Study Guide

William Golding

William Golding Essay - Golding, William (Vol. 2)

Golding, William (Vol. 2)

Golding, William 1911–

A British novelist, often of cosmic proportions, Golding is best known for Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, and The Spire. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 3, 8, 10, 17, 27.

It hardly seems an accident that Golding began his career as a poet; his first published work was a volume of verse. His novels all develop what for want of a better description we may call the structure of fantasy. They are suspended with considerable uncertainty in space and time; they are all in one way or another parables or fables; and they have become progressively internal and lyrical. Golding's prose is strenuous, compact, angular, extremely oblique and elliptical….

[Golding's novels] are rigorously organized and heavily controlled: they vex the reader with little that is gratuitous. Whatever freedom or spontaneity may be discovered in them resembles the freedom we find in a dramatic poem—it is the result of a deftly executed conception, refers dialectically to that conception, and if it is successful ultimately subserves and enriches it. In Golding's novels there is scarcely a local touch or detail of prose which does not perform humble service toward this proud and absolute end. When Coleridge objected to Wordsworth's "matter-of-factness" and "accidentality" as contravening the essence of poetry, he implied that these were the qualities of a writer of prose, a biographer or novelist. Golding's novels escape these strictures: so that makes him more of a poet than Wordsworth, though less of a novelist….

Golding is perhaps the first English novelist to use with entire naturalness the findings and doctrines of modern anthropology and psychoanalysis; they have been thoroughly assimilated to his vision of experience. They function, however, in poetic terms and not as ideas….

Lord of the Flies is Golding's most "novelistic" work of fiction. It is also the only recent novel of imaginative originality that I am aware of which implies that society, insane and self-destroying as it undeniably is, is necessary. Despite its striking freshness and seriousness, however, Golding's notion of society, in this novel and in his others, is rudimentary, restricted, and strangely abstract. In Golding's novels society as we know it is largely an idea, a confused memory recollected in the midst of catastrophe; while the pre-social and the post-social have become the paramount actualities.

Steven Marcus, "The Novel Again," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1962 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Spring, 1962.

Each of [Golding's] first three [novels] demonstrates the use of unusual and striking literary devices. Each is governed by a massive metaphorical structure—a man clinging for survival to a rock in the Atlantic Ocean or an excursion into the mind of man's evolutional antecedent—designed to assert something permanent and significant about human nature. The metaphors are intensive, far-reaching; they permeate all the details and events of the novels. Yet at the end of each novel the metaphors, unique and striking as they are, turn into "gimmicks," into clever tricks that shift the focus or the emphasis of the novel as a whole. And, in each instance, the "gimmick" seems to work against the novel, to contradict or to limit the range of reference and meaning that Golding has already established metaphorically. The turn from metaphor to "gimmick" (and "gimmick" is the word that Golding himself has applied to his own endings) raises questions concerning the unity and, perhaps more important, the meaning of the novels….

In each novel the final "gimmick" provides a twist that, in one way or another, palliates the force and the unity of the original metaphor. In each instance Golding seems to be backing down from the implications of the metaphor itself, never really contradicting the metaphor, but adding a twist that makes the metaphor less sure, less permanently applicable. The metaphors are steered away from what would seem to be their relentless and inevitable conclusions, prevented, at the very last moment, from hardening into the complete form of allegory. In one sense, each "gimmick" seems to widen the area of the artist's perception as it undoubtedly lessens the force of the imaginative concept. The "gimmicks" supply a wider perspective that makes each of the following questions relevant: If the adult world rescues the boys in Lord of the Flies, are the depravity and the brutality of human nature so complete? How adequate is Pincher Martin's microcosmic synthesis, if it all flashes by in a micro-second? Can Sammy Mountjoy, living in a world that includes others, talking to them, sleeping with them, helped by them, keep his guilt and the problem of his freedom all to himself? Is the Faust legend an adequate expression of the problems of contemporary man? All these relevant questions are implicit in the "gimmicks" Golding uses, "gimmicks" that qualify the universality of the metaphors, question the pretense that the metaphors contain complete truth. But this qualification is achieved at the expense of artistic form, for the "gimmicks" also palliate and trick, force the reader to regard the issues somewhat more superficially even though they widen the range of suggestion. The "gimmicks" are ultimately unsatisfactory modifiers, for, in the kind of qualification they provide, they reduce the issues of the novels to a simpler and trickier plane of experience.

