What does the ocean symbolize in the Lord of the Flies?

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caledon eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The ocean is a complex symbol that grows in meaning throughout the story.

One significant nuance to this symbol is the use of the term "ocean" versus "sea". The water surrounding the island is introduced in nearly idyllic terms at the beginning of the story, and the word "sea" is always used to describe it. However, when the boys first encounter the waters on the other side of the island, which lacks a beach and instead has sharp cliffs and rocks, and the water is rough and unforgiving, it is for the first time described as "ocean". The waters on this side of the island, from that point, are always referred to as ocean, and so we might say part of the symbolism is linked to the nature of the waters themselves; they can be nurturing and mysterious, as on the "sea" side of the island, or uncaring and cold as on the "ocean" side.

The ocean represents several facets of the themes of the unknown, the subconscious, and isolation. The sea is what separates the boys from their homes, and is the main reason for their situation. The sea is also suggested to be where the Beast comes from, and Maurice announces that his father claims that "they haven't found all the animals in the sea yet", making it a source of danger and mystery. Finally, on viewing and contemplating the harsh nature of the ocean on the other side of the island, Ralph reflects that its brutality has an emotional impact; "one was clamped down, one was helpless, one was condemned". 

Thus, the ocean has a two-part nature when it comes to symbolism; to the ignorant or liberated person, it represents peace and comfort, but to the destitute, the person closer to savagery and the fine line between life and death, the ocean represents how little nature cares for humans, and how readily they can be swallowed up by the vastness of its power and emptiness; this is demonstrated in the way that it consumes the bodies of Piggy and Simon.

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Lord of the Flies

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