Friday, January 21, 2011

Fire: A Force of Nature and Literature

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach

In the classic novel, Lord of the Flies, William Golding uses several symbols to enrich the story and develop overall meanings. One is the conch shell, at first a symbol for law and civility, but as the boys descend into lawlessness and disorder, the shell disintegrates. Another symbol is Jack’s face, painted in colors reminiscent of repressive regimes; those colors create a mask that facilitates Jack’s transformation from choirboy to killer. A third symbol, fire, is the topic for this post. Its archetypal meaning begins with the Promethean myth, and it is primarily a force for good. Fire represents knowledge and enlightenment, but fire is also a natural foe, one that can maim and destroy.

The dual nature of fire shows itself immediately in the novel and foreshadows the destruction of civility when the boys build their first fire. The twigs and branches most easily gathered are dry and highly combustible. They catch quickly, spreading the flames and apparently claiming the life of the child with a mulberry birthmark. This early incident proves that failing to respect Nature and failing to establish boundaries can unleash destruction.

The island is an Eden. It has fresh water, shelter from the sun, food to eat, and fuel for fires. But the boys fail to appreciate their bounty. They are unable to restrain their impulses. They give in to bloodlust, immediate gratification, and war-like contests. They fail to honor laws and authorities, and thus, their society cannot thrive or endure.

Jack, in particular, fails to respect any authority except his own. He refuses to be tamed or to work the work that Ralph, the leader, assigns him. Instead of tending to the fire that Ralph believes will save them all, Jack hunts meat, thinking of fire as only a tool to cook meat. Jack and his hunters neglect the fire and cost the boys an early rescue when there is no smoke to draw a passing ship. They are not upset, however. They enjoy the hunt too much; it is exhilarating, terrifying, and satisfying. For their neglect, Ralph chastises them. He continues to nag them about the fire and rules. He finally becomes an object of their disdain and ultimately, the boys’ prey.

Jack orders the boys to “smoke out” Ralph and in doing so, Jack destroys Eden. Not only will Jack, as Cain, take the life of his brother, Ralph, as Able, he will use fire to destroy the fruit which has fed them, he will foul the water with ash, and he will eliminate all shelter. Everyone will die because Jack, the destroyer, used fire to destroy.

Consider also what remains after a fire: ash. It too has symbolic significance. Whereas fire is alive, vital, and powerful, ash is dead, inert, powerless. Fire is youth, and Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73), ash is age. Fire thrives in oxygen; ash suffocates.

A mythical bird, the Phoenix, rises from the ash so rebirth is always an inherent possibility when fire is present as a symbol in literature. In fact, Golding’s fire signals the boys’ rebirth. The island-wide fire brings a British officer from his World War II battleship cruiser to investigate, and the boys’ consciences are reborn. They hide in shame. Only poor, disillusioned Ralph, his innocence stripped, steps forward to accept responsibility for a fire he did not set. He is not merely noble; he is honest. He was present and struck a blow when fear overtook the boys, leading them as a mob to sacrifice Simon. Ralph also denied the truth about man’s heart of darkness (Conrad) and blindly led Piggy to his slaughter. Ralph recognizes his own duality, one symbolized by fire itself. Men may be forces for good, or they may yield to bloodlust and become forces of evil. Ralph will never again expect man’s better natures. He will forever be wary of man’s frailty.

Reading Challenge:

Read Lord of the Flies by William Golding. Trace the uses of fire and how its archetypal meanings shape the novel’s themes.





Alternate titles wherein fire functions are Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by Thomas Gray, and The Odyssey by Homer.

Writing Challenge:

Write an analytical essay in which you contrast the archetypal and dual nature of fire.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

In the last paragraph of this post’s essay, I used the word conscience, a word that my students often confuse with conscious.

A conscience resides with Freud’s Superego, the domain that stores a parent and society’s rules for behavior and acceptance. A conscience develops to tell us what is right and what is wrong, how to treat others, and how to avoid pain both physical and emotional. A conscience is the “angel” on our shoulder, competing with the willful, self-absorbed Id or devil on the opposite shoulder.

Conscious is to be awake, alert, and aware. Our subconscious lies below our conscious state, existing and exerting itself primarily in dreams. Our unconscious is a realm of which we are not aware. It too may exert itself in dreams, and it may affect our behavior negatively until we drag it into the conscious light of day. Unconsciousness may also be induced by drugs or trauma.

Like science, conscience follows protocols and strict guidelines. This may help you remember how to spell conscience and separate it from conscious.