A Common Dories in Literature
Symbolism is one of the most common devices in literature. Symbolism imparts a deeper layer of meaning to a work of literature. While the apparent meaning lies on the surface, the symbolic meaning lies deeper, almost hidden from view. Only a thoughtful reader can become conscious of the symbolic meaning which lies embedded in the writing. Symbolism heightens the emotional effect of a remark or a situation or a piece of description or a character. Several symbols have been used by Golding in Lord of the Flies.
The Conch, a Symbol of Authority, Democracy, and Discipline
One of the most important symbols in this novel is the conch. Now, in a literal sense a conch is merely an instrument by blowing which one can produce a loud sound. In a literal sense, therefore, a conch may be used to summon people to a certain spot for some special purpose through the loud sound which can be produced by blowing it. But the conch can be made to acquire a deeper meaning also. For instance, in Hindu temples the sound of the conch is believed to have a sacred quality, and this sound is produced to heighten the effect of the holy ceremonies of worship which are performed by the devout people. In Lord of the Flies, the conch becomes a symbol of authority, of democracy, and of civilized behaviour. Early in the story Ralph, who has been elected as the chief, declares that, to avoid confusion, it would be necessary for anyone, who wishes to address the gathering, to ask for the conch and to hold it in his hands while speaking. In other words, whoever holds the conch in his hand would have the right to speak. Every boy has the right to speak at a gathering, and therefore he also has the right to ask for the conch; but he must first ask for the conch and hold it in his hands before he begins to speak. If everybody begins to speak at the same time, there would be confusion worse confounded. Ralph tries to enforce this rule about the conch with firmness, and he is strongly supported in doing so by Piggy, though Jack is not inclined to pay much heed to this rule about the conch. Piggy is the one who constantly reminds the boys about the authority of the conch and about the need to hold it in one’s hand while speaking. Jack often violates the rule about the conch and is again and again reminded of the rule by Ralph and even more firmly by Piggy who therefore falls foul of Jack. For instance, when Jack ignores the rule about the conch on the mountain-top and Piggy reminds him of the rule, Jack says that the conch has no validity on the mountain-top, whereupon Ralph invervenes to say that the authority of the conch has to be recognized everywhere on the island. Thus, while Ralph and Piggy are in favour of observing decorum and support civilized behaviour, lack operates as a disruptive influence because he violates again and again the rule about the conch. Eventually, the conch is shattered into a thousand fragments when Roger releases the rock from above, killing Piggy. The destruction of the conch means also the end of all civilized behaviour, of democracy, and of discipline, and the emergence of autocracy, despotism, and barbarism.
Fire, a Triple Symbol in the Novel
The fire serves as another symbol. On a literal level, fire is used for purposes of cooking and, accordingly, Jack makes use of fire for roasting the meat of the pigs which he is able to hunt down and kill. But the fire also serves as a distress-signal, and Ralph suggests that a fire should be lighted on the mountain-top so that the smoke rising from it may be visible to the sailors of a passing ship. Ralph’s suggestion to light a fire on a mountain-top is accepted, and it is agreed that the fire would be kept burning all the time. Therefore Ralph feels very unhappy when the fire is allowed to go out as a result of the negligence of Jack and his hunters who become more interested in hunting than in maintaining the fire. Ralph repeatedly urges the boys not to forget to feed the fire and to keep it burning all the time. Once again it is only Piggy who takes the same interest in the maintenance of the fire as Ralph does. At one point Ralph thus emphasizes the need of maintaining a fire:
The fire’s the most important thing. Without the fire we can’t be rescued. I’d like to put on war-paint and be a savage. But we must keep the fire burning. The fire’s the most important thing on the island, because––
Thus the fire becomes a symbol of rescue, and at the end it is the fire blazing all over the forest which attracts the attention of the commander of a passing ship and brings him to the island to rescue the boys. But the fire also serves as a symbol of comfort to some of the boys. When Piggy lights a fire close to the platform, the twins feel happy because they would now have a fire near them as a comfort during the night, while a few of the Littluns begin to dance and clap hands at the prospect of having a fire close to them all night. Later in the story even Ralph recognizes the fire as a source of comfort. The author tells us on this occasion that this was the first time that Ralph had admitted “the double function” of the fire. One function of the fire was to send up a column of smoke as a distress-signal, while its other function is to serve as a hearth or a source of comfort when the boys are asleep. And yet the fire also symbolizes a force of destruction. When a fire has been lighted for the first time on the mountain-top, it shows a tendency to spread to the forest, whereupon Piggy gives a warning to all the boys to beware of the spreading fire. Piggy even expresses the apprehension that the little boy with the birthmark on his cheek has probably already perished in the spreading fire. In the final chapter Jack sets fire to the forest to smoke out Ralph and, though this fire attracts the attention of the commander of a passing ship and brings him to the island, the forest including the fruit trees and the shelters built by the boys are completely destroyed by the fire. We have all heard the common saying that fire is a good servant but a bad master. The truth of this saying is amply borne out by the story of this novel in which the fire is a double, nay, triple symbol: a symbol of rescue; a symbol of a hearth; and a symbol of destruction.
