Study Guide

Lord of the Flies Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By William Golding

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The Big Massive Allegory

Before we get down to the details, we should address the fact that Lord of the Flies is one big allegory. Symbols aside, the boys as a whole can represent humanity as a whole. You can see where the pieces fall from there; the island is then the entire world, the boys’ rules become the world’s varying governments, two tribes are two countries, and so on. The boys’ fighting is then equivalent to a war. The only time we pull out of the allegory is at the very end of the novel, when the other “real” world breaks through the imaginary barrier around the island. Yet this is also the moment when the real message of the allegory hits home, when we can ask ourselves that chilling question, “But who will rescue the grown-ups?”

The Conch

The conch is used in many scenes in Lord of the Flies to call the boys to order. No boy may speak unless he is holding the conch and once he is holding it, he cannot be interrupted. They boys have imposed this “rule of the conch” on themselves, and thus the conch represents society’s rules, politics, and speech. The conch is a big part of the boys choosing to vote for a chief, and it also allows anyone to speak when they hold it. Notice that, after the conch is broken in to a thousand pieces, Jack runs forward screaming that now he can be chief? The reason he couldn’t be chief before, at least not his kind of chief, is that the conch still allowed Piggy to quiet all the others boys down and demand they listen. With no conch, power is once again up for grabs, and Jack is feeling grabby.

The Fire

Fire is used in several ways in Lord of the Flies. From the very beginning of the novel, Ralph is determined to keep a signal fire going, in case a ship passes near to the island. That’s fine until the first signal fire the boys light begins burning out of control, and at least one boy is missing (read: burned up). The fire thus becomes a symbol, paradoxically, of both hope of rescue and of destruction. Ironically, it is because of a fire that Jack lights at the end of the novel – in his attempt to hunt and kill Ralph – that the boys are rescued. What could that possibly mean, the fact that rescue equals destruction? It brings us back, as all these symbols do, to The Big Massive Allegory of the novel. If the boys’ world is just an allegory for the real world, then they’re not being rescued at all; they’re just going on to a larger scale of violence and, yes, that’s right, destruction. Hence, rescue equals destruction.

The Glasses

While the boys on the island revert to primitive ways with their hunting, nakedness, and face painting, there is still one symbol of advancement, of innovation and discovery. Yes, that’s right, we’re talking about Piggy’s glasses. The boys find themselves at an utter loss for a way to start the fire. Jack mumbles something about rubbing two sticks together, but the fact is the boys just aren’t wilderness-savvy enough to do this. Because they aren’t equipped for roughin’ it for real, they have to rely on some remaining relics of their old world. So, of course, the glasses breaking mean they are in danger of losing touch with the civilized world they’ve left behind. With one lens broken, they’ve got one foot over the line.

But let’s also remember that the glasses are, in fact, a pair of glasses, primarily intended for looking through. Looking = vision, and vision = sight, and sight = a metaphor for knowledge. Piggy knows things the other boys don’t, like how to use the conch, and the necessity for laws and order. Part of the reason he gets so upset when they take his glasses is that, without them, he can’t see anything. “Seeing” is Piggy’s greatest attribute; it’s the one reason the boys don’t ostracize him completely; it’s the one way he’s useful. Without his glasses, then, he’s useless, something that no one wants to be.

The Pighunts

The pighunts are used throughout Lord of the Flies to symbolize not only man’s capacity for destruction and violence, but the basic idea of bloodlust, mass hysteria, and ritual. In the most important pighunt scene, we are given a vivid description of the slaughter of a mother pig, and we see that the boys have taken on a new viciousness in their desire to hunt. This is no longer about just having meat to eat – the boys are obviously enjoying the power that they feel over the helpless animals and are excited by the blood spilling over their hands. Many critics describe this as a rape scene, with the excitement coming partly from the blood and partly from their newly emerging feelings of sexuality. As the story continues, we see the boys acting out this pighunt over and over, in a sort of ritual, using various boys to act as the pigs, and this “play-acting,” takes a horrifying turn when, in a frenzy of violence, Simon is beaten to death by the mob of excited boys.

The Beast and the Lord of the Flies

In Lord of the Flies, the beast begins as a product of the boys’ imaginations. The smaller boys are afraid of things they see at night; rather than be blindly afraid of The Great Unknown, they give their fear a name and a shape in their minds. You can’t defeat a "nothing," but you can hunt and kill a "something."

