What is an explanation for the symbolism of fire in Lord of the Flies?  

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Interestingly, William Golding's narrative is framed in fire. In the exposition, the plane which carries the boys creates a scar in the land as it crashes upon the island; and after meeting Ralph, Piggy informs him that he has looked out the window and seen flames coming out of one part of this plane. In the denouement, the entire island is virtually engulfed in flames as the hunters set fire to everything in their frenzy to kill Ralph. This framing encloses the island in turmoil; for, there are often boulders rolling down the mountain, trees exploding from the heat of the rescue fire--sounds not unlike the roar of war, the drums rolling, marching, bombs exploding, and cannon's booming.

Within this environment of bellicose noises, the fire represents other things, but it ultimately returns to destruction:

  • Rescue and Responsibility - The fire represents the burden of responsibility for Ralph as the leader.  He must ensure that the rescue fire keeps burning and creates smoke and is contained in the proper area.  At first, the boys allow too much to burn and do not put enough green upon it for there to be the necessary smoke. Then, they allow it to get out of control and burn some of the island.
  • Power - Once Jack and the hunters steal the fire they are empowered, splitting the boys as hunters or those who follow Ralph and survive on fruit. As in the story of Prometheus, who steals fire from the gods and gives it to man, Jack's stealing of the fire gives him power.
  • Destruction - When Jack lights a fire in order to flush Ralph out of the brush in which he hides in Chapter Twelve, Ralph hears noises that are "familiar,"not unlike the sounds that Ralph "has heard before": "deep grumbling noises," "somber noises," trees falling with the "grumble of the forest."  Ironically, this destructive fire meant to kill Ralph is what rescues him. However, it is not a true rescue from evil and destruction since Ralph and the other boys are headed to a Navy warship and the boys will yet experience the horrors and destruction of war, a state which is part of the natural savagery of man. So with his rescue, Ralph "wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart" as he finds with the rescuer, the Navy officer, a continuation of destruction represented by the warship.
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Lord of the Flies

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