Lord of the Flies is an ingenious work of literature in which the author, William Golding, explores the issues of civilization and savagery. Throughout the novel, the author hides powerful messages in some very unlikely places, and Golding's use of this literary technique - symbolism - is the subject of this essay.
The first symbol that becomes evident is the conch shell. When the shell is first discovered lying on the sandy beach it is blown to signal all the boys, scattered across the island, to meet at one spot. Later the conch shell is used to announce meetings, and then a rule is established stating that only the one holding the shell would be allowed to speak. These developments show that the capacity for order and democracy exists within the children, and also establish the conch shell as a symbol of civilized attitudes and hehaviour.
However, as the boys slowly turn to their savage instincts, the power of the conch shell is eroded. Ralph is holding the shell while he laughs maniacally about Simon’s death. When Ralph blows the shell to remind the boys of civilization, they throw rocks at him and, finally, civilization comes to an abrupt end when the shell is destroyed.
Piggy’s glasses also carry symbolic significance. They symbolize the exercise of intellect and science, since it is with them that the boys are able to start a fire. Piggy’s glasses can also be seen as the window that views and recognizes good from evil. This interpretation comes from the fact that Piggy uses his glasses not oly to see, but also to discern what is right, wrong, safe or harmful. When Piggy loses his spectacles, he also loses his clear vision and power of discernment.
The signal fire can be viewed as a sign of hope - the hope the boys have to return to society. When the flames dance brightly, it shows the enthusiasm they hold for the idea of being rescued. However, as the fire grows dim, it reflects the attitude of the boys and their loss of morale. The signal fire can also be viewed as the boys' link to the civilized world. As long as the fire continues burning, it suggests not only that the boys want to return to society, but also that they are still using their intellectual capacity.
However, in the end, it is a wild fire that results in the rescue of the remaining children. This outcome leads to another understanding of the signal fire; the first fire was a warning of death and disaster whereas the second fire was a sign of rescue.
The Beast devised by the boys is imaginary, symbolizing the savage instinct within the hearts of all people. The introduction of the Beast signals the beginning of savagery, and as the boys grow more savage their belief in the beast increases correspondingly. When the boys reach the climax of their savagery they begin worshipping the Beast and attributing inhuman qualities, such as shape-shifting, to it, and their savagery increases to the point where they kill an innocent boy.
The idea of the Beast can also be understood as propaganda used by Jack to attain a totalitarian government. By scaring the boys by telling them that the Beast exists, and by accusing Ralph of doing a poor job of protecting the children, Jack achieves leadership of a new ‘tribe’ in which he will rule like a tyrant.
The Beast, or The Lord of the Flies, (from which the novel's title is taken), represents the devil. Beelzebub, meaning ‘Lord of the Flies’ is in fact one of the many Biblical names of Satan. In the novel, the stick and the skull (the physical manifestation of the Lord the Flies), is circumambulated by flies, signifying the worship of evil.
The Lord of the Flies states that he lives within all human beings. This statement symbolizes that Satan is within all humanity, including English boys, and that it is he that causes sinful and savage behaviour. The devil is the source of all evil.
The boys paint their faces with mud and other such materials. This shows the level of savagery they have reached, and their return to primal human instincts. It is people who lived before civilization, or those now living in an uncivilized society that apply face paint in order either to camouflage themselves to merge with their surroundings while hunting, or to celebrate in a wild manner.
The island where the boys are stranded is a representation of the world and the children display the different roles of society. Ralph symbolizes civilization and order. He shows the sophisticated side of man and holds the position of a democratic leader. Piggy represents the voice of reason in civilization; his cleverness and brains are qualities that prove his intellect. Simon represents the purity and natural goodness existing in humanity.
While these three represent the goodness existing in humanity, Jack and Roger symbolize evil. Jack shows the power-hungry and savage end of society while Roger represents brutality and bloodlust. Roger shows his evil tendencies from the very beginning of the novel, when he throws rocks at the littluns and destroys their castles.
Piggy, in contrast, shows opposition to immaturity and savage behaviour from the beginning. These two characters symbolize polar opposites, good and evil. However, in the end Roger kills Piggy resulting in evil overpowering purity, suggesting the end of civilization.
The littluns represent the common people and the older kids play the role of the noblemen. The relationship between the two groups show whether or not a society is civilized. For example, Ralph and Simon are kind to those younger than them, proving their civilized attitudes. Roger and Jack, however, are cruel to them, and use them according to their whims. This behaviour symbolizes a wild and uncivilized culture.
The introduction of the dead parachutist symbolizes the fall of adult supervision. It also symbolizes the start of destruction, as it is the discovery of the dead person that leads the older boys to further believe in beasts. In this way, we can say that the end of adult supervision led to corruption.
