Lord of the Flies is an intensely symbolic work at all levels of analysis. As an allegory, the story’s most basic elements serve as symbols for aspects of human life. Golding builds this intentional symbolism into the specific images and objects of the novel as well, from the conch shell to the signal fire to the surrounding sea.
The "beast” is a pervasive symbol of fear and evil that takes different forms. It begins as a “snake-thing,” an indistinct jungle creature that becomes a source of fear amongst the younger boys and derision amongst the older boys. However, after Samneric mistake the dead parachutist for the beast, it becomes a terrifying monster with “teeth” and “claws” and “wings” that scares all of the boys. However, the true form of the beast is the boys themselves, for it symbolizes the capacity for evil that dwells in all humans.
The beast is originally mentioned by the boy with the mulberry-colored birthmark, who describes it as a “snake-thing” that turns back into a creeper vine during the day. The older boys dismiss these claims, believing that the “littluns” are just having nightmares. The older boys rejoice in the freedom they have on the island and are less susceptible to the fears that the littluns experience. However, the ability to manipulate fear is a potent source of power, and Jack takes full advantage of the younger boys’ belief in the beast to reinforce his position as the leader of the hunters. While the beast is born from the fears of the younger boys, it is fed by the evil within Jack, who validates the littluns’ fears by promising to hunt it down and kill it.
The next incarnation of the beast is based on the corpse of the parachutist. Samneric see the billowing parachute and “bowing” movement of the body from a distance and report back to the rest of the boys, describing the beast as having “teeth” and “claws” and “wings.” The original incarnation of the beast is the product of the littluns’ fears, but this is the first time that the older boys believe in its existence. This more widespread belief in the beast’s presence coincides with the mounting tension between Ralph and Jack. Jack grows more obsessed with killing pigs while Ralph continues to focus on getting rescued. The littluns know the beast from the beginning because they immediately descend into hedonism and laziness, forgetting the structure and order of the civilized world. By contrast, the beast takes longer to set in amongst the older boys. They only begin to fear the darkness within themselves in the wake of their first successful pig kill, an act of violence that cost the boys a chance at rescue.
Early on, Simon intuits that the beast comes from within the boys. He tries to tell the boys this truth, even before Samneric encounter the dead parachutist and the older boys start to believe it exists at all. However, he is left “inarticulate in his effort to express mankind’s essential illness.” His knowledge of human nature is later confirmed by the Lord of the Flies, the sacrificial sow’s head. The violent instincts and inherent evil that led Jack and his hunters to brutally kill the sow, as well as the fear that led them to sacrifice it to the beast, is where the true beast lies. This is made explicit when Simon, who the frenzied boys mistake for the beast, is torn...
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apart by the “teeth and claws” of the other boys, appendages earlier attributed to the beast.
The conch represent goodness, order, and civilization—man rising above his innate savage heart. Lord of the Flies portrays the rise and fall of a democracy, which also coincides with the existence of the conch. The conch begins as a “worthy plaything” for Ralph, who relishes in the “stupendous noise” it emits.
However, it quickly becomes a symbol of unity and democracy due to its role in bringing the boys together. The democratic associations of the conch are furthered when the boys decide to use it as a means of deciding who gets to speak at meetings. Ralph holds an “affectionate reverence for the conch, even though he had fished the thing out of the lagoon himself.” As Jack grows increasingly obsessed with hunting, he turns away from the order maintained by the conch, undermining its power by speaking out of turn. Golding positions the conch as a symbol that requires belief, so Jack’s refusal to respect its power diminishes it in the eyes of the other boys.
In chapter 11, Piggy believes he can go to Jack with the conch in his hands and reason with him, appealing to his sense of morality, in order to get his glasses back. Just before Roger heaves the rock that sends Piggy to his death, Piggy holds up the “white, magic shell” and tries to reason with the boys:
“By him stood Piggy still holding out the talisman, the fragile, shining beauty of the shell. The storm of sound beat at them, an incantation of hatred.”
