Kameshwar Upadhyaya


Classic in Focus – Lord of the Flies

Kameshwar Upadhyaya

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William Golding’s compelling story of a group of British schoolboys stranded on a remote island provides the core of the narrative for Lord of the Flies. Their gradual degeneration into a savage horde leaves an unforgettable imprint on the minds of the readers about the human condition and for the purposes of our analysis – leadership failure.

During the Second World War a plane carrying schoolboys who were cadets is shot down. It crash lands on an island which has no human habitation. The boys spend time getting comfortable on the island. Two of the boys, Ralph and Piggy find a conch shell. Ralph blows into it like a horn, and all the boys on the island assemble. At the assembly, a boy named Jack mocks Piggy for being fat and runs against Ralph to become chief of the group. Ralph wins the election, and declares Jack as the leader of the group’s hunters. With the passage of time, tensions rise when Jack forces the bo3ys who were supposed to watch the signal fire to come hunting with him. While Jack invites everyone to come to a feast, Simon climbs the mountain and sees the parachutist. When Simon returns to tell everyone the truth about the beast, the boys at the feast have become a frenzied mob, acting out a ritual killing of a pig. The mob thinks Simon is the beast and kills him. Jack’s tribe captures the twins, and a boy named Roger rolls a boulder from the fort that smashes the conch and kills Piggy signifying the end of a cultured society. The next day the tribe hunts Ralph, setting fire to the forest as they do. He evades them to the best of his abilities, in the process becoming a kind of an animal which thinks only of survival. It is sheer irony that eventually the boys corner Ralph, in the same place on the beach where they first set up their society when they crash landed on the island. But, the burning jungle has attracted a British Naval ship, and an officer is standing on the shore. The boys stop, stunned, and stare at the man. He jokingly asks boys if they were playing at war, and whether there were any casualties.

If one were to delve into the characters that are encountered by the reader, Piggy and Jack symbolize two diametrically opposite extremes of human behaviour, while Ralph is pulled between them. Piggy demands adherence to the rules of a civilized society while Jack subscribes to the philosophy, ‘If it’s fun, just do it.’ Ralph empathises with parts of both sides; that is why he walks the tight rope. Eventually he sides with Piggy, but actually Ralph never changes his philosophy — it is Jack and the rest of the boys who become more extreme in theirs. Interestingly, all three of them fail, in different ways.

1 WEBPiggy is the embodiment of intellect and rationalism. He senses the seriousness of their life on the island and he reminds Ralph of the grave situation. Piggy suggests the real fear is the fear of people. Simon is aware that man is heroic and sick, but for Piggy man is not ill, he has a foolish but corrigible habit of following the likes of Jack instead of taking Piggy’s sensible advice who can do nothing to ensure that his advice is seen through all the way.

Finally, Piggy is motivated, like Ralph by a desire to create a society resembling the one from which they have come. He is terrified of losing his glasses, which are a symbol of insight, a nostalgic connection to the lost society, and the last modicum of human technology for the marooned children. He is the intellectual base and the moral compass of the group, having all the good ideas, and always advising Ralph on the next step. Yet, he is physically weak, overweight, as a result of which he cannot defend himself against Jack and the others. He is unfretted by others’ opinion about him. In fact, he advises Ralph to join Jack’s group so that they could end the animosity. Ultimately, he dies as a sacrifice to the beast that has been unleashed within each boy for his death completes the transformation of a man into an animal.

When the boys join Jack’s tribe; Jack only satisfies their short term wants which require instant gratification such as the need for meat. When one of the ‘littluns’ asks Jack how long it will take for them to go back home Jack is frank enough to tell him, “Never,” and so he believes. When the boy turns round to ask Ralph for his view he says, “as soon as someone notices the signal fire”. Jack confronts Ralph saying that there are four thousand islands and their people would never know where they were. He was far too convinced that rescue is impossible. He wanted the group to believe him and settle down on the island. He had already started finding ways of making life comfortable and more enjoyable. Letting people do what they wanted to do. He was a great orator and like all great orators he had the gift of rhetoric. Jack was being hero – worshipped by his group members who aspired to be like him.

 This is how dictators take power. Hitler gained much of his oratory success by telling his audiences what they expected to hear. He used simple, straight forward language that ordinary people could understand, short sentences, powerful, emotive slogans. He would begin a speech quietly, to capture his audience’s attention, he would gradually build to a climax, his deep, hoarse voice would rise in pitch, climbing in a crescendo to a ranting and screaming finale. All of this was accompanied by carefully rehearsed dramatic gestures as he worked his audience into a frenzy emotion. There was nothing profound, no qualifications in what he said; everything was absolute, uncompromising, unalterable and final. He exuded self-confidence, aggression, belief in the ultimate triumph of his party and even a sense of destiny.