In contrast, when the naval officer appears on the island, all the boys who were moments ago behaving savagely, come to a halt and suddenly return to their senses. This suggests that the appearance of the naval officer symbolizes the return of both adult supervision and civilization.
Although there may be additional symbols present in the novel, I found these to be the most evident and the most important. These symbols help to convey the author’s message about human nature, with its contrasting poles of kindness and rationality and power and bloodlust. Well-written and meaningful, Lord of the Flies uses symbols to reinforce its telling of the tale of humanity.
© Amal Gedleh, M.U.A. High, Scarborough, Ontario. January 2009
Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.
The Conch Shell
Ralph and Piggy discover the conch shell on the beach at the start of the novel and use it to summon the boys together after the crash separates them. Used in this capacity, the conch shell becomes a powerful symbol of civilization and order in the novel. The shell effectively governs the boys’ meetings, for the boy who holds the shell holds the right to speak. In this regard, the shell is more than a symbol—it is an actual vessel of political legitimacy and democratic power. As the island civilization erodes and the boys descend into savagery, the conch shell loses its power and influence among them. Ralph clutches the shell desperately when he talks about his role in murdering Simon. Later, the other boys ignore Ralph and throw stones at him when he attempts to blow the conch in Jack’s camp. The boulder that Roger rolls onto Piggy also crushes the conch shell, signifying the demise of the civilized instinct among almost all the boys on the island.
Piggy is the most intelligent, rational boy in the group, and his glasses represent the power of science and intellectual endeavor in society. This symbolic significance is clear from the start of the novel, when the boys use the lenses from Piggy’s glasses to focus the sunlight and start a fire. When Jack’s hunters raid Ralph’s camp and steal the glasses, the savages effectively take the power to make fire, leaving Ralph’s group helpless.
The Signal Fire
The signal fire burns on the mountain, and later on the beach, to attract the notice of passing ships that might be able to rescue the boys. As a result, the signal fire becomes a barometer of the boys’ connection to civilization. In the early parts of the novel, the fact that the boys maintain the fire is a sign that they want to be rescued and return to society. When the fire burns low or goes out, we realize that the boys have lost sight of their desire to be rescued and have accepted their savage lives on the island. The signal fire thus functions as a kind of measurement of the strength of the civilized instinct remaining on the island. Ironically, at the end of the novel, a fire finally summons a ship to the island, but not the signal fire. Instead, it is the fire of savagery—the forest fire Jack’s gang starts as part of his quest to hunt and kill Ralph.
The imaginary beast that frightens all the boys stands for the primal instinct of savagery that exists within all human beings. The boys are afraid of the beast, but only Simon reaches the realization that they fear the beast because it exists within each of them. As the boys grow more savage, their belief in the beast grows stronger. By the end of the novel, the boys are leaving it sacrifices and treating it as a totemic god. The boys’ behavior is what brings the beast into existence, so the more savagely the boys act, the more real the beast seems to become.
The Lord of the Flies
The Lord of the Flies is the bloody, severed sow’s head that Jack impales on a stake in the forest glade as an offering to the beast. This complicated symbol becomes the most important image in the novel when Simon confronts the sow’s head in the glade and it seems to speak to him, telling him that evil lies within every human heart and promising to have some “fun” with him. (This “fun” foreshadows Simon’s death in the following chapter.) In this way, the Lord of the Flies becomes both a physical manifestation of the beast, a symbol of the power of evil, and a kind of Satan figure who evokes the beast within each human being. Looking at the novel in the context of biblical parallels, the Lord of the Flies recalls the devil, just as Simon recalls Jesus. In fact, the name “Lord of the Flies” is a literal translation of the name of the biblical name Beelzebub, a powerful demon in hell sometimes thought to be the devil himself.
Ralph, Piggy, Jack, Simon, and Roger
Lord of the Flies is an allegorical novel, and many of its characters signify important ideas or themes. Ralph represents order, leadership, and civilization. Piggy represents the scientific and intellectual aspects of civilization. Jack represents unbridled savagery and the desire for power. Simon represents natural human goodness. Roger represents brutality and bloodlust at their most extreme. To the extent that the boys’ society resembles a political state, the littluns might be seen as the common people, while the older boys represent the ruling classes and political leaders. The relationships that develop between the older boys and the younger ones emphasize the older boys’ connection to either the civilized or the savage instinct: civilized boys like Ralph and Simon use their power to protect the younger boys and advance the good of the group; savage boys like Jack and Roger use their power to gratify their own desires, treating the littler boys as objects for their own amusement.
More main ideas from Lord of the Flies