Text Analysis of Lord of the Flies
Symbols, objects and motifs
In colour the shell was deep cream, touched here and there with fading pink. Between the point, worn away into a little hole, and the pink lips of the mouth, lay eighteen inches of shell with a slight spiral twist and covered with a delicate, embossed pattern.
The conch, or shell, represents law, order and civilisation.
Ralph and Piggy come upon the shell early in chapter one as they are exploring the island alone. Piggy tells Ralph that he knows someone who had a similar shell and called it a conch. He adds that they are very valuable, and that blowing into the hole in the right way produces a powerful sound. Piggy is convinced that if Ralph blows on the conch the other boys will hear the sound and come to them. They will then be able to have a meeting.
Due to his asthma, Piggy can’t breathe strongly enough. He teaches Ralph to breathe from his diaphragm. After a few failed attempts, the shell sounds, a ‘deep, harsh note’ that booms across the island, scattering birds from the treetops. Ralph blows again. Soon the other boys come out of the jungle and approach Ralph and Piggy.
As the man who both possesses and sounded the shell, Ralph has power and authority in the eyes of the other boys. In the election for chief that follows the first gathering, Ralph is elected over Jack thanks mainly to the fact that he owns the shell.
In the next meeting, Ralph decides that only the person holding the conch can speak. Jack is never comfortable with this rule. When he decides to ignore it, the descent into savagery accelerates unstoppably.
Although Ralph sounds the shell, it is Piggy who is most committed to its invisible power. Aware of his physical limitations (short-sighted, overweight, asthmatic, unable to swim), Piggy is determined to maintain an ordered system in which every boy has an equal right to speak. He frequently says “I’ve got the conch!” when the other boys, increasingly weary of obeying the rules, try to silence him. Fittingly, the conch and Piggy, the last remaining barriers between savagery and civilisation, are destroyed by a single boulder.
The word ‘conch’ comes from the Greek
The sculpture was designed in the 17th century by the Baroque sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini at the behest of Pope Urban VIII. Urban asked Bernini to base his sculpture on the following passage from Ovid’s 8th century poem Metamorphoses:
Already Triton, at his call, appears
Above the waves; a Tyrian robe he wears;
And in his hand a crooked trumpet bears.
The sovereign bids him peaceful sounds inspire,
And give the waves the signal to retire.
His writhen shell he takes; whose narrow vent
Grows by degrees into a large extent,
Then gives it breath; the blast with doubling sound,
Runs the wide circuit of the world around:
The sun first heard it, in his early east,
And met the rattling ecchos in the west.
The waters, list’ning to the trumpet’s roar,
Obey the summons, and forsake the shore.
The boys obey the sound of Ralph’s shell the way the waters, ‘list’ning to the trumpet’s roar, / Obey the summons’. This illusion to Greek mythology reminds us of the ancient understanding that civilisation is a natural and invisible force; that man’s desire to obey rules is innate, and as powerful as the tide.
Fear and the beast
The beast is a non-existent figment of the boys’ collective imagination. It represents fear of the unknown.
Chapter two – ‘Fire on the Mountain’
Piggy: ‘He [the boy with the mulberry-coloured birthmark] says he saw the beastie, the snake-thing…’
Ralph: ‘But there isn’t a beastie!’
Chapter five – ‘Beast from Water’
Ralph: ‘We’ve got to talk about this fear and decide there’s nothing in it. I’m frightened myself, sometimes; only that’s nonsense!’
Jack: ‘The thing is—fear can’t hurt you any more than a dream. There aren’t any beasts to be afraid of on this island.’
Piggy: ‘I know there isn’t a beast… but I know there isn’t no fear, either… Unless we get frightened of people.’
Phil: ‘I saw something moving among the trees, something big and horrid.’
Jack: ‘He [Percival] says the beast comes out of the sea.’
Maurice: ‘Daddy said they haven’t found all the animals in the sea yet.’
Simon: ‘Maybe there is a beast… What I mean is… maybe it’s only us.’
Boy: ‘Maybe he means it’s some sort of ghost.’
Jack: ‘Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong—we hunt! If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat and beat—’
Chapter six – ‘Beast from Air’
The figure fell and crumpled among the blue flowers of the mountain-side, but now there was a gentle breeze at this height too and the parachute flopped and banged and pulled.
