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Lord of the Flies: Psychological Insights

August 12, 2013

Lord of the Flies by William Golding explores the boundary between human reason and animal instinct, all on the brutal playing field of adolescent competition.

by K. M. Parivelan

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

As a novelist, William Golding developed a unique style characterized by simplicity and economy of expression. He deliberately refrained from excessive narration and consistent characterization.

His treatment of the novel has been called ‘anti-science’ since he equated scientific and technological progress with dehumanization and traced the shortcomings of the modern society to the inherent negativity of human nature.

His first novel, Lord of the Flies was published in 1957. The work features a group of schoolboys abandoned in an island and forced to survive without adult supervision. Initially the boys attempt to organize themselves on the lines of their parent civilization.

Later, they transform to a more primitive societal pattern dominated by blood-thirst, cruelty, aggression and rituals. The underlying theme of the work is ‘end of innocence’.

In many ways, the novel has a fable-orientation, conveying morals allegorically, the most fundamental being the ‘darkness of man’s heart’. The author’s psychological insights are brought to fore by concise depiction of perverted behavior and degrading moral standards.

The four major characters, Jack, Ralph, Piggy and Simon, represent passion, will, reason and conscious respectively. On the basis of this ‘human-self’ analysis, Golding explores the mutual interactions of various characters.

The revelations underline the basic antagonisms of human nature. The author firmly believes men must learn to live with the chaos of existence without attempting to reshape it towards his means or ends.

While man cannot alter his nature, Golding feels, he can certainly be conscious of it. And it is this consciousness, according to him, that contains the supreme achievement and delight of being a human being.

A study of the psychological insights in the Lord of the Flies clearly underlines the degeneration of virtuous characters into diabolic. Golding’s reflections on the darkness in human nature emerge life-like in his analysis of the microcosm of the unknown island.

The work characterizes Golding’s underlying theme ‘man produces evil as a bee produces honey’. In all his works the author has relentlessly pursued the objective of making man face ‘the sad fact of his own cruelty and lust’ and has upheld the conviction ‘man is a fallen being’.

The fact that man is gripped by original sin and is in an inherently perilous state justifies evil and its innate fusion with human existence.

Lord of the Flies is the story of death and the presence of destructive element in the blood’s lust for blood. In Golding’s own view, it is a story of the darkness in the heart of man.

For adolescents and young adults, who have only recently come in contact with their self-consciousness, it is a new, intense, frightening and yet, fascinating encounter with darkness.

The four aspects of human-self, as portrayed by Golding in the novel, can be likened to a phenomenological description of human nature.

Will as human self: Golding’s vehicle of truth is the end of innocence experienced by Ralph, a high-spirited, confident, twelve-year old. Right from the beginning, Ralph is the only character who demonstrates his resolve for creating a democratic society. Initially, he is exultant due to the new freedom.

At the end however, he longs for the tame and is bitterly at odds with others. Soon after being in the island, he finds the leadership of the community thrust upon him. He is antagonistic to Jack and intellectually inferior to Piggy. He is the quintessential symbol of democracy, torn between diverse forces. When he discovers a conch shell (a motif of authority) and blows it, he succeeds in gathering all the others.

His leadership qualities are evident in his capacity to assemble others and organize meetings with confidence. Faced with disobedience, he reacts strongly. ‘Choir! Stand still’, so his order is obeyed. Immediately after Ralph is elected he organizes everything like; ‘the choir belongs to you of course… They could be your army’. Then he says, ‘listen everybody, I’ve got to have time to think things out’.

The humanistic view of psychological behavior suggests that individuals are free to determine and choose their actions. Man is left free for his will and destiny. In Ralph’s case he is free on will. Throughout, he displays his will for forming a democratic society despite impediments like sacrificing his close friend Piggy.

Conceptually, will is defined as ‘the mental power by which a person can direct his thoughts and actions or influence others’. Ralph is determined to achieve a civilized society. Civilization is a human creation, restricting the cosmic or primitive in man by bounding it within moral awareness.

Till the end, Ralph runs to save his life without succumbing to the barbarians, underlining his will power. He is symbolized by the author as the strong willed politician, exhibiting leadership qualities like selfless dedication, courage, conviction, fortitude and integrity. He tries to make full use of all these faculties in bringing back control to civilized society.

Ralph’s pristine status is individuation. He has a social identity, correct manners, morality and sense of justice. All these are hallmarks of civilization imbibed in him. But because of his innocent state, he uses will to proceed with civilized manners.

Eventually, Jack’s domination forces him to forego innocence. His loss of innocence is accompanied by the progressive destruction of his distinct conscious due to degradation of reason. Golding clearly establishes that ‘will power’ would be relevant only in civilized and not in primitive society.

Passion as human self: Passion is connected with the character of Jack. According to psychologists, ‘passion has got a division of thought and feeling’. This dichotomy is important in analyzing passion. In Jack, passion is embodied in a negative sense with Golding utilizing Jack for demonstrating the degeneration of civilization.

