Should the boys in Lord of the Flies be held accountable for their actions in the context of the situation on the island?

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rmhope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

At the end of Lord of the Flies, the boys are rescued just as Jack's tribe is hunting Ralph with the intent to kill him, having set the island on fire to smoke Ralph out of the forest. The naval officer is greatly surprised to learn that "only two" dead bodies have resulted from their stay on the island. Readers might wonder if the boys will be held accountable for those deaths when they return to civilization. At least three considerations are in play here: the types of crimes, the ages of the perpetrators, and what a jury might conclude.(For purposes of discussion, the following presumes working within the American, not British, legal system.)

First, although Jack only mentions two deaths to the officer, three boys were killed on the island. The first, the littlun with the mulberry birthmark, was killed in the first runaway blaze. While his death could be considered "involuntary manslaughter," a death caused by negligence, it would more likely be considered an accidental death. Simon's death, on the other hand, would fall under the category of "voluntary manslaughter," a death caused by someone who is in a fit of passion. The wild frenzy of the mob that kills Simon seems to fit this category. Piggy's death was in a different category: "second degree murder"--murder that is not premeditated but with "malice aforethought," in other words, intent to do harm. Finally, the boys' action of hunting Ralph is attempted murder.  

These are serious crimes, but when such crimes are committed by minors--those under age 18--lesser penalties apply. Juveniles are often only kept in juvenile prison until they turn 18, and the goal is not just punishment, but rehabilitation. The young age of the boys, who are not even close to 18, would likely result in their being held in juvenile prison, if anything.

Lastly, if the boys' crimes were to be tried before a jury, the defense attorney might seek to gain the sympathy of the jurors for the difficult situation the boys were put in. Because the boys had no adults to provide direction, many jurors would probably want to give the minimum sentence available or find a way to release them from all charges. 

Indeed, the children might never be brought to any kind of trial for the simple fact that they are children. According to Piaget's theory of cognitive development, children do not develop the ability to think abstractly until age 11 at the earliest, but many don't enter this final stage of development until age 15. The oldest boys are only about 12--their brains are not yet developed to the point where they can accurately understand concepts like justice. Golding portrays some of the boys as having a better ability to reason abstractly than others. Simon is the one who understands the abstract concept that the "beast" is within the boys themselves. Piggy and Ralph also seem to have more mature reasoning abilities, but Ralph often struggles to interpret events. Jack and Roger may behave the way they do in part because their abstract reasoning powers have not yet developed. 

Although it might be tempting to say that the boys knew what they were doing and so should be held responsible for their heinous crimes, the fact that they are children whose brains are not yet fully developed and were put into a traumatic situation with no adult guidance argues against punishing them for what happened on the island.

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Lord of the Flies

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