By Nancy Collisson
The catastrophe faced by the pampered schoolboys in Golding’s Lord of the Flies, forced to survive on a jungle island without adults or firm rules and with little experience living amid nature provides an outstanding example of René Girard’s (1923-2015) theory of mimetic desire as it devolves naturally and inevitably to mimetic violence and – as the philosopher said, without the strict rules of government or religion – even to death. It is a nearly perfect and therefore helpful model to help anyone recognize, understand, and even predict violent behavior that serves no one and seems to make no damn sense.
In the 1963 film, the critical viewer can find several ideal representations of the fallout of mimetic desire. These include mimetic rivalry, the double-bind, scapegoat, sacrifice, twin theory, and violence.
Mimetic theory provides a rubric of reasons for violent behavior that gets to the core answer of what decent folk in civil society find to be among the most perplexing of life’s eeriest ironies: why otherwise seemingly nice people harm or kill those who are kindest to them.
In ‘Lord of the Flies,’ two groups of wealthy and seemingly well brought up British schoolboys have been flown out of their country during WWII. Viewers are not informed about where specifically these boys are headed but perhaps to a British colony in the Virgin Islands because the plane on which they have been flying crashes on a tropical island. We presume the pilots have died because we only see boys gathering after the crash, and they are not being tended by any adults.
The film is gripping because spoiled British schoolchildren trying to survive alone on a jungle island serves as a compelling contrast, and also because the boy actors director Brooks chose to play the key characters: Ralph, Piggy, and Jack are superb. Other characters worth mention in this regard and important to this analysis include Simon and the twins Sam and Eric.
The primary and shared goal of all the boys is survival. To this end, a leader emerges named Jack, who is the physically strongest and even loudest of all the boys. Ralph, however, garners more support during a vote for this position because he happens to come from a school with more surviving students who participate in the vote. Furthermore, the students from Ralph’s school laugh at Jack and his classmates’ effeminate and clownish school costumes of over-sized ruffled collars and enormous capes. Brooks seemed to use these uniforms to suggest weakness of Jack’s group, but at the same time, these uniforms also showed more uniformity and pride. Jack’s group seems loftier and better educated.
Thus, from the outset, Girard’s theory of mimetic desire – shared desire – can be applied; all the boys share a desire for survival, but they do not agree on how this shared goal should be achieved.
The moment the announcement for a vote is declared, Jack and Ralph stand side by side in a circle of voting boys, and mimetic rivalry is established. This facet of Girard’s work is fascinating in this case because the goal sought herein is a matter of life and death. Considering that the boys are – as they say “not savages but British!” – it seems that they would do a great job collaborating to manage their efforts to build shelters, maintain a fire, and source food, but they do not. In fact, the level of degeneracy to which they ultimately fall is surprising – unless one considers Girard’s theory that all conflict and violence (not physical aggression) stems from original united mimetic desire.
Even though Jack and Ralph share the goal of survival, because each seeks power, their lack of uniformity lead to violence (and such is the case in ALL situations in life, according to Girard).
Girard referred to this type of relationship as that of model and imitator. Even though the boys have an identical goal that is the most serious of all goals – survival – they cannot help but become violent toward one another. One might wonder whether young British school girls might behave differently, or whether well-educated British business professionals might behave differently, but Girard claimed, we are all victims of this natural inclination.
We all experience shared mimetic desire continuously. Failing to work toward a goal in the same way – agreeing on each step – will always lead to rivalry and violence. Girard said that the only force that can keep us focused on collaborating without mimetic rivalry is the power of rules that a religion can establish (Girard, On the Thought of René Girard, 2001)
When Ralph suggests that he and Jack scope out their environment, the boys appear to act as a team, but, according to Girard, at this point they would be considered in a double-bind –the situation wherein a teacher or superior, in this case, Ralph, is in clear competition with his student, Jack, because the student always becomes a competitor.
The need for hard rules on what turns out to be an isolated island the boys now inhabit is imperative, but the only one who keenly senses this is the bespectacled, slow, asthmatic outcast, Piggy.
Girard claimed that people can maintain a civilized society without the chaos that stems from mimetic desire, rivalry, and violence only if they have very harsh rules of the type that strict religions provide. Throughout the film the lack of religious-type punishment for failing to adhere to the few simple rules that are established leads to fatal chaos in their small simple community of otherwise proper British schoolboys.
For example, Ralph establishes the rule that the boys should take turns speaking by passing a conch; only the boy holding it can speak. Though all agree, while Piggy holds the conch describing sensible rules, Jack begins mocking him and calling him Fatty. Rather than defending and protecting his chum, Ralph joins in the cruelty by heartlessly, brutally, and needlessly breaking his promise to to never share his nickname by informing the group that his name isn’t Fatty, it’s Piggy.
