Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1427
Ralph, scraped and bloodied, approaches Castle Rock carefully. He glimpses the boys atop the fort. Seeing that they are feasting on pig, Ralph figures that he has time to retreat to safety and eat. He reflects that his relationship with Jack has achieved a state of pure animosity, with slim chance of reconciliation. When he arrives at the fruit trees, the littluns there are frightened of his ragged appearance and they scatter. Ralph returns to the shelters, which he finds empty. With no other plan, Ralph begins to walk back to Castle Rock.
Ralph stumbles into the clearing where the pig’s head stands skewered on the stake; by now the head is pure skull. He imagines it grinning at him, as if it “knows all the answers and won’t tell.” Ralph strikes the skull, knocking it down and splitting it in two so that its grin widens upward at the sky.
Ralph arrives again at the base of Castle Rock at nightfall. He meditates on his outcast state, realizing that it would be impossible to attempt a truce. He hears the sounds of feasting and notices that the two boys on sentry duty must be Samneric. He carefully climbs up the rock and gets their attention by whispering their names. He frightens the two boys but reassures them, saying, “‘I came to see you two.’” Samneric encourage Ralph to leave and tell him that they were violently forced to join Jack’s tribe. They tell Ralph that Jack plans to gather his tribe to hunt down Ralph the next day. Ralph tells Samneric that he plans to hide in the nearby thicket, and they give him some meat. Ralph asks, “‘What are you going to do when you catch me?’” They reply, “‘Roger sharpened a stick at both ends.’”
Ralph wonders about the stick sharpened at both ends as he slips down to the nearby thicket, scouts out a concealed place to sleep for the night, and settles in. At first light Ralph wakens and hears the sounds of Jack’s tribes issuing ululations as their hunt for Ralph begins. Nestled in the deep thicket, Ralph waits calmly as the tribe passes on. Then he hears the low sound of Jack’s voice speaking urgently to Samneric, asking them, “‘He meant he’d hide in here?’” Ralph realizes that the twins have reported his location. He prepares for contact but knows he is well defended. He hears a cry from the top of Castle Rock as the boys unleash a rock that crashes down and tumbles through the undergrowth, followed by an enormous boulder that nearly flattens Ralph in its course.
As the boys begin to edge into the clearing, Ralph stabs at them with his spear, keeping them at bay. Smoke begins to pour upward; the boys have lit the foliage on fire. Ralph sees an opening into the jungle and, attacking a painted boy standing in the way, darts into the trees and sprints frantically along a pig-run. As he escapes he hears the ululations of the boys approaching in a long line, evenly spaced across the width of the island, sweeping through the jungle in their hunt for Ralph. Exhausted, crashing through the dense trees, Ralph tries to formulate a plan. His options are to crash through the line of boys as a startled pig would, climb up a tree, or find a hiding spot. As the line of boys draws near, he finds a low, densely covered patch and hides himself, spear in hand.
The fire has spread into the main jungle and begun to devour the entire island in a forward crawl, causing the sky to fill with smoke. As both the fire and the line of boys get closer, Ralph braces himself. He notices one boy a few yards away walking his direction. In his limited field of vision, he can see the boy’s weapon—a stake sharpened at both ends—and legs drawing closer. The boy stares directly into the dark patch where Ralph lies; Ralph screams and launches himself at the boy, knocking him to the ground. He sprints forward and confronts the wall of flaming trees. He veers right and begins running toward the beach, with the conflagration raging to the left. With Jack’s tribe trailing him, he runs down onto and along the shoreline, watching as the forest and the shelters of the original camp erupt in flames. Ralph stumbles, rolls in the sand, and collapses.
When Ralph looks up, he finds himself confronting the white cap, revolver, and uniform of a naval officer. The officer studies Ralph carefully as his boat and crew wait in the water behind him. The officer asks if there are any grown-ups, to which Ralph shakes his head. Jack’s tribe has come to a stand-still just down the beach and now look silly with their body-paint and sticks. Seeing them, the officer says, “‘Fun and games[…] We saw your smoke. What have you been doing? Having a war or something?’” Ralph nods and when the officer asks whether any were killed, Ralph replies, “‘Only two. And they’ve gone.’”
The officer agrees to take the boys off the island, but when he asks how many there are, Ralph does not know. The officer is outwardly disappointed with the boys’ confusion, disorganization, and overall squalor. He expresses his expectation that British boys ought to act according to higher standards. Studying the wreckage of the island and the huge fire and thinking about the deaths of Simon and Piggy, Ralph begins to weep, joined by some of the other boys. Ralph weeps “for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.”
By chapter 12, the boys have almost entirely sided with Jack, thereby slipping from civilization to savagery. Aside from a few littluns, Ralph is the only remaining boy who is unmoved by Jack’s vicious rhetoric and leadership. As he remarks, he is an outcast “‘‘Cos [he] had some sense.’” The other boys with such “sense” are either dead (Simon and Piggy) or forced into Jack’s tribe (Samneric). Among Jack’s tribe, any pretenses of civil or fair behavior are gone. Accountable to no law, they embark on a barbaric hunt for Ralph with the supposed aim of feasting on his flesh as if he were a pig, rather than a fellow boy.
Indeed, the final two chapters document what happens when the “beast”—revealed in chapter 8 to be the spirit of brute violence and chaos—takes over and guides events. In a key encounter, Ralph happens upon the pig skull in in the jungle clearing and bashes it twain. The skull, which had embodied the “Lord of the Flies” in Simon’s presence, represents the “beast.” With its cryptic grin and morbid visage, it stands for the savagery that Ralph is against, and so he destroys the thing.
The fire that Jack’s tribe starts both expresses and represents the destructive spirit that has come to consume the boys after the conch and its promise of order were dashed. The fire is both a product of and symbol for their savagery. Just as the fire sweeps wildly across the island, threatening to destroy the entire landscape, the boys’ savagery aims to mindlessly destroy everything: Ralph, the entire natural landscape, and, by extension, themselves. It seems that the entire island, including the boys, would be eradicated were it not for their sudden rescue.
It is by a twist of fate that the all-consuming fire becomes the very beacon the boys have struggled to raise since their arrival on the island. Just as the tribe’s pursuit of Ralph approaches its culmination, the hunt is broken up by the presence of the naval officer. In a sense, the officer is an example of the literary device of deus ex machina, which literally means “God from the machine” and occurs when a figure or event intervenes just in time to prevent an immanent calamity—in this case, Ralph’s butchery at the hands of Jack, Roger, and the rest of the boys.
The British officer, proper in comportment and dress, reveals the contrast between the civilization from which the boys came and the savagery to which they have descended. His bewilderment and disappointment deepen the contrast. Ralph’s tearful breakdown in the novel’s final lines emphasizes that the tragic events that have unfolded on the island hold real and lasting significance.
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