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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Humanity’s Capacity for Evil

One of Golding’s primary aims in writing this novel was to invoke an awareness in his readers as to what they, as human beings, were capable of. To a society still sensitive to the violent excesses of the Second World War, it might have seemed evident that what they were “inheriting” from their ancestors was the potential to do evil. Golding depicts the perspectives of both human groups, pitting the homo sapiens against mentally and physically inferior beings who nonetheless possess an Edenic innocence and a reverential regard for the natural world. Thus, Golding presents the central conflict of humanity as something that has persisted throughout the ages; it is, in effect, our “inheritance.”

Racism and Colonialism

Golding’s portrayal of two species, distinct in appearance yet comparable in emotional makeup, can be seen as a prehistoric portrayal of racist instincts within the human mind. The river which divides the two groups is symbolic of a cultural divide, one which the homo sapiens—starved of resources on their island—cross in a quasi-colonialist action which leads ultimately to their capturing the other people.

The homo sapiens’ decadent and self-gratifying pursuits suggests a lack of spirituality, and their separation from the natural world serves to illustrate a direct contrast to their counterparts. This depiction of the two cultures is also reminiscent of how Western colonial powers had begun to be seen in the post-war era. The brief friendship between Tanakil and Liku constitutes a ray of sunlight that shines through the clouds of conflict, intimating how racism is a product of the error of “rational” thinking and how the innocence of childhood enables one to see differences not as perceived inferiorities but as new and exciting ways of being.

Individualism versus Community

While possessed of superior technologies, sophisticated weapons, the means of water transport, and the means of managing fire, the homo sapiens in this novel are portrayed as fractious—stricken by competing personal and political interests. The rivalry of Malman and Tuami and the sexual manipulation of both men by Vivani constitutes a microcosm of the intrigues that for Golding characterized modern individualistic societies.

By contrast, prior to their encountering homo sapiens, the Neanderthals appear far more cohesive as a community, not to mention far more contented to perform the simple entailments of their annual migration patterns. While they are sometimes at the mercy of nature—being unable to deal with large predators such as bears—and while they suffer grief at the death of Mal, these hardships are accepted by them as part of the natural cycle to which they are attuned.

Critique of Social Darwinism

Despite their relationship to the natural world, the Neanderthals can be considered less “natural” in terms of social Darwinism (the principle on which Golding’s work comments) than the homo sapiens. Natural, in this sense, is referential to the process of natural social selection, a process by which the weak are self-selected for extermination—with only strong traits flourishing.

For example, where Tuami seeks to exploit the age of Marlan as a weakness in order to assume power, the Neanderthals show respect to their elders as vessels of valuable knowledge and experience. While the Neanderthals’ actions are clearly presented as morally just, the homo sapiens’ actions are ultimately more successful in allowing them to attain power—or to thrive. Thus Golding presents the central cynicism of social Darwinism that seeks to justify morally corrupt actions on the basis of inherently “successful” traits that help someone succeed.

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