A Symbolic Moment
Arguably, the conch shell is one of the most symbolic items in the novel; the moment Ralph blows into it, the boys are brought together. It is this pivotal moment that makes Ralph appear to be the clear choice for a leader. It is easy to understand why the boys gravitated towards him, their first sight of Ralph was of him sitting, "the conch trailing from one hand, his head bowed on his knees;" (Golding, 19) a clear image of confidence and strength. The boys are easily swayed by his symbolic power and when it comes time to choose between Ralph and Jack, the majority of the boys rush to support Ralph as their leader.
Why did they choose Ralph?
The boys could have easily chosen Jack instead of Ralph, especially given the fact that Jack had previous experience as a leader; he is first seen surrounded by a group of faithful followers, his choir group, that continue to obey him on the island. Even Piggy, who showed support towards Ralph from the beginning, is intimidated by Jack's authoritative demeanor. However, Jack is missing that key characteristic that made Ralph so appealing: the symbol of power and strength. Any sense of leadership that Jack held was overshadowed by the image of Ralph standing confidently with the conch shell in hand. Ultimately, the young boys identified Ralph as their leader based on the power they believed he symbolized.
Ralph vs. Jack: A Deadly Competition
When it came time to choose a Chief for the island, Jack never guessed there would be any competition. He confidently stated, "I ought to be chief because I'm chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp." These qualifications may have held up in the "real world" but here on the island, the boys were looking for someone different, someone like Ralph.
Jack did not easily accept defeat; it baffled him to find himself on the losing side of a disagreement when he had always known himself to be a leader, the one with the final and indisputable say. Ralph represented something that Jack had never been faced with before: an opponent.
The stage was now set for a deadly competition. Ralph believed in order and structure; his goal was to have the boys work together to create a society similar to the one they had known before they crashed onto the island. He desperately attempted to get the boys to build shelter, gather food, and perform other responsibilities necessary for their survival. Time and time again, he tried to convince the boys to keep a fire going on the highest point of the island, stressing the point that the smoke was their only hope of being spotted by a passing ship. In contrast, Jack only wanted to hunt and play and he ignored Ralph's warnings about the fire. Ultimately, his ignorance was the tipping point for Ralph; Jack's lack of cooperation led to disunity on the island.
It was at this point that the loose threads of structure present on the island began to unravel and all that remained was complete and utter chaos. As the island went up in flames and most of the boys returned to a savage state, one question remained: Why couldn't Ralph, who seemed so powerful as he held that conch shell, retain order on the island?
The answer to this question lies in the fact that the boys failed to consider what valuable skills Ralph could offer as leader and instead latched blindly onto him, trusting him to guide them in the right direction. Unfortunately, Ralph could never hope to hold this kind of unbreakable authority over the boys; as Jack's influence over the boys grew, Ralph's power waned and he lacked the ability to bring the island back to order.