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Comment on Golding’s use of Symbolism and Imagery in “The Lord of the Flies”

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“The Lord of the Flies” was first published in 1954 by Faber and Faber Limited. It was written by William Golding (1911-93), who decided to write it because he wanted people to know the true nature of human beings. It is significant that it was published in the post war era because people still shared conflicting opinions about the war, which were reflected by the conflicts and skirmishes between Jack’s tribe (who shared a totalitarianism view) and Ralph’s tribe (who were democratic and preferred law and order). In this essay, I plan to concentrate my views about Golding’s use of symbolism and imagery, and how it is important in a book like, “Lord of the Flies”. I will also comment on how Golding writes the book on more than one level (the literal level, the symbolic level and as the ongoing battle between democracy and totalitarianism).

The book, which is set during the Second World War, begins with an aeroplane crash landing on an isolated island after being shot out of the sky by a German plane. The only survivors of this tragic attack are a group of young boys that are scattered throughout the jungle of the island. One of the boys, Ralph, finds a conch washed up on the shoreline and with Piggy’s help he manages to blow on it which sends a bellowing echo throughout the island. The scattered boys find their way to the shore with the noise’s guidance and once there decide to elect a chief and stay to civilised. Despite Jack’s attempts to persuade the boys to elect him, Ralph is elected and he decides that the best course of action would be to light a signal fire on top of the mountain. Despite the protests of Piggy the boys surge through the jungle and start a fire that they can’t handle. As the boys flee hopelessly one of them is caught in its fiery grasp and is never seen again.

After the boys escape one of the younger boys proclaims that he saw, “a beastie” and the rest of the tribe begin to be afraid. Jack completely dismisses the idea of a beast and challenges Ralph for leadership of the tribe. When he is outvoted again, he runs off to form his own tribe that does not abide by the democratic laws of Ralph’s tribe. Eventually throughout the novel, more and more, people join Jack’s tribe until only Piggy and Sam and Eric remain.

Jack’s tribe, who consist mostly of hunters invite, Ralph’s tribe to a feast in an attempt to persuade the remaining boys to join his tribe. After they refuse, Jack’s tribe are worked up by the ferocity of a coming storm and mistake a boy named Simon as the beast. The boys surge on top of him and literally rip him limb from limb with their crude wooden spears. When Ralph’s tribe recover from what they have done, they pay a visit to castle rock, where Jack’s tribe wait. Ralph pleads with Jack to stop his madness and when he refuses blindly, Piggy grabs the conch and speaks with rage at Jack, who has previously stolen his glasses. Roger, who uses Jack as a puppet in the last few chapters, sends a boulder hurtling towards Piggy, who, with not being able to see, fails to dodge it and is crushed to death.

When Ralph realises what has happened, he challenges Jack to a duel and loses, being forced to retreat into the jungle as spears are hurled towards him. Ralph takes a while to come to terms with Piggy’s death, and realises that Jack will hunt him down like a wild animal. He decides to hide near castle rock as he believes that it is unlikely they will look for them so near their camp. The only boys who know where he is are Sam and Eric who give him away after being tortured by Roger. When Jack discovers Ralph, Ralph is forced to flee across the island and breaks down at a navel officer’s feet. When he sees the gun in his hand, he begins to weep. Overcome with this display of emotion the other boys start to cry too and are transported off the island.

The term “symbolism” means that an object is not always all that it seems to be, it can be interpreted in many different ways, for example the conch can be seen as a shell that emits a loud noise when blown or, it can be seen as a symbol of democracy on the island:

“the conch is a symbol for order and democratic principles like free speech” (myth and symbolism sheet).

The term imagery on the other hand means seeing an image in your mind after reading certain text from the book. In “Lord of the Flies”, Golding constantly uses images of violence and destruction to portray the impending evil in human nature. For example in the opening paragraph of the novel, Golding describes the passenger tube creating “the long scar” (which is constantly referred to throughout the novel) as it crashes through the jungle obliterating all in its path;

“All around him the long scar smashed into the jungle was a bath of heat.”

Symbolism and imagery are important in a book like “Lord of the Flies” because it has been written on more than one level, namely the literal level, the symbolic level and the democracy versus totalitarianism level. From the literal view, the book is seen as a group of young boys, who get stranded on a desolate island, who finally ,after a time of isolation from the adult world, succumb to madness as they embrace the terror of the beast, which comes from within. On the symbolic level it can be seen as the ongoing battle between good and evil, with a boy that truly represents one of these in each tribe, Simon (purity and innocence) in Ralph’s tribe and Roger (who is inhuman and capable of murder without feeling guilty) in Jack’s tribe. Finally the book can be interpreted as the feud between democracy and totalitarianism.

