Golding, William (Vol. 17)
William Golding 1911–
English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and poet. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 8, 10, 27.
In all of his works, Golding treats the conflict between the forces of light and dark which are present in each individual. Golding's works have been called fables, but he prefers "myth"—that "which comes out from the roots of things in the ancient sense of being the key to existence, the whole meaning of life, and experience as a whole."
Before and after World War II, Golding taught English and philosophy at Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury. In his first and best known work, Lord of the Flies, Golding uses a group of school boys as his central characters and abandons them on a desert island during a nuclear war with no adult supervision. They attempt to establish a government among themselves, but without the restraints of civilization they quickly revert to primitive savagery. Similar in background and choice of character's names to R. M. Ballantyne's nineteenth-century classic The Coral Island, Lord of the Flies totally reverses Ballantyne's concept of the purity and innocence of youth and civilized man's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions. Golding himself says the purpose of the novel is to trace the defects of society back "to the defects of human nature." Many critics feel its popularity among high school and college students equals that of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and it is often considered the most important novel of the 1950s.
In The Inheritors, Golding turns to the prehistoric age where he depicts the destruction of Neanderthal man by our own progenitors, Homo sapiens. Here, Golding draws on H. G. Wells's Outline of History and refutes his description of Neanderthal man as the evil original of the fairy-tale ogre—Golding sees Neanderthal man as totally innocent, destroyed by the evil Homo sapiens. Most of the action is seen from the viewpoint of the Neanderthal Lok, who thinks in pictures rather than words; thus the book becomes a series of images representing man's fall from innocence. Pincher Martin is the story of a naval officer who is stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean after his ship has been torpedoed. The entire book relates Martin's struggle to remain alive against all odds. His death, which is only confirmed in the last pages, appears to have actually occurred on the second page, transforming the struggle into one for his soul rather than his life. The Spire describes the conflict between faith in God and personal aspirations.
Free Fall and The Pyramid are departures in setting for Golding. They function on one level as mere tales of man passing from youth to maturity in contemporary society. On the other hand, they deal with the same themes and moral preoccupations of the other novels—that humans are flawed and imperfect creatures. Golding's first novel in twelve years, Darkness Visible, again explores the human condition in terms of the good/evil conflict.
Golding's pessimistic attitude toward humanity stems from the atrocities he observed in the war while serving in the Royal Navy. Although all of Golding's works are extensively discussed and interpreted, he is often misread because of their rigid structure and style. Some critics find Golding's allegories inadequate in upholding reality. Received enthusiastically at first, interest in his books tends to wane as critics decide that the work is alien to contemporary thought.
Golding's novels can be read on many levels, which makes him extremely popular among students and teachers alike. All of his works have very different settings and narratives, yet all have the same basic theme. Even though Golding has ventured into other literary forms, his career is built on the strength of his novels. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)
Louis J. Halle
One is impressed by the possibilities of [Golding's theme in "Lord of the Flies"] for an expression of the irony and tragedy of man's fate. Against his majority of little savages he places a remnant that convincingly represents the saving element of human heroism, thereby posing the eternal moral conflict. But he cannot quite find his meaning in this material. The heroes come to a bad end, having contributed nothing to such salvation as the society achieves. There is a great deal of commotion, and the last page is nothing more than a playwright's contrivance for bringing down the curtain. One is left asking: What was the point?…
In Mr. Golding's novel … the novelist's vision conflicts with that of the textbook anthropologist. The novelist sees good opposed to evil; he recognizes the existence and the utility of heroes. But the social scientist deals only with amoral phenomena. In his termite society the novelist's heroes are social misfits who must come to a bad end, one suspects, to confirm the tacit assumption that maladjustment is undesirable. The intimidated novelist, thus opposed by the misplaced authority of science, dares hardly suggest even that his heroes save the honor of mankind. The best he can do, at last, is to find a meaningless fulfilment in thrills and horror. His rocket explodes in the air, spectacular for the moment, but leaving only the memory of a light that went out and the dead stick of an academic...
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"Lord of the Flies" is an allegory on human society today, the novel's primary implication being that what we have come to call civilization is, at best, no more than skin-deep. With undertones of [George Orwell's] "1984" and [Richard Hughes's] "High Wind in Jamaica," this brilliant work is a frightening parody on man's return (in a few weeks) to that state of darkness from which it took him thousands of years to emerge.
Fully to succeed, a fantasy must approach very close to reality. "Lord of the Flies" does. It must also be superbly written. It is. If criticism must be leveled at such a feat of the imagination, it is permissible perhaps to carp at the very premise on which the whole strange story is founded.
How did these children come to be on the island at all? And why, among them, were there no grown-ups? Although Mr. Golding's answer is simple, it may not convince everyone. The boys have been "dropped" in the "passenger tube" of a plane during an attack in an atomic war; the pilot has been seen to vanish in flames. This possibility once accepted, even the most skeptical reader will surely be carried away by the story's plausibility and power, by its skillfully worked-out progress, by the perfection of its characterization, dialogue and prose….
[One] figure stands out, a character known to us all: the Fat Boy, commonly called "Piggy." This boy, however, has brains, and he is almost blind. And...
