The text makes it clear that Ralph is elected chief because he’s handsome – “attractive” and “fair,” as the text informs us. But Ralph is more than attractive. He also has the conch, which symbolizes power. The conch is what enables Ralph to call the boys to the first assembly, setting him up as a natural choice for leader right from the start.
“But wait,” you say, “Ralph ended up being a great chief!” True, yes, but that brings us to the chicken or the egg question of whether he was a good man for chief or whether being chief made him a good man. Ralph rose to the occasion, but the occasion could have created in him abilities and skills he might not have otherwise displayed. Ralph’s own thoughts lend some credibility to this latter notion when he decides “if you [are] a chief, you [have] to think, you [have] to be wise […] you [have] to grab at a decision.”
But let’s look at some of his innate abilities. To begin, Ralph is level-headed. He seems to be saying, “Look, as much fun as it would be to run around killing each other, let’s build a signal fire already and get off this island.” He believes in order, rules, and not pooping where he eats (literally). He also rocks out in some interesting moments of profundity and wisdom. When the boys break up the meeting by leaving early, Ralph refuses to call them back on the grounds that, if he blows the conch now and it fails, its power will be lost forever.
But we think Ralph’s most interesting line comes when he insists “this is a good island.” That brings us to the novel’s major question: are the boys corrupted by their environment, or were they corrupt to begin with? You could argue that the boys are merely helpless victims to circumstance; they’re stuck on an island with no adults, food, rules, or toilet paper, and what can you expect from young boys but chaos and disorder? That’s all well and good, but then you remember that Lord of the Flies is an allegory, and the British boys on the island are likened to adults in the real world who are living their own savagery otherwise known as war. So then what can you say: adults aren’t at fault, they’re just corrupted by their surroundings? Not easily. Ralph’s comment “this is a good island” argues implicitly that the problem isn’t the island – it’s the boys. Ralph solidifies this thought at the end of the novel, when he cries for “the darkness of man’s heart.”
So evil is just inherent in man…right? Maybe – that’s the question Golding forces you to ask, and the question that Ralph in his own way and his own wisdom takes a shot at.
Yet, despite all his wisdom and leadership and so forth, our young protagonist is far from perfect. To begin with, he’s kind of a jerk to the one guy who supports him through thick and thin: Piggy. Ralph makes fun of the kid’s asthma, won’t defend him to the others, and reveals to everyone Piggy’s undesirable nickname. It’s more the bloodthirsty stuff that raises our Ralph-examining eyebrows. In case you missed it, check out the end of Chapter Seven, when Ralph hits the pig with his spear and feels a rush of testosterone, thinking that maybe hunting isn’t so bad after all. Or you could look at Simon’s death scene, which Ralph not only took part in but was able to later convince himself he didn’t witness. We even start to think that Ralph got sucked into “the game” at the end of the novel when he feels his sharpened spear and “grins with amusement” that whomever he stabs “will squeal like a stuck pig.”
Ralph deteriorates in other ways as well. Ralph’s one firm stand throughout the novel is his insistence that they keep the signal fire going. But as order and rules go by the wayside, so does the order within Ralph’s own head. He can remember that he wants a signal fire, but he can’t remember why. He knows it’s something to do with smoke, but then he can’t put two and two together. Piggy has to help him out repeatedly, and the gap in Ralph’s train of thoughts worsens as the novel progresses.
You might have reacted to this the same way we did, primarily, “What is going on!?” To answer this question, we went to Ralph’s big philosophical moment, right before he calls the meeting in Chapter Five. At this point, Ralph is getting over his anger at the boys for missing their opportunity to get off the island. This is still early in the novel, yet Ralph is already losing touch with reality. He notes that the shadows look different in the evening and asks himself, “If faces [are] different when lit from above or below – what is a face? What is anything?” To translate: as different places, objects, and yes, people are transformed on the island, they start to lose their meaning. This is what happens to the signal fire in Ralph’s mind, as well as to the “savages” who he later decides are completely different beings than the British boys who came to the island. To Ralph, this break in logic is a way of coping, a way of dealing with the horrors of his circumstance.
Now Ralph is not to blame for his various transformations. Instead, the culprit may be his hair. So we’ll look to that. And actually, we’ll look to Ralph’s hair in the Symbols, Imagery, and Allegory section. See you there.