Like Lord of the Flies (1954), The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin (1956), and The Spire (1964), The Inheritors has a setting remote from a reader’s own life and civilization. In these isolated settings, William Golding explores humanity’s struggle for survival: the struggle with fellow human beings, with the physical environment, and with oneself. Such preoccupations are, in themselves, common to many novels, but one of the distinctive features of Golding’s work is that at the opening of each novel his characters are already at their hour of reckoning. The success of Golding’s approach is achieved by an exercise of great imaginative power and the ability to create an environment of great believability, so that what has gone before is apparent through implication in the way the characters react to present circumstance. To the Neanderthal people of The Inheritors, the natural, physical world of tree, mountain, river, and rock is the prime reality; when forces alien to their world intrude, Golding begins their story.
In many of his novels, Golding structures the thematic material around specific subtexts, with which his text engages in argument. In this novel, one chief subtext is H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), a book that reflects the social evolution theories of the early twentieth century. Wells’s book espouses a fairly uncritical belief in progress and in the inferiority of earlier life-forms and cultures. Golding uses a quotation from the book as an epigraph. In opposition to the sanguine view of progress and of humanity in Wells’s book, Golding questions in what way Homo sapiens may be considered an improvement on Homo neanderthalis. A skeptical reading of the novel might suggest that in no way at all may humanity be considered an improvement on its forebears. The Neanderthals, in Golding’s view, appear innocent, with a deep reverence for life, respectful to each other, and unafraid. By contrast, the new people kill, kidnap, indulge in crude drunken rituals, are cannibalistic, and plot assassinations.
There are other subtexts, however, that bring further resonances to the novel. For example, Golding reverses a Wells short story in which Neanderthals kidnap a human baby. The two most significant subtexts after Wells’s are John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674) and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1902). Like Milton, Golding explores the concept of a fall from innocence, and what this fall might be like. In The Inheritors, Lok and Fa discover the remains of the new people’s...
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