The "Coming-Of-Age" genre often deals with an inexperienced youth, unsure of their place in the world who, through trial and tribulation, eventually come into their own. Meant to tug at the heartstrings and provide the reader with a sense of hope that, maybe, they too can one day follow in the footsteps of the protagonist and complete the arduous path between naivete and wisdom. William Golding manages to take this heartwarming theme of the journey into adulthood and dement it beyond all recognition in his novel Lord of the Flies, implementing much heavier themes of mankind’s inert barbarism and how losing one’s innocence in a world full of savagery has very different results than that of civilization.
Lord of the Flies follows the story of an eleven year old boy named Ralph. While flying in a passenger plane filled with British boys to flee the vicious "Reds," Ralph's plane is shot down, crash landing upon a deserted tropical island as the result of a nuclear explosion. With no means of communication with the civilized world, Ralph and the boys are forced to gather and create their own primitive society until they can become rescued. The novel begins with a disoriented Ralph exploring the island before finding the fat, awkward Piggy. Piggy begins to follow Ralph, much to his annoyance, offering small bits of knowledge about their observations of the island before stumbling upon a pearly conch shell. Ralph pries the shell from the beach and, with Piggy’s advice, blows into the conch, releasing a sharp, beautiful sound. This sound carries over the entire island, summoning the other surviving boys, ranging in age from six to twelve, to the beach. They gather for the first time, elect Ralph as chief to the dismay of a different boy, Jack, and are generally hopeful for their future prospects on the island, assured by Ralph that they will all be rescued soon. It is at this meeting that the power of the Conch is established, as only the one in possession of the conch may speak during these sacred meetings.
From the very beginning, Golding makes it evident that Ralph is a natural leader. In first meeting on the beach, Ralph wins over the boys. Both strong and capable of inspiring, Ralph uses diplomacy to satisfy even his political rival, Jack, and creates order within the group. Using the conch, a symbol for the values of order and civilization, Golding establishes Ralph as the symbol for the ideals of the old world the boys have become isolated from. Unsure of how to operate without the authority of adults, the boys turn to the order provided by Ralph and the conch, most reminiscent of the familiar ways of civilization. However, even in these first few chapters, we see the inert evil begin to seep through the boys. This is most evident in the way that the boys constantly torment and demean Piggy for his appearance and unusual intelligence, as well as Jack’s aggressive attempt to seize power. What Golding displays in this scene is not the group’s current priority upon the old ideals, but rather how, almost immediately, they begin to turn to savagery and evil to fulfill their own agenda. Golding argues throughout the novel that this savagery is innate within all human beings, and only with time are society’s values eventually adopted. The significance of using children is that these values have not yet fully been cemented, and as a result, they quickly fall victim to their chaotic nature.
Throughout the entirety of the novel, Ralph’s attempts to contain the other survivors and maintain order are constantly met with failure. His initial attempt to create a smoke signal leads the boys to nearly set the entire island ablaze, killing one of the younger boys on the island. While Ralph is busy creating huts, Jack gathers a team of boys and goes hunting, insistent that meat is more important than shelter, forgetting to light the smoke signal and missing the attention of a boat in the process. Finally, in response to the increasing complaints of a “beast” haunting the island, Ralph and Jack decide to search the island for the supposed monster, mistaking a parachuted corpse as the beast and explaining his discovery to the rest of the children, terrified. Ralph’s control over the boys begins to dwindle along with their attachment to the old ways of living, their respect for him thinning with every successive failure. Eventually, Jack’s thirst for power and his general animosity towards Ralph triggers him to break off from the tribe and create his own where he is the chief. One by one, Ralph’s followers desert him for Jack, who’s hunt had yielded success beforehand. Now entirely focused upon the hunt, prone to abusing the other boys as he sees fit, and leaving a small sacrifice to the “beast” in the form of a pig head, Jack’s tribe finally succumbs to the madness that had been slowly infecting them from the moment they set foot upon the island, leaving only Ralph, Piggy, and the other outcasts as the only ones who had not yet abandoned their humanity. Attempting to make do with the remaining member, Ralph tries to light the signal fire once again, but finds little solace in the small flames as he hears the sounds of feasting from Jack’s camp. Desperate to unify the group once more, Ralph once again summons all the boys using the Conch shell to call another meeting. Meanwhile, a boy named Simon discovers the true nature of the beast, and attempts to come back and warn the group. However, in the chaos that Jack and his tribe causes, Simon’s dirty form becomes mistaken as the beast, causing the boys to fall upon him and beat him to death, tossing his mangled body into the water. Chaos immediately ensues, and the meeting disperses, leaving both tribes shocked and frightened. Only Simon ever discovered that the beast was not a monster, but rather, the barbaric nature deep within themselves.
