illustrated portrait of English author William Golding

William Golding

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Golding, William (Vol. 3)

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6028

Golding, William 1911–

Golding is a talented and original major British novelist whose best known works—Lord of the Flies, The Inheritors, and The Spire—reflect his interest in anthropology and psychoanalysis. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 8, 10, 17, 27.

Golding's novels are rigged. All thesis novels are rigged. In the great ones the drama escapes from the cage of the rigging or is acted out on it as on a skeleton stage set. Golding's thesis requires more rigging than most and it must by definition be escape-proof and collapsing….

Lord of the Flies is simply a carelessly documented book. Its opposite number, Swiss Family Robinson, is ridiculously impossible, with flora, fauna and geology from the ends of the earth, all dumped on one tiny island, but we forgive the improbability because the boa constrictor really seems to eat the mule and if polar bears had eaten breadfruit we would have believed it…. Lord of the Flies functions in a minimal ecology, but even so, and indefinite as it is, it is wrong. It's the wrong rock for such an island and the wrong vegetation. The boys never come alive as real boys. They are simply the projected annoyances of a disgruntled English schoolmaster. At the end of the book, you are not convinced of the obliterative effects of original sin; you just feel that Mr. Golding should get a better job….

Free Fall should be the best of Golding's novels. The people are more vividly drawn, motives are more complex. There are dramatic rather than melodramatic tensions. The thesis again is Golding's obsession, original sin, but in this case the story is of the struggle to transcend it. Yet again it is all hallucinatory. Furthermore, since the characters seem at first not presented purely as vehicles of the thesis, it is possible to judge them as people. So judging, it is apparent that there's something nasty about all of Golding's people; not evil, just nasty. One of the things wrong with them is a kind of special muzziness that he is able to give to all of his characterizations—or unable not to give. They are uncleanly seen. If you are going to undertake this journey, you should never forget that the clarity of Dante's vision is never impeached by the confusions of either the damned or the undamned….

The Spire is the most exasperating of all these books. Here the anachronism is breathtaking. This is not the Middle Ages, and it is certainly not Salisbury Cathedral. It is certainly William Golding. The Bad Rover Boys on a Desert Island, The Bad Rover Boys at the End of the Ice Age acquire a sequel—The Bad Rover Boys in the Age of Faith Build a Cathedral. Again, Mr. Golding judges human beings, past or present, far or near, the way a British school master who doesn't like teaching in a provincial town regards his charges. This is a symbolic tale of the upwardly mobile with a vengeance. The thesis is they are snotty-nosed little boys. Maybe they are; they seem to enjoy being told they are.

What depressed me most was that Mr. Golding doesn't even like that pretty church, perhaps because it is so perfect an expression of style. He shouldn't only get another job; he should move. Maybe he has. He's sold enough books to live on the Riviera where it's stylish.

Kenneth Rexroth, "William Golding: Unoriginal Sin," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1965 by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), May, 1965, pp. 96-8.

Since Lord of the Flies Mr. Golding's fiction has been a remarkable labor of craft, the meanings carefully adjusted, word by word. This is not to imply that the books are propelled by sheer force of will in the absence of imagination. But the craft, so hard to learn, has been acquired at the cost of freedom and nonchalance. There is some evidence, especially in Free Fall and Pincher Martin, that Mr. Golding, fabulous artificer, would like nothing better than to write a loose baggy monster of a novel, possessed of life to the degree of irrelevance. Or at least to write a book, all carelessness and luck, which, given the first push, would leap its own way. The novelist would not have to put everything in to make sure that it was there. He would gamble recklessly on the "little miracles of implication," like Beatrice's small hands…. The form of fiction which corresponds to "the ordinary universe" is obviously the novel, as distinct from the romance, the fable, and so forth…. It is my impression that in The Pyramid Mr. Golding has tried again to write a novel. The result is an embarrassment, a disaster….

Indeed, the only real interest of the book is that it helps us to define Mr. Golding's art by marking one of its limitations. The ordinary universe is beyond him, or beneath him; in any event he cannot deal with it. He writes of ordinary things with extraordinary awkwardness. After a while it begins to appear that he is unable to acknowledge in matter, body, or history more spirit than the little he is willing to risk. His imagination cannot cope with the dualism of matter and spirit, has no sense of "the world's body."… The result is that he lives, imaginatively, as if nothing on earth were real but myths, fables, and emblems. Custodian of spirit, he cannot bear to consign it to the free range of matter. Or he fears that spirit, soul, and mind can only be kept alive by protecting them from the contamination of matter. Despite this fear, he hankers after the fleshpots of the novel, its cakes and ale. So we fancy Mr. Golding complaining of man that he is not sufficiently spirit; and of time and history, that they are merely, as in Lord of the Flies, a dead parachutist. The evidence suggests that, intermittently, he tries to acknowledge people in their density and plenitude, but in fact he sees them, after great labor, as figures, outlines, emblems. The seriousness of his vocation has the effect of turning every human action into a Morality play; as Pincher Martin plays Greed….

