Maybe It's Only Us

Updated: Jul 23, 2021

SHADOW PORTRAITS in Lord of the Flies

by Elizabeth Faris

Wald-Hexen (Forest Witches) 1938 - by Paul Klee

“However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.”

~ William Golding, Lord of the Flies (p. 112)

As Simon contemplates the silhouette of the parachutist on the mountain, he alone sees it both for what it is and how it is perceived through the eyes of his peers: the grisly remnant of a fellow mortal, but also an appalling projection of their own darker selves. It is the psychological sequel to a nameless threat they first encounter in the innocence of dreams, which will stalk them to their willful corruption, clinched with a sow's head spiked on a stick.

Indeed, the whole of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) reads as an allegory for what renowned psychoanalyst Carl Jung called “the emergence of the shadow state,” a cognitive phenomenon wherein, conditions conspiring, the proceeds of the collective unconscious may rise to take possession of the conscious mind. According to his theory, this purely instinctual facet of the human psyche is the product of our earliest genetic inheritance: the unfriendly fallout from man's age-old struggle for survival, which each of us, through reason, must strive to keep in check. Failing to do so is a recipe for the kind of social chaos chronicled in Lord of the Flies. The poignancy of Golding's depiction is testament to his profound grasp of man's essential nature through a Jungian lens. There is nothing incidental in either the characters he creates or the conditions with which they contend: a band of British schoolboys dispatched to a secluded tropical island with no promise of retrieval is left to supervise themselves through elemental challenges unlike anything they have ever had to face. It is only a matter of time before baser instinct prevails.

A setting so physically restricted is, of course, fundamental to the establishment of the story's conflict. And yet there is more to Golding's strategy than first meets the eye. As the plot starts to unfold, we soon realize that what appears one-dimensional is in fact sheathed in layers of significance. Repeated references not only to the sun, moon, and stars, but also to the laws of time and space that govern them, trigger the sensation that the boys' stranding on this remote island in the sea is not unlike our own on a planet within an infinite cosmos. Hence, a small stone on their beach becomes a "token of preposterous time," (p. 64) the instrument of violence immemorial that, in the wielding, foreshadows the resurgence of what Jung called "the two-million-year-old being in us all." Indeed, it is an analogy that works inwardly as well as outwardly to describe the nature of consciousness itself. For just like an island or planet adrift in sea or space, ours is an awareness confined to corporeality, yet strangely susceptible to the boundless whims of the subliminal.

Like Golding's boys, we earthlings are thus obliged to muddle along in an inevitable state of paradox, armed with the tools of cognizance and left to grapple, as we can, with latent energies largely beyond our comprehension or control. For just as day follows night and waking follows sleeping, to be alive means to come to terms with the inherent ambiguity between knowing that we must cooperate with others in order to survive and reckoning with deep-seated urges that would seek gratification at any cost. Golding dramatizes this dichotomy by crafting his characters in both separate and conjoint terms. While each reacts in a singular way to the challenge he encounters, when viewed together, their collective constitution reflects the unbroken spectrum between shadow and light that captures the full complexity of human nature. Thus, while pivotal figures clash to portray man's struggle to reconcile reason and duty with instinct and desire, flatter ones facilitate at various degrees of juxtaposition in order to highlight the distinction and stimulate a resolution to the conflict it engenders.

It is the tempestuous experience of Ralph, the protagonist, that embodies the dilemma we all face by virtue of our DNA. He stands for the best intentions of the conscious self to recognize that our survival as a species depends on our concerted effort to tame the ancestral beast. Still, he is human and as inherently flawed as any thinking being: his ideal is a work in progress and his character yet in the making. He therefore struggles to stand firm when confronted, for his convictions, with the primordial threat of isolation; there are moments when the burden of responsibility seems too much for him to bear, the lure of cheap connection, too enticing. Thus, the more resistance to his principles he encounters from without, the more he must wrestle with his demons from within. Increasingly, we find him alone, steeped in the "brute obtuseness of the ocean" (p. 121) of feeling and helpless to harness the powers of reason and focus so vital to his altruistic aims. Yet, heroically, he perseveres.

