Curriculum Vital

The Education Umbrella Guide to Lord of the Flies
Character profiles

Ralph | Piggy | Jack | Simon | Sam & Eric | RogerPercival

These character profiles are part of the Education Umbrella Guide to Lord of the Flies, which features chapter-by-chapter summary and analysis, analysis of the symbols and objects, and a scheme of work. 

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

Ralph

He was old enough, twelve years old and a few months, to have lost the prominent tummy of childhood; and not yet old enough for adolescence to have made him awkward. You could see now that he might make a boxer, as far as width and heaviness of shoulders went, but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil.

Ralph, the reluctant chief, is the ally of law-abiding Piggy and the nemesis of savage Jack.

Straddling childhood and adolescence, Ralph, with his fair hair and athletic build, stands between the raw savagery of red-haired Jack and the flustered decency of Piggy. Where Jack offers bloodlust and anarchy, Ralph offers altruism and order; and where Piggy can only theorise, Ralph can offer muscle power to match his good intentions.

Ralph, the boy who discovers and first sounds the conch, favours law and order:

  • he devises and strictly adheres to the rule that only the person holding the conch can speak;
  • he believes the boys should focus on building shelters rather than hunting;
  • he thinks the signal fire is more important than any cooking fire;
  • he introduces a rudimentary system of sanitation and water collection, and reproaches the boys when they abandon it.

Throughout the novel, Ralph is aware of his increasingly dishevelled appearance. In chapter seven, as the boys trek in search of the beast, we are told that he puts on his ‘stiff’ clothes ‘not for decorum or comfort, but out of custom’. In the penultimate chapter, ‘Castle Rock’, he suggests the boys dress and wash themselves as best they can before confronting Jack and the hunters. When in the novel’s final scene he comes upon the Royal Navy officer, Ralph first notices the man’s pristine uniform, which he recognises as a mark of order and authority.

However, the line ‘but there was a mildness about his mouth and eyes that proclaimed no devil’ offers an ominous hint of Ralph’s dark side.

In chapter four, as Jack and his hunters cook their meat over a fire, Ralph, having sworn he would resist, yields to his overwhelming natural urges and eats a proffered piece of pork ‘like a wolf.’

In chapter seven, Ralph’s yearning for meat manifests itself in two disturbing ways. First, he manages to spear a boar. Though the creature escapes, the thrill of success exhilarates Ralph. With his self control momentarily quashed, he joins the other boys in a re-enactment of the hunt, one that soon takes a disturbing turn:

Ralph too was fighting to get near, to get a handful of that brown, vulnerable flesh. The desire to squeeze and hurt was over-mastering.

Ralph’s latent ‘desire to squeeze’ and the ever-present sense of fear combine most terribly in chapter nine, ‘A View to a Death’, when Jack’s band of hunters begin their dance. Piggy and Ralph find themselves ‘eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society.’ They are pleased to touch ‘the brown backs of the fence that hemmed in the terror and made it governable.’

In a literal and figurative sense, Ralph is a profound character. Just as he must summon a new, deeper breath in order to sound the conch, so, thrust into the role of chief, he discovers levels of strength and personality he did not know he possessed. Ralph needs this new fortitude most when the littluns begin worrying about a beast:

Something he had not known was there rose in him and compelled him to make the point, loudly and again.
‘But I tell you there isn’t a beast!’

The surest sign of Ralph’s intelligence is his awareness of his own limitations:

By now, Ralph had no self-consciousness in public thinking but would treat the day’s decisions as though he were playing chess. The only trouble was that he would never be a very good chess player.

By chapter five, Ralph has concluded that he does not have Piggy’s intelligence. This marks an important stage in the boys’ friendship. In chapter one, Ralph twice insults Piggy, first by declaring in front of everyone, against Piggy’s wishes, that he go by the nickname Piggy; then by brusquely ordering him to go back to the camp and take names. By the end of the novel, Ralph regrets his actions, and weeps for ‘the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.’

