. They simply must take care of themselves until rescue comes. It all begins as a grand adventure, especially for the older boys, but as the interactions among them become more prompted by needs for food, security, and esteem, the adventure grows dark.

This is certainly a morality play and the three main characters establish the parameters for it. Ralph is the fair-haired hero. He is strong and brave, and smart though not brilliant. He is moral and has the good sense to realize that building a signal fire on top of the mountain is the most important thing they must do to be rescued. Ralph is quickly designated the boys' leader and elected, "chief."

Ralph's obvious antithesis is Jack Merridew. Jack is the red-haired near-equivalent of Ralph and is already a leader in his own right as head of a choir. His choir-members wear black robes and caps and maintain their group identity with Jack as their leader. They assume the role of "the hunters" to provide meat from the wild hogs on the island. Jack is readily apparent as the antagonist and the Lucifer symbolism is obvious and brilliant. Jack and Ralph begin as friends but later split as a result of Jack's self-obsession working against Ralph's desire for the common good.

Ralph's main supporter is Piggy. He is very smart, overweight, asthmatic, and badly myoptic. Today, we would call him a "geek." We are never told his real name, but he represents a lot of us. He recognizes Ralph as the better person and so supports him over Jack, who abuses Piggy. Of course, Ralph and nearly everyone else abuses Piggy for being fat and smart, but Piggy can pick his more tolerable degrees of torment. Piggy is Merlin to Ralph's King Arthur and he soon recognizes Jack as Mordred (who was also a kind of Lucifer--smart and handsome and self-absorbed, i.e., proud).

Most people probably take the sense of this story as being that people will digress to "savages" when the constraints of civilization are taken away. But I have to ask if the boys would have digressed to savagery without Jack, who is the catalyst and facilitator for that fall. The run of most people are represented by the "littluns" who follow whoever will provide for them. They are as "good" as whoever is looking out for them. If a savage takes care of them, then they become savages. They abandon civilized mores, represented by the conch, if the savage is ascendent. And those unnoticed little people who are also fervent psychopaths, represented by Roger, will gain power and position if even greater psychopaths come to power.

So the littluns will follow whoever will care for them. If they're lucky, it's a benevolent personality like Ralph. If not, then a Jack-type takes charge, who will likely make them do morally horrendous things. Do they care as long as they are cared for? In Lord of the Flies they don't. I'm not sure reality is so different.

There are also secondary characters in Lord of the Flies that provide their lessons. Simon is the artist who appreciates beauty and has insight. He is the only character to discover the "beast" for what it is (a dead airman) while everyone else (including, and especially, Jack) imagine it as a supernatural terror. Simon finds the beauty in the island and personalizes it in his secret hideaway. And he remains a supporter of Ralph as much as Piggy does. That is, he remains a supporter of truth and morality, but because everyone else does not, he loses.

Then there are the twins, Sam and Eric. They function so much as a single unit, that everyone refers to them as a single person, "Samaneric." Golding does an interesting job in dealing with these twins' bond (their dialogue is split between the both) by having them treated as a single person, although Sam is presented as slightly dominant. Samaneric are perhaps the most of us. They know that it is morally better to follow Ralph, but when the pressure to follow Jack is applied, they give in, and self-preservation triumphs.

I especially liked the story's ending. Though a bit implausible in timing, it is artistically brilliant. At the height of the terror that the island has become, it is brought back to "normalcy" in an instant. We are left with the visceral feeling that, in our boring and safe world, savagery lurks just below the surface.