The next evolution in the myth of the beast is the dead parachuting man. It’s no coincidence that the boys catch a glimpse of a dark, UNKNOWN object and immediately call it the beast; we wouldn’t be surprised if they were relieved to finally have seen the thing. It’s kind of like how the masters of horror films don’t actually show you the horror, because what you can imagine is worse than anything you could see. Of course, it’s interesting that Golding chooses to make this manifestation of the boys' fear a man -- and not just a man, but a solider coming in from the war. Not only that, but the parachuting man flies in, in response to Piggy’s request for a “sign” from the adult world. It’s ironic that the best the adults can come up with is a man dead of their own violence, and it hints at the allegory and the end of the novel.

This is the point where we start getting some real insight into the beast, via Piggy, who says the beast is just fear, and via Simon, who insists that the beast is “only us.” This is an interesting comment, since the beast is literally “only us:” it’s a person that fell from the sky. In fact, when the twins list off the horrible attributes of the creature they saw, they reveal that it has both “teeth” and “eyes.” Yes, that’s right, most people have teeth and eyes. So Simon is correct in more ways than just one. Even more interesting yet is the moment when Ralph and Jack discover the dead man and think of it as a “giant ape.” What have the boys started to prove except that man is nothing more than a giant ape himself?

But while the beast is in fact literally a man, that’s not what Simon means when he says that it is “only us.” He’s talking about the beast being the darkness that is inside each and every one of us. If this is true, then, as the Lord of the Flies later suggests, it is absurd to think that the beast is something “you could hunt and kill.” If it’s inside all of us, not only can’t we hunt it, but we can never see it, never give it form, and never defeat it.

When Simon has his meditation-scene with the pig’s head, the Lord of the Flies says to him, “I’m the beast.” This makes his other words literally true; you can’t hunt and kill the beast, because they’ve already hunted and killed the pig and it’s still talking to you. Even later, when Ralph smashes the skull, he only widens its smile, “now six feet across” as it lies “grinning at the sky.” This thing just won’t die, and it torments Ralph so much because it “knows all the answers and won’t tell.”

Now to Ralph, that’s a rather silent devilish pig’s head, given that four chapters earlier it was talking with Simon. It seems that the Lord of the Flies gave over its knowledge to Simon, but only to Simon. In his death, then, Simon took that wisdom with him. What wisdom are we talking about? Simon already knew, it seems, that the beast was simply the darkness of man’s heart, but the talking pig’s head actually confirms it, telling him “I’m part of you […] close, close close.”

Ralph’s Hair

All right, we told you we could blame Ralph’s moments of savagery on his hair. Well, we were lying. What we meant to say was that Ralph’s hair was a symbol for his growing savagery. That shaggy mop eventually has a life of its own. The narrative always makes a point of telling us that it’s in Ralph’s face, that he wishes he could cut it, that it makes him feel dirty and uncivilized. We know the hair has to be a big deal because the very first words of the novel are, “The boy with fair hair lowered himself down…” Getting your hair cut is one of the perks of civilization, many of which Ralph and the others have had to give up. It also reminds us that the boys have been on the island for quite a while now; this is no mere weekend getaway. Lastly, there’s something horribly disturbing about his hair just growing, growing, with no way to stop it and the assumption that it will simply go on forever, much like the boys’ growing violence and the increasingly savage occurrences on the island.

Clothing

Clothing is another relic of the old world that falls by the wayside in this new one. Clothes can be ominous, as when Jack and his choir boys appear to be one long, dark creature as they travel in a pack wearing their black choir robes at the beginning. At first, the boys need to wear their clothing to avoid getting sunburned (meaning they’re not yet ready for the full island lifestyle), but they’re soon running around in loin-cloths or less, their skin and their minds having adapted to the surroundings. We even see Ralph go from “the fair boy” to being downright “swarthy.” Change is in the wind, as is a dead parachuting man from the skies above.

Imagery of Wounds

From the moment the boys land on the island, we begin to see signs of destruction. Over and over we are told of the “scar” in the scenery left by the plane. The water they bathe in is “warmer than blood.” The boys leave “gashes” in the trees when they travel. The lightning is a “blue-white scar” and the thunder “the blow of a gigantic whip,” later a “sulphurous explosion.” Now, if you’re trying to answer the big question of whether the boys are violent by nature or were made violent by their surroundings (the island), you could argue that 1) because the island is already so steeped in violence (think the thunder and lightning), the boys couldn’t help but become part of its savagery when they arrived; or that 2) the boys put scars and gashes in the land from the get-go, suggesting they are inherent bringers of destruction and the island is the Eden they destroy.

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