Eric: ‘We’ve seen the beast with our own eyes. No—we weren’t asleep—’
Sam: ‘It was furry. There was something moving behind its head—wings. The beast moved too—’
Chapter seven – ‘Shadows and Tall Trees’
Simon, walking in front of Ralph, felt a flicker of incredulity—a beast with claws that scratched, that sat on a mountain-top, that left no tracks and yet was not fast enough to catch Samneric. However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.
Before them, something like a great ape was sitting asleep with its head between its knees. Then the wind roared in the forest, there was confusion in the darkness and the creature lifted its head, holding towards them the ruin of a face.
Chapter eight – ‘Gift for the Darkness’
Ralph: ‘The beast had teeth, and big black eyes.’
‘The beast sat up and looked at us. I don’t know what it does. I don’t even know what it is—’
‘The beast comes out of the sea—’
‘Out of the dark—’
Jack: ‘And about the beast. When we kill we’ll leave some of the kill for it. Then it won’t bother us, maybe.’
Lord of the Flies (‘Pig’s head on a stick’), to Simon: ‘There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast… Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could kill! You knew, didn’t you?’
Chapter nine – ‘A View to a Death’
Simon felt his knees smack the rock. He crawled forward and soon he understood. The tangle of lines showed him the mechanics of this parody; he examined the white nasal bones, the teeth, the colours of corruption. He saw how pitilessly the layers of rubber and canvas held together the poor body that should be rotting away. Then the wind blew again and the figure lifted, bowed, and breathed foully at him… The beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible.
The circle became a horseshow. A thing was crawling out of the forest. It came darkly, uncertainly. The shrill screaming that rose before the beast was like a pain. The beast stumbled into the horseshoe.
‘Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!’
Chapter ten – ‘The Shell and the Glasses’
Jack (‘the Chief’): ‘He came—disguised. He may come again even though we gave him the head of our kill to eat. So watch; and be careful… We’d better keep on the right side of him… You can’t tell what he might do.’
During one of the early assemblies, a littlun timidly requests that something be done about the ‘snake-thing’, which he saw at night and believes to be a beast. Ralph dismisses the possibility of either a snake or a beast, especially given that the boy claimed to have “seen” it at night. Jack agrees, but inadvertently adds to the fear by claiming that if there were a snake, his band of hunters would kill it. From this seed of frightened misinformation, the idea of a beast takes root.
The character of the beast takes shape in chapter five, ‘Beast from Water’, during a night-time assembly. Ralph tells the boys that they have to discuss the fear that hangs over them and ‘decide there’s nothing in it.’ He believes that the growing sense of fear is responsible for the growing indiscipline and disorder.
Piggy, who believes that life is ‘scientific’, knows that there isn’t a beast, but adds that ‘there isn’t no fear, either… Unless we get frightened of people.’ This prompts one of the little boys to say that the previous night he saw ‘something big and horrid’ moving in the trees.’ Ralph says this is impossible, but Simon then admits that he was wondering around last night on his way back from an undisclosed location.
Percival Wyms Madison, the terrified littlun who is deranged by fear, mutters that perhaps the beast came from the sea. Having thought Percival an invalid, the boys suddenly wonder if his suggestion is true. Ralph turns ‘involuntarily, a black, humped figure against the lagoon.’ The other boys copy him and gaze terrified at ‘the vast stretches of water, the high sea beyond, unknown indigo of infinite possibility’.
Now the fear has firmly taken hold; the ‘breaking-up of sanity’ begins. Maurice mentions his dad’s stories of giant squids that ‘eat whales whole’. Could a squid come up out of the water? Some of the boys say no; others aren’t sure.
Simon, with his hands on the conch, then timidly suggests that there is a beast. He wants to say that he means the boys themselves are the beast, but he is too afraid to articulate his idea. A great tumult follows, in which somebody says that Simon perhaps means that the beast is a ghost. This idea spreads like wildfire, forcing Ralph to hold a vote on whether the boys believe in ghosts. To Ralph’s great dismay, most say yes.
