In William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, the boys who are stranded on the island come in
contact with many unique elements that symbolize ideas or concepts. Through the use of
symbols such as the beast, the pig’s head, and even Piggy’s specs, Golding demonstrates
that humans, when liberated from society’s rules and taboos, allow their natural capacity
for evil to dominate their existence.
One of the most important and most obvious symbols in Lord of the Flies is the object that
gives the novel its name, the pig’s head. Golding’s description of the slaughtered animal’s
head on a spear is very graphic and even frightening. The pig’s head is depicted as
“dim-eyed, grinning faintly, blood blackening between the teeth,” and the “obscene thing”
is covered with a “black blob of flies” that “tickled under his nostrils” (William Golding,
Lord of the Flies, New York, Putnam Publishing Group, 1954, p. 137, 138). As a result of
this detailed, striking image, the reader becomes aware of the great evil and darkness
represented by the Lord of the Flies, and when Simon begins to converse with the
seemingly inanimate, devil-like object, the source of that wickedness is revealed. Even
though the conversation may be entirely a hallucination, Simon learns that the beast, which
has long since frightened the other boys on the island, is not an external force. In fact, the
head of the slain pig tells him, “Fancy thinking the beast was something you could hunt
and kill! O You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you?” (p. 143). That is to say, the evil,
epitomized by the pig’s head, that is causing the boys’ island society to decline is that
which is inherently present within man. At the end of this scene, the immense evil
represented by this powerful symbol can once again be seen as Simon faints after looking
into the wide mouth of the pig and seeing “blackness within, a blackness that spread” (p.
Another of the most important symbols used to present the theme of the novel is the beast.
In the imaginations of many of the boys, the beast is a tangible source of evil on the island.
However, in reality, it represents the evil naturally present within everyone, which is
causing life on the island to deteriorate. Simon begins to realize this even before his
encounter with the Lord of the Flies, and during one argument over the existence of a
beast, he attempts to share his insight with the others. Timidly, Simon tells them, “Maybe,
O maybe there is a beast O What I mean is O maybe it’s only us” (p. 89). In response to
Simon’s statement, the other boys, who had once conducted their meetings with some
sense of order, immediately begin to argue more fiercely. The crowd gives a “wild
whoop” when Jack rebukes Ralph, saying “Bollocks to the rules! We’re strong o we hunt!
If there’s a beast, we’ll hunt it down! We’ll close in and beat and beat and beat!” (p. 91).
Clearly, the boys’ fear of the beast and their ironic desire to kill it shows that the hold
which society’s rules once had over them has been loosened during the time they have
spent without supervision on the island.
The evil within the boys has more effect on their existence as they spend more time on the
island, isolated from the rest of society, and this decline is portrayed by Piggy’s specs.
Throughout the novel, Piggy represents the civilization and the rules from which the boys
have been separated, and interestingly, as Piggy loses his ability to see, so do the other
boys lose their vision of that civilization. When the story begins, Piggy can see clearly
with both lenses of his spectacles intact, and the boys are still fairly civilized. For example,
at one of their first meetings, the boys decide that they “can’t have everybody talking at
once” and that they “have to have eHands up’ like at school” (p. 33). However, after some
time passes, the hunters become more concerned with slaughtering a pig than with being
rescued and returning to civilization. When they return from a successful hunt in the jungle
chanting “Kill the pig. Cut her throat. Spill her blood,” Ralph and Piggy attempt to explain
to the hunters that having meat for their meals is not as important as keeping the signal fire
burning (p. 69). In an ensuing scuffle, Jack knocks Piggy specs from his face, smashing
one of the lenses against the mountain rocks and greatly impairing his vision. Finally, after
Jack forms his own tribe of savages, he and two of his followers ambush Ralph, Piggy,
and Samneric, and in the midst of “a vicious snarling in the mouth of the shelter and the
plunge and thump of living things,” Piggy’s specs are stolen, leaving him virtually blind (p.
167). Meanwhile, Jack returns to Castle Rock, “trotting steadily, exulting in his
achievement,” as he has practically abandoned all ties to civilized life (p. 168).