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Fables are those narratives which leave the impression that their purpose was anterior, some initial thesis or contention which they are apparently concerned to embody and express in concrete terms. Fables always give the impression that they were preceded by the conclusion which it is their function to draw…. (p. 577)
[At the end of Lord of the Flies the] abrupt return to childhood, to insignificance, underscores the argument of the narrative: that Evil is inherent in the human mind itself, whatever innocence may cloak it, ready to put forth its strength as soon as the occasion is propitious. This is Golding's theme, and it takes on a frightful force by being presented in juvenile terms, in a setting that is twice deliberately likened to the sunny Coral Island of R. M. Ballantyne. The boys' society represents, in embryo, the society of the adult world, their impulses and convictions are those of adults incisively abridged, and the whole narrative is a powerfully ironic commentary on the nature of Man, an accusation levelled at us all…. Like any orthodox moralist Golding insists that Man is a fallen creature, but he refuses to hypostatize Evil or to locate it in a dimension of its own. On the contrary Beëlzebub, Lord of the Flies, is Roger and Jack and you and I, ready to declare himself as soon as we permit him to.
The intentness with which this thesis is developed leaves no doubt that the novel is a...
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["The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin", US title for "Pincher Martin",] is one of the most remarkable books of recent years—a short novel which, though it has no explicit social reference, profoundly expresses the philosophic pessimism that has affected so many European intellectuals since the Second World War…. All the twinges of [Christopher Martin's] battered body, the flutters of his agonized spirit, the stirrings of his tortured consciousness register in Mr. Golding's craggy yet highly sensitized prose…. This is more than good description; it is a rendering of sensation into language, the articulation of an experience almost beyond the reach of words.
But "The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin" is not a novel about man's struggle to survive. For a while, it looks as though it may turn out to be yet another celebration of the human will to live, and then Mr. Golding unobtrusively begins nudging us toward an awareness of the discrepancy between Christopher Martin's high estimate of his ability to survive and what he actually manages to do…. What is being tested is not his ability to survive but his belief that will and intelligence by themselves define the value of the human species. This belief is found wanting even on the rock, where, since there is no society, there can be no morality; we have gone through Christopher Martin's ordeal moment by moment, and we are not fully moved by his defiant determination; we are not...
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V. S. Pritchett
[William Golding's] three books, Lord of the Flies (1954), The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956) are romance in the austere sense of the term. They take the leap from the probable to the possible. Lord of the Flies has a strong pedigree: island literature from Crusoe to Coral Island, Orphan Island and High Wind in Jamaica. All romance breaks with the realistic novelist's certainties and exposes the characters to transcendent and testing dangers. But Golding does more than break; he bashes, by the power of his overwhelming sense of the detail of the physical world. He is the most original of our contemporaries…. [Golding] scarcely uses an argument or issues a warning. He simply shakes us until we feel in our bones the perennial agony of our species. By their nature, his subjects … could easily become the pasteboard jigsaw of allegory, pleasing our taste for satire and ingenuity; but the pressure of feeling drives allegory out of the foreground of his stories. He is a writer of intense visual gift, with an overpowering sense of nature and an extraordinary perception of man as a physical being in a physical world, torn between a primitive inheritance and the glimmer of an evolving mind. A dramatic writer and familiar with the strong emotions that go with the instinct of self-preservation—blind love for his kind, hatred, fear and elation—he is without hysteria. He is not cooking up freakish and...
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The device [of shipwrecked boys surviving without adults] is interesting in itself; but rereading Lord of the Flies after the publication of two more major novels by its author should be able to keep it in perspective. It is interesting, certainly, that so evident a master should want to use it; Mr. Golding, who knows boys well enough to make their collapse into savagery perfectly plausible, has, strangely, a profound and tragic interest in what interests them. Among the half-dozen really potent boyhood myths there are two he dwells on; the old one, of an individual or group facing natural problems unaided by adults, and a newer one, of prehistoric fantasy—steaming swamps and megatheria and men primitive in language and techniques. The first makes for tragedy, the second for its explanation; enormously refined, they come together as an animating conviction which is essentially close to Rousseau's l'homme est un animal dépravé.
The price of human consciousness, of technical and linguistic power, is guilt. This theme is not centrally placed in Lord of the Flies, which is therefore much illuminated by The Inheritors, a novel about the supersession of an innocent predecessor by homo sapiens…. The Inheritors is Mr. Golding's most perfect book, ambitious in design and of terrific imaginative force, though, since it is concerned only with the Fall and not with the Last Things, it offers a less complete...
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Amid a literary world dedicated to debating, reporting, or re-editing the effects of the human condition, William Golding on his lonely eminence continues to ponder its cause…. For others the private language, the prestige narcissist obscurantism; he must take up the archaic challenge of the artist, to make known, to attempt communication, and be seen to succeed or fail—a heroism so rare today as to seem almost quixotic. Mr. Golding communicates. His sayings are hard, but no harder than the thought contained in them; he speaks in parables, but they sharpen not fuzz the meaning. His subject is tremendous: man's first disobedience, and the fruit….
[In] "Free Fall" hell is harrowed, the rescued sinner pays the hard redemptive price of self-knowledge; the tissues of the spirit, healed and living, have become capable of pain.