But Jack’s society was barbaric, savage.  Jack treats the boys as slaves and inferiors.  Ralph’s patience and compassion, shows his ability to take charge and rule in an effective, yet democratic fashion. Jack is motivated at different times by a desire to be in control and a desire to kill. In the beginning, he continually challenges Ralph’s authority, drawing attention to himself as often as possible. At first, he enjoys the little acts of power-play, for example, withholding meat and distributing it as he wishes. But as the story progresses, he turns into a savage hunter of both pigs and humans, thinking only of the thrill of the chase. His attitude is one of aggression, as he violently assaults Piggy, and threatens the other boys.

3 WEBWhile Jack was aggressive, Ralph’s treatment of the boys demonstrates his knowledge of human nature.  While Jack considers the boys inferior to himself, Ralph treats the boys as equals.  When the youngest in the group asks Ralph whether they would be rescued, Ralph takes recourse to the Stockdale Paradox and answers optimistically. Ralph’s superior leadership qualities are also reflected in his constant defence of Piggy.  Piggy is the weakest of the group and is therefore treated unfairly much of the time.  When Jack hits Piggy and breaks his glasses, Ralph calls it “A dirty trick.” This shows Jack’s disregard for other humans, while at the same time demonstrates Ralph’s compassion and ability to empathize with others thus illustrating his understanding of people.  Ralph’s leadership is a form of democracy which gives each boy equal rights and an ability to express themselves. Jack treats the boys, especially Piggy, as inferiors.  Ralph’s common sense and ability to recognize what is best for the group as a whole demonstrates his superior leadership skills.

Although Ralph is the only one who worries over the welfare of the other boys and his instinct of being civilized survives longer than any other character, he is not resolute and decisive when facing problems. Once he becomes a leader, Ralph’s only vision is to rescue the group by keeping a signal fire for attracting a passing ship. He was absolutely unmindful of what the group wanted. When Jack challenges his authority, Ralph does not give a firm counterattack and even wants to give up the position of chief. He even takes part in the feast of Jack and killing of Simon. To a great degree, Ralph tacitly helps the expanding of savagery by turning a blind eye towards such incidents.

According to John Kotter, management is about coping with complexity, while Leadership is about coping with change. Ralph was so caught up with the idea of getting out of the island that the thought that the others in the vicinity could want something else did not even cross his mind. Deep down, Ralph knew that it was just a matter of days that they would be rescued and could lead a normal life. Consequentially, he gets angry when the signal fire goes off because that meant spending more time on the island. Leading is establishing direction, something which Ralph was capable of, and influencing others to follow that direction was something which he didn’t pay heed to.

Ralph was immature. He thought right would just naturally win, but by the end he was no better than a hunted pig. He could have acted to prevent the deaths, but he was paralysed by fear. If one finds oneself in a similar situation, one should probably act like Ralph only with more courage and discipline. Yet, one never knows how one will react in a similar situation.

2 WEBHas Ralph failed as a leader? In principle, Ralph is a great leader. His ability to see the good in everyone demonstrates his compassion and understanding of others; and he leads with a combination of autocracy and democracy and tries to make sure that everyone’s needs have been satisfied, and that everyone gets an equal say. Unfortunately, the situation that Ralph gets placed in is far from perfect, and his leadership style is inappropriate for the situation. An unlucky combination of unruly and cruel kids causes his civilised attempts at leading his group to fail, thereby leading to a downward spiral which pulls everyone into the depths of injustice and animal instinct. Oddly enough, the root of the problem lies in Ralph himself, his failure to give his subjects what they wanted, and his inability to deal with the competition. Though this style of leadership is incredibly effective and has the highest possible chance at rescue, it is not favoured by its subjects and leaves the leader vulnerable to replacement. Another contributing cause to Ralph’s failure was Jack stepping in to power and satisfying a more immediate need, i.e. food as opposed to Ralph’s strategy of getting off the island.

To our relief, Ralph becomes aware of the reason of savagery by the end of the novel. When he is hunted by the ‘hunters’, Ralph has finally found the lord of the flies— Beelzebub, who lives inside each one of us. Though he fails in bringing back the values of civilization, he is only partly to be blamed. It is the failure of mankind to deal with the forces of evil. There will always be people who, in a group, come out with better qualities to be a leader than others.  The strongest people however, become the greater influences which the others decide to follow, although it may not the best choice.

Thus, we see that in his portrayal of the world of the island, Golding brings out the fundamental human struggle between the civilising instinct—the impulse to obey rules, morality, and be lawful—and the savage instinct—the impulse to seek power, act selfishly, flout rules, and be a part of the ensuing violence.

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