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Civilization: Masking the Face of Savagery

An essay discussing William Golding's examination of the corruption and decay of human social order through use of allegorical references.

Civilization: Masking the Face of Savagery

Is civilization really skin-deep? In The Lord of the Flies the author, William Golding, examines the corruption and decay of human social order through his use of allegorical references. The Lord of the Flies exemplifies Golding?s belief that civilization is a veil, masking underlying human savagery.

Golding?s suggestion that humans are savage is expressed in allegory throughout The Lord of the Flies. In order to effectively present the notion that civilization is a fa?ade, Golding strands a group of English schoolboys on a deserted island, thus creating a setting that challenges the premise that social order is basic to human behavior.

Golding masterfully uses symbols, such as the conch shell, to illustrate the frailty of human culture in society. The conch shell represents civilization and democracy, and is used by the stranded schoolboys to call assembly meetings, and to regulate discussion. Although initially the conch is revered, both the conch and the island society soon crack as the tribe regresses to meet its natural needs to hunt and kill. As such, rules established for maintaining order within the boys? society are flagrantly ignored:

Ralph summoned his wits.
?Because rules are the only thing we?ve got!?
But Jack was shouting against him.
?Bollocks to the rules! We?re strong ? we hunt??
(Golding 99; ch. 5)

Consequently, the island society?s foundation suffers a critical blow. One of the boys, Ralph, acknowledges the group?s disregard for social order with, ?If I blow the conch and they don?t come back; then we?ve had it. We shan?t keep the fire going. We?ll be like animals (Golding 99; ch. 5).? Ralph realizes that unless the boys are rescued their civilization will collapse. However, most of the boys do not share this concern; nor are they concerned with maintaining a signal fire to attract the attention of passing ships. They instead let the fire die out and occupy themselves with hunting and savagery. Golding uses the fire to symbolize the decay of civilization: the fire is ignored, and social order is forgotten.

Another symbol used in The Lord of the Flies is the imaginary beast, which represents the primal instinct of savagery that Golding believed to exist within all human beings. Fearing its power, the boys offer it sacrifices and treat it as a totemic god. Ironically, because the boys' behavior is directly responsible for the beast?s very existence, the more savagely they act, the more real the beast becomes. One of the stranded boys, Simon, realizes this and tries to explain it to the other boys:

?Maybe there is a beast? What I mean is? maybe it?s only us?. We could be sort of??
Simon became inarticulate in his effort to express mankind?s essential illness.
(Golding 95-96; ch. 5)

The final major symbol introduced is the ?Lord of the Flies?, a gory pig's head that is impaled on a stake and left in a glade as an offering to the beast (Golding 151; ch. 8). Portrayed as a physical manifestation of the beast, the ?Lord of the Flies? casts its corrupting influence over the island and its inhabitants, causing social order to fold in favor of anarchy. It soon becomes one of the most important symbols in the novel when Simon confronts it and it speaks to him, telling him that savagery is, ?a part of you? close, close, close (Golding 158; ch 8).? So close that humans can only attempt to veil it with the mask of civilization.

The failure of this mask demonstrates Golding?s social pessimism, which is undoubtedly due to his service during World War II: a war of indescribable horrors, where humankind?s attempt to disguise its inner savagery failed miserably. The depressing effect that war had on Golding is reflected in The Lord of the Flies, particularly in his hunting scenes.

The chant rose in a tone in agony.
?Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!?
Now out of the terror rose another desire, thick, urgent, blind.
?Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!?
(Golding 168; ch.9)

Golding?s use of descriptive language in the latter passage suggests how mankind can regress to a primal state, governed only by the laws of adrenaline; this is a state of mind comparable to that belonging to soldiers engaged in battle. Triggered primarily by fear, it is this mindset that empowers humans with the capacity to kill: blindly, aimlessly, and in cold blood (Golding 168; ch. 9). In The Lord of the Flies, it is this regression that compels the boys to kill Simon: ?Piggy and Ralph, under the threat of the sky, found themselves eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society (Golding 167; ch. 9).? This excerpt confirms that even the most rational of human beings become savage when faced with fear or threatened with survival. Golding exemplifies this human instinct, writing, ?Now out of the terror rose another desire, thick, urgent, blind.?

However, humanity?s greatest failing is not its instinctual savagery, but its false belief that civilization is basic human nature. Golding attempts to expose this truth, and illustrates this ignorance in the following quote:

??First ? you know now, we?ve seen the beast. We crawled up. We were only a few feet away. The beast sat up and looked at us. I don?t know what it does. We don?t even know what it is ??
(Golding 138; ch. 8)

A similar example of this confusion occurs at the end of the novel, when the stranded island boys are finally rescued by a naval officer (Golding 223-25; ch. 12). Although he emphasizes the importance of social order just as Ralph and Piggy had done, the naval officer cannot comprehend the full reach of the boys' experience on the island: he interprets the boys? hunting and painted faces as childish ?fun and games,? unaware that their dress carries more than symbolic meaning. The boys have not been playing as savages; they have become them.

Golding wrote The Lord of the Flies in an attempt to ?trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature.? Through use of symbolism, the author shows that social order is a mirage; he shows that basic human instincts are the only laws that truly govern mankind. As result of his service in World War Two, Golding comes to realize that it is not human instinct, but our inability to recognize our inner savagery, that is ?mankind?s essential illness.?

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