Sammy Mountjoy, a painter and war artist, is in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp…. He is promised torture, then locked in a cell in total darkness to wait. Mr. Golding is a master of the worm's-eye view, the immediate impact, without hind-sight, of catastrophic sensations. Sammy endures a crescendo of terror whose extremity wrings from him a blind, de profundis cry for help; and is released into a new dimension….
He sees …, and here begins his purgation, what men might be, and what he for one has made of himself by gradual successive choice.
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Golding is, primarily, a religious novelist: his central theme is not the relationship of man to man but the relationship of man, the individual, to the universe; and through the universe, to God.
The symbolism of his novels is, in essence, theological. Both Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors are concerned with the primal loss of innocence. Pincher Martin, as the last chapter proves, explicitly concerns the sufferings of a dead man who has created his own Purgatory. It is a moral axiom of Golding's that man, and man alone, introduced evil into the world: a view which is hardly separable from the doctrine of Original Sin. To a critic who suggested that good was equally an exclusive human concept, he replied: 'Good can look after itself. Evil is the problem.' This attitude suggests both the emotional strength of his work and the intellectual paradox underlying it. He represents himself, theologically, as what used to be loosely termed a Deist; and yet the whole moral framework of his novels is conceived in terms of traditional Christian symbolism.
Nevertheless, the paradox can be resolved. In the first place a novelist with a fundamental moral problem to communicate must be understood by his audience; and to be understood he must use symbols which are familiar and can be readily apprehended. Secondly, Golding is a man in search of cosmological truth; and it might well be argued that—as he...
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C. B. Cox
Lord of the Flies is probably the most important novel to be published in this country in the 1950s. A story so explicitly symbolic as this might easily become fanciful and contrived, but Golding has mastered the art of writing a twentieth century allegory. (p. 112)
The idea of placing boys alone on an island, and letting them work out archetypal patterns of human society, is a brilliant technical device, with a simple coherence which is easily understood by a modern audience. Its success is due in part to the quality of Golding's Christianity…. In development of plot, descriptions of island and sea, and treatment of character, he explores actual life to prove dramatically the authenticity of his religious viewpoint.
Lord of the Flies is a gripping story which will appeal to generations of readers…. [To] succeed, a good story needs more than sudden deaths, a terrifying chase and an unexpected conclusion. Lord of the Flies includes all these ingredients, but their exceptional force derives from Golding's faith that every detail of human life has a religious significance. This is one reason why he is unique among new writers in the '50s, and why he excels in narrative ability…. Golding can describe friendship, guilt, pain and horror with a full sense of how deeply meaningful these can be for the individual. The terrible fire which kills the young children, the fear of Ralph as he is pursued...
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[Pincher Martin] seems … to present, more clearly than any of Golding's other novels, a crystallization of certain distinctive features of his imaginative vision. (p. 247)
Whether or not we know about the ending, the greater part of the story must be read as an account of the experience of a living man struggling for survival in the sea and on the rock; there seems to be no other way of reading it. Only towards the end does this mode of reading give way to a different kind of response and it is essential for the effect of the book that the transition should be gradual. If Golding succeeds in his intention, the 'twist' on the last page should serve only to make us look back on our experience and recognize that our assessment of what we have been reading has indeed undergone a change. If we have really taken Golding's point and grasped the nature of the emerging pattern, the reassessment produced by the revelation of the last line should not be very great.
Golding is here aiming at a special kind of concentration. In each of his first three novels, he has chosen a situation that allows him to strip man down to his bare essentials: almost literally so, since in each the characters wear a minimum of clothing so that we can observe more clearly the "poor, bare, fork'd animal" that is "unaccommodated man"…. In [the earlier novels] the isolating situation is … a social one, but a social situation of a primitive...
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No one could have written four more odd or outlandishly creative books than [William Golding] has. He has told us how it feels to go insane, to drown, to commit suicide, to be dead, to be a child—all in an uncannily convincing manner. He is certainly one of the most original writers of the day. But in his new book, The Inheritors, he tells us how it feels to be a Neanderthal man, and here he has perhaps gone a bit too far….
Fictional heroes with names like Lok, Oa and Fa somehow already suggest a questionable scope of dramatic action, allegorical or otherwise, and when each is saddled with an I.Q. of about 8, things are bound to be slow. The big question is: can the reader identify with a Neanderthal man? There is such a thing as "writing down" to an audience, granted—but this is nothing short of insulting.
Terry Southern, "Recent Fiction, Part I: 'The Inheritors'," in The Nation (copyright 1962 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 195, No. 16, November 17, 1962, p. 332.
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Frank J. Warnke
The Golding fashion among undergraduates has not, as yet at least, reached anything resembling the dimensions of the Salinger fashion which was operative on American campuses even five years ago, but those who like [Lord of the Flies] like it with a passionate intensity which tends to fly at the throat of adverse criticism of any sort. The spell exerted by Lord of the Flies (and, for those who have read it, by The Inheritors) seems to reside in its combination of fast-paced and violent action, all-embracing and rather facile pessimism, and heavy-handed and obvious symbolism. Both books devote much energy to telling us that they are profound, and youth has a weakness for profundity almost as fatal as its weakness for Weltschmerz…. Without too much hesitation, I would venture the prediction that the Golding craze, though certainly as silly, will prove neither as significant nor as long-lived as the cult of Salinger. (pp. 27-8)
Frank J. Warnke, "'Lord of the Flies' Goes to College," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1963 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 148, No. 18, May 4, 1963, pp. 27-8.