Ralph depends on Piggy more than either boy realises. When Ralph wonders aloud if there might well be a ghost, it is Piggy who makes him retain his belief in science and reason. When Ralph loses faith in the conch, – and, thus, civilisation – it is Piggy who implores him to remain as chief.

Ralph bears more than a passing resemblance to William Golding himself. In his biography of Golding, John Carey writes, ‘The spiritual and the miraculous, and their collision with science and rationality, were at the centre of his creative life.’ In the fantastical setting of the island, Ralph often blurs nostalgic fantasies with reality. Asleep, he dreams of ‘feeding the ponies with sugar over the garden wall.’ Golding kept a dream diary most of his adult life, and frequently speculated in his journal what his visions could represent.

Like Ralph, the child Golding was susceptible to ghost stories. His father’s dismissal of their validity (nothing immaterial can reflect light, he would say) would work during the day, but when night came, like the boys in the story, Golding would become frightened by his own imagination.

Most tellingly, Golding, writes Carey, ‘came to see that what is admired as manliness is often synonymous with destruction and stupidity’. Ralph has the same sensitivity. Jack claims that Ralph is not fit to be chief because he cannot hunt. Ralph, like Golding, rejects this.

Piggy

He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat. He came forward, searching out safe lodgements for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles.

Of all the boys, fat, short-sighted, asthmatic Piggy is the most devoted to the invisible power of the conch and most desperate to maintain the signal fire because he knows he will not survive in a world of savage lawlessness.

Orphaned at a young age and raised by his aunt, Piggy, unlike Ralph, is horrified when he realises that there are no grown ups on the island. Though he is slow, overly fastidious and physically awkward, Piggy soon demonstrates to Ralph that he will be a useful ally. It is Piggy who, unable to summon the necessary breath due to his asthma, teaches Ralph how to extract a powerful sound from the conch.

Piggy is both intelligent and rational. He first demonstrates this when he opposes the zeal with which the boys rush up the mountain to build a signal fire. He senses that the project will end in disaster. When the fire duly spreads out of control, Piggy admonishes the boys by calling them a ‘pack of kids’.

Piggy never wavers in his devotion to both the conch and Chief Ralph, or in his belief that the beast is a fantasy. He is also adamant that grown ups would never descend into savagery, as Jack and his hunters do. With the simultaneous destruction of Piggy and the conch, the hunters become full-blown savages.

On one level, Piggy represents the most vulnerable members of society; those who are the first to suffer in times of fear and privation.

On another level, Piggy in part represents the Jewish people of Europe during the reign of the Nazis before and during World War II. He suffers insult, mockery, theft and violence, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that his glasses hold the key to the boys’ survival. Robbed of his spectacles and left helpless, he is then murdered with appalling brutality.

Between 1932 and 1945, nearly six million European Jews suffered a similar fate: public stigmatisation and ridicule; the ransacking and seizure of their business and property; violence, aggression and, eventually, murder.

The wave of anti-Semitism that swept over Germany in the 1930s and culminated with the Holocaust was fuelled in part by jealousy. Like the Jewish money-lender Shylock in William Shakespeare’s play The Merchant of Venice, many Jews in Nazi Germany filled crucial roles, such as doctor, lawyer and accountant. German society suffered greatly from the murder of these people, just as the boys’ fragile society collapses in a blaze of savagery soon after Piggy is murdered.

Many of the greatest scientists, mathematicians and writers of the 19th and 20th centuries were Jewish: Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Saul Bellow, Milton Friedman. Similarly, Piggy is the most intelligent of the boys, even if this intelligence sometimes reflects more of a shortcoming on the part of the other boys: ‘Only Piggy could have the intellectual daring to suggest moving the fire from the mountain.’

There is a grim irony in the nickname Piggy. Jewish law prohibits the consumption of pig meat. It is therefore somewhat appropriate that Piggy is so appalled when Ralph reveals this nickname to the boys. 'Better Piggy than Fatty', is Ralph’s rather callous response. Like Britain, France and other Allied and neutral nations in WWII, Ralph only feels true repentance for his mistreatment of Piggy after his murder.

