Rules as a Necessary Evil

The Genesis of a New Civilization in Golding’s Lord of the Flies

     In the beginning, rules were created and brought order out of chaos but the people lost their way and brought ruin to what was otherwise a paradise. In 1954, British Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding wrote the novel, Lord of the Flies, exploring the thin thread of rule-bound decency that holds civilization together. The novel describes the experiences of a group of boys struggling to live life on a deserted island without the presence of adults and the conventional rules of society to maintain order. Some of the boys stray from the grown-up-inspired rules while others will follow them to their end. On their seemingly utopian island, the boys disregard the need for rules and social norms and, like Adam and Eve, find themselves suffering the consequences.

     The image of an airplane often evokes a sense of freedom and getaway, and for these children, it was to be an escape from the ravages of war to a safer place. They were, however, shot down and marooned on a tropical island that became both paradise and prison. The plane symbolizes a new beginning for these boys. Though the crash meant the end of their old lives, it was the beginning of a new life that they could create themselves. In the second chapter, Ralph, one of the older boys, prepares everyone for this new reality by telling them “We may be here a long time.” (p. 34) Here, Ralph says this because he knows that they are stuck here and they are going to have to make this their new home. Throughout the book, the boys reflect back on the moment they crashed, talking about what happened, why it happened, and how. The plane represents freedom, but an unexpected type of freedom for the boys.

     In this book, adults are a symbol of rules and law, much like God is in the Bible. In Genesis, God gives Adam and Eve only one rule, but when they break that rule, things fall apart. Some of the boys keep following the unspoken rules of back home like Roger in chapter four during a rock fight with Henry. “Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.” (p. 62) This quote captures the idea that some of the boys do recognize where to draw the line. When the other boys choose to disregard the rules, things start to go wrong. For example, by not following Ralph’s rule to keep the fire going, they miss the chance to get rescued by a passing ship (p. 66). When Jack and the other boys separate from Ralph and make their own tribe that does not have any rules or influences from the outside world, they become less civilized and more tribalistic. On page 69, after killing their first pig, Jack and the other boys are so excited and enthusiastic about the gory details they almost completely ignore that Ralph is telling them that because they left the fire, they missed their opportunity to get rescued. This leads to odd rituals like putting the pig heads on sharpened sticks to appease the beast and threatening to do the same with Ralph later on in the book. Even after throwing a rock at Piggy, knocking him off a cliff to his death, Jack embraces the violence and continues to threaten Ralph and his authority over the tribes. The island offered the promise of a new life and a new world for the boys, but their disregard for the rules made a mess of their paradise.

     The island symbolizes the Garden of Eden, a pristine island with pools of water that are “…clear to the bottom and bright with the efflorescence of tropical weed and coral.” (p. 12) Just like the Garden of Eden, there are rules to follow to ensure that some order is kept. Before they arrived, the island was beautiful with palm trees, mountains, and flowers. When describing Ralph, Jack, and Simon’s exploration of the island, Golding uses great imagery to create a sense of peacefulness:

“They were on the lip of a circular hollow in the side of the mountain. This was filled with a blue flower, a rock plant of some sort, and the overflow hung down the vent and spilled lavishly among the canopy of the forest. The air was thick with butterflies, lifting, fluttering, settling.” (p. 28)

     The presence of butterflies and flowers creates pleasant visuals and gives the scenery a peaceful feeling, showing off the beauty of the island. The boys, in awe of the scenery around them, are described with “Eyes shining”, “mouths open” (p. 29) and exclamations like “Whizzoh!”(p. 12), “Wacco!” and “Wizard!” (p. 27).

     Similar to the Garden of Eden, its purity is spoiled by the tribalistic childishness of the boys. Some of the boys ruin everything for everyone by disobeying the rules. The island becomes tainted by the conflicts and barbarianistic treatment of the land and each other by the two groups. At the beginning of chapter nine, the once Edenic descriptions of the scenery demonstrate how this paradise has been ruined. Golding’s word choice in describing the scenery illustrates this shift as he describes unsettled skies that were “ready to explode…”, “clear daylight” replaced by a “brassy glare” and hot air that “held no refreshment”. He even describes how “colors drained” from the landscape. Topping this off, he gives a gruesome description of how “Nothing prospered but the flies who blackened their lord and made the spilt guts look like a heap of glistening coal.” (p. 145) This quote demonstrates how the island is not so pleasant anymore. The language Golding uses shifts from describing beautiful butterflies fluttering around (p. 28), to disgusting flies covering a dead pig’s head in the bushes (p. 145). 

     The changes in the environment are also reflected in the boy’s emotional states and relationships with the land and each other. At the beginning, the carefree nature of the boys is best described by how the “littluns” act. “They ate most of the day” (p. 59) and “Apart from food and sleep, they found time for play, aimless and trivial, in the white sand by the bright water.”  (p. 59). As the book progresses, the boy’s connection with the land diminishes. This is shown by the vicious chants of “Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!” and their carelessness with setting fires and not thinking of the consequences. They started to look at the island as something to use and exploit, rather than a place to respect and sustain them.

     Abruptly, near the end of the novel, rescuers arrive amid the horrors of the boys’ own war, Ralph has, “a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood…” (p. 202) Ralph sees the destruction that they have caused since arriving on this island and reflects on all the unnecessary deaths. He starts to cry. He realizes how uncivilized they had become with the absence of order, and now there are adults and rules again. To the boys, the plane brought liberation from the eyes of God, liberation from the laws and rules of the adults. Now, confronted with going back home and having a sense of their old lives returned, one might speculate that the boys probably feel relief and a bit of horror. Being faced with the thought of having to reintegrate to society and following all the rules they had previously rejected and forgotten after all that they have gone through, is hard to reconcile. The boat brought them back to reality to realize that without the rules of the adults, their Eden got destroyed. Without civilization and order, this is what they have become. Animals.

     As much as we think rules restrict our freedoms, they actually give us more freedom by creating a sense of order and safety. By setting some simple expectations that we can have of each other, we can feel safer and more open to accomplishing our dreams and limiting evil. Golding’s Lord of the Flies, reflects the Genesis narrative of the consequences of rejecting rules. The boys had an opportunity to create their own Eden, but found themselves in a spiral of violence and decay of which none will emerge unscathed. The rules play a critical role in regulating society in ensuring that people are safe but have the opportunity to pursue their own dreams and goals and even in the face of unbridled freedoms we should still impose some rules and order on ourselves for the greater good of all.

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