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The Conch in Lord of the Flies: Analysis & Quotes

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  • 0:01 Discovering the Conch
  • 1:04 The Meaning of the Conch
  • 2:09 Analysis: Fragility of Power
  • 3:39 Analysis: Breaking the Rules
  • 5:24 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kimberly Myers

Kimberly has taught college writing and rhetoric and has a master's degree in Comparative Literature.

This lesson is a summary and analysis of the function of the conch shell in William Golding's Lord of the Flies. We'll take a look at some relevant quotes and discuss the symbolism of leadership and order that the conch represents.

Discovering the Conch

You are stranded on an island. You know there are probably other survivors, but you have no idea where. Suddenly, a strange noise pierces the air. You aren't sure what it is, but it sounds almost like a trumpet, and you know that you need to find the source.

This is the sound that the boys hear in the beginning of Lord of the Flies. It's Ralph blowing the conch shell. The conch shell is the first discovery, and it brings the scattered boys together. Ralph sees the conch in the lagoon and immediately senses that it's something special.

Significantly, Ralph is the one to spot the conch and use it. Piggy explains how to blow through it, but Ralph is the one that summons the others. 'Ralph grasped the idea and hit the shell with air from his diaphragm. Immediately the thing sounded. A deep, harsh note boomed...and echoed back.'

In the novel, the conch shell is a symbol of authority and order. The conch symbolically breaks at the point where order breaks down and gives way to violence and savagery.

The Meaning of the Conch

Ralph isn't the smartest, strongest, or loudest, but he blew the conch. As the boys gather, they expect to find an adult. 'Where's the man with the trumpet?' one of them asks. Ralph answers, 'There's no man with a trumpet. Only me.'

When it comes time to choose a leader, Ralph is the obvious choice because he and the conch are the only things that have given order to this adult-less island. Ralph even subconsciously raises the conch when he brings up the idea of voting, saying, 'Seems to me we ought to have a chief to decide things.'

A consensus forms that Ralph should be chief: 'there was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out...and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch. 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.'

From here, the conch continues to be a symbol of authority. Whomever holds the conch has the authority to speak and be heard by the group.

Analysis: Fragility of Power

Just like the shell itself, the power of the conch is fragile. Though Ralph was elected, his position is challenged by Jack, and things begin to fall apart. Ralph worries that things are coming to a breaking point. Piggy urges Ralph to blow the conch to call another assembly, but Ralph says, '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.' He realizes that authority and rules are only powerful if people agree to follow them, and at this moment, he sees that agreement crumbling.

Later, when Jack fails to get the boys to impeach Ralph, he is humiliated but defiant. He leaves, but he doesn't steal or break the conch. Instead, he 'laid the conch with great care in the grass at his feet.' Jack still respects the conch to some degree, even if he doesn't have faith in Ralph's leadership.

We see that the conch is not enough to hold everyone together anymore. Many boys choose Jack and a way of life outside the society of the conch, which is a society governed by rules and civilized decision making.

One of the times that Ralph goes to confront Jack's tribe, Jack reminds him that his authority and the rules of the conch are no longer ultimate.

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