Exploring the Theme of Regression to Primal Instincts in Classic Literature



This blog post is intended to provide an introductory exploration of the recurring theme of regression to primal instincts in selected literary works by Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad, and William Golding. While efforts have been made to offer insightful analysis and highlight key aspects of each work, it is important to note that this exploration is not exhaustive. The complexities of literature are vast, and each reader may find additional layers of meaning and interpretation within these texts.

I've often pondered what inspires an author to pen a particular story. Yet, as I applied the LnT step-by-step method to analyze "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Heart of Darkness", and "Lord of the Flies", a striking common thread emerged: each novel examines human nature when individuals confront crises and solitude in the absence of social institutions.The characters then reveal their true nature, shedding light on the complexities of the human experience.

Through these stories, readers are prompted to contemplate the delicate balance between civilization and primal instincts. Now, let's explore three novels that illustrate this theme: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", "Heart of Darkness", and "Lord of the Flies".

Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" masterfully investigates the tension between societal expectations and primal instincts, embodied by the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll's scientific experiment, intended to separate his good and evil sides, inadvertently unleashes Mr. Hyde, symbolizing pure evil and a regression to primitivity.

Let's explore this theme through two pivotal scenes from the novella. Firstly, the moment of Dr. Jekyll's initial transformation into Mr. Hyde is crucial. The stark contrast between the two characters is vividly depicted as Dr. Jekyll undergoes a profound physical and psychological metamorphosis. His transformation into the sinister Mr. Hyde highlights the inherent duality of humanity, showcasing how individuals can embody both light and darkness within themselves.

This conflict between societal norms and primal instincts is further illuminated in an exchange between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Utterson. Their differing perspectives encapsulate the inner struggle faced by Dr. Jekyll as he grapples with maintaining his respectable facade while being consumed by darker impulses. Meanwhile, Mr. Utterson represents the epitome of rationality and conformity, providing a contrasting viewpoint that underscores the complexities of human nature.

Conrad's examination of the theme is revealed through Charles Marlow's geographical exploration into the depths of the African wilderness. Marlow's character serves as a representation of established societal structures and norms. Kurtz, on the other hand, symbolizes the path towards savagery and regression to primal instincts as he becomes increasingly isolated in the jungle. Marlow's journey along the river Congo and his gradual accumulation of information about Kurtz contribute to our understanding of this theme. As Marlow digs deeper into Kurtz's character, we witness how crisis and isolation from social institutions can lead to a reversion to primitivity. This challenges Marlow's preconceived views and forces him to confront the complexities of human nature.

One specific passage that highlights Marlow's reflections is when he finally encounters Kurtz, a man who has become consumed by the darkness of the colonial enterprise. Marlow can see the devastating effects of colonialism not only on the colonized but also on the colonizers themselves and is now forced to confront his own complicity in the system. He recognizes the hypocrisy and cruelty of the supposed mission of "civilizing" the African continent. This realization shakes Marlow to his core and forces him to question his own beliefs and values.

When Marlow finally comes face to face with Kurtz, once a symbol of civilization, the latter appears consumed by the darkness of the wilderness. His transformation into savagery is apparent through his wild appearance and the unsettling atmosphere that surrounds him. During their journey back to Europe, Kurtz's health further deteriorates, and he passes away. His final words, "The horror! The horror!" are whispered before he dies. Marlow feels the gravity of everything Kurtz had seen and gone through in the depths of darkness in those words.

Ultimately, Marlow's reflections on the impact of colonialism lead him to a profound understanding of the darkness that resides within the human soul. His conclusion is that the true heart of darkness does not lie in some distant land but within each individual.

In Golding's novel, the fragility of civilization is vividly portrayed through the experiences of a group of boys stranded on an uninhabited island. As societal norms erode, the boys descend into barbarism, exposing the innate savagery that lurks within humanity. Golding's exploration of the delicate balance between civilization and primal instincts highlights the fragility of societal order when confronted with the absence of established institutions.

Central to the narrative is the symbolism of the conch shell, initially representing order and democracy. However, as the story progresses, the conch's significance diminishes in the face of the emerging beast and the breakdown of social cohesion. Power dynamics also come into play, demonstrating how they can lead to the erosion of moral standards and a descent into savagery.

The pivotal moment in the story occurs when the once-respected conch is broken, signaling the loss of civilization's influence. This event marks the division of the boys into two groups: one led by Ralph, focused on maintaining order and seeking rescue, and the other led by Jack, embracing primal instincts and violence. This dichotomy highlights the contrast between civilization and savagery, as well as the struggle for power and control.

As tensions rise and conflicts escalate, the broken conch becomes a potent metaphor for the collapse of societal norms, leaving the boys to confront the consequences of their actions in a harsh environment. Jack's character exemplifies this descent into savagery and the allure of power, particularly evident in his leadership of the hunting expeditions.

The formation of Jack's tribe further illustrates his transformation from a civilized boy to a ruthless leader. With each new recruit, Jack's grip on power strengthens, and the group descends further into chaos and violence. This sharp contrast between Jack's tribe and Ralph's group underscores the ongoing struggle between order and chaos, reason and impulse.

In conclusion, the recurring theme of regression to primal instincts, explored by Stevenson, Conrad, and Golding, offers profound insights into the human condition. By portraying characters grappling with their innermost desires and darker impulses, these authors provide a thought-provoking reflection on the inherent duality of human nature. Through their narratives, they invite readers to ponder the complexities of the human experience and the fundamental struggles that lie within each individual. We invite you to read these novels with a new lens. Happy reading!

As you engage with these literary works, keep in mind that our analysis offers just one perspective among many. Readers are encouraged to interact with the texts themselves, form their own interpretations, and explore the nuances of literature. This blog post aims to provide literature insights and initiate literary discussions. Additionally, it serves as a resource for book reviews and offers educational tools and tutorials related to literature. While geared towards preparation for the Esame di Stato, it is important to approach these works with an open mind and critical thinking. Ultimately, our goal is to foster a love of reading and an appreciation for the transformative power of literature.


1. Stevenson, Robert Louis. "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde." Penguin Classics, 2003.

2. Conrad, Joseph. "Heart of Darkness." Dover Thrift Editions, 1990.

3. Golding, William. "Lord of the Flies." Penguin Books, 2006.

4. Bloom, Harold. "Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde." Chelsea House Publications, 2006.

5. Simmons, Allan H. "Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness." Columbia University Press, 2004.

6. Kinkead-Weekes, Mark. "William Golding: Lord of the Flies." Faber & Faber, 2001.

7. Levenson, Michael. "The Cambridge Companion to Joseph Conrad." Cambridge University Press, 1996.

8. Carey, John. "The Violent Effigy: A Study of Dickens' Imagination." Faber & Faber, 2011.

9. Hynes, Samuel. "The Edwardian Turn of Mind." Princeton University Press, 2014.

10. Baker, Ernest A. "The History of the English Novel." Routledge, 2013.