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Without Civilization, Humans Turn to Savagery: The Main Idea of Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”

Human is a naturally violent species that, without the 'civilizing' impulse, will turn to savagery.

Are humans, by nature, good or evil or the mixture of both? Numerous studies and forums have been conducted for centuries to answer it, leading to two contrasting ideas. Rousseau and his followers, such as Evolutionary biologists Peter Kropotkin, view that humans are a naturally good species corrupted by society. According to this view, humans’ aggressive violence is promoted by recent cultural novelties, such as settled living, patriarchal ideology, or lethal technology.  On the other hand, Hobbes and his followers, including Evolutionary biologists Thomas Henry Huxley, see humans as a naturally violent species civilized by society. This paradigm suggests that since humans have prevalent savagery, the government, which plays the role of enforcing laws, is necessary to create a settled and peaceful order. Kennedy, sided with Hobbes, states “We know that we cannot live together without rules which tell us what is right and what is wrong, what is permitted and what is prohibited. We know that it is law that enables men to live together, that creates order out of chaos. We know that law is the glue that holds civilization together.” 

William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies”, first published in 1954 is the first and the most popular modern novel exploring humans’ nature. Through the novel, written not long after World War II during which 11 million people, including 6 million Jews, were exterminated and two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, Golding shows humans prevalent savagery by telling how many of the naïve and good kids he puts on a deserted island turns to be vicious and enslaved by their greed. His experience as a member of the British Navy during the Second World War, particularly when he was the captain of a ship assisting the invasion to Normandy, directly affected his view of man’s capacity for cruelty.


 “Lord of the Flies” begins with some British boys’ evacuation from a war zone in England. But their plane is shot down and they find themselves stranded without any adults on a deserted island in the Pacific Ocean. Ralph finds a conch shell and blows it to summon the other boys. When all the survival boys have gathered, Ralph ascertains they will be rescued, but Piggy suggests them to get organized because they may be stranded for some time. Since they have no adult to follow, most of them elect Ralph as their leader, while the choir boys demand Jack, who is ambitious to be the leader. Ralph accommodates by permitting Jack to form and lead a hunting group, consisting of the choir boys. Ralph establishes a system of government and rules. They approve that during a meeting anyone must speak using the conch and he may not be interrupted except by Ralph. The boys are encouraged by Ralph to have fun, but they must work together for their mutual survival. Jack and his hunter group are assigned to make and keep a fire on the highest place on the island so that the smoke will attract any potential rescuers. Considering they can control the fire while they are hunting, they accept the duty.

However, the government and rules are soon ineffective. Having no adult serving as a 'civilizing' impulse, most of the boys spend their time playing and swimming. They leave Ralph and Piggy to build the shelter and pick fruit alone. They think there is no need to be rescued because living without adults and rules is very fun. One day, while Jack and his team are hunting and forget to keep the fire on, a ship passes by the shore. Ralph clarifies Jack about it, but Jack does not care and this starts a tension between them.

Since the little kids believe there is a monster on the top of the island, nobody dares to light the fire. Jake provokes the other boys to leave Ralph's leadership by accusing him of a coward who cannot protect the island. Thus, he wants to create his own group and promises to protect everyone with his hunting skills. In the beginning, nobody votes for him, but later many of the boys join Jack’s painted face wild tribe. Only Piggy and Simon stay with Ralph. One day, Simon, disbelieves of the monster, goes to the top of the island and finds it is just a dead parachutist. He runs into the woods to inform the others about it. But Jack and his team who are hunting in the woods think Simon is the monster. They brutally kill him.

