In Lord of the Flies, William Golding uses a conch, or a large, milky-white shell, to symbolize a civilized society that regulates itself through democratic engagement. Initially, the boys use the conch to establish a society reminiscent of their familiar British social order: a civil society founded on discourse and consensus. The parallel is immediately clear: one boy recalls that at the airport, a man issued instructions through a “trumpet thing” – an instrument similar to a conch. Shortly after finding the conch, Ralph uses it to summon the other boys on the island and call a meeting. The shell’s power is apparent, and the boys immediately embrace the idea of democracy: “this toy of voting was almost as pleasing as the conch.” After exploring the island, Ralph declares the boys will raises their hands in meetings, “like at school,” in order to speak. Once holding the conch each boy will be able to express his thoughts without interruption. “We’ll have rules… lots of rules!” Ralph announces. The boys’ initial enthusiasm for the democratic process imbues the conch with great power as a mode of communication, as the boys unilaterally agree that the conch symbolizes a familiar and worthwhile ideal.
The conch is a symbol of free speech and civil process that even the youngest boy can easily grasp and embrace, but the concepts themselves prove more difficult to adhere to in practice, and soon the conch’s power wanes as the boys resist the constraints of the democratic process. Ralph grows frustrated that the meetings he uses the conch to assemble don’t actually accomplish much. While the boys agree to his plans for their society in principle, the rules are impossible to enforce, since there are no consequences for disobedience. Jack suggests an alternate form of governance: “We don’t need the conch anymore. We know who ought to say things… it’s time some people knew they’ve got to keep quiet and leave deciding things to the rest of us,” he says. This introduces the idea of totalitarianism, or a civilization in which citizens do not share power equally. Unlike a democracy, which works on the basis of voluntary participation, despotic monarchy, or totalitarianism, harshly punishes disobedience. In this way the conch represents the limitations of enforcing democracy as well as the possibility democracy represents.
The conch also serves as a symbol of the power, and vulnerability, of symbols themselves. The conch represents civil discourse on the island, and only works as long as the boys all believe in its power and the necessity of the idea it symbolizes. Both literally and symbolically the conch is a fragile, vulnerable object, which is why Piggy, Ralph, and even Jack treat it with care. Once Jack gets a taste of power, however, and realizes he can effectively control the boys through violence, both actual and implied, he loses his belief in the conch as a symbol. The abstract attractions of fairness and civility pale in comparison to the rush of killing pigs and torturing boys. When Jack raids Ralph’s camp, he ignores the conch and steals Piggy’s glasses instead. Unlike the conch, which only has power as a symbol, the glasses have actual utility. With the means to light the fire and a willingness to enforce his rule through violence, Jack has no need to participate in the democratic process. The boys soon follow him in abandoning the agreed-upon symbolism of the conch in favor of the undemocratic governance by absolute power Jack represents, which relies on violence instead of symbols.