Lord of the Flies is the story of a group of boys whose plane crashes during the wartime evacuation of English schoolchildren. All adults are killed in the crash, and despite early attempts at organization, spearheaded by a boy named Ralph, the boys quickly descend into inhuman behavior that begins with the taunting of an overweight boy known as Piggy and ends with the formation of a savage, bloody society. When the boys are rescued they are confronted with the horrors of their own actions.
The novel opens with Ralph, and as the main protagonist, much of the story is focused on his development. He is the character that changes the most over the course of the book, transforming from a typical English schoolboy without a thought of anything but himself, to a leader with the ability to recognize value in a person repeatedly passed over by society.
When he first arrives on the island, Ralph is only interested in exploring the island. He puts up with Piggy's inquisitiveness, but makes no effort either to encourage or discourage him. He is completely closed on himself and almost bland in his interaction with the world around him. Once he and Piggy find the conch shell, and he calls a meeting into order, he is suddenly in a position of authority, and his influence on the world around him increases. He appreciates his new role, and as the book progresses, he becomes more interested in the twin objectives of filling that role well, along with successfully instigating a rescue.
After the initial flush of excitement has passed, and the first boy goes missing, Ralph begins to recognize the seriousness of the situation in which the boys find themselves. While the other boys can ignore the dangers of their life on the island, and enjoy their time there, Ralph is consumed by need for rescue, and the benefit of creating a stable society in the meantime. His tendency towards civilization causes increasing conflict with Jack. The two boys are the dominant personalities in the island and the major themes of the novel play out in the relationship between these two.
At all meetings, Ralph continues his mantra about the need to maintain the fire, and the importance of rescue. His purposes are understood to be necessary, but at the same time extremely boring, and he has a lot of trouble keeping the boys interested and involved. He finds emotional support in Piggy, though he is unable to help physically. For that, he turns to Simon, who is devoted to Ralph in his own way. As time passes, Ralph becomes worn down by the increasing resistance of the boys toward his suggestions, and uneasy about how to deal with the fear that is growing among the boys on the island. He does not believe in the beast, and tries to prevent others from thinking about it. As he becomes more comfortable with speaking in public, and more aware of himself, he also achieves a greater understanding of his own shortcomings, and though improving as a leader, grows more frustrated at his lack of skill.
He eventually must confront Jack, but by that point, Jack's power is too great, and his attempts to reason with him fail. Though he experiences first hand the way that the beast can take over a person and fill him with an indescribable need for violence, he resists the urge to give up on civilization completely, and only resorts to violence in the end when hunted by Jack and his tribe.
At the end of the novel, he feels the weight of his failure as chief and all of the injustice of Simon and Piggy's deaths. His own loss of innocence, along with that of all the other boys is fully realized, and it is this that makes him break down in front of the naval officer. Faced with rescue at last, all the tension that had been building inside of him can finally be released.
At first, a seeming nuisance who will not leave Ralph in peace, Piggy quickly develops into the representation of intelligence and reason. Though Ralph often creates the situation, such as finding the conch shell, it is Piggy who knows what the next step should be. Ralph suggests the fire on the mountain, which prompts the boys to disperse, but Piggy sees their rash action for all its immaturity and criticizes them for not first building shelters. Piggy is the major proponent of the theme that it is necessary to think first and act later, rather than jumping into action and then suffering the consequences. In this way, he is a major symbol of civilization, and the impulse that Ralph attempts to encourage in all the other boys. His glasses are the source of fire, and the indicator of the state of their society. As the society breaks down, so do his glasses, until they are lost altogether to Jack and his tribe.
Piggy does not change over the course of the novel, though the way that other people see him does. Piggy himself remains steadily rational, and consistently reverent of the shell and what it represents. He is always willing to voice his opinions, even when it is clear that they are unwanted. He is used to being insulted and ridiculed, and he deals with such situations without concern. He hates and fears Jack, who is willing to cause harm to Piggy.
Though Piggy does not change, Ralph's feelings towards him do. At first, he is someone to be ignored, or laughed at, but as Ralph becomes involved in attempting to maintain order on the island, he comes to depend on Piggy for suggestions. Piggy can be ditzy, but his unfaltering faith in the scientific nature of the world offers a different viewpoint for Ralph to consider.
Jack is the main antagonist of the story, and Ralph's alter ego. While Ralph is interested in all things to do with civilization, Jack is interested in hunting, and all things that come from the savage impulse within. Aggressive from the start, Jack arrives at the platform with his choir firmly under his control. It is clear that he enjoys ordering them around, and is used to being obeyed. He attempts to become chief, but Ralph's authority has already been established via the conch shell, so Jack must settle for remaining in charge of his choir, which he excitedly designates as "hunters."
Ralph is not threatened by Jack's desire to lead, but Jack soon develops a distaste for Ralph's leadership. They start out as friends, but as time passes, their different interests drives them apart, as these interests clash. On the initial expedition up the mountain, Jack's interest in hunting becomes apparent. He is unable to bring himself to killing the pig that is trapped in front of him, and this seems to create a need to prove himself. He challenges everyone to doubt him so that he may prove them wrong, and then proceeds to focus on becoming a successful hunter. It is all that he is concerned about for most of the book. The turning point for him is when he first paints his face. He hides behind the mask, which frees him from self-consciousness and self-doubt. He immediately is freed from most of the bounds of society, and he allows his ferocity to show. After this, he successfully kills a pig, and his career as a hunter is well on its way.
He only improves as a hunter, and as he does so, he gains the respect and fear of the other boys. Piggy fears him because Jack hates Piggy, but Jack's need for meat makes many of the other boys uneasy, but they admire his ability. He has an energy that Ralph cannot match, as well as an emphasis on fun that is appealing to the boys who do not see the value in working for something that may or may not result in rescue. This puts Jack into the position where he can separate himself from the group of boys under Ralph, and establish himself as a chief. Once he has the power that he was craving, his fierceness is unchecked and he grows ever more violent, until the final moments of the chapter when he tries to kill Ralph.
Simon is the character with the purest heart of all the boys. A member of Jack's choir, he has a delicate constitution, which causes him to faint in the heat of the sun in front of all the boys on the platform. As is often the case in novels, his physical weakness is a sign of sensitivity of spirit, and Simon is the most tuned into the rhythm of the island. He has a secret spot in the forest where he hides and thinks. He is devoted to Ralph, and helps out when no one else will. His otherness disturbs the boys and he is held as an outsider, thought of as slightly crazy. He does not help this impression as he tries to express his thoughts about the beast and finds he cannot. He is a poor public speaker, and shy, and his efforts to convince the boys about the nature of the beast fail miserably. This does not improve over the course of the novel, as he continues to inspire laughter and ridicule when he tries to speak in assemblies.
But his sensitivity makes him a kind of prophet, and he shares his thoughts with Ralph, who eventually believes in Simon's sincerity. Though he accepts his friendship, Ralph never understands Simon or his value for the island. It is Simon who has a conversation with the Lord of the Flies, and discovers that the beast on the top of the mountain is a corpse. He tries a third and final time to stop the path that the boys were traveling on, by sharing his new information about the beast, but instead he is killed in a frenzy. Ironically, the madness that they associated with him was actually a kind of lucidity and the boys were the ones who were crazy.