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V. S. Pritchett
With Pincher Martin, for all its real claims as a breathless and mysterious tour de force, two or three things went wrong. Mr Golding had taken a dive into the chaos of a single consciousness; to do this makes hay of the traditional novel, which is a work concerned with the differences between people. Pincher Martin was a one-man scream of pain. The defence may be that Golding is a poet-novelist, an exponent of the anti-novel, that he is writing 'black' literature or reviving the Gothic tradition; and these are worth considering. But it did look as though a distinguished writer was about to go down into the underworld of fashionable paranoia. The inquisitional scene in Free Fall, with its overtone of torture, confirmed this,… [In] The Spire, the process is complete and the result is obscurity, monotony and strain. His inventiveness is dulled. His clean narrative is choked and his sense of character and human conflict is paralysed.
Set, as far as one can judge, in the Middle Ages, The Spire is a story about the building of a cathedral. A dean overrides all opposition and organises the erection of an enormous steeple—say the spire of Salisbury cathedral—on a basic structure that cannot, according to the best advice, support it….
We are enclosed in the hysterical mind of the dean almost all the time. Only he exists; other people are mere fragments and glimpses caught in...
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One never has to read more than a few pages of a William Golding novel to know that it contains the essentials of good fiction. First and foremost, one feels the energy that has been put into it—the intensity of mental concentration that one responds to as if it were a strong physical act. Second, one notes the precision and discipline that funnel the energy into the chosen course, and without which energy is just a sprawling nuisance. "The Spire" is only 215 pages long, but a bad author would have run twice the length in breathless pursuit of the same end. For these reasons alone "The Spire" must be welcomed and admired….
In brief, "The Spire" is a short, tight book that shows the author's hand sharply at work pruning, clipping, getting the right word, simplifying the fancy bits, correcting the aim whenever it is off target…. [Golding] can never be accused either of letting his material run away with him or of having no material worth chasing after. All five of his novels illustrate [George Bernard] Shaw's dictum that quality of style and depth of conviction are inseparable mates.
This unity of craft and convictions is made particularly interesting in the present novel by the fact that Mr. Golding has picked a master-mason of medieval times as one of his two main characters. Consequently, the whole novel is stuffed with technical matter like a bag of tools and the biggest part of its excitements turns on...
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[The Spire] is a book about vision and its cost. It has to do with the motives of art and prayer, the phallus turned spire; with the deceit, as painful to man as to God, involved in structures which are human but have to be divine, such as churches and spires. But because the whole work is a dance of figurative language such an account of it can only be misleading. It requires to be read with unremitting attention, and, first time perhaps, very little pleasure. It is second-period Golding; the voice is authoritative but under strain. The style might have been devised by some severe recluse for translating the Old Testament; it is entirely modern, without the slighest trace of god-wottery, yet it is almost unnaturally free of any hint of slang—a modern colloquial English but spoken only by one man….
It is a prose for violence. All Golding's books are violent;… his basic figure for terror, violence, and bloody creation is childbirth. As such it is used in this book, and it breaks out of the language into the plot. This is part of a private vision; and one might hazardously conjecture that this novel, like some of its predecessors, is as much about Golding writing a novel as about anything else. But one need not believe that to agree that it is deeply personal. It gives one some idea of the nature of this writer's gift that he has written a book about an expressly phallic symbol to which Freudian glosses seem entirely...
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[The Spire] is possibly the best thus far of William Golding's haunting parables of the human condition. The setting is medieval England at the time of the building of the cathedrals, but the atmosphere is at once so much of a never-never land and so full of nervous suspense that it seems like a cross between [Maurice] Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande and the high-strung melodrama of the early Graham Greene. The implications of Mr. Golding's tale, as always, are ominous for human nature. (p. 135)
Is Jocelin a saint, or a madman in the frenzied grip of an impossible ideal? Mr. Golding's answer is ambiguous. He does make powerfully clear that all faith rests on a quagmire, that our inheritance from the past is always imperfect, and that holy purposes have, in the way of the world, to do business with corruption and evil. But he seems to be suggesting, too, that without the absurdity of a faith like Jocelin's, no cathedrals would ever be built….
Agile and poetic, Mr. Golding's prose throws off wheels and spokes of light. In a symbolic story like this, the sheer intensity of style has to work hard to make up for a lack of substance in characterization. For all his fantastic passion, Jocelin himself is a rather thin character, on the verge of evaporating into his own hallucinations. We are not always sure when he is seeing devils in his head or in the world, and the confusion becomes a little fatiguing...
