How Golding Uses Symbols in Lord of the Flies Essay
How Golding Uses Symbols in Lord of the Flies
William Golding’s book, Lord of the Flies (published in 1954) tells the story of a group of boys, who are stranded on an unknown island, when their plane crashes. On the surface, it is an interesting story of how the civilised English boys, during their time on the island, gradually lose their veneer of respectability and “decent” behaviour and devolve to the basest and barest form of humanity. Eventually, the boys almost entirely shake off the civilisation of the world they once knew. If we scratch beneath that surface, what we find is a much more complicated observation of society, laden with corporeal, philosophical and religious symbols. Indeed, the superb use of symbolism in the book is one of the contributing factors to the profundity of the book.
The symbols that stand out the most are the conch; the gradual destruction of the island; Piggy’s spectacles; fire, and how it is used; and the beast, or the Lord of the Flies (another name given to the Devil), the crucial symbol, used throughout the book. All of these will be looked at into more detail, and, also, whether the beast is real or a physical manifestation of the boys’ fears, as well as the key comment that it is the evil which resides within man, will also be discussed.
First, is the conch. This is the shell, which is discovered by Ralph and Piggy, and is used to represent power, authority and rules. From the very first time it is mentioned, Golding describes it as: “pretty and a worthy plaything”. It is, like everything else on the island, a simple and innocent object: and immediately afterwards, it becomes something so precious, due to its apparent beauty.
Also, in the beginning, it is a mere utility: Piggy suggests that, when blown, it would be able to “call” the other boys, scattered around the area of the crash, to have a meeting. The fact that it is used to call already highlights its importance in the book, as it has instant results. The sound is, as Jack later says, like that of a trumpet, using the metaphor of summoning the boys: it has an authority all on its own. By the time of the next meeting, in the afternoon of that same day, Ralph, now elected leader, decides that it will be used during meetings, where only the person with it may speak.
“‘I’ll give the conch to the next person to speak. He can hold it when he’s speaking…And he won’t be interrupted. Except by me.'”
Rules have been established, and the conch is at the centre if them, so it, now, is the means of putting across one’s feelings and/or ideas. Naturally, everyone agrees, including Jack. Golding puts this into the book, commenting on man’s need for rules within a society, and a code of behaviour, thus demonstrating what the conch symbolises. As well as these, it also symbolises democracy and free speech in our modern society, one of the few positive statements on humanity within the book, in the fact that all the boys are able to say something, as opposed to rule by force, or an autocracy, as demonstrated by Jack’s leadership, later on in the book.
By chapter Five, things have already drastically changed among the boys. The threat of the beast has been lurking among them all for some time, now, and it has been left to grow to such an extent, that more and more people are behaving differently towards the island and each other. When Ralph has to call an assembly concerning these issues, he finds it difficult to get anything across, or even to be listened to, without brandishing the conch, or repeatedly reminding them that he has it. This symbolises that the power and authority of the conch is weakening, as the boys are tiring of adhering to the rules. Ralph even comments on this during his speech, when he says: –
“things are breaking up…We began well; we were happy. And then-“.
It also makes a sly comment on rules and authority among real human societies, saying that we are unable to keep to them because of our nature as “free” beings, and therefore, the very idea of a rule, something that will confine us, is only temporarily effective, because we just cannot rigidly or lastingly keep to them. Many have argued for and against this theory, and much of it has to do with where we believe our origins as humans lie. For instance, if one believes in the Christian God, they believe that we are the way we are, because of the Original Sin; if Atheist, one may believe in evolution, and that we should, possibly each of us, create our own rules and boundaries, and not let any one person or body decide for us. It is, indeed an interesting debate.
