Early in the novel, Ralph comments that they must make a signal fire in order for them to be rescued. He hopes that a passing ship will notice the smoke and stop to pick them up. As soon as they successfully light their first fire, Ralph yells for the boys to grab more wood to feed the flames. Golding writes,
"Life became a race with the fire and the boys scattered through the upper forest. To keep a clean flag of flame flying on the mountain was the immediate end and no one looked further" (56).
The signal fire is a symbol of hope, rescue, and civilization throughout the novel. The boys' focus on and enthusiasm for maintaining the signal fire illustrates their initial affinity for civility.
In Chapter 5, Ralph holds a meeting to discuss how the boys are not completing the tasks agreed upon during the assemblies. After commenting on the shabby huts, lack of water in the coconuts, and the location of where the boys are relieving themselves, he says,
"The fire is the most important thing on the island. How can we ever be rescued except by luck, if we don’t keep a fire going? Is a fire too much for us to make?...Look at us! How many are we? And yet we can’t keep a fire going to make smoke. Don’t you understand? Can’t you see we ought to—ought to die before we let the fire out?" (Golding 31).
Ralph is pleading with the boys to focus on the importance of having a signal fire, but they do not share the same feelings. The inability to maintain a signal fire correlates with the boys' inability to create a civil society on the island. Their indifferent feelings about maintaining a signal fire reflect their gradual descent into savagery.