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R. C. Townsend
Presumably one starts with the hope—if not the belief—that Golding's thesis [in Lord of the Flies] is wrong, that finally man is more than a beast…. [But] it becomes clear how unsure Golding is of that thesis and of his ability to make his fable suggest it. He thinks he would be unable (or he knows we would be unwilling) to move from the terms of one to those of the other and so he continually makes the jump for us. Thus Ralph and Jack become, he tells us, "two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate" and are later opposed as "the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill" and the "world of longing and baffled commonsense."… At one point Simon tries "to express man's essential illness," and the eyes of the pig's head into which he gazes are "dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life"; at another point Sam and Eric protest, Golding says, "out of the heart of civilization." And on the final page, as is well known, the cause of Ralph's tears is supposed to be "the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart." It is as if Aesop had told us that the fox really liked grapes but was calling them sour because he was unable to reach them.
But Aesop was clear about the separation of his fable and his moral, and consequently so are we. He does not expect the fox's hunger pains to upset us; we can go on to join him in his conclusions about man's rationalizations. But we do care about...
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How do you account for the enormous appeal of [Lord of the Flies], especially to adolescents and college-age students?… It enables meaningful questioning about the nature of man, the aims of society, the structure of the social order…. Golding … appeals to students as a spokesman of their generation and of the situation in which they find themselves…. The book helps to alleviate—vicariously—feelings of guilt and fear which students have individually felt unique to themselves…. Just as young people struggle to overcome feelings of fear of the unknown, of the future, and even of themselves, so they see the working out of these fears by the protagonists of the novel…. Since high school students are both older than the protagonists of the novel, yet younger than adults, they can entertain a degree of objectivity and even superiority to other readers in evaluating the view of man and society presented…. [Young] people appreciate that Golding tells the truth without excuses, that he reminds them of extremes which they would want to avoid in their own lives…. It is compact, yet rich in sense impression, characterization, and imaginative appeal. This work can delight with its inventiveness and vitality, even while its themes and philosophy discomfit. Students are also persuaded that children are capable of acting as Golding suggests and appreciate the novel's fusion of realism and allegory. (pp. 569-70)
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James R. Baker
[Golding] satirizes the Christian as well as the rationalist point of view. In Lord of the Flies, for example, the much discussed last chapter offers none of the traditional comforts. A fable, by virtue of its far-reaching suggestions, touches upon a dimension that most fiction does not—the dimension of prophecy. With the appearance of the naval officer it is no longer possible to accept the evolution of the island society as an isolated failure. The events we have witnessed constitute a picture of realities which obtain in the world at large. There, too, a legendary beast has emerged from the dark wood, come from the sea, or fallen from the sky; and men have gathered for the communion of the hunt. In retrospect, the entire fable suggests a grim parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse. According to that vision the weary repetition of human failure is assured by the birth of new devils for each generation of men…. Each devil in turn lords over the earth for an era, and then the long nightmare of history is broken by the second coming and the divine millenium. In Lord of the Flies … we see much the same sequence, but it occurs in a highly accelerated evolution. The parallel ends, however, with the irony of Golding's climactic revelation. The childish hope of rescue perishes as the beast-man comes to the shore, for he bears in his nature the bitter promise that things will remain as they are, and as they have been since...
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[The Hot Gates is art because Golding's] talents simply are not for those matters which aptly fashion themselves into 'occasional pieces': trips to America, reviews of books about otters and headmasters, and potted-boilers on Copernicus. Mr. Golding goes through the Copernican motions. Just occasionally something from the world of the novels brings life with it…. Mr. Golding's imagination is kindled by fantasy as it hardly is by fact—at least, not the brochure-type facts about Stratford-upon-Avon or the stale news about Creative Writing courses which are trotted out in this book. Sententious, over-written, trivial and lumpishly jocose, much of this volume stands to the novels as did that inept play The Brass Butterfly….
Still, even if most of these essays are intrinsically slight, a good deal of extrinsic interest accrues to them. Mr. Golding's novels are certainly not slight, and whenever a filament reaches to the novels his prose regains urgency…. The essay on The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island is somewhat banal in itself, but valuable as an annotation. Not as valuable, though, as 'Fable', a plain unvarnished account of the writing of The Lord of the Flies: its premises and its meaning. What is most notable about 'Fable' is the huge gulf between the distinctive vitality of the novel itself and the thin obviousness of this commentary on it…. [It] will be a pity if 'Fable'...
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J. D. O'Hara
The ordinary work of fiction can be defensibly judged only by its own laws; if a novel's world is consistent with itself, its divergence from a reader's own understanding of reality is irrelevant. But fables are different. They claim to describe our objective world, not their own. Such works can and must be judged by the accuracy with which they reflect our world and the perceptivity with which they interpret it. So judged, Lord of the Flies is open to several objections.
Perhaps the basic objection is that its subject is irrelevant. It claims to demonstrate that man cannot begin anew and create Utopia. But the human race cannot start from scratch; whatever we do, think, say, and assume is deeply conditioned by our past, rooted even in the structure of our languages. Nor could we isolate one generation. So when Golding tells us what happens when a generation is isolated, we may be academically interested, but we cannot—or should not—see in the children's situation any image of our own. They come to a bad end, and we may come to a bad end; but there is more coincidence here than prediction. Mankind has always been partial to the opinion that things aren't what they used to be, and in a time of crisis the opinion seems especially valid. But we cannot agree with every expression of this opinion simply because it flatters our own predilection….