The idea of power corrupting, and being corruptible in return, is also evident in the way that Jack speaks out openly against Ralph, repeatedly, either with or without the conch. He even says, during the assembly scene in chapter Five, “bollocks to the rules!” In chapter Eleven, by which time Jack has succeeded in taking almost complete control over the island, the idea of the conch has become a laughing stock, and it has physically become worn and faded, and less beautiful. Golding shows how everyone, including Ralph and Piggy, regards the conch. Despite them knowing, and seeing in practice, that the conch is virtually useless, Piggy still tells Ralph to call an assembly, and use it, because he is so rule-rigid and loyal to Ralph, that he refuses to undermine him by abandoning the rules; while even Ralph only uses it, under the direction of Piggy: –
” ‘…You call an assembly, Ralph, we got to decide what to do.’
‘An assembly for only us?’
‘It’s all we got…Blow the conch,'”
This strict allegiance of Piggy’s, even now, to Ralph and the conch proves to be his fatal feature, as, when he, Ralph, Sam and Eric go up to the Castle Rock of Jack’s tribe, among jeers, insults and being ignored, Piggy still says: “I’ve got the conch!” This annoys Jack and Roger so much, that both he, and the conch, now having “lost its glow”, are destroyed by the boulder, the conch being: “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceas[ing] to exist.”
Although there has been no real authority or rules for some time, by now, apart from Jack’s, the end of the conch marks the real end, as even the husk, the last remaining vestige of organisation and rules, has been done away with. The fact that it is destroyed along with its one true follower, and the way that Golding writes it, links it with the idea of a murder: not only of Piggy, but of the conch, itself. Golding cleverly emphasises how insignificant it has become by putting its destruction into half of a sentence, and concentrating on the main part of the event, Piggy’s death.
The next symbol to be discussed in the book is that of the island, and its gradual and subsequent ruin. Like the conch, it is a beautiful, peaceful and untouched world, but it is constantly affected by the boys’ actions throughout, even from before the book. From the first paragraph, the site of the crash is referred to as the scar, as if it were an injury to a living being, which, it could be argued, it is. Nevertheless, in chapter One, Golding creates a beautiful image of the island as a whole, using vivid description to emphasise it’s natural beauty, and this is continued right up to the point of the discovery of the conch: “a great platform of pink granite”; “a criss-cross pattern of trunks, very convenient to sit on”; “bright with the efflorescence of tropical weed and coral”; “a golden light danced and shattered just over his face”; “the brilliance of the lagoon”. Golding’s intense description of the lagoon and the watery areas all create the calming effect of water, due to his detailing their appealing aspects.
The boys’ initial reactions to it are similar to what the reader should have. They find it amazing and exotic, seeing their whole situation as an adventure, likening it to popular adventure stories, aimed, mainly, at boys, such as Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, and Coral Island, which they say. Their excitement overpowers their sense of reality, and the fact that they are alone, without any parents or adults, which piggy reminds them of.
But in chapter two, only just after Jack, Ralph and Simon have surveyed the island, and told everyone else how big and beautiful it is, their enthusiasm leads them to make an irreparable mistake. In an attempt to make some sort of signal to the outside world, they start a fire, which subsequently ends up scorching a large chunk of the island’s vegetation. This clearly symbolises man’s effect on the natural world, and how selfish and inconsiderate we have been, in furthering our own society. The excitement and vigour with which the boys readily execute the fire also comments on this: –
“‘A fire! Make a fire!’
At once half the boys were on their feet.”
Just like the young and carefree boys, man has created and used industry and technology to advance his own civilization, without the slightest thought for anything else. Already the intrinsic beauty of the island has been permanently tarnished twice. Piggy says, sarcastically, when commenting on the fire: –
“You got your small fire all right.”
This theme of the gradual destruction of the island is continued throughout the rest of the book, which charts, in a way, the time and scale of man’s destruction of the Earth. In chapter Six, the mother pig is brutally murdered, meaning that, now, although there will be plenty of meat, there won’t be any new pigs to hunt, when they are all hunted down. And, of course, it all comes to an end, when the fire courses through the island, at the end, in chapter Twelve, finally completely obliterating anything natural, or pure, about the island.
