Golding, William 1911–
A British mythic novelist, Golding's novels include Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, and Pincher Martin. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 3, 8, 10, 17, 27.
There is little question of William Golding's originality as a novelist. He has not been afraid to experiment with form or to attempt daring themes…. In each of [his] novels, the manner is indirect, the symbols rarely clarified, and the method of narration uncondescending and stringent. Golding is obviously striving to move behind the conventional matter of the contemporary novel to a view of what man, or pre-man, is really like when his facade of civilized behavior falls away….
[There] are beliefs and values operating in Golding's fiction that must dominate despite the main thrust of each novel toward disbelief. For most of his narrative, he seems to be concerned with moral aimlessness: the stranded boys in Lord of the Flies, for example, almost entirely shake off their civilized behavior…. What Golding senses is that institutions and order imposed from without are temporary, but that man's irrationality and urge for destruction are enduring….
There is in all of Golding's work [a] crucial avoidance of subtlety, and that is perhaps why his novels are concerned almost solely with primitive struggles for survival….
The idea of a Golding novel invariably is superior to the performance itself. Ironically, the idea, often so engaging in the abstract, is self-defeating, for it forces an artificial method. Golding is an allegorist whose allegory pre-empts the realistic level; often, only the allegory is of interest and when that begins to wear thin, there is insufficient substance to grapple with.
Golding's novels, then, seem more attractive in their parts than as wholes. His inability, or lack of desire, to give intellectual substance to his themes, and his didactic intrusion in nearly all of the narratives, lessen the power of what still remains, however, an original talent. His eccentric themes, unfortunately, rarely convey the sense of balance and ripeness that indicate literary maturity: a shipwrecked sailor is interesting only if he is interesting; stranded boys are compelling only if their behavior indicates something significant about them and not merely their similarity to adults; an obsessed "loner" (like Sammy Mountjoy) is relevant only if he works out his problems in his own way without external influence, once it has been established that he is that kind of person; and pre-civilized people are attractive as literary material only if the author makes them act in some way that transcends their daily boredom, or if he can write about them ironically. To present all of these characters and situations "straight" is to take them as they are, and his evaluation simplifies them all out of proportion to what Golding's serious intentions demand…. Even if his didacticism makes him resolve what should be unresolvable, he nevertheless indicates in nearly every line that he is an artist seriously interested in his craft. And even if he seems prone to surprise the reader with gimmicks, he nevertheless has demonstrated a sharp enough awareness of his material to overcome this defect before it permanently damages his fiction. When literary values overcome the moralist, Golding's potential may well be realized and he will become an outstanding novelist.
Frederick R. Karl, "The Metaphysical Novels of William Golding," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 254-60.
The first thing to be said of Golding's novels is that they are self-contained wholes beneath whose surface action and realism are to be found much wider and, in a sense, cosmic meanings….
His first novel, Lord of the Flies, seems to me still his most successful. It is equally brilliant as invention and as narration…. The brilliance of Lord of the Flies can scarcely be exaggerated, and horrific as it is, it cannot be dismissed merely as a horror-comic of high literary merit, as a 'sick' comment on R. M. Ballantyne's nineteenth-century views on the nature of British boyhood. The fact is, its apprehension of evil is such that it touches the nerve of contemporary horror as no English novel of its time has done; it takes us, with the greatest dramatic power and through the most poignant symbolism, into a world of active, proliferating evil which is seen, one feels, as the natural condition of man and which is bound to remind the reader of the vilest manifestations of Nazi regression.
One sees what Golding is doing. He is showing us stripped man, man naked of all the sanctions of custom and civilization, man as he is alone and in his essence, or at any rate as he can be conceived to be in such a condition. But still the mind—mine, at least—boggles. One admires the shock-tactics that force the recognition but still questions their legitimacy, especially when the behaviour of the children is taken, as many of Golding's admirers seem to take it, as paradigmatic of general human behaviour in the absence of restraint. There can be no conceivable parallel at all, as would be plain if Golding had lowered the age-range of his boys from roughly five years old to twelve to, say, from one to seven. Golding's great literary skill enables him to pull off a considerable confidence-trick….
