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.
This theme is voiced by Ralph in chapter three, as he considers for the first time the difficulty of getting the boys to do what he wants them to do. He is having trouble building the shelters, because he is left with only Simon to help.
Over the course of the novel, Ralph experiences this theme in two instances, one is his relationship with Piggy, the other with Jack. At the beginning, Piggy is a nuisance and by the end, he is a valued friend. Ralph grows to understand the way that Piggy thinks and he realizes that Piggy possesses an intelligence unmatched by any boy on the island. He envies this ability, and it and he tries to emulate it in his assemblies. Though Piggy's physical imperfections make him the laughingstock of the boys, Ralph eventually sees Piggy's internal worth. In the moments that Ralph laughs at Piggy's expense, it is against his will and the effect of years of habit. Ralph becomes closer to Piggy, which is one of the ways that Jack feels threatened. Jack resents Piggy's sway with Ralph, and this increases his dislike of him. He lashes out against him, which makes Ralph more aware of Piggy's value. Once Ralph is able to consider Piggy's death, his importance of a friend is undeniable, and heart-wrenching for Ralph.
On the other hand, Jack begins as a natural friend for Ralph. As the two dominant personalities on the island, they understand each other and see each other as equals. They climb the mountain together and share the fun imaginings of boys exploring. They laugh and clown around together and almost share the leadership role once they return to the assembly. As time passes, though, Ralph remains interested in rescue, and Jack becomes increasingly focused on killing a pig. The need to kill is something that Ralph cannot figure out, and as Jack continues deeper and deeper, Ralph understands less and less. On the mountain, after the ship has passed by when the fire was out, Ralph confronts Jack and begins to see him as he really is for the first time. As Jack challenges his authority more and more, Ralph realizes that he is a danger to the society he is attempting to create, not an well-meaning boy with an interest in having fun. Piggy informs Ralph that Jack hates both him and Ralph, which takes Ralph by surprise. Once he knows this, though, it is a key to understanding Jack, and he realizes that he was wrong about him from the beginning.
The novel explores the way that human nature is divided between the impulse towards savagery and the desire to create order. The island is a microcosm of society at large. The boys arrive on a perfect island from the same culture, for the most part friendly and polite, but without anything to maintain this situation, it deteriorates and they give way to anger and distrust. They do not have any external source of order, and no means of creating it, so left on their own, their society crumbles into chaos. Except for Ralph and Piggy, they lack the maturity to see the value of civilization, and the danger of living without rules.
Each side is represented by a boy; Jack becomes a barbarian and Ralph attempts to retain order at all times. The boys attempt to remain friends, but the difference between the two is too great for them to get along with each other. At the beginning, when they discuss creating a set of rules to govern the island, Jack is excited about the prospect, but soon becomes apparent that he wants the rules, not because he sees the need for maintaining order, but because it would be a way for him to exercise his authority over the other boys. For him, civilization is about controlling other people, and as he quickly finds that it is easier to gain dominance through fear and aggression, he lets the violence out. Like Roger, he is normally kept from acting on his impulses by the threat of policemen and teachers, and the fear of punishment. On the island, none of these exist, so there is no deterrent to their behavior. Anything goes, and by the end of the novel, the boys are acting on any impulse no matter how violent.
The natural inclination to believe that humans are fairly civilized is challenged by this story. The naval officer at the end speaks for the general public, surprised that a group of English boys did not act in a more civilized way. His mention of the book Coral Island, the Victorian-era story of the adventures of a group of boys marooned on an island echoes the tendency to believe that people would maintain society when found outside of it. Instead, this book, a sharp contrast to the sunny story with a happy ending, argues that left alone, the chance of people's darker halves coming out is far more likely. Ralph attempts to maintain order, and he does believe in the benefits of society, but most of the other boys would rather go to Jack, who appeals to their basest instincts. They want to have fun and they want to live without restrictions, which means the possibility for violence is always present.
The novel is one that charts the loss of innocence of a group of boys, but in a way, the narrative suggests that no one is ever innocent. Innocence is a trick that humans play, convincing themselves that at some point in everyone's lives there was a time when they wanted nothing but good for other people, and they believed the world was a good place. After his involvement during World War II, it seems that Golding developed an impression human nature that disputes this opinion. Seeing the unimaginable suffering and irrational fighting of a major war must make one question the possibility of any kind of innocence in a world of atomic bombs and mass attacks. In the war, not just men, but boys were fighting, and if they did begin innocent, they left far more world-weary.
The boys fear the beast, which they think is an external force, an animal or a ghost. As Simon discovers the beast is an internal force, inside each of the boys. In this way, the beast is always present, no matter what the age. Though it is on a much smaller scale, children torment each other, and cause trouble for one another in the way that adults do. The boys arrive on the island, perfectly civilized and polite to one another. As time progresses, the typical childish teasing is given free reign and they imagine the joys of a life without adults and without rules. They live as they want to and play all day. Though they establish Ralph as an authority figure, he does not have the power that adults normally do and they can ignore his commands without punishment. Their freedom is harmless at first, but with Roger and Jack leading the way, this grows ever steadily into something far more harmful. The boys become violent and aggressive, and it comes from their own nature, rather than any external source. Left to themselves, without any influence, the boys succumb to belligerence and antagonism.
It is this idea that causes Ralph to break down at the end of the novel. He sees the way that the darkness that they all feared and they all experienced came from within themselves. The burnt-out island reflects their souls, marred by the sinister influences that so many of the boys acted on. Ralph knows the feeling, as he was present at Simon's death, and was a part of it, though not an active one. It is the understanding that no one is innocent that Ralph is confronted with on the day of his rescue.