In addition, we may argue that Golding tries to eat his cake and...
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Harry H. Taylor
[In Lord of the Flies] Simon has been given the conventional characteristics of the mystic whose non-rational approach to the ways of knowing are presumably meant to reassert the mystery and to re-affirm the meaning of the universe beyond its apparent basis in natural law but, in point of fact, Simon first fails to do so and then brings back the truth of the opposite. We have been led to believe in the possibility of the mystery which we later learn the author himself is not willing to accept but, on the other hand, cannot quite abandon. However, I think it is possible to suggest how this confusion has come about, and the other half of the dual hero, the fat boy Piggy, will make this clear.
If Simon represents intuition, feeling, the mystic's approach to knowledge, Piggy represents rationality, logic, science and the processes of thought on which civilisation depends. Piggy is the thinker behind the leader, Ralph. He is connected with fire; his glasses (a modern "invention") are used to start the fire in the first place and when he dies on the rock his death is somewhat Promethean. Further preoccupations stressing the importance of names, labels, scientific devices and the need for clock time set him apart from Simon, and clearly suggest his role as a rational and civilising force.
Simon's inordinate shyness and his difficulties with communication express his essential incompleteness. Piggy's asthma,...
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D. W. Crompton
The Spire is essentially a dramatic poem on the lines of [T. S. Eliot's] The Waste Land. Indeed in many ways, it is curiously similar to The Waste Land, and not the least in its power of arousing echoes which constantly refer one out to a variety of works and with varying degrees of significance. In some cases, the echo arouses little more than the pleasing sense of recognition…. At the other extreme, the myth of Balder is as essential to the construction of The Spire as the Grail legend is to The Waste Land and any reading which does not take account of it must necessarily be a partial one. (pp. 65-6)
The main myth connected with Pangall … is undoubtedly that of the Norse god, Balder. Balder, according to the myth, was rendered invulnerable to all physical hurt by the goddess Frigg, who made all things on earth and in Heaven swear not to harm him. But Loki, the mischief-maker, learned that the mistletoe had not taken the oath because, rooted as it was in the oak tree itself, it was neither in Heaven nor on earth. Using this information, Loki brought about Balder's death by fashioning an arrow from the mistletoe and encouraging the blind god, Hother, to shoot it at Balder. A whole complex of associations surrounding Pangall suggests that it is this myth that Golding is most interested in. There is his death by the mistletoe, of course, but more than this is the whole process by which Pangall is...
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After the pretension of "The Spire" William Golding seems to be relaxing, or at least thudding down to earth, with "The Pyramid." Its ugly-jolly narrative is in the reminiscent, realistic vein of "Free Fall" rather than the mythmaking manner variously seen in "Lord of the Flies," "Pincher Martin," and "The Inheritors."…
Even among the crude humor, old-fashioned shock effects, vagrant symbols, and stitched-together set-pieces of the new novel, there are hints of the old thrust toward significance. "We cannot even think, without leaving a mark somewhere on the cosmos," says the narrator, making a nice point but one that is only loosely illustrated in the novel. Soon after, he yearns for absolution from his parents, "that the days of our innocence might return again." The feeling may be authentic but it occurs after such a sequence of slapstick seduction scenes, melodramatic disclosures of perversion, etc., that it is hard to take seriously.
Perhaps the most fruitful approach lies in a later statement when the now grown narrator returns to his village to find the vintage car from his youthful adventures on display as a showpiece: "Nor was I examining the two-seater closely, though I seemed to. I was busy examining myself."
Though the narrator seems to be examining the characters, the class distinctions, the comedy of amateur theatricals, the sadness beneath the skin of his village, he is busy...
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Simon, it is clear, is the Christ-figure, the voice of revelation [in Lord of the Flies]…. He alone does not fear the false god, the messenger from heaven, the slain airman—a metaphor for history—who is dead but won't lie down…. Simon sees him and understands; he knows that "the beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible." Like Moses, then, he comes down from the mountain bearing the truth—which in Simon's case is that the beast is Man himself, the boys' (and man's) own natures. But when he comes out of the darkness, bringing the truth, he is not heard—for what ordinary man can live with so terrible an understanding? Like Jesus, he is killed. (pp. 24-5)
Thus men, Christian men, even … those who had once worn priest-like robes, reject the authority and the truth of revelation. They dance and chant and kill; they revel in their passionate joys; they exercise power; but they do not heed the voice of God.
Piggy I take to be Socrates, the voice of reason. Like Socrates, he is ugly, fat, and—to men unappreciative of reason—a bore, with a disinclination for manual labor. He is the "outsider." He alone shows marks of intelligence; he can think; he has brains…. [It] is Piggy who reminds the others not to act like children but to behave like grown-ups. Above all, it is he who recognizes that there is no beast and no fear—"unless we get frightened of...
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Golding [would be] a major figure among contemporary English novelists had he written nothing but Lord of the Flies and would still [be] a major figure had he written nothing but his other novels.