From here, things fall apart. Jack, brazenly speaking without the conch, declares that he and his hunters will hunt and kill the beast, whatever it may be. The meeting disintegrates as the hunters begin dancing and shouting with wild abandon.
There are two important things to note about this development. The first is that Simon is both the cause and the solution. It was his furtive wondering around at night that made one of the boys believe in the beast, but it is also the case that the only real beasts on the island are the boys themselves.
Secondly, recall that the first mention of the beast, in chapter two, concerns a ‘snake-like’ creature. In the Book of Genesis, it is the serpent who tempts and Adam and Eve, the first humans, to eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, as described in chapter three:
And the woman said unto the serpent, We may eat of the fruit of the trees of the garden:
But of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God hath said, Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die.
And the serpent said unto the woman, Ye shall not surely die:
For God doth know that in the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.
And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat.
And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.
The next incarnation of the beast is the dead pilot who parachutes onto the island while the boys are asleep. His parachute gets caught in some branches, leaving him suspended mid-air.
Sam and Eric are the first to come across this mysterious dead figure. As it is night-time, and as the thing is so unexpected and strange, they assume it is the beast. Later, Ralph, Roger and Jack, also travelling in dim light, come across the dead pilot and reach the same conclusion. Only when Simon views the thing alone in daylight does the truth of the matter become clear.
Simon is too late, though. Jack and his hunters have already begun offering sacrifices (a pig’s head on a stick) to the non-existent beast in an effort to placate it. Many religious ceremonies feature ritual animal (or human) slaughter and sacrificial offerings performed to please or placate a chosen god or gods.
The dead pilot is also a religious motif. Many ancient religious groups practiced stone worship, notably the Nabateans of pre-Islamic Arabia. The adherents could not have known that in many cases the mysterious stone was in fact a meteorite, just as the boys cannot see that the beast-like creature is actually a dead human caught in a parachute.
Fear, ignorance, savagery, privation, patriarchy: the ingredients needed to form a mythical beast. The various beasts that the boys imagine are, in fact, extensions of their fears. It is only when a real creature (a naval officer) comes from the water that they are cured of their phobia.
The fire’s the most important thing. Without the fire we can’t be rescued.
The fire represents a link with the outside world and the possibility of being rescued.
In chapter two, Ralph proposes building a signal fire on the highest point of the island. The boys are initially excited by the prospect, but soon lose interest when the task of keeping it alight proves difficult and tiring.
The only way to light the fire is with Piggy’s glasses. This is a powerful motif. Piggy is the most intelligent and rational boy. Many of the other boys, particularly Jack, resent his moralising and fixation with the rules, but without his glasses there is no hope of having either a signal fire or a cooking fire.
Jack promises that his hunters will take turns maintaining the signal fire. Soon, though, he calls every boy in his group to join him on a hunt. While they are away, the fire goes out, just as a ship passes the island.
Jack reluctantly apologises to Ralph for failing in his duties. Subconsciously, Jack is pleased that the fire has gone out: he does not want to be rescued. On the island he is a leader and a hunter. He can indulge his bloodlust and inflate his ego. Even when he becomes chief of his own, renegade group, he only wants a fire for the purposes of cooking meat. He is not interested in using it to be rescued.
As with the conch, Ralph and Piggy are the only boys who believe in the paramount importance of the fire. After Jack’s group rebels, though, it becomes difficult for Ralph to convince Sam and Eric that the fire is worth maintaining. ‘Ralph tried indignantly to remember. There was something good about a fire. Something overwhelmingly good.’
Fire is a rich and powerful symbol. The ability to make fire was a significant technological advance amongst early humans. Fire allowed humans to cook food, stay warm, protect themselves against predators (including other humans) and conquer the darkness, which, as we have seen, is the time when fear takes hold and spreads. Given the importance of fire, it is unsurprising that nearly all religions either use or worship it in some way. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, known as the festival of lights, is celebrated by lighting one candle a day for eight days. In Christianity, the Advent candle is lit every day in December to mark the approach of Christmas. During the Gaelic festival of Beltane, huge bonfires are lit to mark the halfway point between the spring equinox and summer solstice.
