Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 982
In the middle of a war, a plane crash-lands on an uninhabited island. The passengers and survivors are a group of British schoolchildren. In the novel’s opening moments, one of the children, Ralph, traverses the island’s dense jungle, followed by a boy named Piggy.
Ralph and Piggy introduce themselves to each other as they get the lay of the land. Piggy, asthmatic and fat, was raised by his Aunt, a candy-shop keeper. The heartier Ralph was raised by his navy-commander father. They discern that the plane has been swept out to sea, having scarred the jungle and leaving some survivors on the island.
Arriving at a lagoon, Ralph swims while Piggy stands in the water, unable to swim due to his asthma, and watches. They see a shining object on the bank, which reveals itself to be a large conch shell. At Piggy’s behest, Ralph uses the shell as a horn, sounding out a loud blast.
Immediately, other boys begin to appear, drawn to the sound, and gather around Ralph. The boys are all wearing tattered school uniforms, and among their number are six-year-old Johnny and a pair of twins named Sam and Eric (together known as Samneric).
Soon, two more rows of boys, marching in rank, approach from down the beach, all clad in identical uniforms with badge-studded black caps and cloaks with silver crosses. They are led by an intense, ugly boy named Jack Merridew, who orders his boys to stand in formation. Jack asks Ralph if there are any adults left. Ralph replies to the negative, so Jack declares that the boys must all fend for themselves.
Piggy rambles nervously, eliciting the names of the boys. Jack silences him by calling him “Fatty.” When Ralph reveals Piggy to be “Piggy,” all the boys cackle at him. Jack’s group turns out to be a choir, made up of Maurice, Roger, Bill, Harold, Henry, Robert, and Simon. Jack then suggests that he be made the leader in their collective effort to be rescued.
The boys hold a vote. Jack’s choir votes for Jack, but the rest vote for the confident Ralph, who wins. Ralph then names Jack the leader of the choir, which he frames as a task force. Jack specifies the choir as the official hunting party.
Ralph, Simon, and Jack—who reveals a large knife—prepare to go scouting to determine whether the island is actually an island. Piggy wants to go, too, but he is rebuffed by Jack. Piggy tells Ralph that he would prefer that Ralph had not told everyone his name; Ralph reminds him that Piggy is a better name than the alternative: Fatty.
Ralph, Jack, and Simon confirm that they are on an island, and they discover a path up a mountain. From their vantage, they see that the island is surrounded by a coral reef and that there is a second, smaller island connected to one end of the island by a landbridge. The boys send boulders tumbling down the mountain and declare the island theirs.
As they head back to the others, they find a piglet trapped by foliage. Jack draws his knife and prepares to slaughter it, but he falters, feeling the immensity and difficulty of the act. The pig slips free. The boys then discuss the technique of slaughter. Jack, believing that Ralph is mocking him for not completing the act, buries his knife in a nearby tree and swears that he will not hesitate next time.
The first chapter establishes the setting, introduces the central characters, launches the story, and plants the seeds of the novel’s themes.
Golding structures the plot as an exploration of human nature and human societies. By placing a group of boys, aged six through twelve, in a position of total isolation and autonomy, Golding allows them to enact the precarious formation of society. Against this backdrop, the boys increasingly dramatize the dark corners of human nature that perpetually endanger society. Their youth is thematically crucial. The boys are young enough to be but roughly hewn from the block of human biology and yet are old enough to carry an imprint of British culture and to pose a physical risk to themselves and others.
In the first chapter, the boys begin to grapple with their situation. The conch is quickly established as a symbol of power on the island. The power of the conch to call the boys to order the boys grants Ralph authority, which the boys respond to instinctively. Despite the initial meeting and plan, the boys have yet to organize their efforts. Ralph is elected chief, but he doles out power to Jack, illustrating how nobody has complete control over the boys. They recognize the need for an organization of power, but, with no existing authority, they struggle to create an original hierarchy. They scout the island for knowledge of its geography and food. Generally, they move from a scattered state of confusion to an initial, if rough, response to their immediate circumstances.
The characters represent a range of personalities. Ralph is charismatic and assured, an instinctive leader who knows how to appease and instill confidence in others. Piggy is intelligent and knowledgeable, with an intuitive ability to delineate the correct course of action. However, his pudgy appearance and frenetic demeanor render him an outcast whose ideas are rarely taken seriously. Jack is tough, with a tyrannical bent. His desire to lead is undercut by his fiery temper and ugly, uninspiring manner. Simon is established as an important character when he is chosen for the scouting mission. However, his personality does not fully emerge in this chapter, although hints of his creativity and perceptiveness can be seen. Roger is briefly and cryptically singled out as a “dark boy.” Sam and Eric are unique for being twins. The rest of the boys are as yet undistinguished.
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