The fire on the mountain has tremendous symbolic meaning. First, it represents hope and aspirations for the future, a gift from the gods, a tool that separates humankind from the animals. Just as the beach platform and the untamed jungle represent the duality in humanity's behavior, the fire, also, represents both savagery (evil) and hope: "On one side the air was cool, but on the other the fire thrust out a savage arm of heat." Golding could be describing here how societies and individuals contain these conflicting yet complementary forces. In some individuals, the savage side runs closer to the surface, as with Jack, but it exists in everyone. The boys' fire shows that one entity can contain hot and cold, good and evil, civility and savagery.
The fire expresses another duality as well, a before and after for Ralph's perception of their situation and his role. This first bonfire is an act of communal play for all the boys, topped off with Ralph standing on his head to mark their triumph. The fire becomes more like serious work when they make plans for specific teams to tend it. Later, with the probable deaths of some of the little boys, Ralph begins to realize that the group's disregard for his authority can and will have grim consequences. Before the fire, the boys take time for play, a luxury available only to those protected by a civilization, not for those engaged in a fight for survival.
Ultimately, the fire is about savagery: For the boys rushing around for firewood, "Life became a race with the fire," a phrase that quietly foreshadows Ralph's flight for his life at the end. And while fire starting was one of the first technologies to separate humanity from the animals, to start this fire, the boys adopt a primitive use of force in taking Piggy's glasses from him, making him an unwilling Prometheus.
Note that on this first day together, the group has already banded together to physically overwhelm Piggy — a show of physicality over intellect. It is also an uprising of children against an adult figure. Although Piggy is in the same age group as the other boys, he nonetheless holds the role of "martyred . . . parent who has to keep up with the senseless ebullience of the children." On this island, for the first time in their lives, the boys experience sheer autonomy. "This is our island . . . Until the grownups come and fetch us, we'll have fun," Ralph says, in an utterly failed and foolish prophecy.
By now the reader is aware of many of the developing symbols in the story:
- Ralph, the responsible leader who attempts to organize the boys for their survival and rescue. He appears practical, capable of using Piggy's advice, able to avoid superstition and fear, and capable of developing processes for advancing their limited society.
- Jack, the evil that lurks within humankind, the one most in tune with his primitive urges and instincts.
- Piggy, the intellectual who is physically inept, the least capable of surviving on this island under these circumstances.
- Simon, the artistic, sensitive mystic.
- The conch, representing authority and civil debate.
- The snake-like images (the scar left by the passenger tube, the "creepers" [vines] that are encountered throughout), representing aggression, fear, and evil.
Treasure Island Robert Louis Stevenson's 1883 novel about a heroic boy's search for buried gold and his encounter with pirates.
Swallows and Amazons the first (1930) of a series of adventure books by Arthur Ransome, about a group of children on vacation.
Coral Island Robert Ballantyne's 1857 adventure tale about three boys shipwrecked on a Pacific island and their triumph over their circumstances.
caps of maintenance caps bearing a school insignia.
altos the boys who sing in the vocal range between tenor and soprano.
trebles the boys who sing the highest part in musical harmony.