Powerful as they are, Golding's novels seem to me to have the weakness normal to and perhaps inevitable in allegorical fiction. At the same time he is a genuinely religious novelist with a vision, based on the concept of original sin, of the horrifying thinness of civilization, of the fragile barriers that lie between man and regression into barbarism and chaos. He uses his great gifts of imagination and narrative to force us to accept, as part of the truth about man and his nature, the realities summed up in our time in the hysterical nastiness of Nazism and concentration camps. These, for many of us, remain the most baffling phenomena of our century, the brutally ugly fact it is impossible to be reconciled to but yet has to be faced. There is, however, a danger here: the acceptance of the evil displayed in the phenomena as being the fundamental truth about man. It is, it seems to me, a danger most carefully to be guarded against. I am bound to say that for me the general effect of Golding's novels suggests that he has not done so. The very intransigence of his work compels the protest against it.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 288-92.
Despite his small body of writing, [William] Golding has been hailed as the dean of his generation of novelists, damned as a poseur who confuses gimmick with dénouement, and criticized as a faulty stylist. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, finally appeared in 1954 after being rejected by twenty-one publishers; the author was then forty-three, not exactly the most auspicious age for beginning a literary career. By 1962, when Golding had three other novels to his credit, Lord of the Flies was a campus best-seller and required reading in countless "Introduction to Literature" courses.
[If] Golding occupies a room in Henry James's House of Fiction, the portal through which he views reality looks back to the past rather than out at the present—back to the timeless world of the Greeks. He has constantly stressed his Hellenic parentage, claiming Homer, Herodotus, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides as kinsmen. It is impossible to separate the spirit of Greek tragedy from Lord of the Flies or from The Spire, for it must enter into a discussion of at least these two novels. (Preface)
Lord of the Flies introduces a structural principle that becomes Golding's hallmark: a polarity expressed in terms of a moral tension. Thus, there is the rational (the fire-watchers) pitted against the irrational (the hunters) in Lord of the Flies; Neanderthal man absorbed by the fitter species of Homo sapiens (The Inheritors); fallen man confronting God (Pincher Martin); science and humanism (Free Fall); and the vision versus the reality (The Spire). Consequently, a Golding novel is reminiscent of a skeletal framework that is deliberately and at times deceptively simple. (p. 21)
Golding's prose at its best is comparable to a mosaic, each part delicately set off against the other, and the whole produces a dazzling configuration. The lapidary style can only be achieved by a verbal asceticism, a refusal to say more than is absolutely necessary, and by an insistence upon language that has been pruned of all imperfections. This economy of words has found its fullest expression in the "diamond-hard, diamond-exact" kind of novel of which Golding is so fond…. (p. 63)
All of Golding's novels are in some way derivative: Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors are "parodies" (in the author's sense of the word) of Ballantyne and Wells; Pincher Martin, of the Prometheus myth; and Free Fall, of Dante with strong confessional overtones. This device is essentially Classical (or traditional in T. S. Eliot's way of thinking) and would seem unoriginal only if the sources have not been thoroughly assimilated and concealed by an overlay of creativity. In The Spire, Golding is using the same methods employed by the ancient tragedians: just as they worked from mythical prehistory, he draws on early English history…. (p. 78)
Bernard F. Dick, in his William Golding, Twayne, 1967.
