A fable, by strict definition, is a short tale conveying a clear moral lesson in which the characters are animals acting like human beings. A fable is intended to provide moral instruction and its characters and scenes are drawn to suit this purpose. William Golding has referred to his novel, Lord of the Flies, as a fable. This essay will demonstrate that in the moral lessons it offers us and in the symbolic nature of its setting, characters and literary devices, the novel functions as a fable for the inherent tendency in man to revert to primal savagery once he is removed from civilization. We are left with the caution that evil must be acknowledged and consciously opposed.
The novel’s status as a fable is demonstrated strongly through the moral lesson it presents to his responders. Golding’s message is dark one, emphasizing the bleaker aspects of human nature. Rejecting the conventional, romantic notions that man ‘is basically noble’, Golding insists that evil is inherent in man. Indeed, Golding would say that the central idea behind the Lord of the Flies is that man is fallen from grace. He would go on to state that once the façade of civilization is stripped away, man is fundamentally motivated in his behaviour by primal and brutal instincts. Evil is a force which is instinctive in man, which must be recognized and controlled.
Golding’s message for the inherent tendency in man to revert to primal savagery once he is removed from civilization is presented through the boy’s gradual loss of order and descent into savagery. When the boys conduct their first meeting on the island they establish rules and methods of proper conduct. Ralph is elected by the boys as Chief and a democratic ‘political’ system is established. The boys are excited at the prospect of rules and meetings, even Jack ironically states, “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. So we’ve got to do things right”. However, later on in the book, when Jack deserts Ralph to form his own tribe he declares, “Bollocks to the rules!” and assures the boys that their tribe will not be based on rules-instead they shall have ‘fun’, hunting and feasting. The call of the conch is disregarded and autocratic system of governing commences. This new warrior cult establishes fortifications, political feuds, wars and methods of torture.
The loss of order and descent into savagery is further presented through the boy’s progression from vegetarianism to carnivorous hunting. When the boys first arrive on the island they are content to eat the ripe fruit available to them, however as the book progresses their lust for blood and meat becomes more and more evident. Jack’s first attempt to kill a pig ends unsuccessfully, but he claims that next time there will be no mercy. Ralph however realizes the truth of his hesitation, that he is still faintly attached to the civilized life he once lived and because “of the enormity of the knife descending and cutting into living flesh; because of the unbearable blood.” Jack’s first kill is significant in the stories plot, as it a revelation of his own darker side and shows the extent to which his primal instincts and bloodthirstiness have taken over him.
As the boys establish the technology of hunting, their kills become more violent and eventually they begin to turn their bloodthirstiness on each other. Barbaric chants such as, “Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!” develop, as do savage dances that often end in the hurt of one of their peers. It is these rituals that eventually end in the death of Simon. The boy’s loss of order and descent into savagery is further shown through their worship of the Beast. Jack proposes that “when we kill we’ll leave some of the kill for it” , in order to keep the threat of the Beast at bay This conduct is similar to ancient, primal rituals where offerings and sacrifices would be left in order to please the gods. The boys have invented their own primitive religion which is a crude form of totemism and their worship is of blood and ultimately, the devil.
Overall, like a fable, Lord of the Flies enforces a very strong message. Humans as a race have a tendency to revert to their primal, savage instincts and in doing so reveal their true sadistic and evil nature that lies within. This moral message is expressed in several ways by the author, however especially through the boys gradual loss of order, their blood lust and their worship of the devil.
The novel’s symbolic nature further enhances the books status as a fable. The disintegration of civilization is charted through the use of symbols, one of the major tools of the fabulist. Almost every detail in the novel has a meaning of its own and a representational meaning in terms of the theme and the development of evil on the island. The setting of the novel is particularly symbolic. The island functions as a microcosm of the wider world and parallels our society in competitiveness, destructiveness and violence.
The island is a perfect place in which Golding can test his theories, as being isolated it lacks society and societal laws and rules, allowing the boys to run wild and show their true inner selves. However, the presence of the wider world is never forgotten, as there are constant mentions to the war occurring outside the island. References such as the boy’s evacuation, the crashing of the plane and the pod, the dogfight over the island at night and the arrival of the naval officer on the beach and his warship, show the corruption of what is happening in the real world.
The island starts off as a paradise with “food and drink and-rocks-blue flowers” and in many ways is similar to the Garden of Eden in biblical stories. The book corresponds to this biblical story further, in that man is given a chance of Paradise but destroys it, which shows mans potential for evil. Indeed, at the end of the book the entire island is set alight. The “roughly boat shaped” layout of the island is symbolic in itself, the boat being an ancient symbol of civilization. The water current flowing backwards around the island is also meaningful, as it leaves the impression that civilization may be going backwards for the island and its inhabitants.
