Small Group Analysis: William Golding’s Lord of the Flies

William Golding’s 1962 novel, Lord of the Flies, begins as an innocent tale of a group of English schoolboys who find themselves deserted on a remote island in the South Pacific. As survivors of a plane crash, the boys can feel the beginnings of an adventure and a grand old time. No parents, no schoolwork, no rules: let the good times roll! However, as the novel progresses things do not go as planned. Leaders emerge, rules are formed, conflict occurs, and violence erupts. What causes such an idealistic start to turn so sadistic and disorderly? The answer can be found studying the relationships between characters, the rules and norms that are created, and the conflict that surrounds them all. The character interaction in Lord of the Flies is a textbook example of how small group communication affects the strength and effectiveness of a group.

At the beginning of the novel, the reader is introduced to two characters meeting for the first time: a tall, handsome lad named Ralph and a short, rather plump boy named Piggy. After finding a conch shell along the water, Piggy exclaims, “We can use this to call the others. Have a meeting. They’ll come when they hear us” (Golding, 1962, p. 14). Slowly, boys ranging in age from seven to twelve emerge from the brush. Even a band of choirboys, led by an elder boy named Jack, emerges. At this first meeting, the boys loosely take the form of a small group. “A small group is a group small enough that each member is aware of and able to recall each other group member, know who is and is not in the group, and recognize what role each is taking” (Brilhart, Galanes, Adams, 2001, p. 7). While, the children may not be aware of every member’s presence at this point, by the end of the novel, all members are keenly aware of each other’s status. Although the children are not initially familiar with one another, all of the children share the same goal at the outset: waiting to be rescued. This interdependent goal is a key feature of small groups, as they will all succeed or fail as a group (Brilhart et al., p. 8). Another key aspect of small groups is the exertion of “mutual influence” that members have on each other. The children in Lord of the Flies are especially vulnerable to suggestion and peer pressure. For example, later in the novel, a child claims that a “beast” lurks from the water’s edge, and hysteria runs rampant. The interdependency and mutual influence within this small group, lends to the eventual breakdown of the group.

Throughout the novel, this small group is faced with countless troubles. The most obvious problem is of course their initial situation. “All problems have three major components: an existing situation that is undesirable, a goal or desired state, and obstacles to reaching the goal” (Brilhart et al., 2001, p. 252). In line with the text, the children realize the island is an “undesirable” habitat, and therefore they wish to be rescued. Along the way, the children face obstacles such as “power clashes” and violence, which impede the process of attaining the desired state. Unconsciously the children follow the “Single Question format” to solve this problem. Essentially, the main question is asked: “How can we be rescued?” To answer the question, the children solve key subquestions, such as: “Is the land actually an island?” and “Are there any people on the island?” After the climbing the highest point on the land, the children conclude that it is an uninhabited island. Therefore, it is determined by the group that they build a fire signal and wait. Over time, however, the solution is not carried through and fails to help their situation.

Considering their circumstances, the children can best be described as a task-oriented or “secondary” group. Killing pigs, building shelters, and tending the fire are all task related functions that the children carry out each day. However, the group also shows characteristics of a “primary” group. Primary groups focus on the interpersonal relationships among members and rely on each other for existence. For example, when Ralph reassures the younger boys that there is nothing to fear and that they will be rescued from the island, he is addressing the socio-emotional needs of the group. Because the group is chiefly secondary, the boys create “rules” at their first meeting to facilitate order. For example, Ralph decides that no one may speak at meetings without raising his hand and obtaining the conch. This structured method for communicating during meetings, lends to an all-channel communication network. In this type of network, the children “are free to comment on a one-to-one basis with all others and to the group as a whole” (Brihart et al., 2001, p. 165). Besides communication, rules are formed for various activities including hunting, fire tending, and watching for rescue ships.

Not only are explicit rules formed, but also unstated informal rules or “norms” are created. “Although the norms of an individual group may be specific to the group, chances are they will mirror general cultural norms” (Brilhart et al., 2001, p. 148). This statement is evident when the boys democratically choose a leader and create “laws.” Jack explains, “We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things” (Golding, 1962, p. 47). The boys’ behaviors also reflect the general societal view that violence is inherently wrong. For example, when one of the older boys tries to throw a rock at a younger one, he misses the child on purpose:

Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policeman and the law. Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins (Golding, p. 70).

