LOTF: Symolism, Imagery, & Allegory
Piggy and Ralph spot a conch and decide to use it to call a meeting. All right! Island society is off to a good start. The boys impose a “rule of the conch” on themselves, deciding that no one can speak unless he’s holding the conch. As a representative of law and order, the conch helps Ralph get elected: “The being that had blown that, had sat waiting for them on the platform with the delicate thing balanced on his knees, was set apart” (1.240).
Even Jack respects the conch. After he fails to stage a coup, he “laid the conch with great care in the grass at his feet” (8.74). He doesn’t throw it or smash it; he sets it down carefully. He may not want to play by the rules, but he still respects the rules.
At the same time, the conch reminds us that the tools of power are, well, fake. Crowns and flags are no more meaningful than this random shell that Ralph spots in the grass. It’s the meaning people give them that matters. Rules are only powerful if people agree on them, and that’s why Ralph refuses to blow the conch when he knows that things are starting to break down: “If I blow the conch and they don’t come back; then we’ve had it. We shan’t keep the fire going. We’ll be like animals. We’ll never be rescued” (5). Because he doesn’t blow the conch, its power holds.
But finally, the conch is broken. Surprise, surprise: it’s broken when the brutal Roger pushes a rock over a cliff. When the conch is broken, Jack runs forward screaming that now he can be chief. With no conch, power is once again up for grabs—and Jack is feeling grabby.
One last thing: the conch is definitely associated with Ralph, but it’s also associated with Piggy. Piggy’s the one who recognizes it and knows how to blow it; he’s the one who keeps returning to its power; and they both die at the same time. Weird, right? Any ideas?
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 all well and good, until the first signal fire the boys light begins burning out of control, and at least one boy is missing (read: burned up). As Piggy tells Jack, “You got your small fire all right” (2.210). 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. And it makes sense. If the boys’ world is just a symbol for the real world, then they’re not being rescued at all; they’re just going on to a larger scale of violence—to grow up into soldiers getting sent off to war. Hence, rescue equals destruction.
While the boys on the island are busy stripping naked to hunt pigs with sharpened sticks, there’s still one symbol of advancement, innovation, and discovery: Piggy’s glasses.
On the one hand, the glasses are a pretty simple symbol. They’re intended for looking through, and looking = vision; 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. When the boys take his glasses, 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, he’s useless—and the world he represents is useless, too.
At the beginning of their Outward Bound adventure, the boys think starting a fire is a great idea, but they’re stumped about how to do it. Jack mumbles something about rubbing two sticks together, but the fact is the boys just aren’t wilderness-savvy enough to do this. So, they rely on a remaining relic of their old world. When the glasses break, that’s one more link to civilization gone. Check out how it’s described:
The chief led them, trotting steadily, exulting in his achievement. He was a chief now in truth; and he made stabbing motions with his spear. From his left hand dangled Piggy’s broken glasses. (10.296-302)
Dangling and broken, these glasses are being direly misused. They’re no longer a symbol of reason and smarts; they’re a symbol of just how far from civilization the boys have come.
We’ll let Golding start us off:
Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her. This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror […]. The spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream. Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands. The sow collapsed under them […].
At last the immediacy of the kill subsided. They boys drew back, and Jack stood up, holding out his hands.
He giggled and flicked them while the boys laughed at his reeking palms. Then Jack grabbed Maurice and rubbed the stuff over his cheeks . . . (8.191-196)
We talk about this scene in the “Primitivity” quotes, but it’s definitely worth a look at twice. This pighunt—and the other ones—symbolize man’s capacity for destruction and violence. In their bloodlust, these nice British boys become vicious monsters. It’s not about having meat to eat—it’s about exerting power over the helpless animal. 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. (Also, the pig is a nursing female—so it’s almost as if the boys are killing their own mothers. Pretty grim.)
Later, the boys act out this pighunt over and over, in a sort of play-acting ritual that takes a horrifying turn when Simon is beaten to death by a mob of excited boys. If you ask us, these hunts might be a little too real to be just a symbol.
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” (1.1). And it just keeps growing. Here’s a small sampling of what that “idiot hair” (8) gets up to: Ralph’s eyes “yearned beneath the fringe of hair” (6); “He would like to have a pair of scissors and cut this hair—he flung the mass back—cut this filthy hair right back to half an inch (7.2); “His hair was full of dirt and tapped like the tendrils of a creeper” (12.1). Trust us, there’s more.
