'Lord of the Flies' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Lord of the Flies, William Golding's tale of British schoolboys stranded on a deserted island, is nightmarish and brutal. Through its exploration of themes including good versus evil, illusion versus reality, and chaos versus order, Lord of the Flies raises powerful questions about the nature of humankind.

Good vs. Evil

The central theme of Lord of the Flies is human nature: are we naturally good, naturally evil, or something else entirely? This question runs through the entire novel from beginning to end.

When the boys gather on the beach for the first time, summoned by the sound of the conch, they have not yet internalized the fact that they are now outside the normal bounds of civilization. Notably, one boy, Roger, remembers throwing stones at younger boys but deliberately missing his targets for fear of retribution by adults. The boys decide to set up a democratic society in order to maintain order. They elect Ralph as their leader and create a crude mechanism for discussion and debate, designating that anyone who holds the conch has the right to be heard. They build shelters and show concern for the youngest among them. They also play make believe and other games, exulting in their freedom from chores and rules.

Golding seems to suggest that the democratic society they create is simply another game. The rules are only as effective as their enthusiasm for the game itself. It is notable that at the beginning of the novel, all the boys assume rescue is imminent, and thus that the rules they're accustomed to following will soon be reimposed. As they come to believe that they will not be returned to civilization anytime soon, the boys abandon their game of democratic society, and their behavior becomes increasingly fearful, savage, superstitious, and violent.

Golding’s question is perhaps not whether humans are inherently good or evil, but rather whether these concepts have any true meaning. While it is tempting to see Ralph and Piggy as ‛good’ and Jack and his hunters as ‛evil,’ the truth is more complex. Without Jack’s hunters, the boys would have suffered hunger and deprivation. Ralph, the believer in rules, lacks authority and the ability to enforce his rules, leading to disaster. Jack’s rage and violence leads to the destruction of the world. Piggy’s knowledge and book learning are proven as to be meaningless as his technology, represented by the fire-starting glasses, when they fall into the hands of boys who do not understand them.

All of these issues are mirrored subtly by the war that frames the story. Although only vaguely described, it is clear that the adults outside the island are engaged in a conflict, inviting comparisons and forcing us to consider whether the difference is merely a matter of scale.

Illusion vs. Reality

The nature of reality is explored in several ways in the novel. On the one hand, appearances seem to doom the boys to certain roles—most notably Piggy. Piggy initially expresses the dim hope that he can escape the abuse and bullying of his past through his alliance with Ralph and his usefulness as a well-read child. However, he quickly falls back into the role of the bullied ‛nerd’ and becomes reliant on Ralph’s protection.

On the other hand, many aspects of the island are not clearly perceived by the boys. Their belief in The Beast stems from their own imaginations and fears, but it quickly takes on what seems to the boys to be a physical form. In this way, The Beast becomes very real to the boys. As the belief in The Beast grows, Jack and his hunters descend into savagery. They paint their faces, changing their appearance in order to project a fearsome and frightening visage that belies their true childish nature.

More subtly, what seemed real in the beginning of the book—Ralph’s authority, the power of the conch, the assumption of rescue—slowly erodes over the course of the story, revealed to be nothing more than the rules of an imaginary game. In the end, Ralph is alone, there is no tribe, the conch is destroyed (and Piggy murdered) in the ultimate refutation of its power, and the boys abandon the signal fires, making no effort to prepare for or attract rescue.

At the terrifying climax, Ralph is hunted through the island as everything burns—and then, in a final twist of reality, this descent into horror is revealed to be unreal. Upon discovering they have in fact been rescued, the surviving boys immediately collapse and burst into tears.

Order vs. Chaos

The civilized and reasonable behavior of the boys at the beginning of the novel is predicated on the expected return of an ultimate authority: adult rescuers. When the boys lose faith in the possibility of rescue, their orderly society collapses. In a similar way, the morality of the adult world is governed by a criminal justice system, armed forces, and spiritual codes. If these controlling factors were to be removed, the novel implies, society would quickly collapse into chaos.

Everything in the story is reduced to its power or lack thereof. Piggy’s glasses can start fires, and thus are coveted and fought over. The conch, which symbolizes order and rules, can challenge raw physical power, and so it is destroyed. Jack’s hunters can feed hungry mouths, and thus they have an outsize influence over the other boys, who quickly do as they are told despite their misgivings. Only the return of adults at the end of the novel changes this equation, bringing a more powerful force to the island and instantly reimposing the old rules.

Symbols

On a superficial level, the novel tells a story of survival in a realistic style. The process of building shelters, gathering food, and seeking rescue are recorded with a high level of detail. However, Golding develops several symbols throughout the story that slowly take on increasing weight and power in the story.

The Conch

The Conch comes to represent reason and order. In the beginning of the novel, it has the power to quiet the boys and force them to listen to wisdom. As more boys defect to Jack’s chaotic, fascist tribe, the Conch's color fades. In the end, Piggy—the only boy who still has faith in the Conch—is killed trying to protect it.

The Pig’s Head

The Lord of the Flies, as described by a hallucinating Simon, is a pig’s head on a spike being consumed by flies. The Lord of the Flies is a symbol of the increasing savagery of the boys, on display for all to see.

Ralph, Jack, Piggy, and Simon

Each of the boys represent fundamental natures. Ralph represents order. Piggy represents knowledge. Jack represents violence. Simon represents good, and is in fact the only truly selfless boy on the island, which makes his death at the hands of Ralph and the other supposedly civilized boys shocking.

Piggy’s Glasses

Piggy’s glasses are designed to provide clear vision, but they are transformed into a tool to make fire. The glasses serve as a symbol of control more powerful than the Conch. The Conch is purely symbolic, representing rules and order, while the glasses convey true physical power.

The Beast

The beast represents the unconscious, ignorant terror of the boys. As Simon thinks, "The beast is the boys." It did not exist on the island before their arrival.

Literary Device: Allegory

Lord of the Flies is written in a straightforward style. Golding eschews complex literary devices and simply tells the story in chronological order. However, the entire novel serves as a complex allegory, in which every major character represents some larger aspect of society and the world. Thus, their behavior is in many ways predetermined. Ralph represents society and order, and so he consistently attempts to organize and hold the boys to standards of behavior. Jack represents savagery and primitive fear, and so he consistently devolves to a primitive state.