One day, Jack and his team steal Piggy’s glasses. Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric visit them to get the glass, but Jack and his team mock and fight them. Piggy is killed. Ralph flees into the woods. To force him out, Jack sets fire to the trees so that the whole island is burning. Running exhaustedly to save his life on the beach, Ralph falls and finds himself at the feet of a British naval officer who comes to investigate after seeing the flame coming from the island. As soon as they are rescued, all boys, including Ralph and Jack, cry of grief.
At the beginning of the novels, the boys have just been "relocated' from civilized society (England) to primitive life (the deserted island). The ideas of civilization are still fresh in their mind. That’s why they immediately found a society similar to the one they had in England. To organize them, Ralph, 12 years old but the oldest and tallest among the boys, calm, and can fairly think rationally, is elected the leader. Ralph establishes a system of government and rules and uses the conch as a symbol of authority, order, and law. Realizing Piggy’s creative and rational mind, Ralph let him as his advisor. 

However, despite the good foundation of the government, the absence of adults makes all rules soon ineffective. In this story, the adults represent 'civilizing' impulse, including social norms and traditions that force people to follow laws, rules, regulations, and traditions. The importance of the 'civilizing' impulse as the guide to keep being civilized is emphasized by Golding through Piggy’s statement, “What are we? Humans? Or animals? Or Savages? What’s grownups going to think?” (p. 79), when he reminds Ralph to try to think better to fulfill his obligation and duty to the children. He wants Ralph to lead them in a good way.

The absence of adults makes their government and rules soon ineffective. Jack is the first boy to support Ralph for the establishment of rules by stating, “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything”. Ironically, Jack does not care about his negligence to keep the fire on so that when a ship passes by the shore, it does not notice them. The absence of adults also makes most other boys soon lose their commitment to obey the rules and do their duties. Although they participated to work in the beginning, being so absorbed in having fun and swimming, they leave Ralph and Simon to build the shelter. In a meeting, ralph reminds them, “We have lots of assemblies. Everybody enjoys speaking and being together. We decide things. But they don’t get done. … We all built the first one, four of us the second one, and me’n Simon built the last one over there. That’s why it’s so tottery” (p. 59). Considering that living without adults and rules is very fun, they even never think of the importance of keeping the fire on to attract any potential rescuers.

The absence of adults functioning as the 'civilizing' impulse finally leads to the boy’s society degeneration into an aggressive, violent and savage clan. Through Jack’s characterization, Golding shows how humans can quickly turn from victims to savagery.
In the beginning, like the other boys, Jack seems innocent. However, his prevalent viciousness soon emerges when boys are electing their leader. Jack aggressively tries to manipulate others, “I ought to be chief,” said Jack with simple arrogance, “because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.” It's hard for him to accept that the majority of the boys vote for Ralph. Only when Ralph consoles him by permitting him to lead the choir boys as hunters he looks cheerful again. He also often uses his skills in using his knife to intimidate others, “Jack snatched from behind him a sizable sheath-knife and clouted it into a trunk. The buzz rose and died away” (p. 17).

His propensity to be violent and savage grows as he leads the hunters. He is also becoming more skillful in manipulating things to dominate. He also provokes other boys to leave Ralph and turns them to be masked clan, whose members are ordered by Jack to paint their faces and shout the slogan, “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood” when they start to hunt pigs. Their civilized manners degeneration even turn to savagery because they do not only kill pigs but also Simon when he runs into the woods to inform them that the monster is merely a dead parachutist. Considering Piggy as an obstacle for him to replace Ralph, Jack also plans to get Piggy killed. Jack’s eagerness to extent viciousness ends when the naval officer, representing the adults or the 'civilizing' impulse arrives and saves Ralph from his hunter clan.

To conclude, it is clear that Golding sides Hobbes- Huxley paradigm viewing humans as a naturally violent species civilized by society. By exposing how Jack and his clan, over time, turn to savagery due to the absence of the adults, Golding demonstrates that without the 'civilizing' impulse in a society, savagery will grow and dominate. In this novel, the good nature of humans (represented by Ralph and Piggy) is defeated by the savage side (represented by Jack and his clan). Piggy (representing rationality) is killed soon after the conch (representing governmental system, laws, and rules). These support the idea that without the 'civilizing' impulse, savagery will eradicate human good nature, including rationality. 

Work cited:
Golding, W. (2001). Lord of the Flies (1st Ed.--electronic). New York: Penguin Books

Author : Parlindungan Pardede (


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