Lord of the Flies is not the first time that parody has turned to a novel in its own right…. Stung by what he considers an unreal view of life, the novelist is too magnanimous to stop at exposing the faults of another but goes on, to show incidentally that he can do better, but mainly to tell the truth. This is not the whole truth, but the truth about a part of life—perhaps only for part of the time…. Golding, I feel, knows the truth about part of human nature part of the time. An infringement on his speciality provoked him to write Lord of the Flies.
R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, which provoked Lord of the Flies, shows marooned boys responding to life on their island as if it were an Outward Bound course. Ballantyne overlooks that 'where every prospect pleases' then 'only man is vile'; yet singing the hymn that contains these lines and reading The Coral Island must have gone together in many boyhoods a generation ago—including Golding's? Golding applies the religion to the story: the kind of obvious step it is a mark of genius to make. Original sin is only part of religion, I agree, but it is a part that Golding is not alone in emphasizing. (p. 152)
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James R. Baker
Lord of the Flies is on the decline. (p. 447)
It is natural to tire of familiar things and to pursue instead the excitements which come with novelty and the sense of discovery. But I wish to argue in behalf of Lord of the Flies, not because I have discovered something startling and new to abash the jaded scholars …, but because the decline of Golding's book is a symptom of a dangerous tendency in our academic and intellectual life…. [All] of humanity is involved in explosive crisis and is on the edge of disastrous violence. It is hard to look steadfastly at this general picture…. We must somehow overcome our myopia, with its attendant illusions of efficiency and power, and we do not like to face up to this any more than Ralph or Piggy does. Lord of the Flies forces us to recognize the likelihood of apocalyptic war as well as the wanton abuse and destruction of environmental resources on which an increasing population depends for survival. It also demands examination of the genesis of crisis and violence. The moral of the story is that crisis has grown out of our conditioned responses to existence and that we, like the boys on the island, must soon discover the means of rescuing ourselves from ourselves—a discovery which cannot be made through our habitual preoccupation with social techniques—before some bomb goes off and our little ship of fools sinks out of time altogether. (pp. 447-48)
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P. N. Furbank
The leading proposition in Golding's mind as a writer, endorsed alike by Freud and Christian theology, is that each of us recapitulates the history of the race. For Golding, the ink is not yet dry on the social contract. Civilisation, like Jocelin's spire rests on foundations still writhing like hell-mouth. This being his bent, his interests naturally concentrate on boyhood—that is, on the embryonic stage of the civilised human: for there animism and polytheism, matriarchy and the primal horde, are re-experienced one by one—as is the Fall, if you believe in the Fall. But indeed, for good or evil, Golding is somewhat tied as a writer to boyhood, for some imaginative block prevents him from handling adult life with confidence. With great tact and intelligence, he has largely accepted the limitation, which is also a stimulus. He began writing in the era of Camus, Sartre and Orwell, a classic age for the fable, and his allegories are now part of the permanent furniture of our minds—or, perhaps I should say, of English minds, obsessed as they are with boyhood. (p. 579)
The three stories in Golding's new volume are set, respectively, in Ancient Egypt, the Stone Age and the later Roman Empire. And what first strikes one about them, as compared with Wells and the great preceding school of Edwardian fable, is the extraordinary rigour of Golding's method. Here there is no impressionable time-traveller, no measurement-taking visitor, to...
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A. C. Capey
The truth is that the author despises the boys [in Lord of the Flies]…. [His] knowledge and understanding are tarnished by cynicism, the product of a limited vision of human nature, a partial view of history and a schoolmasterish tendency to denigrate children. Cynical contempt appears time and again in the novel, characteristically in the form of gratuitous judgment by an adult observer. (p. 103)
Mr. Golding, in leaning too heavily on [an idea], causes it to split apart at the seams. The death of Piggy is an emblem of the Fall—the later reference to it makes that interpretation indisputable. But the power of Mr. Golding's art depends also upon the show—the shown significance of the 'grunt' (which 'means' more than the author's clever sneer), the smashed conch and the spilt brains…. The alert pupil is expected to register through those carefully presented symbols the ultimate fragility of the boys' tenuous grasp on sense, order and legitimate behaviour. That the falling Piggy, representative of intelligence and the rule of law, is an unsatisfactory symbol of fallen man seems not to worry Mr. Golding, whose willed insistence on administering the pill and leaving the sugar to look after itself—who hears the grunt or sees the conch disintegrate?—exposes his art as the incoherently conscious thing it is.
The same point, finally, must be made of the rescue. There is … a happy ending to...
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Although critics have acknowledged that the narrator of Free Fall, Samuel Mountjoy, must not be identified with Golding, they have failed to distinguish clearly between Mountjoy's purpose in writing his narrative and Golding's in writing his novel…. [Critics] have taken the wrong approach to Mountjoy's assumption that it is possible freely to relinquish one's freedom of will. It is only when we recognise that this assumption is not shared by Golding that novel and narrative appear in the proper perspective: the narrative as Mountjoy's confession cum self-justification, and the novel as Golding's parable of the abuse of freedom. (p. 73)
Rather than having lost his freedom, [Sammy] has abused it in behaving selfishly to Beatrice and in contributing, perhaps, to her mental breakdown. But because Mountjoy has acted not entirely on his own initiative, but instead, under the influence of characters like [his teacher and mentor] "Old Nick" (the schoolboys' nickname for him) Shales and cunning Philip Arnold, his sin is seen to be not entirely wilful, and mercy is extended—by Golding. Mountjoy is cast into the wilderness in a figurative sense, in acutely feeling the need to relieve his guilty conscience. Yet Golding grants him experience of two kinds of Paradise—both related to his being an artist.