Considering Girard’s theory, at this point Ralph has made peace with his rival, Jack, by firmly establishing Piggy as their scapegoat. Indeed, ultimately – just as Girard claimed – this scapegoat will, and indeed must be sacrificed to ensure unity of the group that is focused on achieving the desired goal:, which in this case is that of survival. In a typical literary analysis of this occurrence, one might refer to this dark feeling that something terrible will happen to Piggy as foreshadowing, but Girard preferred to look at the lessons about human nature – that authors convey in literature – rather than contemplate mere rhetorical devices. In fiction as in real life, to Girard, the boys’ cruel mistreatment of Piggy reflects the blunt dark reality of inevitable primitive human behavior.
Girard believed that when tension between two parties – mimetic rivalry – emerges due to different views on how to fulfill an otherwise joint mimetic desire, the only way either will find relief is by joining together and attacking and sacrificing someone they both view as an obstacle. This person becomes the scapegoat – even and especially if that scapegoat is uniformly regarded as harmless, decent, and moral.
Piggy provides important benefits to the group. His glasses provide the boys’ only source of fire. When the sun shines through a glass lens they generate a flame on leaves. Thus, the glasses are used to create the only source of heat needed to cook wild boar or to create smoke from the mountain of brush the boys burn to as their only hope of being seen by a possible rescue craft. Piggy pays attention to the deeply worried youngest boys and calms them by regaling them with simple comforting stories about his childhood home. He also provides encouragement to Ralph when Ralph expresses self-doubt. Piggy shows the greatest spiritual fortitude because despite his being teased mercilessly by Jack (Girard’s metaphysical violence), Piggy boosts morale and uplifts the spirits of others.
To Girard, violence was not the same thing as aggression. He said that while aggression was instinctual and physical, violence was more metaphysical than physical. One can sense this tension and foreboding metaphysical violence as the schoolboys laugh when Jack mocks Piggy’s name or when Jack points out to Ralph that Ralph always favors Piggy.
Although Piggy never harms anyone and only provides wise and helpful suggestions, his presence is a metaphysical or psychological burden to all the boys, including his original best friend Ralph. Piggy is frankly, irritating. He lumbers when he walks, he can’t breathe easily due to his asthma, he frequently pulls up his drooping socks, and he’s forever cleaning his specs. He is simply different from all the others, but not seemingly to any rational person in such a way that should elicit violence even among the most savage-minded.
Girard understood that when such oddball characters – especially the most moral – are eliminated from scenarios where a group is having difficulty achieving a goal, both factions would sense important relief, and find value and regain purpose by sacrificing or eliminating that individual. “The purpose of sacrifice is to restore harmony to the community, to reinforce the social fabric” (Girard, Violence and the Sacred, 1977).
While an English classroom discussion about Piggy being “sacrificed” might bring gasps of horror, Girard would say that human nature simply plays out this way and nothing can be done about it.
We can see this in our everyday lives as, for example, groups of students giggle and smirk about the Piggy types all around us – the nerds, the sensitive, helpful, and generous dorks, geeks, weirdos, freaks, crazies (these days, mask or non-mask wearing) or even playful, humorous jackasses. These individuals might be absolutely harmless to any group they’re in, but because of their blatant difference from most others, when team members have a disagreement and want to remain on a peaceful track in achieving a goal, those team members will look for a scapegoat to sacrifice JUST so they can remain cohesive, and this scapegoat will be anyone who presents as different as any of these mentioned- even if and especially if that different person is the very kindest of all.
Such outcasts will be eliminated completely, and their loss will be regarded as a relief to the group, thus allowing that group to refocus on their united goal … only until they feel the need to sacrifice another scapegoat.
Girard said the group will select the scapegoat that is the most criminal to attack, which can be either of two extremes: “the most powerful / least vulnerable and the least powerful / most vulnerable” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p.15). When Jack begins appearing with his face and body painted in bold black and white, he no longer seems human, and the boys shift toward the new savage Jack as leader. They are each uniting with clarity – mimetic desire – behind this ‘bad guy’ and cutting ‘good’ Ralph out – even though Ralph has been helpful. In short time, they will unite against Ralph. Human nature guides them to eliminate the scapegoat whom they mutually blame for disrupting their ease and focus.
As part of a ritual that enforces their unity against both Piggy and Ralph, the boys imitate Jack by painting themselves like savages. Thus, they too cast off civility just like the boys from Jack’s school had formerly cast off their capes. And both imitators – Jack and Ralph – with an original united focus of desire (survival), instead become obsessed with one another rather than the focus. The goal of their desire is therefore also cast off, and they become mimetic rivals.
In bringing this context to recent experiences, many can presently consider the attacks by the so-called liberal left in America and mainstream media against US President-elect Donald Trump. He represents the most powerful / least vulnerable.