Jack

Inside the floating cloak he was tall, thin, and bony; and his hair was red beneath the black cap. His face was crumpled and freckled, and ugly without silliness. Out of this face stared two light blue eyes, frustrated now, and turning, or ready to turn, to anger.

Jack Merridew is the leader of the hunters. He represents savagery, disorder and anarchy.

In his old life, Jack was a chapter chorister and head boy. He claims to be able to sing C sharp (a high note, which indicates that his voice has not yet broken). On the island, he leads his choir group (and later hunting group) with uncompromising aggressiveness. During the boys’ first gathering, Jack wrongly assumes that he will be elected chief.

With his fiery red hair and insatiable lust for meat, Jack is the antithesis of ordered, lawful Ralph and Piggy. He never fully embraces the authority of the conch, or the importance of the signal fire. As his savagery grows, he destroys the former and ignores the latter. After losing to Ralph in the election for chief, and failing in an attempted coup, Jack forms his own group and declares himself its leader.

Hungry for power, but aware of his own limitations, Jack becomes increasingly violent and deluded. His attempt to corner and kill Ralph by smoking him out of his hiding place inadvertently leads to the one thing he has never desired – rescue.

Rescue for Jack means authority, rules, cleanliness, clothing, patience and self-restraint. When in the final scene he is confronted by a uniformed grown up, Jack meekly reverts to the frightened boy that has been hiding behind face paint and hunting chants.

In the old world, Jack was arrogant if somewhat insecure. On the island, he quickly becomes rude and coarse, and resentful of the rules and norms he used to obey. He declares that he will be known as Merridew rather than by his first name, Jack, a ‘kid’s name’, as he puts it. Perhaps angry that this never catches on (even the narrator refers to him as ‘Jack’), he eventually insists that he be called ‘the Chief’. 

In speech, manner and deed, Jack resembles 20th century tyrants in general and Adolf Hitler in particular. Like Hitler, Jack loses an election, launches a dismal coup, and eventually achieves power through a combination of usurpation, violence, intimidation, false promises and angry rhetoric in a time of great fear and desperation. Hitler declared himself Führer (Leader); Jack declares himself ‘the Chief’. Hitler was a fanatical anti-Semite; all Jack can think about, as Ralph says, is ‘pig, pig, pig!’ Hitler employed a sinister right-hand man (Joseph Goebbels) to spread his message; Jack relies on Roger to communicate warnings and to murder Piggy. Hitler used arbitrary violence and imprisonment to intimidate the populace; Jack beats Wilfred for no apparent reason.

Jack is the dark character that lies dormant in every human being. Most people, suppress their dark urges and adhere to the rules; some long for an excuse to set their savagery free. Ralph is the former; Jack is the latter.

Simon

He was a small, skinny boy, his chin pointed, and his eyes so bright they had deceived Ralph into thinking him delightfully gay and wicked. The coarse mop of black hair was long and swung down, almost concealing a low, broad forehead. He wore the remains of shorts and his feet were bare like Jack’s. Always darkish in colour, Simon was burned by the sun to a deep tan that glistened with sweat.

Short, secretive and enigmatic, Simon is a prophetic figure. He straddles the competing worlds of fantasy and reality.

Simon is at first a reluctant member of Jack’s hunting group. This reticence is due in part to his physical frailty (his first act is to collapse from fatigue) and recurrent fever, but mainly to his unyielding sense that the hunters represent something dangerous and amoral. This fear proves well founded when the deranged savages one night mistake a feverish and bloodied Simon for the mythical beast and beat him to death.

Far from being ‘delightfully gay and wicked’, as Ralph at first believes, Simon is kind, thoughtful and perceptive, but also timid and unsure of his own wisdom. During one of the early assemblies, when the boys are still bound by rules and discipline, Simon attempts to explain his theory that the real ‘beast’ on the island is mankind, i.e. the boys themselves. Unable to express his feelings clearly, Simon is quickly ridiculed into silence by Jack’s boorishness.

