Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 401

Since the appearance of his first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), William Golding has been received as a writer of moral allegories and parables. At its outset, The Paper Men seems a very different kind of work, a realistic domestic comedy. Yet gradually the religious overtones of the narrative take hold, and Barclay’s insistence on viewing his life as “farce” is seen against the background of larger failings in human society. That society often seems as flat and two-dimensional as the novel’s two main characters.

By and large, reviewers have been disappointed in Golding’s novel, albeit he has been judged by the high expectations occasioned by his winning of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983. His selection was controversial and provoked an unprecedented protest by one of the Nobel judges. Even sympathetic reviews of The Paper Men noted that only admirers of Golding’s previous work would greet it with enthusiasm, and his doubters would have no reason for revising their low opinions.

It is perhaps too early to characterize the place of The Paper Men in Golding’s career. It does seem apparent, however, that in this novel he has not fully integrated his concern with important moral and religious themes with a convincing cast of characters who are interesting in their own right. To some extent, this is always the problem for a writer of allegory, who employs his figures to stand for more than themselves. The Paper Men also suffers when compared to Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941) and Pale Fire (1962), both of which are brilliant novels about biography and the literary life. Nevertheless, Golding’s Nobel Prize and his most recent novel testify to the fact that his work seriously engages profound themes in a way that much contemporary fiction avoids. It is a considerable act of courage for Golding to have chosen as his narrator-protagonist the figure of a writer not unlike himself in some respects. If Barclay has not had Golding’s success, he does physically resemble his creator, and he recalls some of Golding’s nonfiction writing about the academic “light industry” that has grown up around his fiction. To view the persona of the writer in the darkest light, as Golding has done in The Paper Men, to make of him both the scapegoat and the symbol of contemporary culture, is to write with enormous ambition.

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