William Golding
The Loss of Identity in Lord of the Flies

By Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh
For more on William Golding see The William Golding Page

His mind was crowded with memories; memories of the knowledge that had come to them when they closed in on the struggling pig, knowledge that they had outwitted a living thing, imposed their will upon it, taken away its life like a long satisfying drink. (Chapter 4)

Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1911-1993) depicts a world of violence and moral desolation which is accompanied by the main characters' loss of identity. The plot shows a process of events that finally leads to death and devastation. The boys go through gradual degradation into the abyss of bestial behaviour. They take off the mask of socially organised English lads and replace it with wild nature. They go through metamorphoses as they gradually embark on a new life free from social restrictions and punishment. The transformation is particularly observed in the three major characters of the novel; Ralph, Piggy and Jack.

The experiences the three boys undergo on the island expose them to the evil that lies beneath their civilised surface. The experiences affect them drastically both physically and mentally to the point where they lose their own identities.

The novel opens with the group of boys stranded on a deserted island. The first two characters we encounter are Ralph and Piggy. They agree that they are marooned and decide to start exploring the place in hope of finding other survivors. Ralph realises that they are on an island and is delighted to be in a kind of paradise. He finds a lagoon on the beach separated from the island's lagoon by a wall of naturally banked sand. On beholding this sight, he immediately takes off his clothes and immerses himself in the water.

The island is self-sufficient, it can help them survive. It can provide them with fruit, trees, vines, pigs to hunt, and shelter. Not only is it a hideaway but probably the gateway to their rescue. Its mountaintop provides a place where they can look over the whole island and its surrounding sea to watch for rescuers. But the island is not as paradisiacal as it appears. The island is described as:

. . . roughly boat-shaped: humped near this end with behind them the jumbled descent to the shore. On either side rocks, cliffs, treetops and a steep slope: forward there, the length of the boat, a tamer descent, tree-clad, with hints of pink: and then the jungly flat of the island, dense green, but drawn at the end to a pink tail. There, where the island petered out in water, was another island; a rock, almost detached, standing like a fort, facing them across the green with one bold, pink bastion.

On the surface it seems a beautiful harmonious place, but in fact beneath the surface it is a manifestation of evil and wild nature. The fruits are at first a source of nutrition for Ralph, but later they cause him diarrhoea. The jungle within the island is inhabited by wild pigs, the very source of their fear. As night approaches the true nature of the island is revealed.

Eventually, the island casts something like a magical spell over the boys whose natures are transformed into the worst. The conch that initially becomes a symbol of their order eventually no longer unites them. They begin fighting for power. Jack turns into a hunter, Ralph starts imposing his rule, and Piggy dies.

When the boys first gather to the sound of the conch they realise they are the only survivors, with no adults. They feel the need to elect a leader. Ralph, a fine example of a disciplined and ordered English lad, is chosen. He has the conch that summoned and assembled them. His father is a navy officer so he has an idea of how to lead. He is a charismatic and attractive boy whose authority is affirmed by the acceptance of his ideas by others. He has a fair nature and shows sympathy towards others.

After being elected leader Ralph appoints Jack as leader of the choir. But later his rejection of Jack's tribe eventually causes him to be haunted down like a pig. As the novel progresses Ralph follows the flow and descends into savagery. At the mountain top when observing a boar he participates in wounding it and then performs the blood dance with the others. In fact the very removal of his clothes earlier is symbolic of his desire to drown his former identity and to adopt one more fitting with the new environment.

Ralph eventually starts to show signs of his ineffective leadership. He loses grip of his new identity. He feels the need to build shelters and light fire as a signal to potential rescuers, but the others desire to go hunting. He is unable to unite the boys. He is unable to bring order and discipline until finally disintegration creeps in. He admits, to Simon and Piggy, his failure and need for adults.

Ralph becomes burdened by leadership. He no longer sees the island as a place to have fun away from grownups. After the small boy's death in the fire, the tone of their existence changes sombrely for him. No longer can his actions be performed lightly, lest they rage out of control again. It is this fear, perhaps, that renders him ineffectual, at the same time making him frustrated by his ineffectiveness.

Ralph has constant fights with Jack, who calls him a coward. Jack even attempts to convince the boys to turn against him, an action which is against the English tradition that they have been brought up to acknowledge. They have been raised to accept and respect a leader, to follow his orders and most particularly never to fight with each other. Being on the island they forget all about that. Hence, they free themselves from the burdens of their former identities (Kirstin 132). It is as if they prefer the wild natural life. It enables them to act according to their instincts and desires. They get rid of the shackles but end up with a war.

Piggy retains his civilised conduct. He is more mature and more educated than the others. He is seen as an outcast due to his age and appearance. His experience on the island reveals how deep evil is embedded in man. He develops a realistic understanding of life and the cruelty possessed by seemingly good boys. From the start he is an object of raillery. Jack starts by calling him fatty. Ralph, whom Piggy entrusted with his nickname, tells them that his real nickname is Piggy. They laugh. Piggy stands isolated, humiliated and hurt. Piggy has been living with this nickname for so long that he'd become used to it. When Ralph and Jack joke about it, it is like stripping his identity from him. Piggy suffers humiliation especially when they take his glasses to try to start a fire. The glasses are like his window to the world, without them he cannot identify objects. They represent his eyes and his identity. The others plucked his eyes and whole identity away. He experiences a descent into blindness, even worse into his own death. He loses not only his identity but his life as well.

The fiercest and most ill-natured of all the boys is Jack. He is described as a conceited and haughty leader of a choir. His cruelty and the dark side of his personality come to the surface when he decides that he will lead his tribe to be hunters. When they find they are stranded on the island, Jack is the first of the boys to lose his fear of being abandoned. He has a knife sharpened and ready for hunting, and seems ready to kill any boar he encounters. At first he hesitates, the pig escapes but he vows that 'next time there would be no mercy'. Jack's fear of blood wanes. Jack becomes more violent and his hunger for hunting becomes insatiable. His ruthless nature and arrogant attitude ultimately cause his lapse into complete savagery. He enjoys the sensation of being feared by both those around him and the wild animals.

Having led his tribe into utter savagery, Jack pushes them even further over the edge by suggesting camouflage. He finds it the only means to free himself completely from civilised restraints and disciplines. He puts paint on his face only to discover that it helps hide all the ugly and violent thoughts that his facial expressions would otherwise reveal: "The mask was a thing on its own behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness." (Niemeyer 133).

The group follows suit, veiling their features behind white, black and red clay. This act completes their ultimate transformation into savagery. It is this metamorphosis into primitiveness that indicates their loss of identity.

The transformation they boys go through is a process of regression whose signs began to appear the moment they set foot on the island. For instance, on exploring and discovering the lagoon they immediately strip and swim. Instead of lamenting over their situation and working towards being rescued they prefer to enjoy the scenery. It is as if they lost the sense of their mission and the importance of their existence.

Their complete degradation into savages is seen in the episode after they slaughter the boar. On their return they set a fire and perform a blood dance around it like primitive cannibals who celebrate victory over the prey.

The eventual arrival of the officer represents the only hope of their restoring their former identities. The officer is saddened by what he sees. What he sees are merely shadows of the once civilised English boys.

Bibliography
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Macmillan Press, 1986.
Niemeyer, Carl. "The Coral Island Revisited," in College English, Vol. 22, No 4, January 1961.
Olsen, Kirstin. Understanding Lord of the Flies: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000.

© Sumia S. Abdul Hafidh Ph.D., October 2006

See also: The William Golding Page > Novels on Film >

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