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.
Lord of the Flies
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 officer lands on the beach, amazed at the mud-covered, dirty boys before him. Allegorically it might be thought that as this world ends in fire, a final divine intervention will come. Ironically, however, the adult world that the officer represents is also destroying itself as effectively, in a nuclear war. Salvation remains problematic and ambiguous.
What lifts Lord of the Flies away from simple allegory is not only the ambiguities but also the dense poetic texture of its language. The description of Simon’s death is often quoted as brilliantly heightened prose—the beauty of the imagery standing in stark contrast to the brutality of his slaying—but almost any passage in the novel yields its own metaphorical textures and suggestive symbolism. Golding’s rich narrative descriptions serve to point up the poverty of the boys’ language, which can only dwell on basics—food, defecation, fears and night terrors, killings. Golding’s depiction of the children is immediately convincing. The adult intervention (the dead airman, the naval officer) is perhaps not quite so, being too clearly fabular. In general, however, the power of the novel derives from the tensions set up between the book’s novelistic realism and its fabular and allegorical qualities. The theological dialectic of humanity’s fallenness (not only the boys’) and the paper-thin veneer of civilization emerges inexorably out of this genre tension.
The thinness of civilization forms the central thesis of Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors. The immediate literary dialectic is set up with H. G. Wells’s The Outline of History: Being a Plain History of Life and Mankind (1920), which propounds the typical social evolutionism common from the 1850’s onward. At a more general level, Golding’s novel might also be seen as an evolutionary version of John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667): Satan’s temptation to Eve is a temptation to progress; the result is the Fall. Just as Adam and Eve degrade themselves with drunken behavior, so do Golding’s Neanderthalprotagonists, Lok and Fa, when they stumble over the remains of the cannibalistic “festivities” of Homo sapiens.
Golding subverts the Wellsian thesis that Neanderthals were totally inferior by depicting them as innocent, gentle, intuitive, playful, and loving. They stand in ironic contrast to the group of Homo sapiens who eventually annihilate them, except for a small baby whom they kidnap (again reversing a short story by Wells, in which it is Neanderthals who kidnap a human baby). The humans experience terror, lust, rage, drunkenness, and murder, and their religion is propitiatory only. By contrast, the Neanderthals have a taboo against killing anything, and their reverence for Oa, the earth mother, is gentle and numinous in quality.
As in Lord of the Flies, the conclusion is formed by an ironic reversal—the reader suddenly sees from the humans’ perspective. The last line reads, “He could not see if the line of darkness had an ending.” It is a question Golding is posing: Has the darkness of the human heart an end?
Golding’s technique in The Inheritors is remarkable: He succeeds in convincing the reader that primitive consciousness could have looked like this. He creates language that conveys that consciousness, yet is articulate enough to engage one imaginatively so that one respects the Neanderthals. He explores the transition from intuition and pictorial thinking to analogous and metaphoric thought. The ironic treatment of Homo sapiens is done also through the limits of Neanderthal perceptions and consciousness. Unfortunately, humans, as fallen creatures, can supply all too easily the language for the evil that the Neanderthals lack.
Golding’s third novel, Pincher Martin (first published in the United States as The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin), returns to the desert-island tradition. The immediate dialectic is perhaps with Robinson Crusoe, the sailor who single-handedly carves out an island home by the strength of his will aided by his faith. Pincher Martin is here the faithless antihero, although this is not immediately apparent. He, like Crusoe, appears to survive a wreck (Martin’s destroyer is torpedoed during the war); he kicks off seaboots and swims to a lonely island-rock in the Atlantic. With tremendous strength of will, he appears to survive by eating raw shellfish, making rescue signals, forcing an enema into himself, and keeping sane and purposeful.
In the end, however, his sanity appears to disintegrate. Almost to the end it is quite possible to believe that Christopher Martin finally succumbs to madness and death only after a heroic, indeed Promethean, struggle against Fate and the elements. The last chapter, however, presents an even greater reversal than those in the first two novels, dispelling all of this as a false reading: Martin’s drowned body is found washed up on a Scottish island; his seaboots are still on his feet. In other words, the episode on the rock never actually took place. The reading of Pincher Martin thus becomes deliberately problematic in a theological sense. The rock must be an illusion, an effort of the will indeed, but an effort after physical death. It is not that all of one’s life flashes before one’s eyes while one drowns, though that does happen with Martin’s sordid memories of his lust, greed, and terror; it is more that the text is formed by Martin’s ongoing dialectic with, or rather against, his destiny, which he sees as annihilation. An unnameable god is identified with the terror and darkness of the cellar of his childhood memories. His will, in its Promethean pride, is creating its own alternative. Theologically, this alternative can only be Purgatory or Hell, since it is clearly not heaven. Satan in Paradise Lost says, “Myself am Hell”: Strictly, this is Martin’s position, since he refuses the purgatorial possibilities in the final revelation of God, with his mouthless cry of “I shit on your heaven!” God, in his compassion, strikes Martin into annihilation with his “black lightning.”
Golding’s first three novels hardly suggested that he was writing from within any central tradition of the British novel. All three are highly original in plot, for all of their dialectic with existing texts, and in style and technique. In his next novel, Free Fall, Golding writes much more recognizably within the tradition of both the bildungsroman (the novel of character formation) and the Künstlerroman (the novel of artistic development). Sammy Mountjoy, a famous artist, is investigating his past life, but with the question in mind, “When did I lose my freedom?” The question is not in itself necessarily theological, but Sammy’s search is conducted in specifically theological categories.
It has been suggested that the literary dialectic is with Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957), a novella published some three years earlier. Camus’s existentialism sees no possibility of redemption or regeneration once the question has been answered; his protagonist uses the question, in fact, to gain power over others by exploiting their guilt, so the whole search would seem inauthentic. Golding sees such a search as vital: His position seems to be that no person is born in sin, or fallen, but...
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