The term ‘doubling’ is commonly used in psychological behavior meaning split personalities for one person, or two relative autonomous selves. Doubling is easily applicable to Jack. His mind houses a number of primitive ideas and he can be called to possess savage traits. His features resemble those of a dictator, thirsty for power and hungry for authority.

Jack’s passion for power is evident when he says; ‘I ought to be chief because I’m chapter chorister and head boy’. In the Lord of the Flies, Golding takes recourse to an established literary method of examining human rights and polity through psychological insights.

Nature in the tropics is sinister and threatening. The boys are led to the formation of a religion under Jack’s leadership for largely personal selfish gains. Their theology is demonology and their god is devil. Jack has intuitive knowledge of the vilest elements of nature and the ways of exploiting them. He is prevented from his attempt to gain power in civilized, orderly society and takes recourse to the inherent traits of his nature i.e. dark means for gaining power.

As Freud points out in his theory of psychoanalysis, human behavior is determined by innate and immutable instincts that are largely unconscious. This is heavily exemplified by Jack. In terms of psychoanalysis, Jack is a schizoid, an irrational person suffering from delusions and withdrawing from normal social relationships. He is deluded by adult-free society and controls the savages.

Passion centers on powerful emotions like drive, motivation, libido etc. The first two inspire him to leadership. Passion also induces hostility in his unconscious mind and makes it a conscious motive.

In the beginning, Jack hunts pigs for sporting. He resents killing of pigs due to the enormity of the knife and it’s cutting into living flesh. Kelly defines aggression as ‘the active elaboration of one’s perceptual field’. Aggression arises out of the willingness to risk in order to find out ‘passion’ for embodiment of action.

Passion, the human-self of Jack, is embodied with aggression. His passion for power drives him to diabolism. He is Golding’s quintessential metaphor for underlining darkness in human beings.

Rationality as human self: The name Piggy has an irony in it. He possesses both positive and negative attributes of a weak intellectual. He rationalizes Simon’s death before his own and is the only one to rationalize all events. Together with Ralph, he attempts to create an orderly society.

His rationality however, is ineffective in controlling the rest. His belief that science can explain everything makes him unable to comprehend the reality of the beast. Faith in science or rationality, with a marked disbelief in the supernatural, is typical of Piggy. He is fat and ugly with thin hair that never seems to grow and suffers from asthma and weak eyes that are common affiliations of age.

His physical weaknesses and other characteristics are consistent with his ‘adult’ role in the novel. Though he is the clear thinker, he can’t enforce his will like Ralph or Jack. The boys refuse to take him seriously due to his shabby appearance.

Piggy symbolizes the force of reason among the boys. His gradual loss of sight and eventual death highlight the degeneration among the community. He is possessed with the strong urge to distinguish and order a manageable system and finds himself in conflict with the power of darkness.

His wisdom could’ve been instrumental for achieving stability in the social order. But the leaders were reckless and thoughtless, more interested in momentary splurges rather than the steady glow of reason. When a chance for rescue goes abegging, the boys focus on hunting, a primitive activity reversing civilization, trampling Piggy’s intellectual views.

Piggy remains indefatigably himself till his death using logic and reason.

Though physically weak, he doesn’t lack mental courage. Despite Golding’s faith in science and rationality, he is sarcastic of Piggy for not accepting Simon’s view that evil is present in every man’s heart. With Piggy’s death, the remaining not only get degenerated, but completely devoid of human control that comes from rational awareness.

Conscious as human self: Simon is an embodiment of vision and forethought. This is clearly brought out when he points out that the beast that they all fear is not real and actually lies within themselves.

He fails in convincing others and is eventually clubbed to death. He suffers from epilepsy, is visited by the Lord of the Flies, bears a touch of the mystic and is the voice of warning. He understands that evil can’t be exonerated by pressurizing humans or by forcing them into primitive adaptations.

The most self-conscious in his group, he is incapable of speaking in public and prefers solitude. In his epileptic bouts, he communicates with the Lord of the Flies and darkness. His self-knowledge imparts him the highest degree of consciousness among the boys. He is also intimately familiar with the darkness in man and is temperamentally alert to the limits imposable on a man’s ego.

Simon’s communications with the Lord of the Flies are manifestations of unconscious subsystems. This occurs when the unconscious mind works unknowingly and without being monitored by the conscious.

A part of his intellectual urges are hived off to the sub-systems that are unconsciously monitored. He journeys to the mountaintop and discovers the truth about the beast. His knowledge remains unknown to others since he is ritualistically sacrificed. His death, symbolic of the destruction of the conscious, paves the way for depersonalization.

The masks that the boys learnt to paint and which, later, become their real countenances, move beyond the limits imposed by civilization for restraining destructive impulses.

The lack of public knowledge regarding Simon’s world of wisdom is indicative of the prophet being termed lunatic and ignored by the rest of the world. Golding seems inclined to convey that irrespective of the name given to evil, it exists in man and is an integral part of human condition.

Through Simon’s conscious mind, the author stresses the difficulties faced by intuitive wisdom in gaining acceptance in the material world. Simon’s prophesies, vision and search for the truth, personify the role of the conscious faculty as human self.
(This book review was first published in Meghdutam.com, between 1999-2003)

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