How does the symbol of fire change over the course of the novel Lord of the Flies, by William Golding?  

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding, is set on a tropical island and its main characters are a group of schoolboys aged five or six to thirteen or so. Fire is a changeable symbol which Golding uses to represent both life and death throughout the novel. 

In chapter two of the novel, the boys do something together for the first time: they run up the mountain to light a signal fire, as Ralph suggests. In their enthusiasm to light a signal fire, however, they create a conflagration that nearly kills them all and does kill a little boy with a mulberry birthmark. 

Beneath the dark canopy of leaves and smoke the fire laid hold on the forest and began to gnaw. Acres of black and yellow smoke rolled steadily toward the sea. At the sight of the flames and the irresistible course of the fire, the boys broke into shrill, excited cheering. The flames, as though they were a kind of wild life, crept as a jaguar creeps on its belly toward a line of birch-like saplings that fledged an outcrop of the pink rock. They flapped at the first of the trees, and the branches grew a brief foliage of fire. The heart of flame leapt nimbly across the gap between the trees and then went swinging and flaring along the whole row of them. Beneath the capering boys a quarter of a mile square of forest was savage with smoke and flame. The separate noises of the fire merged into a drum-roll that seemed to shake the

What was supposed to have been the source of their rescue (life) quickly became an agent of death.

In the middle fo the novel, fire comes to represent survival (life). The only way the boys know to start a fire is with Piggy's glasses, and for most of the story he is willing to let them be used by whoever needs to start a fire. While the boys are able to live on fruit and a few other things, what they really need is meat; in order to cook the meat which the hunters eventually provide, they also need fire. The fight for Piggy's glasses also becomes a fight for survival. In the end, whoever has the glasses has the power of life and death on the island.

In the last chapter of the novel, the fire which was to have flushed Ralph out of hiding so he could be killed also creates enough smoke for a passing military vessel to rescue the boys. This dual symbolism is the final irony in this novel, a reversal of that found in chapter two. There, the fire designed to rescue them all inadvertently killed someone; here, the fire designed to kill someone inadvertently rescued them all. Fire is a changing symbol of both life and death throughout this novel. 

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Lord of the Flies

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