Golding introduces Piggy as overweight, vulnerable, and clever. The first mention of him is as ‘the fat boy’ (p2), making his physical appearance his identity. As there are no rules on the island (or at least none that stick), Piggy’s real name becomes irrelevant as he is defined and judged on appearance and class.
His first words do not bode well for his survival, as he utters, ‘can’t catch me breath’ (p3), a phrase he uses later when describing his fear of Jack, ’… it’s like asthma an’ you can’t breathe.. ’ thus marking him out as physically and socially vulnerable. His working-class dialect confirms his lower status in the eyes of the other boys. While assumptions are made about him based on his class, Golding quickly subverts these and shows Piggy is actually the most intelligent (though this is not enough to save him). The symbolism of Piggy’s glasses, used as they are to make fire and represent technology, eventually become something which is used to literally disable him; he has insight, but without them he can see little. Likewise, the fire they help create also becomes a destructive force. Humans can use or abuse technology – it’s an old story.
Piggy is the first character to suggest that the rules of society and civility are essential, saying, ‘ “we ought to have a meeting” ‘ (p5) There is a ‘we’, a sense of the collective, in Piggy’s pronouns and language, which is a stark contrast to Jack’s, ‘ “I ought to be chief,” said…with simple arrogance.’ This goes to the heart of Golding’s exploration of what the human race seem to want in a leader. Not the realism and intelligence of Piggy who gently points out to Ralph that his hero father will not be rescuing them – “How does he know we’re here?” and “They’re all dead.” (p9) – but rather a brute whose viciousness is taken for decisive leadership.
The novel, then, contains the conundrum of why arrogance and cruelty rise to leadership rather than intelligence and a sense of civic responsibility. This is posed to the reader with, ‘what intelligence had been shown was traceable to Piggy while the most obvious leader was Jack.’ (p19) We are given no answers as to what makes a good leader, or why on the island the descent into savagery is a microcosm of humans’ inability to stop the worst people leading the world into disaster and repeated war.
The sense that civility in humans is doomed from the outset comes with the foreshadowing of Piggy’s death, when Jack says, “you cut a pig’s throat to let the blood out.” (p29) And, even when it seems Piggy may be able to assert himself with, “I got the conch-“ … Jack turn[s] fiercely, “You shut up!” [and] Piggy ‘wilted.’ The verb ‘wilted’ conveys so simply the overpowering of one will over another and how it is not intellect, reason or brains but brute force which seem to win the day. It is Piggy’s obesity and asthma which prevent him from doing much physical work, and this is something which the other boys react negatively to. The island, like society, can be seen in terms of the weak and the strong.
Golding presents Piggy as not just intelligent but capable of deep thought and reflection. Yet this is presented as somehow passive and pointless as he is described as, ‘lying flat, looking down into the brilliant water.’(p55) Piggy’s willingness to see and reflect is not what the group want in their leader; instead they elect the darkness and chaos of the brute, interpreting it as strength. It is also exciting compared to Piggy’s logic and lack of physical activity. Golding thus raises the question of what qualities we value in a leader, and how responsible we are collectively for the leaders we elect or follow.
One interesting effect Piggy has is to change Ralph’s prejudice of him. ‘Once more that evening Ralph had to adjust his values. Piggy could think. He could go step by step inside that fat head of his, only Piggy was no chief. But Piggy, for all his ludicrous body, had brains. Ralph was a specialist in thought now, and could recognize thought in another.’ Ralph’s treatment of Piggy has initially been spiteful and mocking, but Golding presents Ralph as a character able to process information and change his mind about another person who comes from a different social background. The middle class can see that the working class have brains too – they can even become friends.
Piggy is well aware of the danger he and Ralph are in, telling him, ‘ “He hates me.” ‘ (p100) He also warns Ralph, ‘ “I’m scared of him,…and that’s why I know him…You kid yourself he’s all right really, an’ then when you see him again; it’s like asthma an’ you can’t breathe. I tell you what. He hates you too.” ‘ (p102) His correct judgement in recognising Jack as evil is clearly expressed when he says, ‘ “ We can do without Jack Merridew. But now we really got a beast…” ‘ (p 141)
Piggy can not only assess character, but has clever ideas about how to improve their situation. ‘Only Piggy could have the intellectual daring to suggest moving the fire from the mountain.’ (p142) The subsequent approval he receives from Ralph gratifies him but also highlights the lower status he is kept to by the boys. He reflects on this, ‘Piggy rubbed his glasses slowly and thought. When he understood how far Ralph had gone toward accepting him he flushed pinkly with pride.’ (p154) Perhaps this shows his weakness, his unsuitability for leadership is that he needs the approval of someone else to feel and validate his own value. The humility of democracy is not a potent force.
Golding speaks most directly when Piggy decides to ask for his glasses back. ‘ “I’m going to him with this conch in my hands… I’m goin’ to say, you’re stronger than I am and you haven’t got asthma… But I don’t ask for my glasses back, not as a favour…not because you’re strong, but because what’s right’s right…” ‘ (p190) The contrast between Piggy and Jack could not be clearer. Jack would take without thinking, Piggy has to think and rationalise and create his argument. What is right is not what automatically happens. Sometimes what is right has to be fought for. Shortly afterwards, the choice is made clearer. ‘A great clamour rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again. “Which is better—to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?” ‘, a clear anti-war message which is immediately countered by Ralph who , ‘… shouted against the noise…“Which is better, law and rescue, or hunting and breaking things up?”’
The death of Piggy is both shocking and inevitable. It happens along with the destruction of the conch and the qualities it represents – both are easily disposed of. The use of nature to describe Piggy’s death is eerie, ‘Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.’ The destruction or rejection of these qualities is as regular and inevitable as the tide coming in. Though Piggy’s death is brutal, we must remember that he too succumbed to brutality in his implicit involvement in Simon’s murder. Though not explicitly stated, Piggy was present and therefore complicit. He and Ralph discuss Simon’s death the next day. Ralph’s unequivocal, ‘ “That was murder”’ brings a hysterical reaction from Piggy who seeks to mitigate with, ‘”We was scared!”’ Ralph’s voice is ‘low and stricken’, as he says, ‘”Don’t you understand, Piggy? The things we did.” ‘ The collective ‘we’ cuts both ways. Piggy suddenly becomes pragmatic rather than strictly moral and civic; he even calls the murder an “accident”. But it is clear this is because he is as terrified of himself as Ralph is dismayed. The Beast, it seems, resides within Piggy too.