A “symbol” is an object that can represent something other than itself. For example, the conch can be seen as a symbol for order and democratic principles such as, equality and free speech. When the conch is first discovered, it represents a part of the natural world that is untouched and unspoilt by people. Eventually, it becomes a symbol of authority and common sense. When the conch is destroyed, it represents the destruction of order and rational thought and behaviour. Traditionally the conch was used by the Greek mythological God, Triton to calm or raise the seas. This is like the way in which Ralph uses it to command respect and order from the other boys;

“Ralph took the conch from where it lay on the polished seat and held it to his lips; but then he hesitated and did not blow. He held the shell up instead and showed it to them and they understood.”

As the boys gradually lose their innocence it is echoed by the conch losing its colour.

The beast can also seen as a symbol, but instead of representing law and order, it represents the way that the boys perceive something outside of themselves as evil, so that they can maintain an image of themselves being good. This allows them to avoid self-knowledge. Golding uses the boys’ fear of the beast to help us to understand their fears and desires. The snakes are only present in the boys’ imagination and not on the island, and, because the snake is traditionally associated with evil, it helps to back up Golding’s notion that evil comes from within. When the dead parachutist descends to the island, the beast is given a physical form. Despite the fact that it is a pathetic figure that is robbed of all human dignity, only Simon will approach close enough to realise the truth.

Darkness and death are both symbols of evil and degeneration in “Lord of the Flies”. At first, the darkness is associated with the jungle and the night, and it starts off being harmless and natural, but, later on in the novel, the boys begin to fear the darkness with the slightest mention of the beast. Gradually, the natural darkness of the jungle at night becomes a superstitious darkness of fear and ignorance. Finally, as the boys reach the verge of insanity, it becomes “the darkness of a man’s heart”. Light, on the other hand, symbolises freedom and innocence and the bright colours and fierce light of day contrast to the loss of security and the fear that comes with the night.

There are three certain human deaths on the island. The first of these being the death of the “littlun”, which was an accident because of the boys’ unchangeable ability to manage the uncontrollable fire that they started, the second death was that of Simon, which was caused by over excitement and fear of the beast, and the third death was Piggy’s which was just caused by savage murder. Note that the deaths steadily become the boys’ fault which symbolises their degeneration into savagery. Also, from the death of the first piglet to, ultimately, when they kill the sow, simultaneously, represents how the boys turn into savages and how the fear of the beast corrupts their hearts and very souls and pushes them to the brink of insanity.

Images create pictures that help to bring the novel to life. We can picture these images in many different ways; ranging from simple similes and metaphors to more demanding and involved parallels to be drawn out of the text.

Golding constantly uses images of violence to help back up his notion that evil is part of human nature. For example, in the opening paragraph of the first chapter Golding describes how a fragment of the passenger tube, from the aeroplane as it smashes its way through the jungle, creating the “long scar” that is referred to throughout the novel. As you read further on into the novel, these images intensify and become more and more common.

In contrast to these images of violence and destruction, Golding uses nature, “nature is innocent” and it represents peacefulness and tranquillity. An example of this is Simon’s death which is described “in a language of great lyrical beauty” Simon’s innocence is identified as he is carried out to sea, which is described by innocent and pure language;

“The edge of the lagoon became a streak of phosphorescence which advanced minutely, as the great wave of tide flowed.”

In contrast to Simon’s death, is the death of Piggy which is blunt and abrupt. Golding chooses not to describe his descent into the water he just writes;

“the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.”

Golding also describes how Piggy’s death is similar to that of a pig’s by the way he writes “no time even for a grunt” and “Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s”.

Another example of imagery is Golding’s use of colour. From the start of the novel, Golding uses black to symbolise, or suggest, evil. An example of this is the choir boys;

“their bodies, from throat to ankle, were hidden by black cloaks”

and, later on in the novel, the choir boys are the first to kill, and they make up the bulk of Jack’s tribe who descend to the level of savages, killing for fun. Purity on the other hand is represented by white and silver images such as the phosphorescence that is present when Simon is carried off to sea, and we finally realise his innocence in the novel.

Each of the above images contribute to my understanding of “The Lord of the Flies” because the images of violence and destruction back up Golding’s belief that evil is the one true cause of human nature. The images of nature, on the other hand, help to represent that, although humans are ultimately evil, there is still hope for mankind. The imagery of colour helps me to see that, despite the odds, innocence and purity will eventually triumph over evil as it did in Simon’s heart.

In conclusion to my essay, symbolism and imagery are used constantly throughout “Lord of the Flies” in a manner that represents the majority of humans as evil and black hearted, but, despite that image, all humans will eventually succumb to the innocence and purity of nature. Imagery and symbolism are important to the understanding of the novel because they are the true cause of the depth in the novel and, without them, Golding’s view about human nature could not be put across in this novel as effectively or powerfully.

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