William Golding Long Fiction Analysis
William Golding, like his older British contemporary Graham Greene, is a theological novelist: That is to say, his main thematic material focuses on particular theological concerns, in particular sin and guilt, innocence and its loss, individual responsibility and the possibility of atonement for mistakes made, and the need for spiritual revelation. Unlike Greene, however, he does not write out of a particular Christian, or even religious, belief system; the dialectic he sets up is neither specifically Catholic (like Greene’s) nor Protestant. In fact, Golding’s dialectic is set up in specific literary terms, in that it is with other works of literature that he argues, rather than with theological or philosophical positions per se. The texts with which he argues do represent such positions or make certain cultural assumptions of such positions; however, it is through literary technique that he argues—paralleling, echoing, deconstructing—rather than through narratorial didacticism.
Golding’s achievement is a literary tour de force. The British novel has never contained theological dialectic easily, except at a superficial level, let alone a depiction of transcendence. Golding accepted the nineteenth century novel tradition but modified it extensively. Each novel represented a fresh attempt for him to refashion the language and the central consciousness of that tradition. Sometimes he pushed it beyond the limits of orthodox mimetic realism, and hence some of his novels have been called fables, allegories, or myths. In general, however, his central thrust is to restate the conflict between individuals and their society in contemporary terms and, in doing this, to question at a fundamental level many cultural assumptions and to point up the loss of moral and spiritual values in twentieth century Western civilization—an enterprise in which most nineteenth century novelists were similarly involved for their own time.
Golding’s first and most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, illustrates this thesis well. Although there is a whole tradition of island-castaway narratives, starting with one of the earliest novels in English literature, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), the text with which Golding clearly had in mind to argue was R. M. Ballantyne’s Coral Island (1858), written almost exactly one hundred years before Lord of the Flies. The names of Ballantyne’s three schoolboy heroes (Ralph, Jack, and Peterkin) are taken over, with Peterkin becoming Simon (the biblical reversion being significant), and in the novel Golding parodies various episodes in Ballantyne’s book—for example, the pigsticking.
Ballantyne’s yarn relied on the English public school ethos that boys educated within a British Christian discipline would survive anything and in fact would be able to control their environment—in miniature, the whole British imperialistic enterprise of the nineteenth century. Most desert-island narratives do make the assumption that Western men can control their environment, assuming that they are moral, purposeful, and religious. Golding subverts all these suppositions: Except for a very few among them, the abandoned schoolboys, significantly younger than Ballantyne’s and more numerous (making a herd instinct possible), soon lose the veneer of the civilization they have acquired. Under Jack’s leadership, they paint their faces, hunt pigs, and then start killing one another. They ritually murder Simon, the mystic, whose transcendental vision of the Lord of the Flies (a pig’s head on a pole) is of the evil within. They also kill Piggy, the rationalist. The novel ends with the pack pursuing Ralph, the leader democratically elected at the beginning; the boys are prepared to burn the whole island to kill him.
Ironically, the final conflagration serves as a powerful signal for rescue (earlier watch fires having been pathetically inadequate), and, in a sudden reversal, an uncomprehending British naval...
(The entire section is 4,728 words.)