Then as the rock strikes Piggy, “the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.” In the last chapter of the novel, Ralph comes upon the pig’s skull, gleaming “white as ever the conch had done....” Ralph tries to destroy the skull, but it proves to be much harder to break than the conch. Evil seems to have triumphed over good; chaos and savagery, over order and civility.
Face paint symbolizes the rejection of civilization and individual accountability in favor of savagery and freedom. Jack’s decision to paint his face is born from his increasingly obsessive need to kill a pig. From the beginning, the face paint is associated with violence and savagery, rendering Jack’s features into those of an “awesome stranger.” By obscuring his features, Jack is able to hide behind a mask, “liberated from shame and self-consciousness.” He is no longer bound by the rules of British society or those of the other boys, instead fully embracing his role as a savage hunter.
As more of the boys begin painting their faces, Jack’s power grows. When the tribe begins hunting Ralph, Ralph is no longer able to recognize most of the boys, instead referring to them collectively as “savages.” Rather than retaining their individuality and sense of accountability, the face paint allows the boys to become a collective mass wherein no one can be held individually responsible for their actions. They are shielded from judgement by the anonymity of the paint, allowing them to release their inhibitions and follow their instinctive desires.
Fire plays contrasting symbolic roles in Lord of the Flies, highlighting the importance of rationality and order when using technology as well as humanity’s potential for destruction. The first and last fires that the boys set burn out of control, destroying parts of the island. In both of these cases, fire is associated with chaos and destruction. However, the signal fire that the boys attempt to maintain represents hope and rescue, providing a link to civilized society. Fire is ultimately a neutral tool, and it reveals both the state of the boys’ attachment to civilization and the allocation of power on the island.
Fire begins as a way of establishing a connection with the civilized world. However, the initial fire quickly burns out of control, destroying part of the island and killing the littlun with the mulberry-colored birthmark. The destructive power of fire awes the boys, resulting in a mix of pride and fear as they realize the consequences of their actions and the extent of their own power.
The signal fire symbolizes hope of rescue and the boys’ connection to the rest of the world. It begins as a point of unity for all of the boys, a shared purpose that everyone recognizes. However, as Jack and his hunters grow increasingly savage, the signal fire ceases to matter to them, and they instead turn their attention to the immediate gratification of hunting. Jack’s first successful pig hunt represents a turning point for all of the boys because the hunters let the fire go out and miss the opportunity to be rescued. Jack’s and Ralph’s conflicting priorities are made clear and the fire becomes a point of contention rather than one of unity.
After Jack defects and forms his own tribe, fire transforms from a symbol of hope to a symbol of power. Ralph’s group initially retains Piggy’s glasses, the tool needed to start fire. However, they lack the numbers to maintain the signal fire. When Jack steals the glasses, the balance of power on the island shifts completely to him, signifying the boys’ complete descent into savagery as they forego the hope of rescue altogether. Ironically, despite Jack’s tribe’s rejection of civilization, it is the fire they set in order to help them flush out and kill Ralph that summons the long-awaited rescue ship.
The lagoon, or the bathing pool, is where the boys feel the closest to civilization. It allows them to wash themselves and be clean, as they would be back in England. It also allows them to feel safe and protected, since it keeps out the more violent ocean water and is clear enough that they can see all the way to the bottom of it. Notably, the pool is also where Ralph first finds the conch, which comes to represent democratic principles. After the boys are summoned by the sound of the conch, the pool becomes the site of their democratic assemblies.
The bathing pool is the first real community space that the boys develop, holding their meetings and playing in the water as a group. After Jack and Ralph begin to recognize their differing priorities, it is the “shouting and splashing and laughing” in the “warm salt water” of the pool that is “only just sufficient to bring them together again.” The bathing pool, which produced the conch, represents a natural sense of camaraderie and civility. It is a place where the boys can shed their newfound responsibilities and enjoy being children again, splashing and playing in the water.