The Sow’s Head as a Symbol of Evil
The head of a sow slain by Jack and his hunters, and stuck on a stick, serves as a powerful symbol of evil in the novel. This symbol is central to the theme. The theme of Lord of the Flies is the emergence to the surface of the evil which lies dormant in the heart, and the conflict of this growing evil with the good which continues to exist in the human heart. Simon is the one boy who is conscious of the existence of evil in the human heart. When the boys discuss the possibility of the existence of a beast on the island. Simon expresses the view that the beast exists within the boys themselves. This view works so much upon Simon’s own mind that, while staring at the sow’s head stuck on a stick, he begins to imagine that the sow’s head is the Lord of the Flies looking at him and grinning at him. A swarm of flies have collected round the sow’s head which now seems to be saying to Simon: “Go back, child.” Simon imagines that the sow’s head, which has assumed the shape of the Lord of the Flies, tells him repeatedly to quit this spot and join the other boys. The Lord of the Flies says to Simon: “I’m part of you. I’m the reason why it’s no go, and why things are what they are.” In other words, the Lord of the Flies asserts that evil is part of all human beings including all the boys on the island. The Lord of the Flies then once again urges Simon to go away from here and to join the others in having fun on the island: The Lord of the Flies warns Simon that, if Simon does not obey him, Simon would be severely dealt with. Unable to endure the warning and the threat of the Lord of the Flies, Simon faints. Now this is only a hallucination which the sensitive Simon experiences because of his preoccupation with the evil in human beings. Simon here sees Evil in a visible form. Simon becomes aware of the overwhelming presence of Evil on the island, and we too become conscious of the evil which is growing more and more powerful and which is superseding the good.
The Island, Symbolic of Hell as well as of Paradise
The island itself becomes a symbol in the story. In fact, the island serves as a double symbol. Early in the story Ralph and the others find a certain glamour and enchantment about this island. Indeed, the island is symbolic of paradise or the Garden of Eden. But even at this early stage the island also reminds us of the snake which misled Eve in the Garden of Eden and brought about the fall of Adam and Eve. The little boy with the birthmark on his cheek sees a beastie or a snake-thing, and feels greatly scared. The twisted and intertwining branches of trees resemble snakes and produce a horrifying effect on the child-mind. The belief in the beastie or the snake-thing becomes stronger and stronger in course of time till it reaches its climax when the twins report having seen it on the mountain-top. Jack’s offering a pig’s head as a gift to the supposed beast lends further support to the general belief in the beast. The twins have mistaken the dead-body of a parachutist for the beast, and thereafter Ralph and his companions make the same mistake. Thus even the dead-body of the parachutist becomes a symbol of evil, like the sow’s head. The sow’s head, the twisted and intertwining tree-branches, and the dead parachutist––all these become symbols of the evil which threatens to engulf the good on the island. In the last chapter the island becomes a blazing inferno and. therefore a symbol of hell.
The Painted Faces, a Symbol of Primitivism and Savagery
The painted faces of Jack and his hunters also have a symbolic purpose. To begin with, Jack had painted his face with red clay, with white clay, and with charcoal merely to disguise himself so as not to be recognized by the pigs as an enemy. But in course of time he and his hunters paint their faces not only for the purpose of deceiving the pigs but also to emulate the example of the primitive people. Jack now keeps his face painted all the time, like an ancient tribal leader, and he refers to his supporters and followers as his “tribe”. His followers now also maintain painted faces, and even the twins suggest to Ralph that they shout follow the example of Jack’s followers though Ralph dismisses the suggestion because he does not want to look like a savage. The painted faces thus become symbolic of primitivism and savagery.
The Mock-Hunts, Another Symbol of Primitivism
The mock-hunts are another symbol of primitivism. The mock-hunt begins as a pure sport for the sake of fun. While the first mock-hunt is really pure fun, the second mock-hunt tends to deteriorate into a primitive ritual in the course of which Robert is roughly handled. The third mock-hunt is wholly primitive in its character. The participants have now developed a lust for blood. Jack and his hunters have now become real savages, with the result that they pounce upon Simon and shower so many cruel blows upon him that he is killed. The hunters only dimly realize that they have killed their own comrade, while Jack throws dust into their eyes by telling them that they have killed the beast which had come to them in disguise.
The Symbolic Significance of the Characters
As the story progresses, even the characters, at least the principal ones, tend to acquire a symbolic significance. In the beginning we treat Ralph, Jack, and Simon merely as boys belonging to the marooned group of those who had crash-landed on the island. But gradually we find that, while Ralph gives evidence of being a good boy with sound and wholesome views, Jack becomes more and more defiant towards Ralph and begins to subvert the discipline and the civilized behaviour which Ralph (and Piggy) try to maintain and uphold. Simon is a retiring kind of boy who begins to go into the forest where he spends some time at a secluded spot in complete solitude, holding a kind of communion with Nature. As we read further, we find that Ralph continues to be a champion of civilized values and continues to look after the general welfare of the boys, and especially the Littluns, while Jack deviates more and more from the norms of civilized behaviour. Ralph retains his goodness till the very end, as Piggy too does, while Jack is dominated more and more by his evil instincts till he emerges as a leader of savages, with Roger and Maurice as his lieutenants. Jack experiences no remorse at all when Simon is killed. Nor does Jack feel the least regret when Piggy is killed by Roger’s releasing a rock from above. Simon dies a martyr. Simon had emerged from the forest to inform the boys that there was no beast but only the dead-body of a parachutist on the mountain-top. But the boy who had come to render a valuable service to the community gets killed in the process. Simon is an embodiment of goodness and nobility. He is a saintly and Christ-like figure. Jack becomes an embodiment of evil; he becomes the Lord of the Flies himself. Thus, all these three characters, Ralph, Simon and Jack, symbolize certain enduring principles which have always existed in the history of mankind. Jack symbolizes evil; Ralph symbolizes good- ness fighting against evil; and Simon symbolizes the selfless spirit of service to the community.