Of course, his chief obstacle is Jack. Golding introduces Ralph to his antagonist Janus-style: in equal, but opposing, profile. At first, the pair seems evenly-matched in terms of personal magnetism and potential for influence; as such, they are initially drawn to one another. However, as profound differences in motive and method grow more apparent, attraction turns to repulsion and they become "two continents of experience and feeling unable to communicate." (p. 56) For beyond the dash of first impression, Jack's sole function is to show the shadow in the unleashing and, to that end, his enmity must intensify with each new frame. Where Ralph toils in earnest for the good of all, Jack basks in indulgence of self; where Ralph employs reason in the fight against fear, Jack exploits fear to keep reason from thwarting his agenda. In short, at each and every turn, these two are purposely crafted to rub each other the wrong way, just as the subliminal self, if stymied and suppressed, will niggle ad nauseam at the rational mind. A crisis of supremacy is the predictable consequence of pitting subjective against objective in the existential forum.

As with most effective story-telling, Golding's semi-omniscience favours the character who experiences the pivotal conflict. Although this precludes any direct view of the private machinations of Jack, it is still easy to imagine an inner discourse teeming with boasts and justifications commissioned by the gut to stifle the tedious cautions of conscience. However, for all his fierce bravado, Jack's role is fundamentally dynamic: his feral inclinations grow on him only piecemeal. For every taboo from his buttoned-up past he chooses to discard, something more visceral is given leave to prevail. Thus, his attitude toward taking a life has him evolving by degrees from reluctant child (p.29) to dog-like hunter (p. 48) to self-proclaimed savage, (p. 151) until finally the blood lust becomes him. It is a point of no return.

Into the fray between Ralph and Jack, Golding scatters a supporting cast of absolutes whose role it is to articulate the terms of their conflict and facilitate a resolution for better or for worse. At the darkest end of the spectrum is the "tapping impervious" Roger, who appears as a sort of cardboard cutout for the most volatile forces of the subliminal. As mute and poker-faced as the unconscious itself, he reveals himself only in flickers, flashes and fluttering eyelids that hint at the appalling brutality lurking just below the surface. And while we may be scandalized by the Satanic charge he appears to get from pelting stones at a littlun, it pales next to the "delirious abandonment" (p. 100) that will prompt him to catapult a car-sized boulder off a cliff, shattering Piggy, the conch, and all the order and civility they represent.

Roger's antithesis is Simon: a portrait of unadulterated spirit. He alone stands apart from the shadow and from this singular vantage is able to grasp its substance and its source. The beast is neither snake, nor monster, nor decapitated pig; it is a threat at the root of themselves. As sole possessor of the truth, it falls to him to break through their frenzied ranks to bear a message they are not yet ready to hear. Indeed, there seems to be more than a little of the Holy Trinity at the heart of Golding's tale. Jesus-like, Simon is made of more diaphanous stuff than the rest: his body may be broken for the foibles of humanity, but his spirit lives on in a place far removed from the island of self. And so, when "softly, surrounded by a fringe of inquisitive bright creatures, itself a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations, Simon's body moved out towards the open sea" (p. 170), we find we must rely on the merely mortal mind to envision a destination of infinity.

Lord of the Flies leads us in a vigorous trek through the jungle of paradox that lies at the heart of human nature. It is fitting then that the story should conclude on such a profound note of irony. Left alone to face the great wilderness of themselves, Golding's boys seem destined to become the authors of their own destruction. Their original hope for rescue becomes the ultimate threat to their survival when, in the fever of their feud, they accidentally-on-purpose set fire to the island. Perhaps this is the author's message of self-restraint: a metaphorical caution against sacrificing the precious resource of reason to rampant emotion. And yet there is more. By luck or by providence, a passing ship will witness the havoc they have wreaked upon themselves and become their saving grace. This most astonishing turn of events seems to suggest one of two interpretations: it is either the author's simple statement of eternal optimism or his affirmation of man's dependence on a power beyond himself. The first, of course, will be manna to the fan of the happy ending. And the second? Yet another carrot dangled before the perpetually inquiring mind.

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