The bathing pool also helps the boys retain their ties to civilization on a literal level by keeping them clean. By washing off the sweat and grime and face paint, they revert back to being schoolboys rather than “painted savages” who are living in the wilderness. Jack and his tribe relocate to the other side of the island, which is surrounded by violent cliffs unsuitable for bathing. Rather than washing off the grime and paint, they give themselves over to their instincts, becoming physically filthy in order to match their increasingly savage actions.
Just as fire takes on contrasting meanings, so too does water. On the one hand, the ocean represents isolation and a barrier between the boys and their civilized lives. However, it also represents their only hope for rescue. Whereas fire is something natural that has been brought under the control of humans, the ocean symbolizes the unconquerable might of nature. Even the civilized world has not managed to explore the entirety of the ocean, and its vast and mysterious depths offer both salvation and isolation.
The ocean surrounds the island, completely isolating the boys. However, even as it isolates them, it also protects them. Initially, the water is described in peaceful, idyllic language, commonly called the “sea” instead of the “ocean.” It is a nurturing force that provides seafood, baths, and fun. However, after Ralph sees the rougher waters from the cliffs on the other side of the island, the ocean becomes a source of fear and oppressive power, keeping the boys trapped on the island.
The ocean also plays a role in the deaths of Simon and Piggy. After Simon is killed, the ocean washes the blood from his body and sends a group of “moonbeam-bodied creatures with fiery eyes” to guide his corpse out to sea. Piggy’s body is also claimed by the ocean, as the rock that Roger releases knocks his body off the cliff and into the water. Even the body of the dead parachutist ends up being taken out to sea. In contrast to the violent deaths of the characters, the ocean provides a gentle embrace and a symbolic return to nature.
The dead parachutist symbolizes the world outside of the island, which is embroiled in war. The body is caught in the strings of its parachute, invoking the image of a puppet, bowing and sinking as the wind blows. The parachutist is not a hero or savior; instead, it is a puppet on a string, moved by external forces and dying a violent death. When Simon finds the body on top of the mountain, he notices that the straps of the parachute are all that is holding the decaying body together. Even in death, the parachutist is constrained by the violent trappings of humanity. Simon frees the corpse from the lines of its parachute, offering it salvation from the savagery and indignity of life.
Samneric encounter the parachutist at the top of the mountain, mistake it for the beast, and report it as such. The fact that a “sign [that] came down from the world of grownups” is what inspires more widespread belief in the beast speaks to the universality of the beast. Just as the once-innocent boys descend into savagery and violence, the “world of grownups” is embroiled in a violent war. In fact, it was the violence of “grownups” that led to the boys’ plane crashing on the island, suggesting the inherited nature of violence and savagery. Previously, the beast had no tangible form for the boys. Embodied by the parachutist, the beast begins to represent the inherent violence of humanity, giving shape to the boys’ mounting fears as their attempt at a democratic society dissolves into something more savage.
Pigs represent temptation and innocence. The boys on the island range between the ages of six and twelve, and over the course of the novel they undergo a coming of age. Indeed, one of the things Ralph weeps for at the end of the novel is “the end of innocence.” The island is described as Edenic, hosting enough fruit, clean water, and building materials for the boys to survive on. Just as the Garden of Eden provided for Adam and Eve in their innocent state, so too does the island provide for the boys. However, Just as Adam and Eve were tempted by the serpent to obtain godly wisdom from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, so too are the boys tempted by the forbidden: hunting and killing living things.
The killing of the nursing sow by Roger and Jack further symbolizes the loss of innocence in the boys. Rather than killing solely for food, the boys take a perverse pleasure in mutilating the sow and causing her pain. The sow is described as being in “maternal bliss” as she nurses her children, a sacred moment between mother and child. The boys become “wedded to [the sow] in lust,” adding a sexual undertone to the hunt, which ends with Roger thrusting his spear into the sow’s anus. Left without maternal influences, Jack and his hunters kill a symbol of motherhood and innocence in brutal fashion, and leave its head as a sacrifice to the beast.
