To what extent can the boys' behavior in Lord of The Flies be forgiven because they are children and not adults?  What evidence can I use to support and elaborate on this question?

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mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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If one takes the words of Genesis (8:21) that "man's heart is evil from his youth," as the premise that it seems to be for William Golding, the boys are for the most part well-behaved children because of their conditioning by society. But, since they have not been conditioned for very many years, they more easily regress to an uncivilized condition than would an adult. So to this extent their youth is a factor contributing to the ease of their regression, and they can be forgiven for some acts because they are young.

In Chapter Four, Golding himself underscores this concept of conditioning by society. As the small boys make sand castles at the bar of the little river, creating tracks, walls, and railway lines, the naturally sadistic Roger watches them for a while. Then, he bends to pick up a stone, "that token of preposterous time," and throws it near Henry, intentionally missing him.

Roger's arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.

Gradually, then, as the vestiges of civilization erode, the boys' behaviors become less individualized and more unruly, but some behaviors can be forgiven because of their young ages.

  • When the boys ignore Ralph's orders to maintain the signal fire that is crucial to their rescue, choosing to play or to hunt pigs rather than work at stoking the fire or building shelters, this behavior is rather uncivilized; nevertheless, it is understandable because they are children.  
  • The stealing of the fire, for instance, is a childish, selfish act committed by Jack against Ralph that can be attributed to Jack's young age as boys often engage in acts of rivalry. 
  • The teasing of Piggy because of his weight and poor eyesight is understandable because of the boys' youth, even though the stealing of his glasses is inexcusable since Piggy cannot see without them.

The longer the boys are on the island, the more they become tribal and less individualized in their behavior. Many join Jack and his hunters. Even Ralph joins in on a hunt. Finally, the hunters regress to a type of mass hysteria as they form a circle and chant "Kill the beast! Kill the beast!" working themselves into a frenzy that allows them to kill Simon when he comes near them.

Golding's proposed inherent defects of mankind are linked to man's desire for instant gratification, and his inability to reconcile the civilized and primal factions of his nature. [eNotes]

The younger boys are swept into this primordial behavior because they have no one to stop their uncivilized actions when they are first committed and prevent their immediate gratification, no one to guide them into constructive acts; Ralph does try to get them to build shelters and supervise the rescue fire, but the boys would rather engage in more pleasurable activities. When, for instance, no one punishes Roger, his sadistic nature becomes more dominant.

Given enough time, even very civilized men can regress to more savage behavior. Since the characters in Lord of the Flies are boys, they shed the vestiges of civilization more quickly than do adults. This is why Jack so easily sheds his black choir robe for face paint; Roger takes better aim with his stones, and catapults Piggy to his death with a granite boulder; Piggy and Ralph turn blind eyes to the savage killing of Simon; and Jack sets fire to the island in order to kill Ralph. 

After he is rescued, "Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart...." that an uncivilized environment has wrought upon once civilized boys.  

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katwood001's profile pic

katwood001 | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Assistant Educator

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The debate over whether violent games make violent children is a modern very hotly contested public argument.  Many in society believe that allowing young children to play violent video games results in the creation of more violent children.  Others argue that it is the responsibility of the parent to monitor their children and that if there is an increase in violence that it must be connected to mental, chemical, or emotional issues already present in the child.  

It is interesting that to some degree this debate was proposed in 1954 with Lord of the Flies.  The question over whether the beast exists within the person or whether experiences bring about the beast within us predates even the novel.  It is found in everything from the Bible to Egyptian and Greek mythology.  

William Golding suggests that the children who are stranded on an island will follow man's nature.  The question is what is that nature?  For the most part the children on the island are playing games.  In a place where there are no parents, they are able to make the rules.  The rules come in the form of games.  Even Ralph's attempt at democracy and civilization is no more than a game to the boys.  It just turns out that Jack's game is more interesting to the older boys.  The games increase in violence and intensity throughout the story.  

Simon's death seems evidence of the children's innocence.  Children who are afraid will protect themselves just as any animal will lash out when threatened.  Fear of the beast, the dark, and the frenzy of the dance around the fire could have all culminated in mass hysteria.  In the case of Ralph, Piggy, and Samneric, we see that there is despair and sorrow over what has happened, but what of the others?  The other boys seem less bothered by the death at least on the surface.  Because Golding did not give us the ability to poll the minds of the "hunters" it is impossible to know if they are truly contrite about the death of Simon.  However, the response of the boys toward the death of Piggy and the eventual hunt of Ralph show that the beast has taken over,  just as the Lord of the Flies said.  

In the case of Jack and especially Roger things are a bit different.  Through these boys Golding presents the idea of a violent soul.  It is possible that Jack is the more innocent of the two boys.  In many ways he is the leader of the oncoming storm.  Perhaps he felt he could not pull back without risking losing control of the situation.  However, the death of Piggy reveals that Jack not only is part of the violence, but also that it does not affect him on a moral level.  

Roger on the other hand is a young psychopath.  He begins by throwing rocks at little Henry.  While he doesn't aim for the boy, he does throw them in his general direction.  When there is no parent or authority figure to tell him to stop, Roger begins to realize that the normal rules of society are gone.  The death of Simon and the subsequent morning where the boys act as if nothing has happened make a very important statement.  The group have now gone beyond the limits of law and the sanctity of life.  This leads Roger to drop a much larger rock on Piggy, causing Piggy's death.  Roger is more than impassive.  He is interested in what the death looked like and he lingers longer than the other boys, making Jack call him out.

We are made aware through Samneric that both Jack and Roger have become truly frightening:

"You don't know Roger. He's a terror."

"And the chief—they're both—"

"—terrors—"

"—only Roger—" 

Samneric are interrupted before they finish their sentence, but it is clear that they are truly afraid of Jack and Roger.  The game has gone too far and Ralph is going to be hunted.  

Here is where it is difficult to excuse the entire company's actions, including Samneric, who participate in the hunt.  The attempted murder of Ralph is premeditated, and the plan to put his head on a stick sharpened at both ends is gruesome beyond the point of games.

Thus we return to the question: did the boys become violent because of their games, because of their nature, or because there were no authority figures to keep the boys in check?

Golding implies that there is a balance in society.  There are those who are violent and cruel in society such as Roger and Maurice.  If society provides the proper boundaries it might rein in those tendencies.  The boundaries are provided by those who are in control.  The book expertly shows that society struggles between civilization and the beast.  Jack and Piggy represent civilization, rules, and structure.  Jack and Roger represent the desires of the beast.  In order for society to be civil, the people must choose to follow the structures of civilization.

While the boys are boys and in a sense their experiences on the island are merely games, Ralph's ending sentiment is correct:

Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of a true, wise friend called Piggy.

Golding did not use the word "loss of innocence" because it was a choice.  The boys did have the choice to follow Ralph and Piggy.  It would have been a less interesting, less fun choice, but it was safe and civilized.  If anyone other than Ralph could be considered innocent of the events in the book it might be the littluns, but even then they hunted Ralph.     

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