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Lord of the Flies Critique

In: English and Literature

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Words 1662
Pages 7
Ryan Newell
Lord of the Flies Essay
Period 5
Word Count: 1662 Lord of the Flies is a classic story of good versus evil, or civilization versus savagery, and symbolism plays a major role in the development of the story. A major symbol is the conch shell. Discovered early in the story, it became an important fixture in the boys’ lives on the island. Throughout the story, it symbolized society and authority – and served to maintain a sense of civilization. When the conch shell broke near the end of the story, the last aspects of civilization on the island and within the boys had disappeared. The conch was first discovered among the ‘ferny weeds’ by Ralph and Piggy as they explored the island. Even taking the conch shell out of the weeds required Ralph to use civilized techniques – to achieve civilization, mankind had to be smart enough to develop rudimentary technology. The author portrayed this through the way Ralph got the conch: “The palm sapling, bending, pushed the shell across the weeds. Ralph used one hand as a fulcrum and pressed down with the other till the shell rose, dripping, and Piggy could make a grab.” (16) Ralph created a simple tool to achieve what he wanted, to get the conch shell (civilization).
The fragility of civilization is also foreshadowed, when Piggy says, “Careful! You’ll break it–” (14) Although he is talking about the tangible shell in this instance, his comment may also be seen as referring to the instability of society, and how quickly and easily an action could destroy it. Piggy does not understate the value of the conch either. He says, “It’s ever so valuable… ever so expensive… you’d have to pay pounds and pounds and pounds.” (16) This demonstrates the preciousness of civilization to humans; it sets them apart from savages and animals.
Almost immediately after the conch is found, Ralph uses it to summon the others, calling them to join the civilization. The conch shell reunites the boys from the plane, and is accepted as the symbol of authority almost at once. During the first meeting, there is a vote to choose the chief. The three potential candidates are Piggy, Ralph, and Jack. Piggy was a candidate because “what intelligence was shown was traceable to Piggy.” Jack “ought to be chief, because [he’s] chapter chorister and head boy… the most obvious leader was Jack.” (22) Perhaps a little less obvious choice, Ralph is set apart from the other two because he possessed the conch. To all of the boys, it represented leadership, and because Ralph held the conch, he was the ultimate chief.
The newly created civilization begins to flourish, with the establishment of rules. The first rule that Ralph makes as leader refers to the conch. During the first meeting, Ralph realizes that everyone cannot talk at once. He uses the conch to help the meeting run in a civilized manner by passing it to the person who wants to speak, therefore maintaining order and peace. At this point in the book everyone accepts the rules, even Jack, who says, “We’ll have rules!” he cried excitedly. “Lots of rules! Then when anyone breaks ‘em–” (33) Even though it seems as if Jack’s motives are malevolent when he says this, leaving the reader to wonder what he would do if anyone broke the rules, he is still excited about the system of power created, which can be traced back to the conch.
However, the power of the conch shell was ever-changing. Only a few hours after it was used to call the boys together and establish rules, it lay on the ground, forgotten, and part of the forest was set on fire. “A fire! Make a fire!” At once half the boys were on their feet. Jack clamored among them, the conch forgotten.” (38) This shows another instance of the fragility of civilization and how a comment made by Ralph caused what order the boys had had to dissolve. Piggy’s earlier comments about the fragility of the conch and the fragility of society can be recalled here. The two boys left behind with the conch, Ralph and Piggy, were the only ones that remained civilized. This scene is foreshadowing of a similar scene at the end of the story, when Ralph and Piggy are the only two left in Ralph’s civilized tribe.
