Ralph is like the school president, football quarterback, and prom king all rolled into one, 12-year-old package. (We're thinking a young Leonardo Dicaprio.) He's the first lost boy we meet, and he's definitely the best—after all, he's elected chief.
But what makes him chief-worthy?
Mostly, his all-American—we mean, all-British—good looks. He's "fair" (1.1) and "attractive." More than that, he has the conch. And he can blow it. Because the conch symbolizes power and order (see "Symbols" for more about that), Ralph gets a head start in the island power structure.
But he also knows what that power's for. Instead of getting caught up in the hunting bloodlust, he proposes something practical, sensible, and—we'll say it—British: start a fire, and then watch it to make sure it doesn't go out. He's got nerve, too. When someone has to go look for the "beast," Ralph appoints himself. When he's scared, he "[binds] himself together with his will" (7.246), meaning that he's able to force himself to do something he really, really doesn't want to do for the good of the group.
So, here's our question: is Ralph innately a good leader, or is he only a good leader as long as everyone agrees to live by "civilized" rules? Unfortunately for Ralph, it looks like his power depends on civilization. Check out how he approaches his office: "He lifted the conch. 'Seems to me we ought to have a chief to decide things' (1.228). A chief, to Ralph, is a sort of first-among-equals deal, someone who's elected to keep things in order. As he thinks, "if you [are] a chief, you [have] to think, you [have] to be wise […] you [have] to grab at a decision" (5.10).
See that word "decide" used twice? For Ralph, chiefdom is about leading people. It's not about personal power or triumph; it's about making sure the group is taken care of, which means making sure the little ones get looked after, keeping people from pooping where they eat (literally), and getting that darn fire lit.
But is Ralph innately good? Maybe. He doesn't throw rocks at any little boys; he doesn't paint his face all crazy, and he insists that "this is a good island" (2). At the same time, our little golden boy isn't exactly innocent.
One of Ralph's first actions is taking off his clothes. Believe us when we say that stripping is never a good sign: it's the first step to becoming a lawless savage. Here's how it goes down:
He [Ralph] jumped down from the terrace. The sand was thick over his black shoes and the heat hit him. He became conscious of the weight of clothes, kicked his shoes off fiercely and ripped off each stocking with its elastic garter in a single movement. Then he leapt back on the terrace, pulled off his shirt, and stood there among the skull-like coconuts with green shadows from the palms and forest sliding over his skin. He undid the snake-clasp of his belt, lugged off his shorts and pants, and stood there naked, looking at the dazzling beach and the water. (1.53)
Sure, this is probably a more sensible way to run around a deserted island than in black shoes and garters. But it's also a sign that, underneath his school uniform, Ralph is just as much a little savage as any of the other boys. We get a hint of this even earlier, when he "shriek[s] with laughter" about Piggy's name (1): Ralph may be a good kid, but he's still a kid.
And when it comes to hunting, Ralph starts to seem even more sinister. The first time he wounds a pig, he talks "excitedly" and thinks that maybe "hunting was good after all" (7). And then, when the party at Jack's starts to heat up, they find themselves "eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society" (9)—which pretty soon turns into the brutal murder of Simon. No matter how much Ralph tries to convince himself that "we left early" (10), it's not true: he helped kill Simon. The beast lives in him, too.
Come to think of it, that just might be what saves him. At the end, he's all animal: he "launched himself like a cat; stabbed, snarling, with the spear, and the savage doubled up" (12.165), keeping himself alive long enough to roll away from Jack's band and end up at the feet of the naval officer—safe. For now.
We don't know what Ralph is going to be like now that he's back home, but we get the feeling he might be different. All that British order that he relied on? Now he knows that it's nothing more than a thin coating of civilization. Give him a sharpened stick and a pig carcass, and he's going to be ripping at the flesh with everyone else.
His first big philosophical moment comes during a late afternoon assembly, when the light makes everything look different. To Ralph, that means they are different: "If faces [are] different when lit from above or below—what is a face? What is anything?" (5.9)
To translate: the island makes people lose their meaning. When the boys paint themselves and act like "savages," he decides they're 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 circumstances. But is he right?
Check out the way he gradually deteriorates over the course of the novel. 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. When they confront Jack and the "savages," Piggy has to remind him: "remember what we came for. The fire. My specs" (11.159).
Ralph remembers—but barely. And that just might make Ralph our tragic figure. Sure, Piggy and Simon both die. But Ralph is the one who has to go back to civilization with the knowledge that, underneath his schoolboy uniform, he's nothing more than a lawless, orderless savage.Ralph Timeline