Golding's metaphors can all be read as orthodox and traditional Christian statements about the nature of man. Each metaphor underlines man's depravity, pride, the futility of his reason. The novels are permeated with the sense of man's sin and guilt, and the images depict these qualities in conventional Christian terms. The "gimmicks," however, back down from the finality of the theologically orthodox statements. In an age when many other writers view man's experience as disparate, impossible to codify, existential, Golding's metaphors are at least sufficiently unique to suggest the reality, the permanence of the traditional Christian explanation of the nature of man. But, then, the "gimmicks" seem to provide some concession to contemporary man's fear of generalized absolutes, to his existential attitude. This is not to suggest that Golding reverses his metaphors with these slender "gimmicks," that the novels ultimately demonstrate the failure of the orthodox explanations. Rather, the metaphors still stand; the orthodox Christian versions of man's depravity and limitations, in Golding's world, still convey a great deal that is relevant and permanent. But they do not convey everything. The "gimmicks" suggest that the orthodox Christian explanations are not quite adequate for contemporary man, although they are too tricky and slender to do more than suggest. The "gimmicks," precisely because they are "gimmicks," fail to define or to articulate fully just how Golding's metaphors are to be qualified, directed, shaped in contemporary and meaningful terms. The "gimmicks" tend to simplify and to palliate, rather than to enrich and intensify the experience of the novels. For all his unique brilliance and his striking metaphors, Golding has not yet worked out a novelistic form adequate for the full tonal and doctrinal range of his perception.

James Gindin, "'Gimmick' and Metaphor in the Novels of William Golding," in his Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes (originally published by the University of California Press; reprinted by permission of The Regents of the University of California), University of California Press, 1962, pp. 196-206.

Surely no novelist writing today has been so reluctant to take his images from the modern world as William Golding. Even when he starts with the here and now—the recent past or the perhaps not too distant future—he immediately puts his characters beyond the far perimeter, where they can contend with themselves or each other undisturbed by contemporary affairs. Two of his novels (The Inheritors and The Spire) take place in the past. Two (Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin) take place during wartime on remote islands. Only Free Fall makes use of the present, and the use it makes is as sparing as Golding can manage. I bring this up, because I know of nothing quite like it in the development of the novel…. But he is a serious novelist who means to speak to the modern world; and one guess is that in order to say what he has in mind, he must transcend our divisive imagery….

While Golding was working out the lineaments of his stern metaphysics, he was developing as a craftsman: with each novel he sharpened his tools. This was necessarily the case, because perhaps no writer in history ever chose more difficult fictional material with which to deal….

In my judgment, Free Fall is the initial fruition of his major phase. Here for the first, and so far for the only time, Golding makes use of the ordinary tensions of the modern world….

[One] of Golding's remarkable qualities emerges in this novel: his ability to be at once modern and traditional, to compound existentialism and Freudianism with the old heritage of Christian mystery now passing out of vogue….

The Spire is an altogether remarkable performance. Golding's talent seems to encompass everything. He has worked at the problem until he knows the human condition by heart. The book is tight and profoundly researched. The spire stands at the center of the action controlling all, putting all into perspective. Every stone that is laid is laid with authority. One gets the feeling that if the actual spire were to tumble, Golding could direct the rebuilding of it piece by piece….

The only cavil I have to make is a strange one: the novel may be too tightly held together, too firmly under Golding's intellectual control. Golding's mental faculties are fantastic. In the sheer power to think, to mold intellectually, to grasp and keep straight a complex tapestry of profound ideas, he is certainly better than Dickens and probably better than Tolstoy. Both of these older novelists are guilty of lapses sometimes, and they occasionally leave rough edges unsmoothed. But what their work abounds in—the sense of life as it is lived, the big and little joys, the small and great heartbreaks—is what The Spire and Golding's work in general seem to lack. One feels the need of a little more warmth, a little more temperament perhaps and a little less brain.

If, however, Golding comes off not so well when compared to the masters of the last century, he is, in my judgment, clearly the best of his time. No English novelist who has come into prominence since the end of the war can approach him…. Golding, a man of the spirit, stands firmly in the middle of an older tradition and diligently works against the present grain….