Finally, the murder of Piggy represents the final descent of the boys into sin. From the beginning, almost all of the boys show open disdain for Piggy. His thin hair, rotundity, and heavy breathing associate him with the island pigs. Readers never even learn his real name. However despite the dehumanization he faces at the hands of the other boys, Piggy is still a human being. While the murder of Simon is a turning point in the story, it is not premeditated in the way that the murder of Piggy is. Piggy’s death symbolizes the true graduation from hunting pigs to murder—the ultimate loss of innocence.
Piggy's glasses provide a symbolic link with the modernized world on an island that otherwise lacks technology. His glasses, a product of human ingenuity and reasoning, help the boys make fire. Piggy’s glasses symbolize human ingenuity and wisdom, as well as the power of science. However, just as the adult world uses science for both good and bad, Piggy’s glasses are used to both create and destroy.
When Piggy has his glasses, he is clear-sighted and intelligent, offering valuable advice to Ralph and the other boys. However, without his glasses, Piggy is blind and unable to function. After Piggy scolds Jack for letting the fire go out, Jack breaks one of the lenses of Piggy’s glasses by hitting him in the face. The breaking of the glasses highlights the breakdown of society in favor of savagery. Ralph, who represents democratic society, is left symbolically blind, increasingly unable to articulate the importance of the signal fire and the need for rescue. The theft of the glasses indicates the final shift of power to Jack, who plans to use the glasses to savage ends.
The destructive fire that Jack and his hunters set in order to smoke Ralph out is set using the glasses after they have been stolen and Piggy has been killed. By contrast, the contained signal fire that Ralph insists they maintain in the hopes of rescue is set with Piggy’s consent. Like fire, the glasses in themselves are a neutral tool. However, the contexts in which they are used, and the resulting outcomes, symbolize the need for order and reason when using technology.
The initial “scar” left by the plane crash symbolizes humanity’s inherent destructiveness. Before the boys even have the chance to explore their surroundings, they have already left a physical mark on the island, foreshadowing the impact that they will continue to have on the Edenic paradise.
The longer the boys spend on the island, the more they impact their physical surroundings. Rather than coexisting with the other creatures on the island in peace, the boys instead choose to dominate the landscape. This starts off in small ways as the boys push rocks off of cliffs, but quickly escalates into more severe transgressions against the environment. Jack’s pursuit of pigs is unnecessary in light of the abundance of fruit and seafood, but the draw of violence leads him down the path of destruction.
However, for all the destruction the boys inflict on the island, it also leaves its marks on them. As Ralph breaks down on the beach in front of the naval officer, it becomes clear that the boys have also been scarred and traumatized, destroyed internally just as the island has been destroyed externally, highlighting the reciprocal relationship between humans and nature.
The sow’s head that Jack and his hunters mount on a stick as a sacrifice for the beast symbolizes humanity's innate capacity for evil. In its interaction with Simon, it is identified as "Lord of the Flies," a name for Beelzebub, a devil in Christian theology who is often conflated with Satan.
By reading the sow's head as a satanic figure, Simon’s encounter with the Lord of the Flies echoes the biblical temptation of Jesus Christ in the wilderness, as detailed in Matthew 4:1-11 and Luke 4:1-13. The Lord of the Flies urges Simon to go back to the other boys and forget what he has seen. It tells Simon that if he wants the other boys to like him, he needs to act more like them. However, to do so would be to deny the true nature of the beast, which exists within all of the boys. Just as Jesus denies temptation, Simon denies the Lord of the Flies, insisting on discovering the truth for himself.
After Piggy’s death and Ralph’s escape from the murderous tribe, Ralph, who represents the remnants of civilization and order, discovers the sow’s skull in the clearing. It unnerves him and he lashes out at it, breaking the skull in half. However, rather than destroying the skull, Ralph’s actions just make its smile larger. Ralph’s inability to destroy the Lord of the Flies symbolizes the inescapable nature of evil. The implication is that even out in the world of grown-ups, civilization is a facade that keeps people in line without truly eradicating their evil impulses.