“[Ralph] heard a curious trickling sound…as if someone were unwrapping great sheets of cellophane…Smoke was seeping through the branches in white and yellow wisps…and then the smoke billowed around him.”
Concerning the island, and what it represents, Golding has used such vivid imagery in his description, that, when the island is being razed to the ground, the reader is left to feel slightly sorrowful about its end, and it encourages the reader to reflect on what has happened on it ever since the boys arrived. This ties in very well with the religious connection, the island even being described as an “Eden”: the idea of the Original Sin being the cause of man’s present physical and moral condition.
At the beginning, the boys enjoy the island and are treating the whole experience as a great big adventure; after time elapses, and the boys have become afraid of the beast, lurking around the island, their terror and fear causes them to fight back against the island, thus doing things which, though they are not fully aware of it, are ruining their environment. Towards the end, they are conducting an all-out attack on the island, with the beast on it (though, with the leadership of Jack, this is somewhat directed against Ralph).
Another distinctive symbol in the book, is Piggy’s spectacles. Not only are these a utility, when being used as the means to start a fire, but they also symbolise more: Piggy’s (or just, on its own) intelligence. It is the only asset that Piggy has over the others on the island, and it also ties in with him, his behaviour, and what they symbolise.
Like the conch, and what it symbolises, Piggy holds dear his spectacles: this can be argued as natural, for reality’s sake, but he is not the only boy who has such high esteem for them. Jack seizes them from him twice, and it could be said that Jack only does it partly for their usefulness, partly for what they symbolise (intelligence and foresight), and partly because Jack just hates Piggy and will do anything to cause harm or suffering towards him. When in chapter Four, they are damaged, with one of the lenses being broken, he doesn’t care, as he mimics Piggy’s cry of “Just you wait.” And, in chapter Ten, Jack behaves triumphantly, when it is revealed that he and a couple of members of his tribe have raided the huts, and stolen Piggy’s spectacles: –
“The chief led them…exulting in his achievement…From his left hand dangled Piggy’s broken glasses.”
This reaffirms how jack abuses intelligence, by stealing the spectacles, and glorifying his triumph.
Another clear sign that the glasses represent intelligence is the fact that Piggy, the most rational and scientific boy there, is less confident, without them. In chapter Ten, after the damage, but before the raid, Piggy says, to Ralph: “‘I only got one eye, now. You ought to know that'”. Despite his reliability, even Ralph is beginning to lose hope in Piggy, his spectacles, and the meaningless conch. Golding makes the glasses now represent hope, or the lack of it. Because Piggy’s sight is dimmer, no one can see a way out of their predicament. This links with what Golding is saying about how man needs rules, with the conch: so, man must also need hope, otherwise, listlessness and hopelessness set in.
Therefore, the link between rules and authority, hope, intelligence and foresight, and rationality is strongly emphasised. Golding is saying that we, as “civilised” humans need all four, which have made up our present society. It’s also telling that their present society is in the middle of a nuclear war, which could be argued as what’s happening on the island, anyway. This is most clearly represented by the fact that, at the end, where the island has been devastated, and the conch, Piggy and the glasses have all been done away with, there is no moral code. The island now mirrors both their and our present society.
The next major symbol in the book is the fire, and it has many different uses in the story. In chapter One, the boys have the idea of making a fire, to act as a signal to any passing ships, despite their lack of concern or consideration for the rest of the island, already discussed. But, towards the end of the chapter, the fire is described as being something different: dangerous and destructive, as it burns down a part of the mountain. This is a hint of what is to come, both in terms of the plot, and Golding’s way of using fire to symbolise how destructive humanity can be.
“All at once the lights flickering ahead of him merged together, the roar of the forest rose to thunder and a tall bush directly in his path burst into a great fan-shaped flame…the heat beating on his left side and the fire racing forward like a tide.”
It is telling, also, to what Golding believes about man’s effect on the earth, as the fire has made the island a hell, compared to the paradise that it was at the beginning.