[Whatever] man does to distort his relationship to the metaphysical reality, the moral law of the universe continues to operate. As Dorothy Sayers pointed out, the natural law is as real as the physical law: it is not an a priori concoction; it is a codification based on fact. We are free to deny the law of gravity, but we must suffer the consequences if we do so. It is equally perilous to deny the inherent sinfulness and continuing guilt of all mankind. A profound understanding of this truth underlies the work of William Golding….

God's and the angel's demand for a spire does not obviate the architectural realities of stress and strain. Nor does a high purpose wash away the guilt assumed in its execution. As The Spire—and all of Golding's work—seems clearly to say, the beginning of hope lies in the recognition of our mortal limitation.

Walter Sullivan, "The Long Chronicle of Guilt: William Golding's The Spire," in Hollins Critic, June, 1964, pp. 1-12.

Lord of the Flies has [a] vast readership. One can't help guessing at the reasons. For one thing, it is a comforting book; it assures us that evil is natural to men, and not something that we have recently invented. It is absolutely free of desperately 'forward' thinking—no Zen, no diagnosis of modern civilisation, only of civilisation. Yet it is spare and diagrammatic, and lends itself to techniques of sophisticated reading now widely taught in American colleges. Ultimately it derives from, or, as the word is, displaces, a familiar myth, that of the Earthly Paradise, which it handles ironically. And as it develops the myth with intricate passion, it alludes implicitly (as Golding, I think, could never do explicitly) to Freud and to all other conceivable systematic explanations of the phenomena. One might say cautiously that the book has a kind of innocence, thinking of two things: the later novels, which are more occult; and Golding's own view, since abandoned, that there is only one true way of reading a novel, and that the author knows it best, and takes upon him the responsibility of ensuring that a good reader can read it in that way.

This is a bad doctrine, and it does not distinguish between a novel and a riddle. It cannot be maintained in respect of Lord of the Flies, but Golding thought it could; and oddly enough the error had beneficial results. The novel has an extreme sharpness of outline, an exactness of invention, which come from its closeness to diagram. Lord of the Flies (aided, no doubt by the snowball law of popular acclaim) made its way by not being like Kafka, or like Death in Venice, by not being psychologically occult; the plot explains its own profundities. Furthermore, it has closed form, whereas the more brilliant contemporary American novelists have reverted to open form. You live along the lines of the book and feel, in its pattern, a total explanation. It belongs, to use a distinction of Iris Murdoch's, to the crystalline rather than to the journalistic pole of fiction. The virtuosity of (say) Philip Roth, belongs near the journalistic pole; the needs of Golding involve him in experimentation of a virtuoso order, but this is a matter of structure and hardly at all of drawing—the quick accuracy of a Roth conversation or interior. His complexities are not ways of rendering nature or society, but new shapes produced by the pressure of a theme. And there perhaps lies the principal explanation of the success of Lord of the Flies: it is a sharply imagined account, a new clear outline, of what one vaguely knew, and many readers are sufficiently skilled to see this outline and to be shocked by it….

Although Free Fall disappointed me, I must say that I could not imagine a literary event more interesting to me than the publication of the next Golding novel; and here it is, a most remarkable book, as unforeseeable as one foresaw, an entire original, yet marked throughout by that peculiar presence. Golding shares with Conrad the habit of writing each new novel as if he had written no other, and certainly no book that had sold a million copies. With the other novels in our head we can of course see how it fits in the sequence: it is 'late,' it is less assertive as to its possible meaning than Lord of the Flies; it has the later density, indeed fierceness, of language, and the power to generate meanings internally—meanings that grow out of the fiction and are not imposed from without. Consequently its themes are occult, as in Free Fall.

Frank Kermode, "The Later Golding" (1964), in his Continuities (© 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967, 1968 by Frank Kermode; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Random House, 1968, pp. 186-94.

