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Symbolism in Lord of the Flies

Symbolism in Lord of the Flies
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  • 0:52 The Island and the Ocean
  • 2:52 The Conch Shell and…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Judith Dunkerly-Bean

Judith has taught university literacy and teacher education courses and holds a Ph.D. in Curriculum & Instruction.

This lesson explores some of the predominant uses of symbolism in William Golding's classic novel, Lord of the Flies. Symbols reinforce the author's theme by conveying messages to the reader. In Lord of the Flies, Golding uses the island, the ocean, the conch shell, Piggy's glasses, and the Lord of the Flies as symbols.

Symbolism in Lord of the Flies

The skull and crossbones. Yin and Yang. The smiley face. As soon as you heard these descriptions, it is likely an image popped into your mind. It is just as likely that the meaning that is generally associated with them also came to mind. That is how symbols work. They are not just arbitrary objects or designs, they represent a larger idea, ideal or concept. The same is true in literature. An author will use symbolism to convey important ideas and messages in the text. In William Golding's classic novel, The Lord of the Flies, symbolic images and objects carry greater meaning than their surface appearance. Let's look at a few of them and think about how the author uses symbolism to support and reinforce the theme of the novel.

The Island and the Ocean

As an uncharted, untouched location, the island symbolizes paradise. It is away literally and figuratively, from the destructive nature of humanity. It also symbolizes a Garden of Eden, a pristine and bountiful place where the boys can begin anew. However, much like the biblical Garden of Eden, paradise can be suddenly lost when man is tempted by evil. As the setting of the novel, the symbol of the island is central to the theme that the brutal nature of man destroys what is good. By the end of the novel, this pristine paradise has been set ablaze by the destructive hunters. Ironically, it is only by the island's destruction that the boys are saved. A passing warship sees the fire, comes to investigate and rescues the survivors.

In many texts, the ocean represents two seemingly opposing ideas. It can represent the fathomless and endless nature of life, where calm can turn to chaos. However, as the site of the beginning of life, it can also represent strength, tranquility and stability, as it has remained largely unchanged throughout time. Given the endless nature of the ocean, it may also represent the possibility for getting lost and then finding one's way in life's journey. In the Lord of the Flies, many of these symbolic representations are present. In the beginning of the novel, the ocean is the vast space separating the boys from all they once knew. Yet, they happily play in its edges, delighted that there are no adults to tell them not to. Later, however, after Simon is killed and his body washes out to sea, the ocean receives him and what he represents: the loss of good to evil impulses.

Golding writes, 'The water rose farther and dressed Simon's coarse hair with brightness. The line of his cheek silvered and the turn of his shoulder became sculptured marble.' Here we see a striking similarity to the description of a conventional gravestone, while the symbolism of the ocean represents the end of Simon's journey.

The Conch Shell & Piggy's Glasses

Of all of the symbols in Lord of the Flies, the conch shell plays a recurrent and important role in reinforcing the theme of savagery versus civilization. From the first chapter through the end of the novel, the conch shell symbolizes civilization and a respect for law and order. It is used to call the boys to their meetings and whoever holds the conch shell is granted the right to speak. Although the conch holds less influence over the boys as they descend deeper into barbarism, Simon, Ralph and Piggy still cling to it as a symbol of order. It is only when Piggy is killed and the conch shell smashed that total anarchy ensues.

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