In the words of a wise man:
I admit I’m a bit perverted, but it amuses me that no one can really trust the water
anymore. And the thing I like about it the most is, it means the system is
beginning to collapse, and everything is slowly breaking down…When they told
me that in nature all systems are breaking down, I thought what a good thing,
what a good thing, perhaps I can make some small contribution in this area
As is it so eloquently put by the late Mr. George Carlin, everything tends toward disorder. His quote accurately captures the slow deterioration of the conch shell William Golding uses as a symbol in his novel Lord of the Flies. The first object–the conch–encountered in the uncivilized environment is, ironically, the same object that comes to represent order and organization, and its subsequent fall.
Although the conch is used by Ralph and Piggy as a means to “call the others,” it is, at first, ignorantly treated as a plaything. As boys, they do not yet see the importance of order. When toying around with it, they laugh at the “farting noise” it emits. Later, when the group’s first assembly is taking place, the importance of the shell is still not recognized: “This toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch” (22). This view of amusement about the shell, however, soon changes. With the conch, comes power. When the time to elect a chief comes, one of the boys claims, “Him with the shell,” (22). This power that Ralph possesses allows him to establish order. A little time passes during the assembly, and the conch has come to be order, not merely represent it: “I’ll give the conch to the next person to speak” (33). Most of the boys, longing for a connection to their past–their civilized world–readily accept and respect the cultured idea. The black sheep, Jack, accepts with a different, dark intention: to punish whoever breaks the newly established rule. Hypocritically, he is boorish and often does the interrupting himself. With the exception of Jack, the satisfying idea of having a conch draws the boys toward Ralph.
As long as he has the conch, Ralph is in charge of the group. Jack has no opportunity to convince the boys that he should be chief, until the fear of a “beastie” comes along. Since Jack is the hunter of the group, he thinks his leadership is the boys’ only method of rescue from the beast. This makes him feel empowered, and covet the position of “chief” even more. Naturally, he wants to seize this so-desired position. The only thing stopping him is Ralph’s authority; that is to say, the conch. How does Jack attempt to overcome this? By belittling the very thing that gives Ralph authority, the conch: “We don’t need the conch anymore” (101-102). Until this important moment, Golding uses strong language when describing the shell.
This moment, when fear permeates the island, is the moment where order begins to slowly crumble. Before, Golding’s delineation of the conch was conveyed using strong language to depict its powerful impact. Its “booming” blasts bring the boys together. As this strong representation of order disintegrates, Golding’s use of powerful language to describe the shell diminishes along with it. No longer “a gleaming tusk,” the shell is now “a white blob.” As order deteriorates, a “pig’s head on a stick” becomes more powerful in symbolism. It is the head of a dead sow, which comes to represent the Devil. As the conch becomes more “fragile,” chaos is sure to ensue.
There are various rifts between Jack and Ralph, and eventually the group splits up. When a second brutal murder takes place, its chaos is intense to the point where order is literally pulverized: “The rock struck Piggy from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist” (181). Recalling the chaos mentioned earlier, it has now taken over. The conch, order, has vanished, and the “pig’s head on a stick,” chaos, has triumphed.
Golding uses the conch, one of the keys to survival and power, to represent order, and in turn, authority. To highlight how the conch changes, Golding uses his power as the author to alter the boys’ reactions and the words used to describe the conch. From the beginning to the end of the novel, he uses the shell to show what eventually happens to all power, slowly, but surely–recognition, rise, and inevitably, fall.