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Last Updated on July 19, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 502

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.

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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.

The Plot

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 460

Like most of William Golding’s novels, The Inheritors uses the “alien” in order to talk about the present. A tiny band of people return to their summer cave beside a river, near a large waterfall. The people are based in part on the Neanderthals but are described as physically much more primitive; to themselves, they are simply the people. The first and longest part of the novel is told through the eyes of one of them, the male Lok, and presents the value system of the people.

The cave is a place where they are safe from animals, but its location aggravates their desperate fear of water. Once, they remember, they were many more in number, but their numbers have shrunk to eight. They are both human and animal, capable of speech and ideas like humans but also of knowing the world as an animal does, for example through a keen sense of smell. The eldest, the old man Mal, is their source of knowledge. He falls ill. Ha, the more intelligent of the two remaining males, comes across a being that he scents as related to himself. When he approaches it, it kills him. This “other” is not named but is obviously a member of Homo sapiens.

Mal dies, and Lok, who is not very intelligent, is the only male left. Lok learns that the others are on an island in the river. When Lok and his mate, Fa, are away, the others kill the unnamed old woman, along with the other adult female, Nil, and then kidnap the two children, a young girl named Liku and Nils baby. Lok and Fa try but fail to rescue the children. Hiding in a tree, they observe these others, almost hairless and white skinned, paddle their dugouts to the mainland. There, the others quarrel among themselves, get drunk, fight, and make violent love. They act, in short, as human beings. They also, apparently, sacrifice Liku to their god as a defense against the “devils of the forest,” that is, the people. Fa and Lok try again to rescue the baby, but in the melee Fa is wounded and then swept over the falls to her death.

The point of view shifts to that of a dispassionate observer. Readers see Lok from the outside, as a human would see him. He is a smallish, red-haired animal wandering as though hunting for something. At last he returns to the cave, curls up in a fetal position, and, in actuality or in preparation, dies.

The point of view changes to the mind of one of the others, a modern man, as these others sail and paddle away. They are human, but they fear irrationally, hate, desire, and resent. They feel no true love.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 464

River crossing

River crossing. The first appearance of a family of Neanderthals occurs during their spring migration when they reach a river crossing and discover that an old fallen tree that long provided a bridge across the river is now gone. Their belief that the tree has somehow decided to go away, provides the first glimpse of the Neanderthal world view. Their ability to move another fallen tree into position to fashion a bridge shows their limited ability to manipulate nature and to learn. At the same time, the fact that old Mal falls into the river and catches a chill that later kills him also demonstrates the dangers of the world in which the Neanderthals live. Later, the moment when Lok returns to the crossing and finds the new bridge is gone provides one of the first inklings of the malign influence of the new race of humans.


Cave. Rudimentary shelter provided by an overhang on a cliff that is a summer home for the Neanderthals. Their sense of coming home when they arrive at the cave is palpable, and each member of the family group has a regular place within the cave. It is here that Mal dies, despite being cared for by the whole group, and he is buried by the fire. This scene demonstrates not only the gentleness of the Neanderthals, but also their sense of ritual and belonging, which they themselves cannot fully articulate.

The moment the newcomers raid the Neanderthal cave, killing two members of the family, not only marks the intrusion of violence into the family but also symbolizes the destruction of the Neanderthals’ world. Once their carefully nurtured fire has been extinguished, they have no home left.


Island. Island in the river that the Neanderthals cannot reach because they are afraid of crossing water. However, the new race of humans are more sophisticated tool users and fashion boats from hollowed-out tree trunks that they use to make the island their first camp. The island therefore becomes a symbol of the technological superiority of the new people, as well as the threat they pose to the Neanderthals.

When two of the Neanderthals manage to get onto the island, they see many of the things that will help the new people conquer the world: They wear clothing, build rudimentary huts, practice organized rituals and dances, and use alcohol. Above all, they exhibit the beginnings of social organization, with the emergence of figures who might be formal leaders or shamans. None of these things is known to the Neanderthals, and in the long scene in which the two primitive groups are contrasted Golding shows not only the beginnings of modern human society, but also a moment in which innocence is lost—a recurrent theme in his fiction.


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Dick, Bernard F. William Golding. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1987. The chapter on The Inheritors views it mainly in the light of Golding’s recurring theme of the Fall. Selected bibliography and index.

Gindin, James. William Golding. New York: Macmillan, 1988. Contains an excellent introduction and a full yet economic reading of The Inheritors. Gindin sees the novel achieving something of myth, but ultimately having a unique status of its own. Selected bibliography and index.

Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, and Ian Gregor. William Golding: A Critical Study. Rev. ed. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1984. Contains an early essay on the novel (1967) that is one of the most perceptive. Discusses the technical problems facing Golding.

Oldsey, Berard S., and Stanley Weintraub. The Art of William Golding. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965. Another early introductory study on Golding, with a chapter on each of the early novels. In the chapter on The Inheritors, the concept of evolution is the focus.

Redpath, Philip. William Golding: A Structural Reading of His Fiction. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986. Takes a structural approach to The Inheritors, seeing the novel’s structure as circular, moving away from any simplistic good-bad antithesis.

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