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Reviews Comments: Lord of the Flies, or why symbolism is a bad thing Lord Of The Flies film/book review by Artistic Platypus

Lord of the Flies is a great book. It's a study in the gradual deterioration of human psyche and society, framed in an unusual plot. It's a complex, intriguing story pulling the reader along through continuously increasing cruelty, without ever really sinking into mental gorn. I count it among the top fifteen-something books I've read, and recommend it to anyone who is equipped with adequate disillusionment and cynicism. Now for the real point of this review.

Lord of the flies is a perfect example of what I dislike about the use of symbolism. When I read it, I took every part of it at face value, and enjoyed it. I then did some light research on the symbolism embedded in the story. As an experiment, I applied the most commonly agreed upon symbolic meanings, and here is the story as it looked afterward: [Humanity] finds [democracy] and establishes [civilization]. [The devil] eventually causes conflict in [civilization], culminating in the death of [rationality] and the destruction of [democracy]. Ta-daa, a detailed and compelling story has been turned into something that could fit on a post-it note. Technically, you could argue that the non-symbolic plot could be summarized just as easily, but there's a difference; When reading the book as a non-symbolic story, every little action or detail can be interpreted as something, namely itself. When reading the book symbolically, almost all of it turns into meaningless fluff. Sure, one could try to put symbolic meaning in all of it, but that would result in a schizophrenic, incoherent mess of abstract nouns.

In conclusion: Lord of the Flies is a great book. Also, symbolism reduces reduces complex and creative fiction to short, blunt messages. Yet, for some reason, people think it provides a given work with deeper meaning. Broad subject, somewhat controversial view. Let the rebutting commence.


  • supernova
  • 24th Jan 11
Symbolism only dismisses what literally happens in a story if you choose to see it that way.
  • Ganondorfdude11
  • 24th Jan 11
Lord of the Flies is a good book precisely because it can be appreciated on two levels. The symbolism doesn't have to be applied in a reductionist fashion that dismisses the bare-faced meaning of the book.
  • ArtisticPlatypus
  • 26th Jan 11
This is fascinating stuff, I think. I'll have to back down from my initial statement that symbolism is bad, and instead claim the standpoint that symbolism is not necessarily good, and that it is highly overrated. Saying that symbolism automatically cancels out the literal meaning is wrong, but so is saying the opposite; Being aware that the story was put together on a symbolic level, too, certainly affects the reading. I, as a reader, would start wondering what was put in 'literally' but also works symbolically, and what was put in symbolically but works literally. Sure, some parts must have occurred in the authors mind as finished scenes, but most of it probably started somewhere. For whatever relevance it might have, you could think about the primitive symbolism in early renaissance paintings. Roses, chalices, swords and similar objects were crammed into the images for symbolic meaning, until the literal interpretation became nonsensical. When the amount of symbolism and the level of literal meaning a writer wants are incompatible, one of the two will have to be sacrificed to some extent. Since I enjoyed the literal meaning of LOTF so much, it can't have been too affected, but... Well, statistically, there has to be a lot of works where the literal meaning has suffered.

Anyway, all I've said is based on the assumption that the symbolic meaning of a work is less valuable than the literal one. I find it obvious that this is the case, as demonstrated in the review. Still, people have different opinions. If you think the symbolic interpretation is equally interesting, consider my arguments nullified.
  • supernova
  • 27th Jan 11
I think there's different kinds of symbolism. In LOTF it helps get across the idea how the story in the book could be applied on a bigger scale (appearantly, I haven't read it, I was responding to your comments on symbolism), many other stories use symbolism(/metaphors) to tell parts of the story indirectly to avoid spelling stuff out. All in all it makes a story less obvious, which makes it seem 'smarter', so I guess I understand what you're saying. When it's symbolism for the sake of symbolism or just totally indecipherable to anyone but the maker I don't like it anymore either xD
  • 27th Jan 11
Lord of the Flies is the author's rant against kids.
  • 31st Jan 11
"Ta-daa, a detailed and compelling story has been turned into something that could fit on a post-it note."