The story’s setting presents two more symbols that assist in showing the decline of civility
on the island. A majority of the island is taken up by the jungle, which is used by many
authors as an archetype to represent death and decay. In fact, since the jungle is the lair of
the beast, it, too, symbolizes the darkness naturally present within humans that is capable
of ruling their lives. This evil eventually spreads to almost every boy on the island, just as
in the jungle, “darkness poured out, submerging the ways between the trees till they were
dim and strange as the bottom of the sea” (p. 57). At one end of the island, where the plane
carrying the boys most likely crashed, there is a “long scar smashed into the jungle” (p. 1).
While Golding does not include a large amount of description about the scar, the image of
“broken trunks” with “jagged edges” is sufficient to give the reader an idea of the
destruction caused to the island (p. 1, 2). Symbolically, this scar represents the destruction
that man is naturally capable of causing and can be related to the harm the boys ultimately
cause to one another, including the deaths of three boys, before they are rescued.
The degeneration of the boys’ way of life is also very evident through the symbolic masks.
When concealed by masks of clay paint, the hunters, especially Ralph, seem to have new
personalities as they forget the taboos of society that once restrained them from giving in
to their natural urges. For example, when Jack first paints his face to his satisfaction, he
suddenly becomes a new, savage person. “He began to dance and his laughter became a
bloodthirsty snarling. He capered toward Bill, and the mask was a thing of its own, behind
which Jack hid, liberated from shame and self-consciousness” (p. 64). Certainly, Jack
would not have acted in such a way if he had been in his home society, but behind the
mask of paint, Jack feels free to act like a savage. It is also noteworthy, that the first mask
that Jack creates is red, white, and black. These colors archetypically symbolize violence,
terror, and evil, respectively, and in this novel, Golding uses these colors to illustrate those
characteristics that are inherently present in humans.
The feeling of liberation that results from wearing the masks allows many of the boys to
participate in the barbaric, inhumane pig hunts. Those hunts can be interpreted as
symbolizing the boys’ primal urges or even anarchy. In fact, many of the boys become so
engulfed in their quest for the blood of a pig that they seem to forget about their hopes of
returning to civilization and neglect to keep the signal fire burning. When Ralph tries to
explain how important the signal fire is, Jack and the other hunters are still occupied with
thoughts of the successful, gruesome hunt in which they just participated. “eThere was
lashings of blood,’ said Jack, laughing and shuddering, eyou should have seen it!'” (p. 69).
Also, during a later celebration over another successful hunt, the boys become carried
away while reenacting the slaughter. However, the boys have become so much like
savages that they are unable to control themselves, and for a moment, they mistake Simon
for the beast. “The sticks fell and the mouth of the circle crunched and screamed. The
beast was on its knees in the center, its arm folded over its face” (p. 152). As a result of
their uncontrolled urges, the boys soon kill one of their own.
Finally, one of the most memorable symbols that is used to show the violence and
darkness which comes to rule life on the island is the rock, which Roger releases to kill
Piggy. As an archetype in literature, a rock can symbolize strength and power, and since
this rock is red, it also represents violence. It is Roger who feels strong and powerful as he
stands on the ledge above Piggy. “High overhead, Roger, with a sense of delirium
abandonment, leaned all his weight on the lever” (p. 180). When the rock lands below, it
not only strikes Piggy, but it also shatters the conch shell. Up to that point, Piggy and the
conch had been two of the few representations of civilization and common sense on the
island. However, when the rock causes both of these to cease to exist, all order on the
island is brought to an end, and the boys, who express no regrets over the death of Piggy,
have fully become savages.
In conclusion, Lord of the Flies is a story that portrays the dark, deteriorating life that
results from mankind’s inherent capacity for evil, which is allowed to control humans when
they are freed from the rules of society. Throughout the novel, Golding uses many
different objects as symbols to illustrate this theme. Some of those objects would be
insignificant in real life and would most likely be taken for granted. However, in Lord of
the Flies, each of the previously mentioned symbols is vital to the story’s theme.