Symbolism Has Its Limits
It is important to see other people—hostages being held by Hamas, those who tear down hostage posters, and people who hold different views from your own—not as symbols, but as full human beings.
A few years ago, a student in my seventh grade English class told me he didn’t understand why we were learning about symbolism in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies.
“What’s the point?” he asked. “There’s no symbolism in real life.”
I understood his frustration. In real life, I do not believe that objects are carefully placed by an all-powerful author for maximum narrative effect and to further a theme. If I were religious, maybe I’d feel differently, but I’m not. Certainly there are agreed-upon symbols that carry meaning—from hearts and smiley-face emojis to nooses and swastikas—everyone knows what these mean. But that wasn’t what his question was about.
In class, we had been reading about the fictional group of boys stranded on an island in Golding’s novel. There are objects in the book that seem to stand for specific abstract concepts. The conch that Ralph blows to bring all the boys together stands for civilized society. Piggy’s glasses don’t just help him see but also represent seeing things clearly when others do not. Near the end of the book, when “the conch explode[s] into a thousand white fragments and cease[s] to exist,” it clearly symbolizes the boys’ civilization falling apart. When Jack and his band of hunters break Piggy’s glasses, it is clear to the reader that, not only will Piggy have trouble seeing, but also the group as a whole are not “seeing” what they need to in order to survive together.
In real life, objects only have the symbolic power people choose to give them. It’s an active choice. If your smartphone falls and cracks, you get to decide if that means something to you beyond your needing to schedule a trip to the Apple or Verizon store. The cracked phone might make you appreciate all that modern technology does for you and be an opportunity for gratitude in your daily life. Or it might remind you that you are reliant on your phone in a way you don’t wish to be and prompt you to monitor your own screen time in the future. It’s up to you. The broken phone is a symbol to you only if and how you choose it to be.
I told my student that there is a place for thinking about symbols in your own life, that doing so can help you notice your own values and be more aware of what matters to you. I did my best to express this to my curious 12-year-old student.
But at that time, my student and I didn’t talk about the other kind of symbolism in Lord of the Flies: what the boys on the island symbolize. Of the dozens of boys stranded on the island, the author fleshes out just a few of them, and even these are presented as symbols more than fully drawn people. Ralph, the initial leader on the island, represents democracy, fairness, civilized society, and the social contract. Jack, who just wants to hunt and kill pigs, represents savagery, fascism, and the Freudian “id.”
If a student asked me about symbolism in real life today, I’d have more to say. I’d say that people—actual people in the world—are not symbols. They are individual human beings with their own dignity and rights and should never be reduced to symbols.
As I write this, the hostages being held by Hamas are not symbols, even if the members of Hamas see them that way. The hostage posters we are all now familiar with, designed by Israeli artists Dede Bandaid and Nitzan Mintz, help remind people that each hostage is an individual person with full human dignity. When people tear them down, they might feel like they are tearing down a symbol of something—settler-colonialism, white supremacy, Jewish power—but they are not. They are tearing down pictures of specific individuals with full human dignity.
And these people who tear down the posters, they also have full human dignity. They are misguided and are doing something wrong, but they are not symbols. Some might be antisemitic; some might be full of hate; some might not be either. But they are not symbols of antisemitism or hate more generally or anything else. One important difference between Hamas and Israel is that Israel does not see or treat humans as symbols. This is why Israel goes out of its way to minimize civilian deaths in this war that it did not start.
The people I encounter in my daily life have a full range of views on the topic of Israel. While I do not respect views that are based on hatred, when I look closely and generously, I find that the views of most of the people I encounter are more complicated than that and do not come from a place of evil or hate. They are based on their specific knowledge, experience, and worldview. While facts are facts and cannot be disputed, it can sometimes be hard to know what the facts are, and an individual's distinct experience of the world can lead to their forming quite different worldviews.
These days when I teach Lord of the Flies, my students and I continue to look at Ralph, Piggy, and Jack—characters who exist only inside the pages of a book—as symbols. But we also look at them with empathy. We imagine them as real people with human dignity. We pause halfway through the book to write interior monologues from what we imagine their points of view to be. While a traditional English assignment might push students to reduce these characters to their symbolic meaning, giving evidence for why Ralph represents civilized society, for instance, this interior monologue assignment complicates and humanizes the characters.
For the assignment, students use what they know about being human to imagine these characters’ points of view. What might Ralph have thought when he realized he wasn’t up for the job of leading this little civilization of stranded boys? How might Piggy have felt when Ralph told the others his nickname was Piggy after he asked him not to? How might Jack have felt when he was unable to kill the pig? My students imagine what Piggy’s real name could be, what he would have liked to be called instead of Piggy. They imagine what Ralph and Jack might have been like in better circumstances.
My students practice empathy with these characters who were indeed written to be symbols. Hopefully, when faced with real people in the world, my students will push beyond any initial impulse to see them as symbols, instead doing the harder work of empathizing with them, one human to another.
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