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Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, is set on a tropical island, and the characters are a group of English schoolboys who are stranded there without any adult. What happens is a descent into savagery, so the theme of civilization--or the lack of it--is worth discussing.
These boys have been living in boarding schools, so they certainly know how to obey rules and act civilized. Within hours of their arrival, however, their civilized behavior is already beginning to deteriorate. The morning after the crash, many of the little boys have already ditched all or parts of their uniforms; some of them are even naked. Though they respond to Ralph's call, they are not orderly or attentive at the first meeting (something they surely had to practice in assemblies and classrooms back at school).
While they do hold an election (surely a sign of a civilized society), they promptly refuse to do anything their leader asks them to do--even if it is something they all decided is necessary. Ralph, the leader, says: "Don’t we love meetings? Every day. Twice a day. We talk.” He got on one elbow. “I bet if I blew the conch this minute, they’d come running. Then we’d be, you know, very solemn, and someone would say we ought to build a jet, or a submarine, or a TV set. When the meeting was over they’d work for ﬁve minutes, then wander off or go hunting.”
Soon things devolve into stealing, fighting, and even murder. These things happen because there are no rules or restraints to keep them from happening. Without the consequences which come from a system of law and order, the boys are free to act however they choose, and how they choose to act, says Golding, is like savages.
By the end of the novel, when Ralph is running for his life, Golding does not refer to any of the others by name: they are only referred to as "the chief" and "the savages." Jack's descent into savagery happens when he begins to paint his face; this "mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness."
When the restraints of shame and conscience are gone, so is civilization. When the naval commander arrives, he asks if the boys have been "having a war." He is joking, but what he sees looks like a war because it is--a war between civilization and unchecked human nature.
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