“History can be modified to some extent but human nature cannot be changed.”
– Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln’s statement presents an interesting idea in the novel Lord of the Flies, which is a relentless study of the baser instincts of human nature. But before discussing the quote itself, it is perhaps best to define ‘history’ for the purpose of this essay. What is history but a record of human actions and events?
The dark happenings on the island seem to support Lincoln’s quote. The schoolboys land on the island with their own personal histories still innocent of violence and evil. Even though they are now in a world with no ‘grown ups’, the rules and regulations from their old life still continue to influence their actions. Hence, even when Roger teases Henry by throwing nuts and stones at him when he is not looking, “there was a space around Henry, perhaps six yards in diameter, into which he dare not throw. Here, invisible yet strong, was the taboo of the old life. Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.”
The novel seems to suggest that all human nature is inherently bad when it is free from society’s restrictions. Human actions can be guided and forced by laws, rules and norms but what lies at the center of man’s nature cannot be changed. As Simon realizes, the ‘beast’ is inside them and not outside. He is the only completely good character and his death seems inevitable but in his own way, he also does not ‘change’, remaining pure from the beginning to the end. Abandoning themselves to the darker side of their nature, even Piggy and Ralph join in the savage dance, which leads to Simon’s murder. An ideal example of Lincoln’s quote is the day after the murder, when Samneric, Ralph and Piggy, try to modify ‘history’, rewriting what happened among themselves. They all claim to have been ‘outside’ the circle that beat Simon to death, and to have left the feast early before the dance. They can’t alter their actions after the fact, so they try to change the record of it.
Similarities to both sides of Lincoln’s thesis can be found in recent American history as well. When Iraq was invaded in 2003, the presence of ‘weapons of mass destruction’ was cited as the overwhelming cause for the attack. However, as months went by and the weapons weren’t found, there was a change in the argument. It was repeatedly suggested that Saddam was a despotic and tyrannical ruler and that the war had begun to ‘liberate’ Iraq. Such modifications of history are common, and even on a personal level; people do it all the time.
Lincoln’s line does not specify that human nature is fundamentally bad; it just says that it is unchangeable. Yet in the novel, a dark and evil instinct seems to lie just below the civilized face of mankind. The violence committed by U.S. soldiers on prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison are an example of William Golding’s idea of the baser impulses that lie hidden in the human consciousness. Like Jack’s hunting, his beating of Wilfred and Roger’s sadistic torture of Samneric, the soldier’s atrocities reflect a part of man’s nature, which enjoys making others feel pain for the sake of pain and humiliation for the sake of humiliation.
In the boys’ world, the dark instinct is present in everybody – even Ralph and Piggy are aware of it. It is a part of human nature and it cannot be changed. Nevertheless, it can be controlled. Ralph manages to control it even though it is a struggle, but it carries Jack away. And because Ralph controls it, he can control his actions as well and ensures that his own history is written differently from Jack’s violent one.