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Lord of the Flies Symbolism
Writing, Grammar, Literature, ACT Prep
Education: M.Ed.,Stanford University
Katie is an enthusiastic teacher who strives to make connections between literature and student’s every day lives.
Here I am outside of a flower stand. As you can see they’ve got some beautiful flowers here. They’ve got orchids, and lilies, and back there are some beautiful hydrangeas. Quite literally, everything that’s here is just a flower growing out of the ground. However, most flowers have a symbolic meaning.
For instance, if I was going to get flowers for my best friend for her birthday, I might pick those daisies back there, because daisies are said to represent friendship. However, if I was going to buy flowers for my boyfriend, I might go with the more traditional symbol of love, and get him some roses.
In Lord of the Flies by William Golding, he also uses symbols to represent deeper ideas. Let’s take a look at some of those symbols, and see if we can pick them apart to discover what exactly William Golding is trying to communicate with them.
So we talked about the fact that Lord of the Flies is an allegory which means that the characters, the objects, the settings all have one literal meaning, and one figurative meaning. We’re going to talk now about how some of those objects have a deeper meaning. Remember that symbolism is when an author uses a tangible object to represent an intangible idea.
Let’s look at some of the tangible objects in Lord of the Flies that William Golding uses to communicate a deeper meaning. We’re going to start with a conch shell. The conch shell is that shell that the boys pick up, at the very beginning of the book. Remember Piggy is the one that points it. He shows Ralph what to do with it, because Piggy can’t blow it since he has Asthma. Ralph is the one that blows it. So quite literally we’ve got a shell on the ground, that’s used to gather the other boys.
However, on a figurative level, we see the shell representing rules and laws. It’s the first rule of the island. So in addition to gathering the boys, you’ll remember that the boys actually use this shell as a rule. If we take a look at the book, it says, “That’s what this shell is called. I’ll give the conch the next person to speak. He can hold it when he’s speaking.” So the shell comes to represent this idea that the boys need rules and laws in order to survive on the island. They all decide in the very beginning of the book that they’re going to use the shell as part of the first rule. And that nobody in any meeting is allowed to speak, until the shell is in their hands.
Now we’ll see also that the shell when it’s finally eliminated, it’s crushed when Piggy dies. That’s the time when all things go haywire on the island. All the rules are thrown out, and there’s no consequences. So very clearly on a figurative level, the conch shell represents the idea of rules and laws.
The next symbol we’re going to take a look at are Piggy’s glasses. Remember Piggy’s glasses are used for a variety of reasons; there they’re used to start the fire in the book. They’re also used as part of a means of power. At the end Jack steals them in order to gain power, and have his own fire on his side of the island. So quite literally, these are the glasses that belong to Piggy. They start the fire; in fact, it’s Jack that realizes what they can do. He says, “His specs! Use them as burning glasses!” When they’re at the top of the mountain, the specs are ripped off Piggy’s face by Ralph, and used to start the fire.
On a more figurative level however, we come to see the glasses as representing rescue. They are the means by which the boys start the fire, and the smoke from the fire that the glasses are used to start, is what enables ships to see the boys as they’re going by. Hopefully to come and rescue them.
In addition, the glasses are also viewed as symbols that represent logic. One thing to note is that the boys start out very logically trying to set up a society, but as the glasses become more broken, so does the logic leave the island. Violence progresses, and eventually the glasses aren’t able to be used at all.
The next symbol we’re going to take a look at is the knife that Jack brings with him to the island. Quite literally, this is the sharp knife that probably looks somewhat like a dagger that Jack uses to kill the pigs. He’s described as saying, “‘I cut the pig’s throat.” Said Jack proudly… ‘There was lashings of blood,’ said Jack, laughing and shuddering, 'you should have seen it'. So clearly this is the weapon that he uses to kill the pigs, and give meat to the rest of the boys.
On a more figurative level however, Jack uses this knife to control people. Remember that when the two tribes split, Jack promises all the little ones meat that he can get from killing the pigs in order to sway them away from Ralph’s tribe. So clearly, Golding is using this knife to represent this idea that there is power in fear. It’s a way of showing the knife represents a way of controlling people by scaring them, and through manipulation. It also shows that violence can be used to control people.
Another symbol that comes up in the book is this dead pilot. Again quite literally, we’ve got a dead pilot falling out of the sky. Chapter 6 begins with this description. It says, “There was specks above the island, a figure dropping swiftly beneath a parachute, a figure that hung with dangling limb.” So we get the image of a parachute falling out of the sky. Clearly remember, the book is set during a time of war. So this makes sense that there would be planes flying around in the sky. That there might be a casualty, a captain, or a member of a air team that has fallen out of a sky with a parachute. So that’s the dead pilot on a quite literal level.
However, on a figurative level, we see the pilot representing the adult world. If you remember back to the very end of chapter 5, it’s at that point that Ralph and Simon, and Piggy are sitting around. All Ralph wishes for is a sign from the adult world. Then magically in chapter 6 we see an adult, though is dead land on the island.
Another thing that the dead pilot represents figuratively, is fear of the unknown. We come to see that the boys end up believing this dead pilot is the beast. Remember its parachute is still attached, so we get these images of a dead pilot kind of hunched over on the ground. As the wind blows, it picks them up so he is looking up. Then when the wind dies down, he folds over. You have to imagine what a dead pilot would look like after falling off the sky, and then sitting on an island for days after days. You can imagine a grotesque face. Maybe the skin is not all the way there. So the boys come to accept that this is the beast that they should be afraid of. We see them reacting to this beast. Therefore, he communicates the idea that there is a fear of the unknown that exist in humans.
The pigs are also another object that William Golding uses to communicate a deeper level in his novel. We see quite literally that the pigs are these pigs running around on the island. They are the meat that the boys eat. So they physically represent the food; literally they're food that they eat. They also are the obsession of the hunters. Remember, the hunters can’t help but to just continually chase these pigs, until they finally kill one.
On a figurative level however, these pigs represent temptation. That feeling that the hunters get when they can’t resist going after the chase, or killing them violently. We also see the pigs representing evil. Remember that it’s a pig’s head on a stick that is the Lord of the Flies that speaks to Simon.
It’s described as, “Even if he shut his eyes the sow’s head still remained like an after image. The half-shut eyes were dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life.” So we get this image of this pig’s head. It’s bloody, there’s flies floating around really speaking to Simon. But what it’s communicating is that cynicism of adult life. Or the darkness, or the evil that exists in the world.
The final symbol that we’re going to talk about today is the mask that Jack paints on. Literally, it’s a mask that he creates out of clay. It’s described as being red, and black, and white. We’ll talk about the implications of those colors. So he puts it on his face. In fact it says “Once he put it on, he capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thing on its own, behind which Jack had liberated from shame and self consciousness.” So we get this idea that he’s quite literally got a mask on his face.
But on a figurative level, what that mask allows him to do is to release his inner savage. It hides the true Jack, and allows him to do things that he wouldn’t otherwise do. So we see figuratively that mask reveals man's savage side.
We took a look at the different objects that the boys had on the island. They had the conch shell, and Jack painted the mask on his face, among other things. We looked at how those symbols have both literal and figurative meanings. Just like the characters stood for something else, so do the symbols. So take a look when you’re reading. Remember there’s always something looking just below the surface.
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