Study Guide

The Inheritors

by William Golding

The Inheritors Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors, is set in a similarly exotic location as Lord of the Flies, and, like it, traces the process of civilization and its disintegration. Unlike Lord of the Flies, however, it is set in the distant past rather than the near future, and it describes forces of both progress and dissolution.

Taking as his subtext the popular social evolutionism in vogue at the turn of the twentieth century, as exemplified by the work of H. G. Wells, Golding traces the demise of Neanderthal man in the face of the advent of Homo sapiens. To both species of humans, life is, in the words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short,” though in somewhat different ways. Golding questions whether Homo sapiens is the “fitter” of the two species.

The narrative is told from the viewpoint of a small group of Neanderthals, returning from their winter quarters in a coastal cave to their summer gathering grounds in a forest at the base of the mountains, by a lake and waterfall. The Neanderthals quickly discover a group of Homo sapiens encamped on an island by the waterfall. This is a species they have never encountered before. Instinctively, they seek their company as fellow humans. The Neanderthals are portrayed as simple, instinctive, intuitive, living in harmony with nature, and with a sense of the sacredness of life. They are afraid to kill any living being. They possess a...

(The entire section is 484 words.)

The Inheritors Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Each spring, Mal leads his small tribe, the last of their kind, from their winter quarters by the sea to a terrace and overhang above a waterfall, which is their summer home. The way to their summer homeland leads over a river that divides around a rocky island. The people fear water and never consider going to the island. When they discover that the log by which they always cross the river disappeared, they are confused until Mal imagines, in the form of a picture, a past time when wise members of the group took the original log and used it to bridge the water. These pictures of the imagination are an embryonic thought process: They serve as memories and ideas. The pictures are rarely consecutive and fade as soon as the need for them passes because they are an instinctual and not a rational function. The people can share their pictures without words or express them in simple sentences.

The people retain the strong senses of animals, but they also develop their own human rituals concerned with food, fire, and burial. The old woman always carries the fire from the winter to the summer home. When women arrive and the smell of smoke comes to Lok from the island, he is bemused and, tricked by his senses into following the familiar scent, he almost falls into the river. The rest of the people do not catch the faint scent, so Lok cannot communicate his picture. This second indication that something is changed is forgotten in the people’s eager journey to the security of the overhang. Lok almost recaptures his experience while guarding the people that night, but the picture fades before he can fully recapture it.

The people’s failure to retain ideas not relevant to day-to-day life makes their survival impossible when faced with the challenge of the others. Their lack of the knowledge of evil also makes them powerless to combat it. This is one of the main themes of the novel. When Ha disappears, although the people can tell by the scent that he encountered another, their emotions are grief at the loss rather than abiding fear. What happens next reveals Golding’s grim assertion that the meek do not inherit the earth.

After Mal’s death and Ha’s disappearance, Lok is the only surviving adult male; it is his task to seek out the others. These others are true Homo sapiens, with the power of reason. Their senses are weaker and their artifacts far more sophisticated than the people’s. They use animal skins for covering, and they have...

(The entire section is 1012 words.)