Because Lost is a political allegory, its characters are metaphors for political figures, institutions, groups, and concepts. Jack isn't just the fictional character "Jack Shephard", he's also a symbolic representation of George W. Bush. Kate isn't just the fictional character "Kate Austen", she's also a symbolic representation of Congress. Sayid isn't just "Sayid", he's also the CIA. In short, everyone on Lost is playing two roles -- one literal, one symbolic.
Because the characters have double-meanings, their actions have double-meanings, too. When characters fist-fight, their physical conflict symbolizes their real-world counterparts having a political conflict (a conflict of opinion, for instance). When two characters fall in love, their romantic relationship symbolizes a close political relationship between the figures, groups, or concepts the characters represent. The end of a romantic relationship, on the other hand, symbolizes the end of close political relationship. And when a character dies, it doesn't represent someone in the real-world literally dying -- it represents them suffering a symbolic death, such as the end of their involvement in political life.
I'll provide a list of who's who below, but before I do, let me first offer a few tips on how the character symbolism works.
As you explore the metaphors, you may notice that some characters seem to be exaggerated versions of the people they symbolize, especially when it comes to emotionality. Jack, for instance, cries a lot more than George W. Bush probably did (Jack cries a lot more than most people, frankly). Locke is far more emotionally fragile than his counterpart, Colin Powell. Hurley has anxiety problems that the Department of Homeland Security doesn't have.
This kind of emotional exaggeration is intentional and common in allegory. It's used to make internal qualities -- such as thoughts and feelings -- more visible, more prominent. Jack's tears aren't meant to show President Bush literally crying -- they're meant to show President Bush suffering from troubling thoughts. Locke's breakdowns aren't meant to show Colin Powell suffering a literal nervous breakdown -- they're meant to outwardly depict his internal feelings of indecision and doubt. Hurley's anxieties aren't meant to suggest that Homeland Security has mental illness -- they're meant to highlight the fact that Homeland Security is, by its very nature, in a perpetual state of hyper-vigilance.
You may also notice that some of the characters' qualities are opposite to those of their real-world counterparts. Jack, for example, is known as a "man of science," but President Bush is known to be a man of religious faith. Even though the two men are supposed to be one and the same, Lost has given Jack a quality directly opposed to that of President Bush. Why would that be?
Like exaggeration, the use of contradictory character traits is common in allegory. It's purpose is to challenge the viewer's preconceived notions, to strip away superficial qualities and allow us to see essential qualities in a clearer light. Take Jack and George W. Bush. Jack may hold fast to science and George W. Bush to faith, but what the two men have in common is that they use their beliefs for the same ends: to achieve a feeling of certainty and order. They may have opposing belief systems, but they practice their beliefs in the exact same way. What Lost is saying is that George W. Bush would be inflexible whether he was deeply religious or, like Jack, deeply scientific. And Jack would be inflexible whether he was deeply scientific or, like Bush, deeply religious. By giving Jack and Bush superficial differences, Lost is better able to highlight their deeper similarities.
Some characters symbolize more than one thing. Typically, you'll find that those multiple meanings are compatible with each other. Hurley, for example, represents The Department of Homeland Security. But at times he also seems to symbolize the larger bureaucracy of the US Government. These two roles are compatible with each other, as they are overlapping concepts and share qualities like Hurley's size and wealth.
Getting what their counterparts give
As we go through the plot of Lost, you'll realize that, quite often, characters have done to them what their real-world counterparts did to others. For example, the Republican Party supported the imprisonment of suspected terrorists in open-air cages at the Guantanamo facility on the island of Cuba. But Sawyer, who symbolizes the Republican Party, finds himself imprisoned in a Gitmo-like facility on Hydra island. If Sawyer represents the Republican party, why is he being put in a Gitmo-like prison? Shouldn't he be advocating for others to be put in such prisons?
Reversals like this one seem to play a two-fold role on the show. Firstly, they upend our pre-conceived notions and force us to see an apparently familiar scenario in a new light. In the case of Sawyer, it's as if Lost is saying to the Republican Party, "Would you hold the same views on Gitmo if you were imprisoned there?" Secondly, these reversals play a role in the psychological side of Lost's allegory. We'll get into that issue in more detail over the next several months, but for now suffice it to say that Lost is probably suggesting that the things we do to others have a psychological effect on us as well. (By the way, don't read too much into this particular example. Although I've simplified things for the sake of clarity, Lost is being anything but simplistic. When it comes to moral questions such as these, Lost can be pretty complex. Most of the time, the show leaves lots of room for debate over issues of right and wrong.)
Look for details but keep it loose
Some characters are relatively straightforward to decode, particularly those who represent tangible things like political figures or institutions. Things get a bit trickier with other characters, particularly those who represent abstract concepts such as political attitudes and ideologies.
As you decipher the characters, you'll have to do two seemingly contradictory things at once. On the one hand, you'll need to keep an eye out for little details that give away the character's symbolism. details like Kate's name and star-sign, for example, tell us exactly who Kate represents. The name "Kate" means "each of the two," and she's a gemini, which is the sign of the twins. So she must represent something made up of two things. Take another look at her name and you see exactly what that something is: the name "Austen, Kate" contains the letters S-E-N-A-T-E, in that order. Given all that, Kate probably represents the members of the two houses of Congress (one of which is called the "Senate").
But at the same time as you're using the meticulous part of your mind, you'll need to engage the less meticulous part of your mind, too, because that part of the mind is good at outside-the-box thinking. To fully understand some of the metaphors, you'll need to engage your unconscious mind a bit. You'll need to feel what's happening rather than think your way through it.
Take Charlie, for instance. His symbolism is a little more abstract than some of the others. He doesn't represent a person or group of people or institution, he seems to symbolize a set of questions. Specifically, he seems to symbolize "Questions about the welfare of the troops." Now, that doesn't make much sense if you think about it in a rigid way. What does a washed-up rock star have to do with soldiers? But when you stop being strict with your thoughts and loosen them up a bit, you start to see that the band Charlie is in with his brother is, in its own way, like a military "band of brothers." The t-shirts and necklaces they wear are a little like military attire and dog-tags. The guitars, when not viewed literally, look like rifles. When the band performs, the flashing lights of the theatre look like explosions in a military theatre. And when Charlie and the band are humiliated at having to wear diapers and sing from inside a giant crib, it's reminiscent of prisoners of war being forced to strip and make false confessions from the inside of cages. When looked at loosely, not rigidly, Charlie's post-fame life starts to resemble the life of a military veteran. All of a sudden, now that you're looked at Charlie with the symbol-oriented part of your mind, the unconscious mind, you can see just how Charlie's symbolism might be military-related.
Like I said, the trick is to be both meticulous and loose-minded at the same time, to marry disciplined thinking with undisciplined thinking. At times it can feel a little awkward, but once you get the hang of it things start making a whole lot of sense. Think of it as learning a new language, the language of Lost -- once you've practiced the grammar and vocabulary for a while, your fluency improves and its much easier to understand what's being said.
We'll get into detailed analyses of the characters over the months to come (and, if there's demand for it, years to come). In the meantime, here's a quick breakdown of the main characters and their likely real-world counterparts. I'll be posting a quick explanation for each character over the next few weeks.
The United States Government
Former Members of the United States Government