[William Golding is a] British novelist much concerned with Evil (though hardly at all with Good)…. He came late to the novel-form with a book about children which has some of the qualities of a dystopian fable, since it attempts to show how self-defeating are all efforts to build an idyllic and just community…. [Take] off the brakes of enforced control and boys, like men, will choose chaos rather than order. The good intentions of the few are overborne by the innate evil of the many. Instead of a boy-scout camp we get young savages—painted, naked, gorging on pig-flesh, given to torture, murder, human sacrifice to false gods. The title refers to Beelzebub, most stinking and depraved of all the devils: it is he, and not the God of the Christians, who is worshipped. A child is a stark caricature of a man; he does not, despite Wordsworth and Rousseau and the other romantics who believed in the noble savage, trail clouds of innocent glory: he turns quickly to evil. This is the main thesis of all Golding's novels—the primacy of evil and the near-impossibility of good. The Inheritors (perhaps his best novel) is a devastating subversion of H. G. Wells's view of homo sapiens as maker, hero, liberal conqueror. The world of Neanderthal man approaches a golden dream of innocence; homo sapiens comes along to disrupt it—evil is built in him, part of his nature; he is led instinctively to worship of Beelzebub.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 63-4.
William Golding has made his mark as a concocter of desolate fables about people at the end of their ropes or just beyond. Lord of the Flies gave us a herd, or sloth, of schoolboys marooned on an island, reproducing in miniature most of the mangier horrors of human history; Pincher Martin shrank the nightmare sharply to one man trapped on a rock, or in his own head, whichever is worse, and enduring what sounded like the world's worst hangover. (That wasn't the alleged subject, but you can't fool me with those symptoms.)
So, in The Pyramid, it is disconcerting at first to find Golding resting up for now in a comfy English village full of quaint characters who call each other things like "young Oliver" as they bicycle past on the way to the apothecary—one of those placid, teeth-grating places that seem to settle like layers of green mold on English detective stories. Not even the promise of Peyton Place doings behind the vicarage can lift the gloom of this dismal setting.
Until, that is, we realize that Golding finds it just as nerve-racking as we do and just as bleak as one of his desert islands. The name, and nature, of the place is Stilbourne. The neighboring cathedral is called Barchester, which, along with a barmaid called Mrs. Miniver, serves notice that Golding is writing a parody of genteel novels in general. The English village, with its crystal pyramid of class, is like a glass tomb. Golding's mission is to show how love and hope are buried and mummified in the pyramid….
Golding's pessimism is his greatest claim to importance. It is thoroughgoing and much deeper than a light reading indicates. In Lord of the Flies he showed how people go to hell when the usual social controls are lifted, on desert islands real or imaginary. But here he turns on the social controls themselves and withers them. The structure that keeps us from devouring one another in public does not, in his version, keep us from nibbling away on the sly….
Golding's writing is not ideally suited to a social novel—it is angular and ugly and the dialogue occasionally sounds amateurish. He has much more authority when he writes about real jungles. On the other hand, he retains his gift for grinding life into fables, of reducing social situations to the single man chained to the rock. In real life, Golding has been a teacher of Greek and Latin, and his approach to fiction is closer to classic Greek drama than almost any other novelist's I can think of: humanity—one man or several—writhing in invisible torment under a curse of its own devising, and in the background a chorus of woe.
Wilfrid Sheed, "William Golding: The Pyramid" (1967), in his The Morning After (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1963, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968, 1969, 1970, 1971 by Wilfrid Sheed; © 1968 by Postrib Corp.; foreword © 1971 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.), Farrar, Straus, 1971, pp. 280-82.
Golding … has called his books both myths and fables, and both terms do point to a quality in the novels that it is necessary to recognize—that they are unusually tight, conceptualized, analogical expressions of moral ideas. Still, neither term is quite satisfactory, because both imply a degree of abstraction and an element of the legendary that Golding's novels simply do not have, and it seems better to be content with calling them simply novels, while recognizing that they have certain formal properties that distinguish them from current fiction. The most striking of these properties is that Golding so patterns his narrative actions as to make them the images of ideas, the imaginative forms of generalizations…. To be justifiable in a Golding novel an event must also bear its share of the patterned meaning. Consequently the novels tend on the whole to be short and densely textured, and the characters, while they are usually convincingly three-dimensional human beings, may also function as exemplars of facets of man's nature-of common sense, or greed, or will (one of Golding's most impressive gifts is his ability to make characters exemplify abstractions without becoming abstractions).