The disintegration of civilization in the novel is demonstrated particularly in the symbolic nature of the characters. Described as a “skinny, vivid little boy, with a glance coming up from under a hut of straight hair that hung down, black and coarse,” Simon represents the highest aspirations of the human spirit towards beauty and holiness and can be interpreted as a Christ figure. His name, which comes from the Hebrew word ‘listener’, further enhances his spiritual role, as it is also the name of one of Jesus’ apostles Simon Peter. Simon participates in an important symbolic dialogue with ‘Beelzebub’, who represents the lowest part of man, the source of violence, hatred, fear and murder. The meeting represents the recognition of these forces in all men, even the saintly. Like Christ, Simon brought a radical new message to those around him; however instead of heeding this message, his peers took him and killed him.
Jack is another symbolic character in the story, however in contrast to Simon, he represents savagery and anarchy. Originally a prefect, Jack rediscovers in himself the instinct and compulsions of the hunter that lie buried in every man. From the beginning he is surrounded by symbolism. For example the fact that “his hair was red” connects him immediately to connotations often associated with the devil and his name means ‘one who supplants’. Throughout the novel, Jack is a significant figure for evil and destruction and hungers for leadership positions. Jack disregards order and it is through him that the responder sees the innate evil of man, since he was the one cast off from society the earliest.
Ralph is another central character to the novel and is the embodiment of democracy. Ralph is a likeable character from the start; strong, handsome and comes from high British society. It is Ralph who establishes the use of the conch at assemblies, using it to carry out fundamental principles of democracy; “I’ll give the conch to the next person to speak…And he won’t be interrupted” . Ralph, whose name in the Anglo-Saxon Language means ‘counsel’, is fair, rational and understanding, as is democracy. It is through Ralph that the responder sees the degradation of society on the island, and thereby shows them the innate evil within man. This is particularly evident when “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart.”
The symbolic literary devices Golding uses also enforce this novel’s genre as a fable. The evolution of the conch as a symbol reflects the boy’s gradual loss of civilization and all its fragility, beauty and innocence. In the beginning of the novel, the conch is regarded as a toy, beautifully coloured and “ever so valuable” . However, when the boys discover the true power of its voice it is used to summon meetings. As the book progresses, it becomes to be the centre of order and organization and is instrumental in creating order. It develops into a symbol of civilization, common sense and discipline. The fact that it is beautiful, powerful and fragile gives us an idea of how we should view civilization itself, especially later when the primal forces of evil and disorder are breaking down its influence over the boys.
As the story progresses the shell summons the boys and pulls them into order from even the wilds of the island. However, as the boys descend into brutality they grow impatient with the order the conch represents, disregarding the power it bestows on the holder to speak at meetings. This is evident at Jack’s feast when Ralph threatens, “I’ll blow the conch…and call an assembly” and Jack refutes, “We shan’t hear it.” The conch’s destruction towards the end of the novel destroys once and for all the boys own sense of beauty, fragile innocence, order and civilization.
The title Lord of the Flies is symbolic in itself; a reference to who the boys are submitting to as they give in to savagery. It is a translation of the Hebrew name Beelzebub, the devil beneath Satan himself. This title suggests the boys are becoming more evil as they establish the Lord of the Flies on a stick and begin to worship the mysterious forces of the jungle.
The Beast is another important literary device used by Golding. The Beast is symbolic of the evil residing within everyone-the dark side of human nature. The Beast is first introduced by a littun who has nightmare. Initially dismissed by the older boys as imaginary, the fear of the Beast in the boy’s minds continues to linger and haunt them. Indeed, its presence grows stronger and more frightening with each day on the island. With the discovery of the parachutist on the mountain top, the boys are convinced it is a living thing. Jack and his tribe make sacrifices to it, whilst Piggy and Ralph opt to avoid it completely. It is only Simon who has the insight to discover the truth-that the beast resided in the boys themselves, “Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill … I’m part of you. Close, close, close…”
In addition, Piggy’s glasses are a symbol of political insight and clear-sightedness. As an inadequate leader, Ralph depends on Piggy’s judgment. Ralph must see through eyes that themselves need corrective lenses. Although Piggy’s vision is imperfect, even with glasses, it is all Ralph has. The glasses are first damaged by Jack, who blurs them whilst attempting to light the fire. While the lenses remain intact, Ralph can at least go through the motions of statesmanship, however the smashing of one of the lenses diminishes Piggy’s effectiveness and the theft of the other by the hunters renders Piggy and Ralph helpless.
Overall, the symbolic nature of Golding’s setting, characters and literary devices, enforce its status as a fable. The symbol is an important tool used in writing fables, as can be seen in Lord of the Flies. Whilst the figurative temperament of the setting helps to show that what is happening on the island is just a mirror of what’s happening in the wider world, the representational characteristics of the characters and literary devices help to give the novel a more complex and powerful meaning.
In conclusion, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a fable, in that it conforms to the structure and features of one. It offers us a moral lesson about the darkness of human nature, showing us that once the façade of civilization is stripped away, man is fundamentally motivated in his behaviour by primal and brutal instincts. Golding delivers this message through the symbolic characteristics of his setting, characters and literary devices-important features of a fable. Lord of the Flies offers an important lesson to all of mankind, perhaps the one of the many reasons why this all time classic shall never die.
“And in the middle of them, with filthy, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy…”