Ironically, however, violating norms becomes the norm as the novel progresses: trampling the younger children’s sandcastles; painting faces and acting as ruthless, uninhibited savages; and holding ritual dances that sometimes end in death. These “warped” norms have a severe effect on the group and on the group’s existence itself.

With the establishment of rules and norms, each member begins to take on a role within the group. A role is defined as a “pattern of behavior displayed by and expected of a member of a small group.” (Brilhart et al., 2001, p. 152) The main characters Ralph, Piggy, and Jack all display certain behaviors and take on individual roles. Ralph’s role as “leader” can be considered formal and task related. Ralph, who was chosen as leader by his peers, focuses mainly on the task at hand: maintaining a fire to facilitate a rescue. Ralph’s “advisor” Piggy, takes on an informal, task role. Unlike Ralph, Piggy was not assigned his position; however, he also focuses on the main task of the group. He shows evidence of his task related function by keeping records of all the members, and stating his opinions and judgments during meetings. Jack, Ralph’s nemesis and the so-called “villain” of the novel, has both a formal and task role. Because Jack is the leader of the choirboys, Ralph appoints him to be in charge of the “hunters.” Jack’s role is considered task because his main job is to coordinate hunting expeditions. Due to the differing task functions of Jack and Ralph, a power-struggle is created between them as each feels their task to be more important.

Jack and Ralph represent each end of the leadership spectrum. The original leader, Ralph, is a “designated” leader. The group elects him democratically. Jack, also a designated leader, is chosen by Ralph to lead the hunters because Jack had the established position as the choir leader. Despite both being designated leaders, Jack and Ralph’s similarities do not extend any further. Leadership, the ability to influence “stems from power that is derived from a particular source, or base” (Brihart et al., 2001, p. 191). Ralph’s leadership, although short-lived, is based on his legitimate power from his elected position. At the beginning of the novel, Ralph is recognized and respected for his role as leader. As the novel progresses, however, Ralph’s power fades along with the group’s stability, democratic processes, and unity. Jack’s power, on the other hand, increases as the novel progresses. Jack, with an autocratic leadership approach, undermines Ralph’s authority and convinces the boys to be savage hunters. Jack “wins” over Ralph’s followers, preying on the boys’ fears and primitive instincts. Near the end of the novel, Jack’s power exceeds just “punishment power” and becomes full-fledged “coercion” using threats and force against the children. Because “coercion breeds resentment, sabotage, and rebellion,” Jack is no longer considered a leader but a murderous tyrant (Brilhart et al., p. 192). The behavior of Jack and his henchmen bring an end to the “fun and games” the children had once hoped to have on the island.

Due to the power clash between Jack and Ralph, conflict abounds on the island of Lord of the Flies. The first instance of conflict between Jack and Ralph results from Ralph’s perception of inequity in the group. Because Jack’s “hunters” fail to keep the fire going and miss a passing ship, Ralph perceives a lack of effort on Jack’s part. After an intense argument with Jack, Ralph “said no more, did nothing, stood looking down at the ashes round his feet.” (Golding, 1962, p. 83) This avoidance style of conflict management, or nonconfrontation, by Ralph not only results in enraging Jack but also fails to solve the conflict. Most of the conflict in Lord of the Flies is approached with a distributive style: there is only one winning side (Brilhart et al., 2001, p. 315). Jack, especially, makes essentially no effort towards using integrative approaches such as collaboration or compromise to solve conflict. Because conflict is not addressed properly on the island, violence and disunity tear apart a once harmonious group.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a dynamic illustration of small group communication. The group of youngsters begins their stay free of rules, conflict, and authority. However, the group eventually creates rules and chooses leaders filling the need for order. The boys inability to manage conflict and leadership disrupts the group’s cohesiveness and harmony. As evidenced by the characters of Lord of the Flies, effective communication is vital to the success and, sometimes, even the existence of small groups.

Reference List

Golding, William. (1962). Lord of the Flies, New York: Coward-McCann.

Brilhart, K. J., Galanes, J. G., & Adams, K. (2001). Effective group discussion: Theory and practice (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.