Having hit upon this profound idea, it is fitting that Simon is the first and only boy to discover that the Lord of the Flies is just a ‘pig’s head on a stick’, and that the creature the boys thought was the beast is just a dead pilot who parachuted onto the island. This comes after Simon sneaks away to an isolated garden in order to be alone. The synoptic gospels (those of Matthew, Mark and Luke) record Jesus retreating to a garden in Gethsemane to pray before he was arrested, tried and crucified. Jesus also confronted the devil, while Simon is the only one to examine the 'beast' (another term for devil) rationally.

Like Jesus, Simon is ridiculed for his beliefs, occasionally even by his friends (‘He’s cracked’, says Piggy after he and Ralph realise that Simon has slipped away). He is also betrayed by his friends (Ralph and Piggy) and mistakenly executed before a frenzied crowd. This brutal death comes after Simon staggers, bloodied and delirious, in an attempt to spread the good news (that there is no beast) to his fellow boys, in much the same way as Jesus staggered under the weight of his cross, bloodied and alone, towards Calvary to save mankind from sin. Interestingly, as he carried his cross Jesus was helped by a man named Simon of Cyrene.

Most of all, Simon offers reassurance in a dangerous world. When Ralph's self-confidence wavers in chapter five, Simon implores him to 'Go on being chief', much as Jesus assures the fishermen to cast their nets in a different part of the water. As the boys trek to find the beast, Simon calmly says to Ralph, ‘You’ll get back to where you came from’, which resembles Jesus’ words to one of the thieves being crucified with him, 'Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with me in paradise' (Luke 23:43). 

As he is hallucinating before the pig’s severed head, Simon imagines the Lord of the Flies calling him ‘an ignorant, silly little boy.’ Simon, though, is neither ignorant nor silly. Weakened by fever, aware of his slight stature, Simon offers hope and goodness in a world of evil and hysteria.

Sam and Eric

The two boys, bullet-headed and with hair like tow, flung themselves down and lay grinning and panting at Ralph like dogs. They were twins, and the eye was shocked and incredulous at such cheery duplication. They breathed together, they grinned together, they were chunky and vital. They raised wet lips at Ralph, for they seemed provided with not quite enough skin, so that their profiles were blurred and their mouths pulled open.

Sam and Eric are among the first to join Ralph and the last to leave, or be forced out. They are also the first to see what they think is the beast, but is in fact a dead pilot trapped in his parachute.

Sam and Eric’s fraternal unity, captured in their collective title ‘Samneric’, remains strong until Jack leaves to form his own group. As the twins, Ralph and Piggy struggle to keep their fire going, they express disillusionment and pessimism. Later, when Ralph proposes confronting Jack’s tribe and securing Piggy’s stolen glasses, Samneric foolishly suggest that they imitate the savages by painting themselves.

Though their loyalty is at times questionable, Samneric remain wedded to the old world of rules and decency. When in the penultimate chapter they are captured by Jack’s hunters, they protest ‘out of the heart of civilisation’:

‘Oh, I say!’
‘—honestly!’

These quaint, almost antiquated remarks in response to feral brutality show that family unity is an essential bulwark against savagery.

The twins are forcibly conscripted into Jack’s army. Our final image of them is being tortured by Roger and Jack for information on Ralph’s whereabouts.

Roger

There was a slight, furtive boy whom no one knew, who kept to himself with an inner intensity of avoidance and secrecy. He muttered that his name was Roger and was silent again.

Roger is Jack’s deputy, a dark and peculiar boy with a sadomasochistic edge that emerges in stages throughout the novel. By the end he has become even more savage than Jack.

We first notice Roger’s latent fondness for destruction in chapter three, ‘Painted Faces and Long Hair’, when, returning from fire duty with Maurice, he kicks over the littluns’ sandcastles. He then does something slight and odd, but important. He begins throwing stones at a boy named Henry, who is amusing himself in the tide. Crucially, Roger throws to miss:

[T]here was a space round Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. 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. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins.

