“There’s another thing. We can help them to find us. If a ship comes near the island they may not notice us. So we must make smoke on top of the mountain. We must make a fire.”
In the first meeting with all the boys that Ralph organizes, he takes on the role of leader and makes sensible suggestions, such as this one about a signal fire, about how they can get rescued. The signal fire here represents the boys’ communication with the outside world, the world of grown-ups and rules, the world that can save them from themselves. However, while the signal fire symbolizes a connection to civilization at the beginning of the story, toward the end, its meaning changes, and the fire that could once save the boys turns into a destructive and deadly force.
The separate noises of the fire merged into a drumroll that seemed to shake the mountain.
The first time the signal fire is lit, it rages out of control. Readers note that one of the “littluns,” the boy with a mulberry mark on his face, most likely dies in this fire as he’s never seen again. At first, the signal fire symbolizes rescue. But as it grows out of control, it symbolizes danger and death, foreshadowing how it will later become associated with destruction and savagery. Ironically, the fire used for destructive purposes toward the end of the story turns out to be the reason why the boys are saved after all, indicating fire’s ability to both save and end lives.
The wood was not so dry as the fuel they had used on the mountain. Much of it was damply rotten and full of insects that scurried; logs had to be lifted from the soil with care or they crumbled into sodden powder.
After the hunters stop tending the signal fire on the mountain, where it could best be seen by a passing ship, Piggy suggests moving it to the lagoon. In this location, however, the signal fire is harder to start, and the smoke is harder to see, two details that reduce the chance of rescue. The diminished signal fire is symbolic of a weakened connection to civilization as the savagery on the island grows.
“How can we make a fire?”
After Jack’s group separates from Ralph’s group, Roger asks Jack how they will start a fire to roast the pig they have hunted and killed. Jack’s suggestion of raiding Ralph’s camp and taking some of the signal fire reveals that the purpose of the fire is changing from a rescue signal to cooking meat for feasting. The fire no longer symbolizes a communal effort to return to civilization. Rather, fire is now something that can be stolen and used by Jack’s savage tribe.
Suddenly he blundered into the open, found himself again in that open space—and there was the fathom-wide grin of the skull, no longer ridiculing a deep blue patch of sky but jeering up into a blanket of smoke. Then Ralph was running beneath trees, with the grumble of the forest explained. They had smoked him out and set the island on fire.
Ralph had been hiding from Jack’s tribe, so some of Jack’s boys lit a fire to force Ralph out into the open so they could find him and kill him. The signal fire that was lit for the purpose of rescue is now being used for savagery and murder, and it is this murderous fire that symbolically rages out of control. This shows how far the boys have strayed from civilized behavior and how much evil has taken over the island.