Golding's actual position in his generation is almost unique. There is no easy way to fit him into any current English school of fiction. Nevertheless, his novels, Walter Allen notes, "strike one as strictly contemporary; they are rooted in the anguish and anxiety of their times," Paradoxically, this is so even though only one (Free Fall) of the first half-dozen major works he has published is set in a conventional contemporary environment. The novels of isolation, Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin, are almost outside time. Each of Golding's novels is a remarkable imaginative feat, fertile in invention, powerful in drama, suggestive in its richness of literary and mythic overtones…. Sui generis, he is not any more likely to follow any school than he is to found one; yet he has become one of the most significant novelists writing in English, and—an irony, considering the intellectual demands he places upon his readers—one of the most read. (p. 11)

With the exception of Free Fall, his novels all seem deceptively simple to read, and yet even critics of some astuteness have trouble with them—partly because of Golding's compressed style and obliquely visual presentations; and partly because the modern critical reader, once put on a symbolic or fabulistic track, refuses to get off until the end of the line, even though the author may have gone off on a transfer. Golding's fictional switches are subtle and fast, and his writing tends to become cryptic when he speeds up the narrative. (p. 56)

To some people it comes as a matter of some relief that a twentieth-century author has once again—in a manner more austere than Graham Greene's—taken to writing extremely viable materials that deal with God, Original Sin, Confession, the Holy Ghost, and Pentecostal flakes. Even in the popular imagination God cannot be made lively by way of bingo or mass meetings in Madison Square Garden. As a soul-searching Augustinian of sorts, Golding seems to have a better chance of bringing the word to certain quarters. With him there is some chance of affecting minds otherwise unapproachable. In fact, Golding's ability to make nonbelievers and disbelievers pause over many of the old questions they thought had been packed away for good may very well be one of his strongest bids for permanence. He has been able to make fiction awaken conscience…. [But] eventually it is the art of Golding we must deal with and not his morals. Only in a special sense can criticism be interested in how these novels create a scheme of religious and moral concepts—to the extent they provide a core, a viewpoint, and a tone. By themselves such concepts do not give rise to art; they must be mixed with earth and water. This is what Golding himself says thematically in The Spire, as he beautifully depicts the reversible paradox involved in the holiness of secular art and the secularization of holy art. (pp. 167-70)

Golding does not write novels in the usual sense of the term. He is doing something different from anybody else writing serious fiction today. He has bridged a gap between the allegory of the past and the realistic fiction of the present—moving on a line from, say, Everyman to Pilgrim's Progress to The Scarlet Letter to his own work. Some critics call what he is doing "parables" or "fables," and Golding himself would like to be considered the shaper, or reshaper, of "myths." His own designation comes close to the target. But perhaps it is best to think of him as a "visionist" and a "visualist" whose imagination probes out in various directions and brings to life, in a naturalistic manner, the oldest questions of human life. (pp. 170-71)

Bernard S. Oldsey and Stanley Weintraub, in their The Art of William Golding (excerpted from The Art of William Golding, © 1965, by Bernard S. Oldsey and Stanley Weintraub by permission of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc.), Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1965.

I once described William Golding as the most maverick of novelists, a chooser of the least promising fictional subjects. My reference was to his first three novels; Lord of the Flies, about a group of English schoolboys reverting to savagery; The Inheritors, about the extinction of Neanderthal Man by Homo sapiens; and Pincher Martin, about the thoughts of a drowning sailor. Since then I have read Free Fall, a painter's melodramatic confessions, and The Spire, and I am prepared to modify my opinion somewhat. Golding is still the most maverick of novelists, but his subjects have become slightly more promising….

Of living writers, only Golding and Isaac Bashevis Singer could bring off such a Witches' Sabbath, or would try to. It is [the] moments of glory that justify The Spire, not the pages of architectural description. The book is not accurate in its details of medieval life, nor is this sort of literal accuracy important to Golding (thus the fires lit with Piggy's concave eyeglasses in Lord of the Flies). For his own amusement, Golding will add an occasional artificial wormhole, such as spelling "tithe" "tythe," but if he wants Roger to mock a statement of Jocelin's with "Big talk," "Big talk" is what Roger will say.

After the spire is up, the book inevitably weakens, and Golding should have ended it sooner…. Jocelin attacked and stripped by a mob of townspeople, Jocelin arranging his tomb, Jocelin dying with the Host on his tongue—all are anticlimax after the book's tremendous events. Golding's touch is sometimes unsure. But he is the most interesting British writer today, and he baits his hook for Leviathan.