In particular, Ralph is constantly playing with that hair. He “pushes” his hair off of his face twelve times in the novel. Doesn’t sound like that many? It is. If Golding takes the trouble to describe a character does something twelve times—in twelve chapters—believe us, it’s meaningful. And what it means is savagery. Ralph’s growing hair is a symbol for the gradual breakdown of law and order. It’s a reminder of just how far he is from civilization.
Golding isn’t exactly saying, “Cut your hair, you dirty hippy,” but he’s close.
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.
The beast is easy enough: it represents evil and darkness. But does it represent internal darkness, the evil in all of our hearts, even golden boys like Ralph? Or does it represent an external savagery that civilization can save us from?
Now You See It
At first, the beast is nothing more than 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.” (It’s kind of like how Voldemort was a lot scarier before we saw him as Ralph Fiennes.)
And then an actual “something” does show up: the dead parachuting man, who seems to come in response to Ralph’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: maybe the beast isn’t just confined to the island.
Now You Don’t
And now we start getting some real insight into the beast. Piggy basically says the beast is just fear of the unknown: “I know there isn’t no beast—not with claws and all that, I mean—but I know there isn’t no fear, either” (5.99). Simon, on the other hand, insists that the beast is “only us” (5.195). Well, it is: it’s a person that fell from the sky. When the twins list off the horrible attributes of the creature they saw, they reveal that it has both “teeth” and “eyes”; Ralph and Jack see it as a giant ape. So the “beast” is a man-who-isn’t, the animal side in all of us.
But even that isn’t quite what Simon means. 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 or kill” (8.337). 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.
There’s a reason (some) women put on more makeup when they’re going on a job interview or a first date—and those neat-looking black stripes under football players’ eyes are more effective at looking awesome than guarding against the sun.
Jack (duh) is the first one to pretty himself up, and he does it because he figures out that his pig-prey keeps spotting him: “They see me, I think,” he says: “Something pink, under the trees” (4.2). And so he gets the bright idea to paint his face, “dazzle paint. Like things trying to look like something else” (4.24).
But the paint turns out to be more than camouflage. It doesn’t just make Jack look like something else (say, part of the forest); it actually makes him into something else. It makes him into a savage—and then the chief. When his face is finished, “the mask was a thing of its own, behind which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness” (4.34). With the paint on his face, Jack isn’t choir-leader Jack anymore; he’s a savage ready to be chief.
And Jack isn’t the only one who has an inner savage. Eventually almost all the boys paint their faces, too. Ralph and his tiny band of still-civilized boys know that it’s just paint, but that doesn’t change its power. When they plan to go take Piggy’s glasses back from Jack, Eric hesitates: “But they’ll be painted! You know how it is.” And everyone does: “They understand only too well the liberation into savagery that the concealing paint brought” (11.66).
So there you have it. Golding isn’t being tricky with this symbol; paint “liberates” the boys into savagery, freeing them to act in a way that schools, parents, and policemen have never let them. In other words, the paint represents the savage within. It doesn’t disguise the boys’ true nature; it reveals it.
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” that the plane leaves in the greenery (1.3). The water they bathe in is “warmer than blood” (1). The boys leave “gashes” in the trees when they travel (1). The lightning is a “blue-white scar” and the thunder “the blow of a gigantic whip,” later a “sulphurous explosion” (9).
If you’re trying to answer the big question of whether the boys are violent by nature or are made violent by their unfortunate situation, you could argue that (1) because the island/nature is already so violent (think the thunder and lightning), the boys couldn’t help but become part of its savagery when they arrived; or that (2) the boys are bringers of destruction, ruining the island paradise.
Us? We’d like to go with option 1, but we’re pretty sure Golding wants us to pick option 2.
The Lord of the Flies could be read as one big allegorical story. An allegory is a story with a symbolic level of meaning, where the characters and setting represent, well, other things, like political systems, religious figures, or philosophical viewpoints. Let’s try a sample:
- The island represents the whole world.
- Ralph’s conch-led Parliament represents democratic government.
- Jack’s tribalism represents autocratic government.
- Piggy represents the forces of rationalism, science, and intellect—which get ignored at society’s peril.
- Simon represents a kind of natural morality.
See how it’s done? Of course, you could argue with this breakdown. Maybe Simon represents the religious side of humanity; maybe Jack represents cruelty, or maybe Roger does. But the point is that they’re not fully developed and rounded characters so much as they are symbols.
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 question of the allegory hits home: who will rescue the grownups?
Words to Define:
- Attribute (noun form)
Adapted from http://www.schmoop.com