Ironically, Ralph is saved by a signal fire, but only because Jack and his band of savages are attempting to force him out of his hiding place using smoke. The conflagration that destroys much of the island resembles the Allied firebombing of German and Japanese cities during WWII. From the ashes of these enormous fires, the savagery of Nazism, Fascism and Nipponese imperialism was destroyed and civilisation was rescued.
In Lord of the Flies, the blurred frontier between dreams and reality complements the novel’s overriding antagonism between civilisation and savagery. In dreams, daydreams, nightmares and hallucinations, the boys’ subconscious fears and desires increase the tension between those committed to order and those obsessed with hunting.
The obscuring of reality begins in the novel’s opening paragraph. As he treks through his new jungle world, Ralph sees a bird, ‘a vision of red and yellow’, that screeches with a ‘witch-like cry’ and says ‘Hi!’ In his disordered state Ralph needs a moment to realise that the voice belongs a boy, Piggy.
Awake, Ralph is sometimes unsure of his commitment to the conch and the signal fire, but asleep he shows his subconscious devotion to the old, ordered world:
Ralph was dreaming. He had fallen asleep after what seemed hours of tossing and turning noisily among the dry leaves. Even the sounds of nightmare from the other shelters no longer reached him, for he was back from where he came from, feeding the ponies with sugar over the garden wall. Then someone was shaking his arm, telling him that it was time for tea.
As time goes on and life on the island becomes more precarious, Ralph struggles to separate dreams from reality: ‘Ralph leaned against a tree and at once the day-dreams came swarming up.’ He is not the only one.
Simon has a condition that sometimes sends him into a hallucinatory, fever-like state. This ailment tests his mental strength when it coincides with his first encounter with the hunters’ sacrificial offering to the beast: ‘Even if he shut his eyes, the sow’s head still remained like an after-image’, writes Golding after Simon first sees the ‘pig’s head on a stick’, aka, the Lord of the Flies.
This frequent use of visions comes from Golding’s fascination with his own dreams. For most of his adult life Golding kept a dream journal in which he recorded not just details of his dreams, but also his interpretations. This is turn was influenced by something that happened, or Golding imagined took place, when he was eighteen months old.
Sitting in his cot one evening, Golding saw a cockerel on the windowsill. It was, writes John Carey in his biography of Golding, ‘an indistinct and indescribable white.’ As quickly as it had appeared, the bird flew away. When he returned, Golding’s father laughed and told his son that he had been dreaming. But the infant Golding was adamant. He could still feel the bird’s warmth and friendliness. It was ‘like a whole atmosphere of natural love’ that came from ‘the centre of all rightness.’ Golding treasured the memory of the white cockerel for the rest of his life.
Ralph is similarly tied to the past. Early in the novel, he dreams about a cottage in Dartmoor he and his parents lived in while his mother was still alive. He remembers that ‘Wild ponies came to the stone wall at the bottom of the garden.’ Days later, this memory returns in Ralph’s most significant and prophetic dream:
Ralph turned restlessly in the leaves. Dartmoor was wild and so were the ponies. But the attraction of wildness had gone.
His mind skated to a consideration of a tamed town where savagery could not set foot. What could be safer than the bus centre with its lamps and wheels?
All at once, Ralph was dancing round a lamp standard. There was a bus crawling out of the bus station, a strange bus…
This semi-conscious reverie ends abruptly when Piggy shakes Ralph awake to stop him making a noise. It is not specified, but we can imagine that the dream is frightening enough to make Ralph whimper in his sleep. A few moments later, Ralph drifts off again, and Piggy again wakes and asks him to stop making the noise. Ralph is relieved, ‘for the bus had been nearer and more distinct.’ At that moment, Jack and two of his hunters launch their surprise attack to steal Piggy’s glasses.
Ralph’s dreaming of the English countryside and waking to a brutal attack evokes the final passage of George Orwell’s 1938 memoir about his experiences of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia. The book ends as Orwell, having been nearly killed by a sniper’s bullet in Spain, arrives in England by ferry and takes the train to London:
And then England – southern England, probably the sleekest landscape in the world. It is difficult when you pass that way, especially when you are peacefully recovering from sea-sickness with the plush cushions of a boat-train carriage under your bum, to believe that anything is really happening anywhere. Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don’t worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday. The industrial towns were far away, a smudge of smoke and misery hidden by the curve of the earth’s surface. Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens; and then the huge peaceful wilderness of outer London, the barges on the miry river, the familiar streets, the posters telling of cricket matches and Royal weddings, the men in bowler hats, the pigeons in Trafalgar Square, the red buses, the blue policemen –all sleeping the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs.
