Last Updated September 6, 2023.
William Golding’s novel The Inheritors explores the way perceived physical, intellectual, and behavioral differences can cause conflict between groups who have more in common than their prejudices indicate to them. While for much of the work, Golding portrays his Neanderthal family group as protagonists (with the human settlement they encounter as the antagonists), he shifts the perspective in the latter stages of the novel to show that the humans were not evil by nature; they reacted violently to the Neanderthals out of fear, not spite.
Golding departs somewhat from his era’s prevailing view of Neanderthals. While he portrays them as simplistic, governed by annual cycles and routines that they follow with little intellectual knowledge as to their purpose, he also shows them as gentle and humane. His contemporaries were far more liable to portray them as violent and savage. In their manipulation of fire, their use of boats, and their sexual habits, the humans are the ones who appear disconnected from the earth, much as modern human beings have come to be divorced from the natural environments they inhabit. This sense of human isolation from the natural world is furthered by their situation on an island, separated from the rest of the world by a fast-flowing river.
But, unlike their smaller, red-haired counterparts, the Homo sapiens in this novel are not content to remain within the area nature has assigned to them; instead, they are determined to expand and dominate their surroundings. Through the eyes of the Neanderthals, human technologies appear to be strange and troubling deviations from natural law. One example of this is when Lok mistakes the arrow that had been intended for him for a new twig suddenly sprouting from the tree beside him.
The destructive power that such technologies afford their masters takes on a somewhat colonial undertone when the humans move from their island to the bank of the river previously occupied by “the people,” and when they abduct the “New one,” a source of mingled shame and delight for its new mother. This move mirrors the appropriation by Western nations of non-Western resources and cultures and the mingled shame and gratification of such Western civilizations in these appropriations.
There is also an interesting contrast in terms of gender roles between the two groups addressed by this novel. In both groups, female characters act as the central axle on which the group’s identity turns. For Lok and his family group, women have significance as religious figures—as a priestess, in the case of Mal, or as a carrier of the sacred flame, in the case of the Old Woman. By contrast, Vivani is somewhat objectified; it is through possession of her as a sexual partner that the leading male figure among the Homo sapiens is defined. She therefore becomes a prize, sought after by both Marlan and Tuami. Her size, moreover, signifies her role as consumer, and the more general capacity of Homo sapiens to take more than they need, simply because they can.