What we acknowledge if we choose to call Golding a fabulist is not that the total story is reducible to a moral proposition—this is obviously not true—but rather that he writes from clear and strong moral assumptions, and that those assumptions give form and direction to his fictions…. For though Golding is a moralist, he is not a moral-maker, and his novels belong, not with Aesop's fables, but with the important symbolic novels of our century—with Camus's and Kafka's. (pp. 4-6)
Golding has testified to his belief that there is no point in repeating old inventions, and each of his novels has been a new kind of verbal contraption. The first five, however, share a common allegorical (or fabulous or mythical) form; the sixth disturbs this pleasing uniformity. To the reader familiar with Golding's other novels, The Pyramid will astonish by what it is not. It is not a fable, it does not contain evident allegory, it is not set in a simplified or remote world. It belongs to another, more commonplace tradition of English fiction; it is a low-keyed, realistic novel of growing up in a small town—the sort of book H. G. Wells might have written if he had been more attentive to his style…. Each of his novels has been a radical attempt to "look at life anew," and each has altered our sense of the meaning of his work as a whole. (pp. 45-7)
Samuel Hynes, in his William Golding, Columbia University Press, 2nd edition, 1968.
In [the] stultifying mental climate [of contemporary English fiction] William Golding has nobly and inventively gone his own way, as quick to delve into prehistory as into religious mania, every bit as fascinated by Man as by God. His novels are novels of anthropology, ideas, and adventure, and his theme at its grandest is the teleology (or dysteleology) of Creation: Is it purposeful or not? Nearer to Hardy than anyone, although much more scientific in spirit and a more painstaking craftsman, he has for some time been a standing rebuke to the froth-merchants and the societal caterers. But he is no exponent of the auto-critical novel and, for all his devotion to mind qua mind, remains more concerned with product than process. Pensive atavist, he's a long way from being an anti-novelist….
Now he hits us with what by Golding standards—substantiality of theme; audacious fusion of the primitive and the modern; constant pressure on the ineffable until it yields; color, punch, and impenitent thinking—is an unsatisfactory book [The Scorpion God], not so much three short novels as three long stories, one of them bad, the second uneven, the third merely amusing when it could have been mordant and profound.
Paul West, "Curiously Unrefreshing," in Book World, January 23, 1972, p. 4.
In each of the three novellas that make up The Scorpion God, William Golding attempts to create an ancient society—Egyptian, prehistoric, Roman—in the spirit of ironic comedy. The tales are clever, and they are carefully crafted. The pacing throughout is admirable, the phrasing is elegant if slightly precious, and the archaic conventions are almost lovingly rendered. But the ironic discrepancies between quaint "them" and knowing "us" are too concocted, too remote from the actual histories of societies and individuals to put any force behind their satiric intention, which is, presumably, to remind us of our own shortsightedness. As a result of this lack of genuine drive, the elaborate development in each tale comes to seem excessive. One senses that the material seemed funnier to the author than it does to the reader—or, perhaps, since much of it is sight and situational comedy, that it would be more amusing on a small stage or screen than it is on the page….
"Frivolous" is an odd word to describe the new book of a writer with a deserved reputation for seriousness. Yet in these three short works Golding's characteristic themes—the origin of evil, guilt and sexuality, the wonders and dangers of natural philosophy—are but shallowly imagined. The tales are no more satisfactory philosophically than they are as satiric sketches. As satire, Lord of the Flies is far more effective, not so much because its characters and events are technically contemporary (though, as a matter of fact, Golding's contemporary novels, Free Fall and Pincher Martin, have considerably more life than his historical ones, The Inheritors and The Spire) but because they engage our sense of reality.
David J. Gordon, in Saturday Review, February 5, 1972, pp. 72, 76.