Attacks (metaphysical violence) against him help that faction of the country remain united – as if unity is the most important feeling. Failure to attack him could result in their disintegration, and they sense this with acute panic. Success in destroying him, however, would, according to Girard, lead to more and more attacks.
If a mimetic rivalry continues with a narrow focus on an object of desire, any people with the same goal – in this case, getting a Democrat in the White House – will continue to find scapegoats to sacrifice. For this reason, the so-called liberal left believe they are the good guys, but they are quite vicious. Without firm laws keeping them in check, following Girard’s theory, their mimetic rivalry will result in great chaos and bloodshed.
Girard said that people with a mutual focus (reminder: mimetic desire) can become addicted to their need to find scapegoats they can and will sacrifice in order to remain united. They will even sacrifice the weak with physical problems believing that doing so is “critical to society.”
They will “lay responsibility for the crisis on the victims … by destroying these victims or at least by banishing these victims from the society ‘they pollute’” (Girard, The Scapegoat, p. 24).
A present-day example of the least powerful / most vulnerable are the children constantly mentioned among alternative media voices especially, as allegedly being abused, murdered (sacrificed) through organized satanic pedophilia. According to Girard, in fact, this type of sacrifice – abuse or murder of the most innocent and vulnerable – is the most extreme act of mimetic rivalry resulting in sacrifice.
These Satanic groups unite through mimetic desire, believing that this type of sacrifice will result in a benefit in their lives or improve their world. They primitively play out Girard’s theory by murdering an infant or child, simply in order to remain united.
Despite the utter weakness of an innocent, terrified, kidnapped child, its persecuting tormentors agree that the existence of this entity is a threat to the harmony of their sick society. They will mutually agree that destroying a child is necessary for the unity of the group – which is of primary importance because sacrifice relates to survival of society (Girard, Things Hidden, p. 120).
While the average student of Girard might find Golding’s Lord of the Flies an uncanny representation of Girard’s theories, Girard would probably dismiss such amazement and say all that occurs is natural, basic, anthropologically based activity of people throughout time.
Golding’s featuring of the twins Sam and Eric further supports Girard’s theory. Girard claimed that all twins, in a literary and anthropological sense, “are feared cross-culturally because they are harbingers of indiscriminate violence, the ultimate threat to primitive societies. Twins like enemy brothers represent a ‘loss of distinctions’” (Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 59).
Lord of the Flies opens with a brief but firm introduction to Sam and Eric who continually point to one another and repeat their names: “He’s Sam and I’m Eric. I’m Eric and he’s Sam.” The scene seems irrelevant unless we consider Girard’s point that a lack of differentiation / or maximum similarities, among brothers or twins makes them “vulnerable in a system structured on differences.” Thus they are “dangerously exposed to the onset of a sacrificial crisis” (Girard, Violence and the Sacred, p. 60).
Toward the end of the story, after Piggy has been sacrificed and Jack and his savage followers begin focusing on hunting down their next scapegoat – Ralph – the twins, who are on watch for Jack, help Ralph with information about Jack’s tactics.
They betray Jack by informing Ralph of the sounds to listen for that Jack’s boys will make while hunting for him. They also tell Ralph of Jack’s plan to smoke him out of the jungle. Because twins are identical, they show how we can each represent two sides of the same coin. They are ‘the same’ in that they are both good and bad. They serve bad Jack and they serve good Ralph.
The ordinary viewer might feel that Sam and Eric should just be good and help Ralph. But Girard surprises us by pointing out that the group, with its common goal, is always less focused on goodness than unity. And if bloodshed is required to maintain a primitive brotherhood, then so be it.
Some might suggest that Girard mentions twins as harbingers of doom because they can represent rivalry (Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus). However, Sam and Eric, who look alike, finish one another’s sentences, and who both agree to serve Jack and help Ralph, are highly undifferentiated.
Their similarity makes them double-trouble, and therefore a great threat to group unity. Thus, Girard would regard this pair as clear eventual targets for scapegoating and therefore due for elimination or sacrifice. Furthermore, with continued escalation of frustration and violence, the oddly introspective, peaceful, and sensitive Simon also would be sacrificed.
According to Girard, mimetic desire, rivalry, and metaphysical violence are natural factors that emerge among people operating with base behavior in any partnership or group. Primitive people cannot help but react to their need for social harmony by continually finding scapegoats to sacrifice in order to maintain a sense of peace within the group or partnership – however temporary.
Sadly, according to Girard, the only thing that saves any pair or group from mutually assured self-destruction stemming from an original mimetic desire – violent mimesis – are hard rules brought by religious forces – utterly lacking in Lord of the Flies, and utterly lacking in much of modern society.
Girard, René. Violence and the Sacred. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977.
Girard, René. The Scapegoat. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
Girard, René. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1987.
Girard, René. Interview with Paul Kennedy. On the Thought of René Girard (Part I).Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC, 2001.