As time passes, the conch is used primarily to call meetings. Ralph uses it once to retake order by calling a meeting when Jack and the hunters were reenacting the killing of the first pig. “Then Maurice pretended to be the pig and ran squealing into the center, and the hunters, circling still, pretended to beat him… “I’m calling an assembly. With the conch. Down on the platform. Now.” (75) Midway through their time on their island, the conch was still very powerful; it was able to reunite everyone even after Jack let the fire go out in order to go hunting. However, it did not have the same power as it did in the beginning. The boys were slowly but surely becoming less civilized, and the conch’s influence was waning. “He took the conch down from the tree and examined the surface… bleached yellow and pink to near white, and transparent.” (78) Eventually, Jack’s unquenchable thirst for killing and his aggressive, power-hungry attitude made him challenge Ralph’s authority and leadership, and he ultimately formed his own tribe, extinguishing the power of the conch shell.
The conch shell finally loses most of its power when Jack talks in a meeting without holding the conch, insults Ralph, and leaves. This greatly diminishes Ralph’s power as chief, because he refuses to use the conch to call them all back; he begins to lose his control over the boys. Ralph makes a smart decision when he decides not to use the conch when the boys run away; he 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.” (92) If Ralph blew the conch and the boys did not come back, then they would realize that there would be no penalty for disobeying him, and the conch would be worthless. The only time the conch had power was when it was important to all of the boys. As soon as Jack said, “Bollocks to the rules!”, the authority of the conch was gone. Jack no longer cared about the rules, and the other boys took his lead, running away from the meeting to have fun at the beach. “Conch! Conch!” shouted Jack. “We don’t need the conch anymore.” (102)
Ralph’s last attempt at reuniting the boys ended in failure. When Ralph’s tribe reaches Jack's camp, all civility is lost. At first, when they arrive at the camp, Ralph peacefully asks Jack for Piggy’s specs back – the object that represented technology, power, and the ability to make fire – and for help with the signal fire. Jack, however, being the savage that he is, refuses to give back the glasses; ignoring what Ralph told him, “We’d have given you fire if you asked for it!” (176) In anger following Ralph's insults to Jack, Roger pushes a boulder on Piggy. In the same instant, the conch “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist.” (181) along with any elements of civilization that had still remained. The conch shell, civilization, was destroyed as soon as Piggy was killed. He was not killed by accident, as Simon was. He had not gone missing during a forest fire like the young boy in the beginning of the book. Piggy’s death happened because Roger murdered him. This is the element that destroys the conch. Murder is one of the most horrendous acts within a civilized society. There was no excuse, no denial, and everyone knew Roger made the rock fall. But rather than turn on Roger, the rest of the boys, led by Jack, now complete savages, sought to kill Ralph in order to get rid of their last link to civilization. With Piggy dead and the twins forced to join Jack, Ralph is left by himself to defend against Jack’s tribe, having escaped from their side of the island. Jack and his tribe, now complete savages, decide to hunt and kill Ralph, free at last from the just rule of Ralph and the conch. The savagery of Jack's tribe can be seen when they sharpen sticks at both ends to prepare for the hunt. This shows that it was more so the hunt they were interested in, the chase for blood and a slow and painful death, rather than just a quick execution.
Ralph’s use of the conch is the most prominent among all of the characters in the book. It is what he uses to become the leader, and to stay the leader. If Ralph did not have the conch shell, Jack would most likely have become the leader, given his natural leadership qualities. Therefore as the power of the conch waned, so did Ralph’s authority. When the conch was smashed, Ralph lost any remaining leadership. And because Piggy died as well, Jack became leader by default - he was the only one of the original leader candidates remaining. Finally there was Piggy. Being the smartest boy on the island, he saw the importance of keeping order through the conch, and tried to sustain this idea until he was killed.
The conch shell symbolized civilization on the island – the establishment of society, the weakening of civilization, and finally its demise. The conch helped create the civilization the first time it was used to call the boys together in a meeting. It represented leadership, rules, deterioration of society and the difference between Ralph’s orderly, civilized tribe, and Jack’s savage tribe. Finally, when the conch was destroyed during Piggy’s murder, it represented complete absence of civilization whatsoever as the savages now ruled.

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