As savagery begins to corrupt the boys, Ralph finds himself becoming increasingly unpopular amongst his peers, and eventually falls out of the good graces of Jack. Where Ralph and the Conch represented order and the “adult” world, Jack and the pig head, later called the Lord of the Flies, represent chaos and the innate thirst for power and bloodlust present within every human being. Within this timeframe, Ralph has been forced to grow up in order to control the group, yet, as he is not regarded with the same reverence or respect as an adult would, he lacks full superiority. While it is easy for the boys to blame Ralph for their failure to lead a happy life on the island as he had initially promised, Golding makes it obvious that the blame lies not on Ralph’s shoulders, but rather the group’s refusal to listen to Ralph’s directions. They go overboard in lighting the fire, torching the forest and one of the small children. They refuse to follow Ralph’s directions and help in the creation of the shelters, instead playing by the beach and throwing stones at the younger children, or, in the unique case of Jack, hunting. Despite Ralph’s command that they keep a smoke signal going all day, the boys choose to disobey him, following Jack and missing what could have been a rescue do to their irresponsibility. The thin illusion of a functioning society that was set down by Ralph is steadily eroded away, replaced by the barbaric ideals of Jack. This only enforces Golding’s message that human beings are inherently evil, and how we must be careful to avoid slipping into said evil. Despite all of the events that had transpired thus far, however, Jack, Ralph, Piggy and the rest of the children had all maintained a general level of innocence. This changes immediately with Simon’s murder, his death being the final nail in the coffin for the entire group’s transition from a group of ill behaved boys into a tribe of chaotic, tribal savages. In the wake of Simon’s death, the group’s innocence was shattered, leaving empty, sullen husks in its wake.
Soon, Jack’s group steals the only belonging of value Ralph’s small party had retained through all the conflict; Piggy’s glasses. Used to light the fires that had become Ralph’s only hope of being saved, Ralph and Piggy resolve to directly oppose Jack. Now leading a vast majority of the boys in an open dictatorship, Jack abuses the younger children on a whim, challenging Ralph to a duel once he realizes that he wishes to oppose him. Chaos ensues, and a violent fight breaks out between Ralph and Jack. In an attempt to regain some leverage, Piggy wields the Conch, trying to remind the tribe of the rules that had once brought them together, shouting over the chaos before being murdered with a boulder, crushing him, the Conch, and tossing his body into the ocean, further solidifying the island society’s disregard for the old ways of civilization. With no allies left, and badly wounded, Ralph retreats into the island’s dense forests. It is there he, like Simon, discovers the true nature of the beast and the Lord of the Flies. He destroys it in a moment of fury, both disgusted and terrified by what he and the other boys had become. Not willing to let him go, Jack orders the entire forest be burned, once again setting the island on fire, forcing Ralph to flee his makeshift hiding place. Pursued by Jack’s hunting band, wounded, and running out of energy, Ralph’s life is only barely saved as he bumps into the hull of a large ship. A naval commander hops onto the island, commenting that he had been drawn out by the flames that had engulfed the island, and reprimands the boys for their poor behavior. It is only then Ralph and the others realize that they had been rescued, and cry not tears of joy, but of sorrow, for they know that nothing will ever become the same again.
In an ironic twist, it is not Ralph’s smoke signals that end up rescuing the boys but instead the fire that was meant to be the final step in killing him, and even as he realizes that his life had been saved, he sobs for himself and the cruel fate that he and his friends were forced to endure as a result of the savagery present not only within the island, but the “adult” world as well in the form of war. It is this savagery that puts him in this situation to begin with, yet, also this savagery that ends up saving him. Golding chooses to make the ending unsatisfying and bitter, expressing that this is the true nature of the world as we see it. Ralph’s journey is something of a “Coming-Of-Age” story in the way that he braves trials to metamorphosize into adulthood, yet in the chaotic world of the island, this loss of innocence takes on a drastically different attitude. Overall, I believe Golding’s to be a commentary on the way we, as a society, function, and how we must take care to prevent ourselves from falling into the same cycle of war and violence and barbarism as Jack and the boys did. Do you agree with my interpretation of the story? If you read the book yourself, how do your opinions differ from mine? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below. Just don’t forget to take the Conch, first.