Stanley Edgar Hyman, "The Spire of Babel," in his Standards: A Chronicle of Books for Our Time (© 1966; reprinted by permission of the publisher, Horizon Press, New York), Horizon, 1966, pp. 219-23.

The Pyramid reads half-way as if it were offered as an answer to Golding's critics. At one time or another almost all of us have complained that Golding's main strength as an artist—his ability to create fables and thus to outline the human condition in the boldest possible terms—is also the source of his major weakness as a novelist. To some greater or less degree his earlier work seems to have been damaged by the intellectual quality that pervades it, the scaffolding that is never quite disguised. That he can write otherwise, Golding makes evident in The Pyramid. It is worth pointing out that he has forsaken the quality of high invention that informs his previous novels and set to work on some of the oldest stuff in English or any other kind of fiction…. Golding makes the characters in The Pyramid human in a way that few of his characters have been human before. One gets the feeling that he let them live their own lives: he allowed them to talk back to him.

Walter Sullivan, "Afterword" (1969) to his essay, "The Long Chronicle of Guilt: William Golding's The Spire" (1964), in The Sounder Few: Essays from the Hollins Critic, edited by R. H. W. Dillard, George Garrett, and John Rees Moore, University of Georgia Press, 1971, pp. 54-6.

I have always thought since the days of Pincher Martin and, above all, The Inheritors that William Golding was the most original imagination among living English novelists. If he labors (and makes us labor too) in the scene he generally deals with, he dredges up unease from the muddy bottom of time, and the stuff has, at the crisis, a flash of cruel revelation. He deals in the primordial, not as if it were allegory or a scientist's guess, but as a throb of the pulse of primitive consciousness at the point of change…. When he sees the bubble breaking in the mud he knows that something dies at the very moment when something is born. He is strenuous reading but dramatic when your eye gets accustomed to the genesis-like darkness.

The talent has one serious danger: if you are concerned with the moment when the bottom falls out of a torpid culture and a new life-force begins to blunder toward being born, then your anthropology is likely to become slangily instructive. The three short novels in this new book [The Scorpion God] do not altogether escape this. In the classic The Inheritors Golding was admirable in showing that the arrival of the new apeman was wretchedness for the unenlightened apes whose sorrow could come out only in grunts. His feeling was for the losers.

In the new stories he is cunning enough to make the evolutionary winner injured, mad, or, in the most successful case, masking himself as a chronic, compulsive liar….

Golding's strength lies in his image making; less, I think, in his dialogue, for that—except in the comic story—is an awful difficulty. In spite of its exhilaration, I find the middle one, Clonk, Clonk, too close to fairy tale for my taste, but Golding is a wit.

V. S. Pritchett, "Genesis," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1972 by NYREV, Inc.), February 24, 1972, pp. 12-13.

Golding is a novelist for whom story is above all central. With the exception, perhaps, of Pincher Martin, the texture of his writing is at its best when it is severely functional. It may seem a paradoxical description of a writer as powerful as Golding, but it often seems as though he succeeds in spite of his refusal to manipulate language. This comes out most strongly in his pieces thrown back in time, where the problem of dialogue, for example, becomes most acute. Evocative as the central concept of The Inheritors may be, I have always felt the deliberately stilted speech makes it extremely hard to follow the clear line of the myth. And here, in all three stories [in The Scorpion God], he faces the same problem with the same qualified success. The syntax of the conversation is a contrivance to distance us; and it works perhaps too well….

Elaine Feinstein, "Loneliness is Cold," in London Magazine, February-March, 1972, pp. 177-80.

The two new long stories, "The Scorpion God" and "Clonk Clonk," which William Golding has published, with an older jeu d'esprit called "Envoy Extraordinary," in The Scorpion God … are so distinguished that only the modish reaction against this author can prevent due acknowledgment of his achievement. Golding's way is not to write at all until he has so fully imagined the piece, so perfectly endowed it with an appropriate dialect, that he can omit all the extraneous gestures with which, in writing parables so strange and remote, an author might seek to solicit the reader's interest and understanding. Everything necessary is there, but everything is inexplicit…. A great talent is reviving, and this book is comparable with Golding's finest achievement, The Inheritors.

Frank Kermode, "The British Novel Lives," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1972 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), July, 1972, pp. 85-8.