For Mountjoy's narrative tells not only of his seduction and desertion of Beatrice, but also, of his rise to artistic...
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[Darkness Visible] is a malign work which, in spite of the presence of the charred saint who wanders through it, gives few directions for recovery. One is thrown back and forth by the constantly alternating brilliance and obscurities in the writing, as well as being brought to a critical standstill by a sequence of great scenes….
[In his scarred inconnu, Matty], Golding has invented one of his most compelling characters.
Virtue on the scale which Matty so guilelessly practises is essential, for the rest of the action involves first, that peculiarly British form of furtiveness and retribution which is still profitably maintained by the popular Sundays; and, second, current trends in sociosexual amorality among the young, as well as a completely new brand of heartlessness. It reveals the allure, moral ignorance—rather than innocence—and treachery of children being carried forward into a maturity that now constitutes an entirely fresh type of behavioural squalor. Look around you, Golding is saying, and see what is being condoned. Not fluttery old boylovers like Mr Pedigree, of course; see, rather, the pitiless faces of beautiful and cruel young adults who operate their lives outside all the understood affiliations, particularly that of fellow-feeling…. Golding's punkish people are not youngsters passing through a stage, as they say, but the anarchic phenomenon of our times. The smilers with the knife,...
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I have … never met a more melancholy example of an author yielding to the intrinsically worthy impulse to tackle the world's problems and, by so doing, wrecking his own book than that represented by William Golding's [Darkness Visible].
I read the first part in a trance of admiration. It tells how a boy, nameless but later informally christened Matty, walks out of the heart of flame which is London's firebombed East End. Golding's prose flares white and rose with the blaze and plods with the charred victim. It groans with the long agony of his surgical restoration, brightens with the rare tenderness he encounters and peals with compassionate mockery at the scorn his repaired but still-ghastly countenance arouses. This prose delicately and impeccably fashions itself to the evocation of Matty's strange story.
It puts forth fronds of sophistication to generate Mr. Pedigree, a tormented, demonic paedophile to whose class Matty is consigned. It becomes the ironmonger's shop in which, after a tragedy at the school, Matty works and also the wondrous being, a girl, at whom Matty peers before retreating, sensing that human love is forbidden him forever. It turns into Australia, to which Matty emigrates, and the desert and, perhaps most mysteriously of all, it becomes the steaming pool in the forest, writhing with parasites, in which Matty baptises himself before embarking on his mission to….
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John Calvin Batchelor
William Golding is a militantly spiritual Englishman who seems to have inherited … the fearless Puritanism that still shakes souls. Golding, like a Hellfire lay-preacher, attacks with words and shows no mercy for the ignorant, the weak, or even the arguably innocent. He does not blanch before the Puritan doctrines of total depravity and predestination, the cruel certainty that some will be damned regardless of what is done. To this reviewer's mind, Darkness Visible is a black novel made darker still by the fact that Golding permits, with the eloquence of a rhetorician holding out a vision of Paradise to exhausted sinners, one ray of hope to enter his tale before he slams shut the tomb on its tormented characters.
Yet this darkness is in keeping with Golding's career, indeed has marked him through six previous novels as one of Britain's two most compellingly original novelists since World War II. (The other is John Fowles.)…
Three themes can be said to inform Golding's fiction, and it is necessary to trace them through his work to understand how completely and faithfully he has triumphed in Darkness Visible. In ascending order of weight, Golding argues (1) that the intellect separated from the intuition leads to madness and tragedy; (2) that Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, that entropy, the tendency of a closed system to lose energy and fall toward cold, lifeless stasis, is the...
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Joyce Carol Oates
[Darkness Visible] is a difficult and in many ways a painful novel to assess…. The melodramatic plot, unwisely borrowed from Iris Murdoch, escalates frantically and becomes, at the end, not even trashily cinematic so much as electronic: Sophy and her kidnapper cohorts, Toni and her clichés about freedom and justice, are imaginable, if not credible, only as elements in a situation comedy gone askew. (p. 32)
Golding's embarrassing fictional stereotypes … and his heavy-handedly ironic attempt to create a visionary-moron … might be halfway redeemed if presented, as Iris Murdoch's similarly caricatured people often are, in witty or cogent or intelligent prose; but Golding's style here is flaccid and indifferent, and appears at times to function as little more than a means for revealing the author's contempt for his characters….
Golding's theology, presented fairly explicitly in his earlier, more parable-like novels, does reduce, of course, to an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, and an unfortunate consequence of such a pessimism is contempt for people…. Sophy's modish nihilism might well be describing Darkness Visible itself: "Everything's running down. Unwinding. We're just—tangles. Everything there is just a tangle and it slides out of itself bit by bit…. Go with the disentangling…. On and on, wave after wave arching, spreading, running down, down, down…." (p. 33)
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