The Symbolism of the Conch Shell in Lord of the Flies by William Golding

December 31, 2017 General Studies

The Symbolism of the Conch In Lord of the Flies, several symbols are used to illustrate important ideas that are crucial to the plot and meaning of the book. One of these symbols is the conch: this rare shell is not only a precious and expensive in the world of merchandise; it also holds a dark and mysterious power over a group of English boys, lost on an island with no adults, clues, or means of escape. The boys set up a civilization and try to live in the society they have set up. This system works for a while, aided by the power of the conch.

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However, as the story advances, the civilized way of life that the boys have set up starts falling apart, and savagery starts luring certain boys outside of the safe and rational walls of civilization. William Golding intertwines the fast-paced, enticing story of the boys’ plight on the island and the descent into savagery with the powerful and deeply meaningful symbolism of the conch. The conch bestows a strange power on Ralph: it is with this that he calls the all the boys together from where they were, scattered and lost all over the big island.

By blowing into it, Ralph produced a blaring, strident noise, booming across the jungle. When everyone is gathered, Ralph immediately has the other boys in awe and interested by the conch. He has their uninterrupted attention as they make plans to figure out the situation that they have, literally, “landed” into. The boys ignore Jack’s arrogant confidence and unanimously turn towards Ralph as their leader, for “there was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out: there was his size, and attractive appearance; and must obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch (22). The conch, again, gives Ralph a mysterious power; this “gleaming white tusk” has the gift of bestowing power upon the person holding it. Not only does the conch bring the boys together and influence them to choose Ralph as their leader, it becomes a sacred object among the boys, a sign of irrevocable power. Ralph, wanting to keep order in his newly formed little society, establishes a rule, which states that the person holding the conch is the one who may speak. Ralph “held up the conch for silence (22)” whenever he wanted order.

Ironically, Jack, who will, later in the book, turn into a bloodthirsty, merciless savage, states, self-assuredly and boldly: “we’re got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages (42). ”The conch is also a source of pride and confidence. For Piggy especially, the conch means pride and recognition, it makes him ‘somebody’: “[Ralph] held out the conch to Piggy who flushed […] with pride (172). ” However, towards the later parts of the novel, as order slowly starts to disintegrate, the conch’s power starts to cause jealousy and tension within the boys, rather than the structure and justice it had first brought to the island.

Jack is especially jealous of Ralph’s power, which is given to him by the conch. Eventually Jack breaks away from the group, and lures the other boys in to join him in his rebellion. When there are only a few people left in Ralph’s group, and Piggy’s glasses have been stolen through shameless and devious trickery, the boys decide to visit Jack’s clan and ask for the glasses back. The conch is represented as a symbol of power, it is all that these boys have left, and without it they are nothing: they want to “show [Jack] the one thing he hasn’t got (171). For instance, when they go back to get Piggy’s glasses, Jack refuses to listen to them because they haven’t got the conch with them. The conch’s power is truly ended when it shatters, and Jack triumphs at this: “There isn’t a tribe for you anymore! The conch is gone (181) […]” So their token of power, their last little bit of significance, has been shattered to pieces, and washed away by the cleansing waves of the sea. When the conch is destroyed, it is a clear sign that all civilization has disappeared and disintegrated.

This is shown to the extent that a person – Piggy – is killed, or rather, murdered. Symbolically, the shell is destroyed at the same time that Piggy dies: these two were basically all of the order, rational thinking, structure and civilization that were present on the island, and they are both lost at once, by the very hands of the savages. The conch also represented purity and innocence, and the humanity in the boys: both the conch, and humanity, are fragile and pure: “The conch lay at Ralph’s feet, fragile and white (171). This important of the boys lives on the island “exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist (181)”, and along with it went everything it represented. The conch, therefore, is a powerful and mysterious object in this novel that represents purity, innocence, order, unity, and everything that is good, everything that crumbles and disintegrates as the once-civilized boys turn to savages. The conch, symbol of hope, is shattered, and its destruction brings about the destruction of the boys’ very essence, of their love, of their compassion, of their humanity.

The conch, a powerful and important object on a number of levels, plays an important role in Lord of the Flies. It gives power to Ralph, which is what enables the boys to gather and organize themselves into a small society. The conch also becomes sacred and extremely important among the boys. It is a source of pride for some, and a way of being heard and recognized for others. As the story progresses, the conch’s value starts changing: it is not only a symbol of justice and order, but one of undeniable power and superiority.

This object, which had originally brought peace and rational thought to the boys, started to bring jealously and tension among the boys. Finally, when the conch shatters, every last bit of order and civilization on the island is washed away with the broken pieces as the ocean claims what was once his. The boys are now completely immersed in savagery, and the conch, their last item of sanity and humanity, has been destroyed and completely obliterated, along with everything it symbolized. Golding, William. Lord of the Flies. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.


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