Orwell sarcastically suggests that England is a place where, as Ralph imagines, ‘savagery could not set foot.’ The two visions share common references (‘tamed towns’, buses, horses, wilderness, memories of childhood) and are equally prophetic: Ralph dreams of a strange approaching as, in real life, Jack and his hunters close in; the ‘roar of the bombs’ that Orwell writes of would hit England within two years during the Nazi Blitzkrieg.
In Lord of the Flies the pigs become an outlet for the boys’ repressed desires. It is important to understand, therefore, the religious and anthropomorphic significance of pigs.
In his 2007 anti-religion polemic God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the late Anglo-American writer Christopher Hitchens devotes an entire chapter to ‘A Short Digression on the Pig: Or, Why Heaven Hates Ham’.
The consumption of pork is banned under Jewish and Muslim law. This is, Hitchens claims, ‘the oldest and most tenacious’ of all religious dietary injunctions.
Nobody knows how and why the prohibition began, or why it is so rigorously enforced. Hitchens’ theory is twofold. First, just as many people resent Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution for the fact that it classifies humans as apes, so many people (including, of course, Piggy) are uncomfortable with the human-like features and behaviour of pigs. ‘Crammed together’, Hitchens writes, ‘pigs tend to act swinishly, as it were, and have noisy and nasty fights’, much like Ralph, Jack and the other boys. We might say that someone “eats like a pig”, or describe a messy room as a “pigsty”. A weak child (perhaps Percival) might be described as “the runt of the litter.” In the children’s television series The Muppet Show, the character Miss Piggy resembles a human much more than her partner, Kermit the Frog. Most disturbingly, frightened pigs emit a terrible squeal that sounds eerily like that of a terrified human being. ‘The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again’, writes George Orwell in the closing passage of Animal Farm, ‘but already it was impossible to say which was which.’ (Interestingly, in some Jewish and Muslim communities the loathing of pigs is so strong that Animal Farm, Lord of the Flies, Winnie the Pooh (whose best friend is Piglet) and other pig-related literature is banned, even if, as Hitchens points out, the pigs represent evil, as is the case in Animal Farm.)
Second, and most importantly, the smell of roasting pork causes many humans to dribble with desire, as it does to the boys of the island. This unparalleled lust evidently made a number of ancient Jewish leaders uneasy; the mere fact that people want pork so much must indicate the presence of something sinister. Commenting on this disturbing paradox, Hitchens quotes Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back.
Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind
For which thou whipp’st her.
This reference to repressed carnal desire is apt in the case of Lord of the Flies given the sexual connotations in the hunt scene in chapter eight. Jack and his hunters inhabit a world unhindered by religious dogma. Free from the rules of both man and God, the boys return to pre-Abrahamic primitiveness, complete with animal sacrifices, idol worship and quasi-bestial savagery.
There is a further unpleasant feature of the porcine. The cloven hoof, or trotter of the pig has for centuries been a symbol of the devil. This again leads to the potentially awkward conclusion that humans possess a latent desire to embrace the satanic.
The image of a pig’s head endures as a symbol. Look at the photo to the right.
This photo was taken in November 2002 during a league match between Barcelona and Real Madrid. The player about to take the corner is the former Portugal captain Luis Figo, who left Barcelona for rivals Real Madrid in 2000. The Barcelona fans were so angered by what they regarded as Figo’s betrayal that one of them threw the severed head of a piglet at him.
Pork is an integral part of Spanish cuisine, in large part because it was banned during the reign of the Moors (Muslims) during the Middle Ages. Following the Moors’ defeat, Spanish Catholics began offering chorizo (spicy pork sausage) as a means of exposing suspected Muslims (or Jews). The slightest flicker of hesitation before the proffered plate was often fatal. ‘Eat! Damn you!’ says Jack in chapter four. ‘I got you meat!’ Against his own wishes, Ralph takes the meat and lets himself be damned.