Lesson 6: Symbolism, Part 1

Getting Started

When you see a heart shape, what do you think of? You probably think of love, femininity, or romantic attraction. The reason you're prompted by this sight is that the heart is consistently used as a symbol for these ideas. A symbol is something that is used to represent something beyond its literal meaning, usually something greater, more complex, or more abstract than the symbol itself. The heart shape is a visual symbol. Another example of a visual symbol is a flag. When you see one, you think of the country that arrangement of shapes and colors represents.

Lord of the Flies, like most great works of literature, contains symbols. There are clues for recognizing important symbols in a story; for example, look for objects that are repeatedly discussed and are important to a main character. In Lord of the Flies, Piggy's glasses meet these criteria. The conch does as well. While virtually everyone who has read the novel agrees that these are important symbols, there are varying opinions regarding what precisely these objects represent.

In order to determine your own ideas about what an object represents, ask yourself some basic questions about the object. For example: What does it do or accomplish? Who does it belong to? It is powerful? Is it fragile? Take a moment to think about the answers to these questions about Piggy's glasses before reading the next paragraph.

Piggy's glasses enable him to see. They also are used to create fire. Fire can be destructive, or it can be helpful. So the glasses are powerful. They are also fragile. Some critics believe that the glasses represent science and technology. Some readers interpret the glasses to represent intelligence, and some say they represent civilization. Although these interpretations vary somewhat, the concepts are closely tied. Symbolism usually leaves some room for interpretation or debate among readers, but a good author's broad aim can always be, at least approximately, determined by readers through critical thinking.

Stuff You Need

  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding
  • journal

Ideas to Think About

  • How does individual power change in relationships with others?
  • Do individuals control groups, or do groups control individuals?

Things to Know

  • A symbol is anything that is used to represent something beyond the meaning of the original; symbols are often more complex or more abstract than the original.


  • Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme. (LA)
  • Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text. (LA)

Introducing the Lesson

In this lesson, students learn that symbols are used to represent ideas in addition to their literal meanings — ideas that are greater, more complex, or more abstract. Lord of the Flies is filled with symbolism. Students are taught to recognize symbols by considering the possible meanings of recurring objects and objects that are important to main characters. Students are also introduced to some of the critical thinking questions that will help them form their own ideas regarding symbolism in the novel.