At only twelve years old, Ralph is finding himself burdened by the role of chief. Leadership over the other boys has become frustrating. Since this quote is at the beginning of Chapter Five, perhaps an examination of what has previously transpired in Chapter Four should be examined first:
- Text to Text
In previous chapters, Ralph has futilely attempted to organize the boys and get them to build shelters, but they have run off to eat berries or play. His efforts to have a rescue fire have resulted in the island catching fire as well as the death of a small boy. In Chapter Four, Ralph is frustrated in the struggle to get the other boys to cooperate.
The fire was dead....The fire was out, smokeless and dead; the watchers were gone. A pile of unused fuel lay ready.
Out to sea, Ralph watches a ship move on. "Come back! Come back!" he shouts in frustration. Instead of watching the fire, the boys have been hunting. Clearly, the lure of hunting and savagery appeals more to the boys than the order of civilization and the possibility of returning to it.
Ralph stood among the ashes of the signal fire, his hands full of meat, saying nothing.
By the end of Chapter Four, Ralph is anxious about things raging out of control; he feels ineffective, and he is frustrated by his inability to exert control over the others.
- Text to Self
Ralph admires Piggy's ability to think logically; for Piggy this type of thinking comes naturally--"He could go step by step inside that fat head of his, only Piggy was no chief"--but Ralph must figuratively watch his footing because he is not accustomed to having to do so. Now that he is a leader, Ralph feels the burden of "watching one's feet"; he cannot slip from his role, nor can he make errors since he has the responsibility of the others weighing heavily upon him. Ralph knows that "[T]here must be no mistake about this assembly, no chasing imaginary..." This burden of responsibility weighs heavily upon Ralph.
- Text to World
Sadly, Ralph has had to assume more responsibility than he normally would, and, thus, the burden of his leadership role is "wearisome," just as the war has placed a number of wearisome burdens upon many a person. Like a soldier, Ralph has a death to deal with, the death of the small boy, and he is in conflict with the hedonistic Jack and the hunters who simply want to satisfy their primal urges with hunting and fighting; moreover, they are not concerned with anything past the moment, such as reaching their homeland.
Ralph and Piggy and Simon alone understand the urgency of their next meeting. For, they must return to civilization and leave the "darkness of the island." But, Ralph's task proves "wearisome" again as the boys unite only from fear and intimidation, the techniques of Jack, and of the world itself.
This is a good question. Ralph speaks these words in the beginning of chapter 5. A good starting point would be to look at the context.
The tide was coming in and there was only a narrow strip of firm beach between the water and the white, stumbling stuff near the palm terrace. Ralph chose the firm strip as a path because he needed to think, and only here could he allow his feet to move without having to watch them. Suddenly, pacing by the water, he was overcome with astonishment. He found himself understanding the wearisomeness of this life, where ev- ery path was an improvisation and a considerable part of one’s waking life was spent watching one’s feet.
Ralph's point is that life is tiresome, nothing changes and so nothing happens. By this time, life was routine. The morning was pleasant, midday was lazy, hot, and a bit mysterious, and evening was fearful (partially on account of the beast). Also the boys by this time were neglecting their duties. They were not working, building shelters, or collecting water. Life seems futile.
Ralph is sensing this in two ways. Water comes in and out over and over. He surprised that the is watching his feet. Finally, the boys are not getting work done. What is the point?