Lord of the Flies: Symbolism within the Novel
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a disturbing novel filled with conflict between boys and the evil Golding believes each person has. The book also has a variety of symbols that mirror the state that the boys are in. The conch, fire, and facepaint all change throughout the novel, showing the increase of savagery and decrease in civility and order within the boys. Some of these changes include the fading and later shattering of the conch, the fire and its deadliness at the end of the book, and the war paint and how the “savages” use it.
The conch is an essential symbol in the novel; it was the first rule made on the island, its change to a transparent colour shows significance, and later when it is broken, it reflects the state of the boys’ cooperation and Ralph’s leadership. In the beginning, the conch is described by Piggy as “ever so valuable” (Golding 15) and “ever so expensive” (16), and the beauty of the conch helped Ralph get elected, establishing order at the very start. When the boys were electing a leader, they immediately turned to Ralph saying, “Him with the shell” (22) and “Let him be chief with the trumpet-thing” (22). The conch represents civilization and order. The boys are willing to be led and work together, which is reflected in the beauty of the conch. Furthermore, in the middle of the book, the colour of the conch was bleached from a “yellow and pink to near-white, and transparency” (78); the boys have increased in savageness and are not working well together. Ralph says when he is conducting the meeting, “We decide things. But they don’t get done” (79); throughout the meeting, the audience responds with a “roar” (80) and “laughter” (80). As the conch fades, the civilization on the island becomes less and less successful. Jack argues with Ralph during the meeting saying, “you’ve talked and talked” (81). The boys are not able to find a common ground and work together; also, the conch starts to lose its value and boys are talking over one another. Finally, near the end of the book, “the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist” (181). The boys have fully given themselves to savageness, and there is no order or civility left on the island. When Roger is about to kill Piggy, he has a sense of “delirious abandonment” (180). Another example is when Jack, “viciously with full intention” (181) hurls his spear at Ralph. Roger and Jack enjoy what they are doing, and have immense pleasure out of other’s suffering. Once the conch is destroyed, civility and order are completely gone from the island, and the boys are described as “savage” (198) with their names no longer used. In conclusion, the conch was a symbol that showed us the civility left in the boys throughout the novel; in the beginning, they were testing what they could and couldn’t do on the island, and by the end, they have completely become savage.
The fire represents how much the boys want to go back to civilization; if it goes out, the boys don’t have much desire to be rescued, and if it is maintained, the boys want to return to society. In the first meeting, Ralph immediately suggests that the boys make a signal fire, “We must make a fire” (38). This symbolizes a connection to civilization and a connection to each other, as they can cooperate. After Jack lit a small fire, Ralph shouts, “More wood!” (41). Everyone is helping to light the fire, “even the smallest boys, unless fruit claimed them, brought little pieces of wood and threw them in” (41). In the first couple of chapters, Ralph can establish order for the most part. Although, after everyone helped out, the signal fire quickly went out of control, and Piggy says, “You got your small fire all right” (41). This foreshadows that later the fire will be symbolized with danger and death. Moreover, after Jack separates from Ralph’s group, Roger asks how they will make a fire to cook the pig; Jack responds, “We’ll raid them and take fire” (136). The fire no longer symbolizes a return to civilization or order; it is something that can be stolen and used by Jack’s tribe. Jack announces to Ralph’s tribe, “Tonight we are having a feast. We’ve killed a pig and we’ve got meat. You can come and eat with us if you like” (140). Jack can use the fire to manipulate the other tribe. At this point, he has more authority than Ralph. Of course, the boys go to Jack’s party, and Jack uses the opportunity to ask, “Who’s going to join my tribe?” (150). Jack knows what the children want, and can make them respect him. This leads to conflict between Ralph and Jack, and later Simon’s death. The fire wasn’t used to return to civilization, but to continue the savagery and play on the island. Finally, in the last chapter, “the boys smoked him (Ralph) out and set the island on fire” (197), showing that symbolically the island rages out of control. The boys stray from all civilized behaviour and gravitate towards evil instead. When Ralph goes to Samneric after hiding, they say, “And Ralph, Jack, the chief, says it’ll be dangerous” (188); to which he responds, “But I’ve done nothing, I only wanted to keep the fire” (189). Also, Ralph becomes almost animal-like and “he was down, rolling over and over in the warm sand, crouching with arm to ward off, crying for mercy” (200). While the signal fire was once lit for rescue, it is now lit for savagery and murder. Ironically, it is from this fire that the boys are rescued. In conclusion, the fire used to be a symbol of rescue and connection to civilization; but in the end, it became a fire of savagery and murder. The state of the boys reflected this as well.
The war paint symbolizes how much the boys embrace violence, how much they become savage, and how much they become animal-like. In the beginning, it was used to help kill the pig, then it was on Jack while he was on a log sitting “like an idol” (149), and finally, by the last chapter, all of Jack’s tribe was painted. Jack puts on a mask “for hunting” (63). Roger understood this “and nodded gravely” (63) and then responded, “You don’t half look a mess” (63). This shows that the boys are gravitating closer and closer to violence. Jack says after killing the pig, “I cut the pig’s throat” (69) and “There were lashings of blood” (69). Jack realizes that the masks have an advantage beyond hunting. After creating his first mask, he is pleased to look at the “awesome stranger” (63). The mask liberates Jack from “shame and self-consciousness” (64). This gave Jack the self-confidence to complete his first kill. Others noticed the mask as well, and Roger admired it. In addition, Jack looks down from “behind his paint” (150) at Ralph and Piggy. Jack is painted even when he is sitting on his “throne” (150), showing that violence has become part of his everyday life. Of course, shortly afterwards, there was the death of Simon. Jack and his tribe were more animal-like and violent as they “screamed, bit, (and) tore” (153). Before, the paint was a disguise or camouflage so that Jack could hunt, but it has now become something that encourages violence. When the boys wear it, they aren’t thinking about what they’re doing, and they’re acting like animals. Finally, in the last couple chapters, the savages were “striped red and white” (195), and Ralph gazed at the “green and black mask before him” (177-178); the mask covers up the shame that each of the boys has, so they could truly do whatever they wanted. The fire was lit and is described as “a big one and the drum-roll that he (Ralph) had thought was so far behind was nearer. Couldn’t a fire outrun a galloping horse?” (197). The mask has allowed the boys to become the “beast” within themselves, and their minds have been occupied by the evil that is within them. In conclusion, the war paint, which was used to help kill the pig, has become a mask to hide who the boys really are, and let the boys embrace violence, become savage, and become more animal-like.
William Golding’s Lord of the Flies introduces many symbols including the conch, the signal fire, and war paint. The state of each of these symbols indicates the change in the boys’ level of savagery and their decrease in civility and order. The conch was a symbol of order and civility; when it was shining and just out of the water, the boys were able to establish a chief and work together for a common goal, but when it shattered, the boys were amidst chaos and revealing the evil in themselves. The fire showed whether or not the boys wanted to go home; in the beginning, the boys were eager to go back to society and optimistic that it would happen, but later, lost hope and burned down the island with a fire of savagery, murder, and war. The war paint symbolized how much the boys embraced violence; at the start, they killed a pig with the help of their camouflage, but in the end, they were killing each other. The masks allowed them to do things that normally they would have been scared to do. In conclusion, the book has a variety of symbols that mirror the state the boys are in.
Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group, 1954.