Ralph, the elected leader of the group of British boys in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, strives to take the civilized society to which he is accustomed and apply it to society on the island on which he and the other boys are stranded. As leader, this task seems simple – tell the other boys what they each need to do and expect them to do it. Ralph fails to realize the difference between the rest of the boys and himself.
The world is in the middle of a massive war, a war in which the threat of the atomic bomb looms prominently. In fear of losing all its future fighting force, Britain sends a group of its schoolboys on an airplane to safety. Before reaching its destination, though, an enemy fighter plane shoots down the boys’ plane. The plane crashes into a forest on a remote island and, as a result, the pilots die. This group of schoolboys jumps from a society in which adults direct them to act properly to one in which there is no authoritative figure to give them orders. Back in Britain, adults train the boys to obey them and follow their lead. They act appropriately because of the threat of punishment for disobedience. Even later in the novel, once things begin to fall apart, Golding writes, “Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law” (62). As the story progresses, though the boys go so far as to participate in savage acts such as killing each other, in the end, they realize that they conducted themselves immorally.
Stranded on the island with a bunch of boys and no adults, Ralph quickly takes charge and demands the election of a leader of the boys. He emerges as the clear choice for leader. Not only does he have archetypal “fair hair” (7), but Golding also explains, “but there was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out: there was his size, and attractive appearance; and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch” (22). The boys choose Ralph as leader not only because of his height, but most importantly, because he possesses the conch. The boys recognize Ralph as the one who gathered them together by blowing the shell-like conch and choose him as their leader.
Things work out well for Ralph at first. He takes charge over the boys and tells them what they need to accomplish for rescue and survival. The ways of the organized and civil society he learned back home in Britain show through in the method he uses in explaining the tasks the boys needed to complete. He approaches things from an organized, logical, and practical manner and thinks first about being rescued. Immediately after being elected leader and satisfying Jack, another prominent character in the novel, by allowing him to choose the task of his choir boys, Ralph says, “If this isn’t an island we might be rescued straight away. So we’ve got to decide if this is an island” (23). As further proof of his practicality, upon discovering the fact that no one inhabits the island, Ralph explains that the boys need to build a signal fire to attract any passing ships.
Though Ralph acts adult-like in the sense that he operates methodically, he still deals with others in a childish manner at times. The schoolboys, even Ralph at first, shun Piggy, a fat boy whose real name no one cares to learn. Piggy finds the conch and offers suggestions throughout the novel. Ralph takes Piggy’s suggestions without giving him recognition. The boys take advantage of Piggy, using his glasses to start the signal fire, but never give him credit for anything.
For a short while, everything runs smoothly. Even from the beginning scene in which both Jack and Ralph desire to lead the boys, it things clearly will not work out for long. It is not possible for Jack, who Golding describes as “the most obvious leader,” and Ralph to live in harmony together (22). Ralph takes the methodical approach to things, while Jack takes a natural approach to things. Jack, rather than following those standards he learned from society, follows what comes naturally. As the story progresses, Jack shows his inborn rebelliousness more and more and places the importance of hunting over Ralph’s commands. The signal fire goes out and the boys miss a chance of getting rescued because of negligence on Jack’s part – he considers hunting more important than getting rescued.
Without an adult to enforce commands, Ralph faces difficulties keeping the boys united for the cause of being rescued. Ralph tells the boys they need to build shelters. The boys help out with the first one or two, but, by the last one, they lose interest and leave the construction solely to Ralph and Simon.
Although Ralph endeavors to keep the boys united and working to get off the island, all of them except Piggy revert to their natural, inborn evil and vicious nature and follow Jack’s lead. Jack and his followers show all sorts of savagery – violently killing pigs, killing Simon during one of their infamous ritualistic dances, and finally, killing Piggy. Ralph, being less prone to give into his inborn evil nature because he is older than the other boys and British society’s civility made more of an impact on him, does not join the group of boys and for that, they hate him. Jack and his group begin to hunt Ralph, setting the island on fire in hopes of smoking him out. Schoolboys who began as civilized children now act as bloodthirsty savages and want to kill the boy they once declared as their leader.
The ironic appearance of a naval officer who sees the fire Jack’s group created throws the boys back into the society from which they originally came. The boys are forced to deal with the reality of what had occurred on this island. When the naval officer questions the boys saying, “Who’s boss here?” Ralph firmly says, “I am” (201). In doing so, he accepts responsibility for the actions of all the boys – the murders, the violence, the savagery. Though Ralph deserves none of the blame for what happened on the island – the boys acted the way they did because of their natural evil and the lack of adults to enforce the societal standards that existed back in Britain – his acceptance of the blame shows his leadership trait again. In his mind, he is the one in charge and that makes him responsible for those things over which he cannot control. This is a common reaction of someone in charge. Many parents who lose a child in some sort of accident blame themselves for their child’s death; they feel that they could have done something to prevent it.
Ralph’s final response to the events that transpired on the island occurs in the end of the novel after he runs into the naval officer. Ralph cries. Though today’s society generally associates crying with babies and their simple needs, such as food, water/milk, and the need for a diaper change, Ralph’s crying shows a very profound emotion. He has experienced things most people never experience in their lifetime: Ralph saw good, very young schoolboys originally trained by society turn into savages who murdered those who did not fit in quite as well as the rest. Ralph’s crying brings a type of closure to the ordeal, and it also shows a realization he had about society, about mankind in general. He has witnessed with his own eyes the evil that comes about as a result of the lack of civilization and the inborn nature to do evil. Golding describes Ralph’s profound crying simply: “Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy” (202).
While nearly all the boys on the island ignore those standards British society has taught them, Ralph does not, and, as leader, tries to apply them to society on the island. Even when everyone else reverts to his inborn evil nature, Ralph sticks with that which is good, that which he learned from British society – civility. Ralph is different than the other boys, and because of that difference, it is only fitting that he cry.