When, in chapter Four, the fire goes out, it symbolises the loss of hope, in Ralph, as he is losing control of Jack and his hunters, and Jack is wresting the boys to his power. This is also where Piggy’s spectacles are damaged, and the chain of events, here, all symbolise the despair that Ralph is beginning to have. It also ties in with chapters Eight and Eleven, where Ralph speaks of Jack “stealing” the fire, or hope, that was keeping him and the boys sane, and working together. Here Golding’ is making another comment about our society: without hope, there is nothing worth fighting for or bothering with. The boys have become savage over a period of time, during which they were almost rescued, but due to their own selfishness in wanting to enjoy themselves, they have concerned themselves with fun and pleasure, seeing as there is no hope of anything else.
And this is where fire, as a symbol, takes on a darker side. In chapter Nine, during the feast, and having used it to cook the meat of the mother-pig (though the utilisation of the fire for cooking the could be a positive thing), the boys dance around it, as if in some ritualistic sacrament: shouting, howling and chanting: –
“Jack leapt on to the sand.
‘Do our dance! Come on! Dance!’
…A circling movement developed and a chant…the littluns ran and jumped…Piggy and Ralph, under the threat of the sky, found themselves eager to take a place in this demented but partly secure society…The movement…began to beat like a steady pulse…There was the throb and stamp of a single organism.”
The way that Golding describes it, conjures up the image of the boys transforming, literally, into the very same beast that they are all afraid of. The pace and the language of the words give off a feeling of great tension, signified by the coming storm in the scene. Also, the boys are described as a “single organism”. Due to the nature the story, Golding deliberately dehumanises the boys, and turns them into a mob, to comment on humanity as it acts in a very closed society. When one looks into human history, it is evident that in any one group, as factions, we have done terrible things to each other and to our environment. Simon’s death, included here, is probably the most lucid example of how destructive human beings are en masse.
The final, and most distinctive, symbol to be discussed is that of the beast. This is the most profound icon used by Golding to convey his overall message of the evils within man, and his pessimism towards human nature. The beast is first introduced by one of the littleuns in chapter Two, after Ralph and Jack have explained their situation to the other boys.
” ‘He wants to know what you’re going to do about the snake-thing.’…’Now he says it was a beastie'”
The idea that the beast is a “snake-thing” links in with the idea of the Original Sin: the Devil taking the shape of a serpent (snake) to tempt Eve, the “mother” of humanity, into wrongdoing.
As looked at in discussion of the conch, the island, and the fire, we already know that things go wrong on the island, and that Golding attributes this to human nature. The beast, and this idea of it being inescapable represents this. For instance, the different methods by which the boys dream up its presence (from water, air, snake-like) al are natural, or biblical references. Every idea of the form of the beast is a comprehensible, human, one. Also, during the frequent discussions among the boys’ meetings, as the fear of the beast increases among the boys, so, too, does Simon’s understanding. In chapter Five, he says: –
“Maybe there is a beast…maybe it’s only us”
This shows his comprehension of the idea of something evil and primitive growing within the society of the boys. This is made completely evident in chapter Eight, with his “conversation” (in actual fact, an epileptic fit) with the beast. Simon is in his “special place”, originally a peaceful area of contemplation, abused by Jack’s placing the head of the hunted mother pig there, as an offering to the beast.
The conversation itself is very insightful towards Golding’s view of humanity and towards what Simon represents, also. The beast, or “Lord of the Flies”, as it is called, here, mentions Ralph, Jack, and Piggy, hinting at how they each represent an important aspect of human society (leadership, dictatorship, and rationality, respectively – all of the “secular”, or physical features of humanity). The fact that the pig/beast is named as the Lord of the Flies links in with Golding’s view that it is humanity’s one true fault, that we have it in ourselves to be evil. Man is the beast; it’s simply the evil within the boys that motivates them to think of it. The Lord of the Flies says: –
“You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?…I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”
Of course, Simon isn’t really talking to the Devil; the fact that it’s all taking place inside his own head highlights that he is merely seeing that this is the darker part of human nature.
