Looking back on the history of humankind, there is an eminent pattern of atavistic and truculent behavior in almost all people groups. From the earliest ages of the hunter-gatherer society to the pinnacle of modern civilization, humans have possessed the same primal instincts to subdue and subjugate. Authors such as William Golding and Joseph Conrad have recognized this basic nature of humanity and portrayed it in their novels Lord of the Flies (Golding) and Heart of Darkness (Conrad). These novels exemplify the methods by which humans have placed checks upon their savage nature, checks which prove to be diaphanous when challenged by true hardships. In both of these stories, the authors attempt to demonstrate the savage nature of the human spirit by utilizing symbolism and irony.
Both Lord of the Flies and Heart of Darkness are intensely allegorical novels and emphasize the use of symbols. However, these symbols are not merely the characters, but also include their actions and the settings of the stories. For example, the characters of Kurtz and Jack are symbols for the ancestral instincts of humankind. Though they are two separate characters, they are both symbols for the same idea. They are contrasted with Marlow and Ralph, who are also separate apparitions of the same philosophy. Kurtz, the quintessential ivory hunter from Heart of Darkness, is consumed by the desire for ivory and allows his primal nature to dictate his actions. He even goes so far as to proclaim himself a god and order the natives to attack his fellow Europeans. “He informed me, lowering his voice, that it was Kurtz who had ordered the attack to be made on the steamer” (Conrad.145). This shows how far Kurtz had fallen, that he, like Lucifer, would prefer to reign in hell (the Congo) than serve in heaven (Europe). Likewise, Jack, the chief of the hunter clan in Lord of the Flies, gives in to his atavism and completely forgets about the civilized life he used to live. He even goes so far as to viciously kill some of his fellow students, Piggy. “Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across the square red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red” (Golding.181). By ordering this foul deed, Jack severed the final ties between his savage hunting tribe and the orderly, civilized tribe. These two characters demonstrate how humans, regardless of age or circumstance, maintain their savage nature; a nature which needs little provocation to become fully manifest.
While these characters are highly symbolic, their actions also bear significance in demonstrating the savage nature of humanity. In both stories, many characters, both major and minor, commit deeds which symbolize the savagery of humankind. In Heart of Darkness, Kurtz, in the middle of the night, sneaks off into the darkness of the trees. Marlow, fearing his intentions, pursues Kurtz into the darkness. Marlow confronts Kurtz in the blackest part of the jungle, where Kurtz was attempting to join the natives in their ritualistic chanting. “‘Do you know what you are doing?’ I whispered. ‘Perfectly,’ he answered…‘You will be lost’ I said ‘utterly lost’” (Conrad. 148). This series of actions, with Kurtz sneaking off into the darkness and Marlow trying to retrieve him, is symbolic of Kurtz’s desire to disappear entirely within his savage nature. Kurtz is actively seeking the darkness of his savage nature and yearns to join himself fully into it, yet the civilized forces (Marlow) try to bring him back into the light of order and peace. In Lord of the Flies, Jack and his fellow hunter/savages also perform many actions which symbolize the truly savage nature of humans. Aside from killing Piggy, Jack and his hunters repeatedly perform a primitive ritual of killing and dancing over a pig. After tracking down a sow, the boys killed it in a very gruesome fashion, with blood bathing their faces and hands. “The spear moved forward inch by and inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her.” (Golding.134). The primeval feelings and emotions these hunters associated with the killing of the sow show how humans, when they allow their inner self to become dominant, relish the pain and suffering of other living things. The vicious actions of Kurtz, as well as those of Jack and his hunters, are powerful symbols for the savagery of the human race.
The final type of symbolism which these authors use is the setting of these stories. Both take place far away from the land that the main characters were born in. The setting of Heart of Darkness is an expansive jungle, stretching as far as the eye can see in every direction. Scattered throughout this expanse are a very few European settlements, small points of civilized light in the vast darkness. These settlements are barely staving off the encroaching blackness. This setting as a whole is a symbol for human nature. Civilization is akin to the few small settlements, it persists, but it has certainly not defeated the darkness. In contrast, the massive jungle symbolizes the savage nature of humanity, waiting for someone to step, even slightly, outside the bounds of civilization. As soon as the first chink in the armor is wrought, the jungle envelops the guise of civilization. Similarily, the island in Lord of the Flies is a difficult place to live, far removed from the usual comforts of the modern world. It is a place where the boys are brought back to their ancestral roots, where they can either create a civilized society or a society ruled by fear and violence. There are resources for either type of society to develop, but the savage society wins in the end. This island symbolizes how humans can always find a way to express their inner animalistic nature, whether it’s with the sharpened sticks and stones that the boys utilized or the trim and proper battleship that their rescuer sailed.
In conjunction with the various forms of symbolism, both Conrad and Golding use irony to convey the theme of humankind’s savagery. There are many points in both novels where the irony portrays the primal instincts of the characters. One such instance is Heart of Darkness, where the supposed purpose of the Europeans going to the Congo is to bring the torch of civilization to the savages. However, rather than civilizing the savages, the sophisticated people are consumed and conformed to the savage nature of the people they are trying to convert. The thirty or forty years they had spent in civilized society wilted beneath a single year of savagery. The irony in this is that, in trying to spread the cause of light, the cause of darkness gained new recruits. Likewise, in Lord of the Flies, the boys are finally rescued by the British Navy. Throughout the novel the boys had been thinking of the adults as the mature bastions of civilization and humanity in a torn and savage world. However, the adults who rescued them arrive on a ship of war, a ship designed and built for the sole purpose of killing other human beings. “The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance” (Golding. 202). The irony in this is that humans can never outgrow or outrun their savage nature; even technologically superior adults use their intelligence to injury and kill others, just like the savage children.
Both Heart of Darkness and Lord of the Flies are novels which attempt to portray how simple it is to fall into the darkness of savagery. They allegorically portray the rapid descent from the Olympus of civilization into the Tartarus of savagery. Conrad and Golding both use symbolism and irony to demonstrate how humans can never outgrow their savage nature.