Symbol Essays

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A symbolism essay is one that is commonly assigned in high school and college literature courses.  Symbolism essays require the writer to analyze the many levels of symbolism in a text.  A symbol is, in essence, an object or person who stands for or represents something else.  For instance, a cross stands for Christianity.  In literature, symbolism is rarely this simple.  Literary symbols are more nuanced and less obvious.  This is why literary symbolism is often worthy of literary essays: it's complex.  Often, a literary symbol can be interpreted in multiple ways.  Therefore, the task of a writer of a symbolism essay is to identify in what way or ways that symbol can be interpreted, use text-focused evidence to convince the reader of the validity of that interpretation, and then discuss what the symbols mean in both the context of the story and outside the context of the story.

Symbolism reports should begin by identifying the symbol or symbols present in the text, or, if there are many symbols, the symbol or symbols on which the writer will focus.  Next, it should discuss why the author of the text uses these symbols.  It is important to suggest the reason for the inclusion of symbols, because if the writer didn't have a particular objective in using symbolism, then perhaps that symbolism is only in the mind of the reader.  After identifying the symbols and the purpose of using those symbols, symbolism essays must present text-focused discussions indicating why the writer believes the symbol to be a symbol, and what the writer believes the symbol to reflect.  Again, this discussion must be rooted in textual analysis; otherwise, it may seem that the writer is simply reading what he/she wishes to read in the text, rather than what is there.  

Following an extensive text-focused discussion of what the symbol indicates in the context of the text, it may be appropriate for the writer to suggest what the symbol indicates outside the context of the text, i.e., what the symbol suggests about the text's theme.  Sometimes, literary symbols are only pertinent within their context, but often, literary symbols are meant to be interpreted as representations of people, ideas, or other entities in life.  One can understand this application of symbolism by thinking about classic fables or fairy tales.  Take, for instance, the popular story recounting the race between a tortoise and a hare.  In this story, the tortoise, who is expected to lose the race because he/she is so slow, actually wins because he/she diligently applies himself/herself and stays focused on the race.  The faster hare loses because he/she is overly confident in his/her own abilities and therefore doesn't take the competition seriously.  One of the themes of this story is that diligence and focus trump natural ability.  In this story, the tortoise is a symbol for hard-working people who perhaps have inferior circumstances or talents when compared to others.  The tortoise is the quintessential underdog.  The hare represents people who are cocky about their abilities and therefore underestimate their competition.  This is a very basic example, but one that illustrates the way in which literary symbols go beyond the story to inform us about the theme of the story.  Every symbolism essay must discuss theme, as symbols are always related to a text's theme.

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Lord of the Flies is an ingenious work of literature in which the author, William Golding, explores the issues of civilization and savagery. Throughout the novel, the author hides powerful messages in some very unlikely places, and Golding's use of this literary technique - symbolism - is the subject of this essay.

The first symbol that becomes evident is the conch shell. When the shell is first discovered lying on the sandy beach it is blown to signal all the boys, scattered across the island, to meet at one spot. Later the conch shell is used to announce meetings, and then a rule is established stating that only the one holding the shell would be allowed to speak. These developments show that the capacity for order and democracy exists within the children, and also establish the conch shell as a symbol of civilized attitudes and hehaviour.

However, as the boys slowly turn to their savage instincts, the power of the conch shell is eroded. Ralph is holding the shell while he laughs maniacally about Simon’s death. When Ralph blows the shell to remind the boys of civilization, they throw rocks at him and, finally, civilization comes to an abrupt end when the shell is destroyed.

Piggy’s glasses also carry symbolic significance. They symbolize the exercise of intellect and science, since it is with them that the boys are able to start a fire. Piggy’s glasses can also be seen as the window that views and recognizes good from evil. This interpretation comes from the fact that Piggy uses his glasses not oly to see, but also to discern what is right, wrong, safe or harmful. When Piggy loses his spectacles, he also loses his clear vision and power of discernment.

