The major conflict in Lord of the Flies is the struggle between Jack and Ralph. The fight for who will lead the island represents the clash between a peaceful democracy, as symbolized by Ralph, and a violent dictatorship, as symbolized by Jack. Both boys are potential leaders of the entire group, and though Jack grudgingly accepts Ralph’s leadership at first, as the plot develops their rivalry grows and intensifies until it is a struggle to the death. Ralph and Jack (and the boys who align themselves with each) represent different values and different aspects of human nature. Ralph represents respect for the law, duty, reason, and the protection of the weak, whereas Jack represents violence, cruelty, mob rule, government through fear, and tyranny. As we see Ralph’s hold over the other boys weaken and crumble until he is cast out and hunted, the story seems to be showing us that humanity’s violent and savage impulses are more powerful than civilization, which is inherently fragile. And while Ralph is rescued at the last minute by a representative of civilization in the person of the naval officer, the fact that a global war is taking place underlines the idea that civilization itself is under serious threat from the forces of violence.
Set against the backdrop of global war, the book serves as a caution against the specific consequences of nuclear armament, as well as a broader examination of human nature and the destabilizing presence of man in the natural world. In telling its story through the experience of young boys isolated from the rest of civilization, and making few references to the world outside the confines of the island, the novel creates a sense of inevitability and universality to the specific tale of a small group battling nature and each other. By making the two main characters emblematic of two approaches to society, Golding creates a conflict that seems to lead inexorably to the destruction of one of the characters, but is instead resolved by the surprise introduction of the outside, ‘adult’ reality. In this way the preceding events act as allegory for the more consequential, and far more dangerous, actions of man beyond the island.
The book opens in the immediate aftermath of the plane crash that lands the boys on the island, so the novel’s inciting incident happens offstage. The reader first meets Ralph, who is introduced as graceful and physically appealing, and Piggy, who is presented as Ralph’s physical opposite. The boys discover a conch and use it to summon the rest of the survivors of the crash, introducing us to Jack, who appears confident and is already leading a group of boys. The boys vote for Ralph to be the group’s chief, despite the fact that “the most obvious leader was Jack,” partly because Ralph possesses the conch. Jack reluctantly accepts Ralph’s leadership, and the two bond in exploring the island together. Jack asserts himself after the humiliation of losing the vote for chief by slamming his knife into a tree and declaring that he will be a hunter, establishing the boys’ primary roles: Ralph will be in charge of communication and working to get them rescued, while Jack will be responsible for hunting for meat. Which of these two roles is more important will be the source of escalating conflict between the two for the remainder of the book.
The rising action of the novel takes place over the following chapters, as each boy on the island establishes his role in the order of the newly formed society, and Jack and Ralph find themselves increasingly at odds over what the group’s priorities should be and where they should expend energy. Ralph insists that a signal fire must be maintained constantly in case any ships pass the island, and believes the best use of resources is in collaborative work to watch the fire, build shelters, and gather fruit. Jack discovers a passionate enjoyment of hunting, and allows the signal fire to go out while killing a pig, leading to a clash with Ralph, who has seen a ship pass while the fire was out. The younger boys on the island express growing fears about a beast they believe comes out at night to menace them. In a scene the reader sees but none of the boys witnesses, a paratrooper crashes onto the top of the mountain, and the boys subsequently mistake his form for the beast, increasing their fears and making them vulnerable to Jack’s equation of killing pigs with vanquishing their fears, as their chants change from “kill the pig” to “kill the beast.”
After the boys kill Simon in a frenzy of fear and violent excitement, the rift between Jack and Ralph reaches a crisis point, and the climax of the book occurs when Jack and his tribe steal Piggy’s glasses, then kill Piggy when he comes to get them back. When Jack’s tribe steals the glasses, Ralph and Piggy think they are coming for the conch, but at this point the conch has lost most of its symbolic power, and Jack understands the glasses, which are necessary to start a fire, are the real item of value. This devaluing of the conch suggests that the agreed-upon symbols of democracy and due process no longer apply, and the fragile civilization the boys have forged is imploding. The next day, Piggy and Ralph go to retrieve Piggy’s glasses and a member of Jack’s tribe releases a large boulder, smashing the conch and killing Piggy. The democracy is demolished, and Jack’s despotic monarchy is cemented. Realizing his life is in imminent danger, Ralph flees Jack and his tribe, who have become bloodthirsty and increasingly sadistic under his violent influence.
Up to this point the boys have maintained a fragile balance, with Jack’s willingness to enact violence offset by Ralph’s control of the means of lighting the fire and the symbolic power conferred by the conch. Once this balance is destroyed, and Jack controls both the means of sustaining the fire and keeping the boys obedient to his rule, Ralph is rendered powerless. Unlike Ralph, who expects the boys to be intrinsically motivated to work together, Jack is willing to exert external influence on boys who disobey him, and leads by force, rather than persuasion. Motivated by a fear of Jack’s violence as well as a mob mentality, the boys pursue Ralph across the island, even though he poses no actual threat. Even the twins Samneric, initially sympathetic to Ralph, give themselves over to Jack after he tortures them to reveal Ralph’s hiding place. The boys set a fire to flush Ralph out of the jungle, which signals a passing ship. The ship’s officer comes on shore, reintroducing civilization, and the boys realize the horrors they have endured and perpetuated. The book ends with the island destroyed, and the boys rescued but scarred by their glimpses into “the darkness of man’s heart.”