When Simon then goes up the mountain, to search for the truth about the “beast” which he, Ralph and Jack “see”, Golding is showing us that Simon is representative of Christ. He is the one who sees the problem with humanity, right from the beginning. He tries to explain this to his fellow man, and is laughed at about it, and considered to be mad or a fool; he eventually reaches “enlightenment”, when he finds out the truth (the figure they saw was only the dead body of a parachutist); and when, again, he tries to make this clear to the other boys, he is killed, tragically, during the feast-turned-ritual, while they are out of control: –
“the crowd surged after it, poured down the rock, leapt on to the beast, screamed, struck, bit, tore…the tearing of teeth and claws.”
Here, again, the boys are described as being the beast.
Though extremely graphic and violent (as the death of Jesus was), Golding writes a beautiful aftermath, when describing the body being carried out to sea, paralleling the angelic ascension to heaven of Jesus: –
“The edge of the lagoon became a streak of phosphorescence which advanced minutely…The clear water mirrored the clear sky and the angular bright constellations…the advancing clearness was full of strange, moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes.”
The way in which Golding has crafted the language to create this imagery, is conjuring up the thought of Simon’s spirit, as it were, drifting up. It also emphasises the idea of the calm after the storm. A storm, during which, dark and violent events have occurred amongst the boys, and on the island. Now, as an irredeemable act has been carried out, Golding helps the reader reflect on this, with the serenity and beauty of the aftermath.
As we know, after Simon’s death, everything happens very quickly. Within two days, Jack’s hunters raid Ralph, Piggy, Sam and Eric, and take Piggy’s glasses; Piggy is consciously murdered, in an attempt to retrieve them, and the conch is destroyed with him; Ralph is hunted down like a pig, and the island is destroyed completely by a raging fire, which, ironically, is the beacon that gets them rescued.
The beast is Golding’s main device, used to convey this overall theme of the evil within man and his society. Most of the events in the book revolve around it. Ralph, the leader, tries to reassure the boys that it doesn’t exist, while being unsure of that himself; Piggy, the rational scientist, completely denies it’s existence, and pins the boys’ behaviour down to things which he can be certain of; Jack, the dictator, pragmatically uses the beast as fodder for the boys, denying it’s existence at one point, then offering it gifts at others. While Simon, the philosopher, is aware of its true form all along, but is ignored and killed for his speaking out about it.
In conclusion, Golding’s exceptionally complex novel is, probably, one of the grimmest, pessimistic, cynical, and yet extremely profound literatures ever written. His view of humanity and human nature is unparalleled in the way he conveys it. Whether it is realistic or not would need another essay to discuss it, but by studying all of his injected symbols, and the different purposes he creates for them, we are given a very vividly bleak image.
The conch, a beautiful shell, used for a noble purpose, is abused and ridiculed, eventually unceremoniously destroyed, by which point it is dirty and uncared for. It’s symbolising hope, authority, rules and freedom of speech comments on how we use these ideas today, in our society. The island, a paradise world, untouched and naturally beautiful, is ruined right from the boys’ very entrance, and is progressively destroyed, due to their unconcern for it.
This shadows man’s behaviour towards his surroundings and how he has advanced his own race without caution or care for the earth. Piggy’s glasses, rationality and intelligence, cherished by Ralph and Piggy, and abused by Jack, mirror how people have used science and philosophy for their own ends, so as to get away with terrible things. The fire is, at one point, a symbol of hope and rescue; and at other points, it symbolises destruction, danger, and fear. And, of course, the beast: Golding’s main means. The evil within man, and how it is manifest.
It is telling, however, that Lord of the Flies is only the first in a series of novels by Golding, used to convey his pessimistic view of humanity. As mentioned, there is so much to say about just the symbols he uses here, that makes this book one of literature’s finest pieces.