The signal fire can be viewed as a sign of hope - the hope the boys have to return to society. When the flames dance brightly, it shows the enthusiasm they hold for the idea of being rescued. However, as the fire grows dim, it reflects the attitude of the boys and their loss of morale. The signal fire can also be viewed as the boys' link to the civilized world. As long as the fire continues burning, it suggests not only that the boys want to return to society, but also that they are still using their intellectual capacity.

However, in the end, it is a wild fire that results in the rescue of the remaining children. This outcome leads to another understanding of the signal fire; the first fire was a warning of death and disaster whereas the second fire was a sign of rescue.

The Beast devised by the boys is imaginary, symbolizing the savage instinct within the hearts of all people. The introduction of the Beast signals the beginning of savagery, and as the boys grow more savage their belief in the beast increases correspondingly. When the boys reach the climax of their savagery they begin worshipping the Beast and attributing inhuman qualities, such as shape-shifting, to it, and their savagery increases to the point where they kill an innocent boy.

The idea of the Beast can also be understood as propaganda used by Jack to attain a totalitarian government. By scaring the boys by telling them that the Beast exists, and by accusing Ralph of doing a poor job of protecting the children, Jack achieves leadership of a new ‘tribe’ in which he will rule like a tyrant.

The Beast, or The Lord of the Flies, (from which the novel's title is taken), represents the devil. Beelzebub, meaning ‘Lord of the Flies’ is in fact one of the many Biblical names of Satan. In the novel, the stick and the skull (the physical manifestation of the Lord the Flies), is circumambulated by flies, signifying the worship of evil.

The Lord of the Flies states that he lives within all human beings. This statement symbolizes that Satan is within all humanity, including English boys, and that it is he that causes sinful and savage behaviour. The devil is the source of all evil.

The boys paint their faces with mud and other such materials. This shows the level of savagery they have reached, and their return to primal human instincts. It is people who lived before civilization, or those now living in an uncivilized society that apply face paint in order either to camouflage themselves to merge with their surroundings while hunting, or to celebrate in a wild manner.

The island where the boys are stranded is a representation of the world and the children display the different roles of society. Ralph symbolizes civilization and order. He shows the sophisticated side of man and holds the position of a democratic leader. Piggy represents the voice of reason in civilization; his cleverness and brains are qualities that prove his intellect. Simon represents the purity and natural goodness existing in humanity.

While these three represent the goodness existing in humanity, Jack and Roger symbolize evil. Jack shows the power-hungry and savage end of society while Roger represents brutality and bloodlust. Roger shows his evil tendencies from the very beginning of the novel, when he throws rocks at the littluns and destroys their castles.

Piggy, in contrast, shows opposition to immaturity and savage behaviour from the beginning. These two characters symbolize polar opposites, good and evil. However, in the end Roger kills Piggy resulting in evil overpowering purity, suggesting the end of civilization.

The littluns represent the common people and the older kids play the role of the noblemen. The relationship between the two groups show whether or not a society is civilized. For example, Ralph and Simon are kind to those younger than them, proving their civilized attitudes. Roger and Jack, however, are cruel to them, and use them according to their whims. This behaviour symbolizes a wild and uncivilized culture.

The introduction of the dead parachutist symbolizes the fall of adult supervision. It also symbolizes the start of destruction, as it is the discovery of the dead person that leads the older boys to further believe in beasts. In this way, we can say that the end of adult supervision led to corruption.

In contrast, when the naval officer appears on the island, all the boys who were moments ago behaving savagely, come to a halt and suddenly return to their senses. This suggests that the appearance of the naval officer symbolizes the return of both adult supervision and civilization.

Although there may be additional symbols present in the novel, I found these to be the most evident and the most important. These symbols help to convey the author’s message about human nature, with its contrasting poles of kindness and rationality and power and bloodlust. Well-written and meaningful, Lord of the Flies uses symbols to reinforce its telling of the tale of humanity.

© Amal Gedleh, M.U.A. High, Scarborough, Ontario. January 2009


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