The significance of this act becomes clear in the penultimate chapter when Roger releases not a stone, but a boulder, with deliberately murderous intent. It is a swift and savage act that crushes not just Piggy and the shell, but also Roger’s few remaining vestiges of morality and restraint. He has done something Jack hasn’t: he has killed a fellow human. Emboldened, he begins to act not as Jack’s deputy, but as his equal, or worse. Not even Jack would dare sharpen a spear at both ends with the intention of skewering Ralph on it.

It is a startling turn, but it has been coming. As early as chapter three we note a subtle change coming over Roger:

He was not noticeably darker than when he had dropped in, but the shock of black hair, down his nape and low on his forehead, seemed to suit his gloomy face and made what had seemed at first an unsociable remoteness into something forbidding.

Shock, black, low, gloomy, unsociable remoteness, something forbidding: like many young men allowed to escape rules, laws and ethics, Roger quickly becomes a beast.

Percival

Percival was mouse-coloured and had not been very attractive even to his mother.

Percival Wemys Madison is one of the youngest and smallest of the littluns. Not long after washing up on the island, he crawls into a shelter and stays there for two days, ‘talking, singing, and crying.’ The boys find him odd, but slightly amusing. He remains throughout the novel ‘peaked, red-eyed, and miserable.’ He plays little and cries often.

Percival’s fragile mental state is not helped when in chapter four Roger and Maurice return from fire duty and wreck Percival’s sand castles. Maurice inadvertently gets sand in Percival’s eye. In the world of grown ups, Maurice would have felt or been compelled to apologise. He feels a vague sense of wrongdoing, but says nothing, leaving Percival to cry alone. Just as Percival is recovering from this, his equally slight friend Johnny, having witnessed Maurice’s unrestrained horseplay, begins throwing sand, making Percival cry once more.

In chapter five, during one of the first discussions about the beast, Piggy asks Percival to tell the assembly what he has seen. They ask Percival first to state his name. He struggles to speak, then says, ‘Percival Wemys Madison, The Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, Hants, telephone, telephone, tele—’ Thrust into the spotlight, he has broken down. He weeps so loudly and for so long that the others become alarmed and tell him to ‘Shut up’. The emotion is too strong, though:

A spring had been tapped, far beyond the reach of authority or even physical intimidation. The crying went on, breath after breath, and seemed to sustain him upright as if he were nailed to it.

Note the link between what we can assume is Percival’s address (‘The Vicarage’) and the line ‘The crying… seemed to sustain him upright as if he were nailed to it.’ This evokes the image of Jesus Christ being nailed to the cross during his crucifixion. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, Saint Anthony, a Portuguese Catholic priest of the 13th century, is the patron saint of finding things or lost people.

When he eventually stops crying, Percival quickly recovers from his hysteria and, ‘surrounded by the comfortable presence of humans’, curls up in the long grass and goes to sleep. This peaceful slumber does not last long, though. By the end of the chapter, Ralph, Piggy and Simon hear an awful noise:

A thin wail out of the darkness chilled them and set them grabbing for each other. Then the wail rose, remote and unearthly, and turned to an inarticulate gibbering. Percival Wemys Madison, of the Vicarage, Harcourt St. Anthony, lying in the long grass, was living through circumstances in which the incantation of his address was powerless to help him. 

An incantation is a chant or spell, often used in hymns and prayers to invoke a deity. Golding uses it again in Percival’s next and final appearance, in chapter 12, when, emerging from his hiding place, Percival tries to identify himself to the naval officer: ‘Percival Wemys Madison sought in his head for an incantation that had faded clean away.’

It is interesting that Golding would employ this word rather than ‘repetition’, as if this frightened son of a vicar draws spiritual strength from repeating his address. The fact that Percival can no longer recall who he is or where he lives suggests that the savage hell of the island has destroyed his religious impulse.

The boys’ brief existence on the island makes them aware of the most fundamental aspects of human society, from time and shelter, to cleanliness and clothing. Through Percival – and Piggy, whose real name we never learn – we see the precious connection between a name and an address.

Interestingly, Wemyss Ware is a line of pottery begun by the Wemyss family in Scotland in the late 19th century. The company is famous for producing, amongst other things, model pigs. 

Questions? Comments? Contact Ross: rgrainger@educationumbrella.com

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