Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1095

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...

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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 mead (fermented honey) and get drunk on it. In Paradise Lost, Adam and Eve’s fall is marked by a similar drunken state. The new people fall, too, as they experience fear and panic, which destroys their previous confidence in themselves and gives outward reality to the evil that readers, godlike perhaps, have already perceived within them. Conrad’s famous novella is echoed in the closing chapter, in which the motif of darkness closing in on the new people, as they sail across a wide expanse of water, appears.

Golding’s novels contain theological dimensions. Free Fall(1959) in general is one such. More specifically in The Inheritors, the gentle and numinous female religion of the Neanderthals is contrasted to the masculine, ritualistic, and brutal religion of the new people. The difference is seen more as an effect than a cause of the two peoples’ differences. The cause is never described, but part of it must lie in the new people’s technical achievements: They can construct boats, thus losing their fear of water; build huts; and make bows and arrows. The new people have also lost an intimate association with nature, and other living things are seen as hostile, including the Neanderthals. From this hostility springs fear. The new people project their inner fears onto the Neanderthals and in this way construct devil figures out of them. This is a typical Golding theme, that evil lies within, not without, but people have to deal with it by inventing beasts, as in Lord of the Flies.

The way in which Fa refuses to let Lok understand that Liku has been cannibalized reflects her horror of the taboo against taking any form of life. Secrecy is thus one response to evil, but a wrong one, since it causes Lok to risk their lives in a continued effort to regain the girl.

Golding also explores primitive psychology, especially the relationship among thought, imagination, and language. Lok is shown discovering the power of similitudes (similes), moving from pictures (mental images) to the beginnings of literary creation (figurative language). Tuami, on the other hand, finds it difficult, in his fear, to keep conscious logical thought and imagination focused: Confusion quickly intrudes. The new people’s self-awareness is of a much higher mental order. The Neanderthals’ body parts, on the other hand, often move independently of brain control.

Golding’s style in The Inheritors is marked by self-imposed limitations. He tries to confine himself to the consciousness of his two male protagonists. This is especially noticeable when Lok observes the new people’s behavior, most of which is incomprehensible to him. Readers are left to guess what is really happening. The language Golding uses is modern literary language, and a tension is set up between primitive perception and sophisticated vocabulary. Readers see with Lok’s eyes and yet read with their own.

Golding sets himself fascinating technical problems. His shifts of perspective are dramatically sudden. One example occurs when Golding moves away from Lok, and readers suddenly see Lok as the new people do, basically an animal. There is a short transition passage in which Golding as narrator keeps his own perspective. Readers have become, however, so deeply sympathetic to the Neanderthals that the final chapter is far too short a space to develop any sympathies for the new people. Indeed, readers are not meant to: They are meant, as in satire, to stay alienated from their own species. Other shifts of perspective stem from the Neanderthals’ lack of integration; their disconnections jerk readers back to a consciousness of the continuity of the narrative line.

In the last two chapters, the color symbolism becomes noticeable. The redness of the Neanderthals reflects the setting sun and suggestions of fire as symbol of violent and final destruction. This is contrasted to the color blue, which represents sky, a new day, and therefore hope. Blue also, however, represents the deepening night and the shadows that now surround and threaten the life of the new people. They have truly discovered “the darkness of the world.”

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