To be fair, you could do this to basically any story, even when the author deliberately tried not to make sense. An entire industry—literary criticism—owes its existence (well, nowadays, and for the most part) to the suggestiveness of stories. "Lord of the Flies" is particularly susceptible since the story is so simple. Without digging into exegesis or being otherwise influenced, its symbolic and allegorical nature is as obvious to the average reader as an anvil dropped on their feet.

Nothing's to say you can't enjoy the surface elements for their own sake. If they are well done, that is, and you seem to say they are.
  • 31st Jan 11
"I, as a reader, would start wondering what was put in 'literally' but also works symbolically, and what was put in symbolically but works literally"

Is there anything wrong with that? I mean, I can see how it could detract, obviously. But I do it all the time, and can't see as how it prevented me from enjoying the non-symbolic elements. I've experienced immense joy, for instance, reading material I was absolutely certain stood in diametrical opposition to my political, moral, and philosophical beliefs. Who cares, really, if it succeeds in other aspects?
  • 31st Jan 11
"When it's symbolism for the sake of symbolism or just totally indecipherable to anyone but the maker I don't like it anymore either"

That's true of any element of literature. There's no value to theme for the sake of theme, plot for the sake of plot, setting for the sake of setting, etc. Because they're all supposed to fit together to make for a good story. If any element is out of balance, the whole is less than it could have been.
  • Camacan
  • 1st Mar 11
I agree, OP.

It purports to be about a "gradual deterioration of human psyche" but I found the changes in character to be beyond unconvincing and unmotivated. To me the boys are wind-up dolls arrayed by the author so he can play at moralising and symbology. This saps the deeper narrative of its resonance while robbing the surface story of its authenticity.

It is the written equivalent of those cheap political cartoons that make X out to bad because there is a menacing ape with "X" written on its chest.

If the story doesn't work straight and has to be decoded via symbolism why not just skip the symbolism and actually tell the story you are telling? Tell the story of a civilization embracing democracy and then coming to grief via inner demons. I suspect writers who use a lot of symbolism wouldn't fare so well if they told their "actual" story rather than dressed it up. There is a strand of literary criticism that equates obscurity with content — it's exactly this kind of stuff they lap up. I think it is a shame that works like this one are so often used as School Study Media.
  • koreandrunkhobo
  • 25th Mar 11
Sometimes, you should just take things at face value. Otherwise it stops making sense, not that this book made any sense in the first place.
  • ArtisticPlatypus
  • 26th Mar 11
Funny thing, I thought this book worked really well at face value. I've seen way more unconvincing character development.
  • SeanPeden
  • 31st May 11
Two words: Laconic Wiki.
  • ArtisticPlatypus
  • 1st Jun 11
'A group of boys form a civilization on a deserted island. And then It Got Worse.'
Two words: Um, what?
  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 2nd Jun 11
I have to admit, I'm not sure as to how symbolic the symbolism is. Even without placing symbolism on it, the story is a straight up analysis of civilisation and democracy without having to substitute anything or interpret anything. Its just the factual events that happen and the actual theme of the story.
  • ArtisticPlatypus
  • 2nd Jun 11
When interpreted on that level, I think it's an excellent book. Also, I like your username.
  • tublecane
  • 2nd Jun 11
"I have to admit, I'm not sure as to how symbolic the symbolism is."

This book has, in my opinion, suffered from overteaching. It's been on the standard reading list for so long that too many people have said too many things about it. A work with enough complexity and ambiguity like "Hamlet" can stand the academic assualt, if just barely. But given how simple and straightforward is "Lord of the Flies" that it has swollen to the point of bursting with exegesis and dictum. It doesn't help that, at the same time, it is highly symbolic, which grants the decades of interpretation undue credence.

In short, the simplicity keeps it popular while the symbolism ensures it will be weighed down with distracting interpretation.
  • TheRealYuma
  • 11th Mar 16
What\'s not deep about the gradual deterioration of human psyche and society?

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