In Mr. Golding's fiction, whenever things are invoked in the ordinary universe, they never seem enough to bear his grand meaning. The direction of his books is from something divined within to a corresponding shape or gesture without, but the correspondence is rarely enough, the inner sense being what it is. The poor finite thing upon which his imagination settles tries hard, but it fails to live up to the asserted significance. The Inheritors seems to me Mr. Golding's most completely realized book, a classic work, because the meaning does not depend upon the engagement of his imagination with the ordinary universe. His imagination is happiest with things, ideally few and vacant, which have not yet received the mark of human relation and human need. Faced with riches of relation in a world of people and their need, his imagination is embarrassed, resentful.

Denis Donoghue, "The Ordinary Universe," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; © 1967 by NYREV, Inc.), December 7, 1967, pp. 21-4.

Golding is primarily concerned to trace back the travails of human existence to their source in human nature and to repudiate the idea that something other than man himself is responsible for failure. In thus fastening responsibility on man Golding shares a view which we have noticed in the writings of Kafka and Sartre, though his findings are more pessimistic than theirs. It is not 'nothingness' that lies at the centre of man's being but an actively evil principle. No man ever achieves an integrated moral consciousness and no human enterprise is free from distortion. The lesson of The Spire is that man is most pathetic when he fails to recognize this and claims for himself a moral purity which belongs only to God. To this danger 'religious' man is especially exposed because he all too easily begins to think that his schemes and judgments are divinely originated and are therefore above criticism. We may recall here that not even St. Paul was free from this error, to say nothing of many lesser men in the course of church history. There are also parallels in the claims of political messianism, and we have noticed in this connection the warning of Camus that absolutist pretensions are deathly, however worthy their theoretical aims may be. We may also recollect Kafka's likening of those who try to attain exhaustive knowledge of the decrees of the High Command to a river which forgets its proper limits and overflows its banks. These warnings and parables may be said to be indications of areas in the modern estimate of man where there is an overlap with the estimate presented in the myths of the Book of Genesis. But it is, I think, in the work of Golding that the overlap is explicit….

We may notice, first, that Golding reproduces the technique of the Genesis myths in his usual practice of isolating his characters from contemporary social and cultural structures. The protective wrapping must be torn off before the inner reality of man can be exposed. Like the Genesis myths Golding points to the tragic element in human life and attempts to probe down to its causes. He thinks that the only hope of overcoming the evil in our nature is by clarity in recognizing and stating its presence, and by vigilance in keeping watch on our actions and the motives by which they are prompted.

Golding's novels are also comparable to the Genesis myths in the sense they give of man's helplessness as he recognizes the presence of a destructive element in himself. Here there is a marked contrast with those optimistic diagnoses of the human condition and the correspondingly optimistic assessment of human ability to deal with it which characterized much theological thinking before 1914 and is also typical of humanist thinking today. As an example of the latter, we may instance Dennis Gabor's Inventing the Future. He makes the point—and one cannot help sympathizing with it—that it is easy to be a prophet of doom and to spread alarm and despondency about the future of the human race. What man now requires is a new confidence in himself, a realization that he possesses the knowledge and the skill to 'invent' his own destiny….

In contrast with doctrines such as that of Gabor which would make man's moral ease wholly dependent upon his psychological balance and his freedom from irksome toil, both of which are theoretically attainable, Golding posits a mystifying and inescapable irrationality in the human heart which erupts into violence, fear and selfish pride. The 'Lord of the Flies' is not Beelzebub, the prince of devils: he is part of the human race and cannot be cast out….

Lord of the Flies is a complex version of the story of Cain—the man whose smoke-signal failed and who murdered his brother. Above all, it is a refutation of optimistic theologies which believed that God had created a world in which man's moral development had advanced pari passu with his biological evolution and would continue so to advance until an all-justifying End was reached. What we have in Lord of the Flies is not moral achievement but moral regression. And there is no all-justifying End: the rescue-party which takes the boys off their island comes from a world in which regression has occurred on a gigantic scale—the scale of atomic war. The human plight is presented in terms which are unqualified and unrelieved. Cain is not merely our remote ancestor: he is contemporary man, and his murderous impulses are equipped with unlimited destructive power.

We may want to argue that no general conclusions about the human condition can properly be drawn from Lord of the Flies. Golding has started with a private theory about Man and has then provided some imaginary and highly selective evidence to support it. The novel has been called a 'fable'—a story told to enforce a moral lesson rather than to portray the rough, ambiguous actualities of human life. Sometimes we are rather too conscious that the author is nudging us as we read lest we fail to notice his doctrine of Man. The question that occurs to us is how imaginary events can be evidence for anything except the author's personal views.

I think the answer to this is that Golding succeeds in giving convincing form to that which exists deep in our self-awareness. By the skill of his writing, he takes us step by step along the same regressive route as that traversed by the boys on the island…. Our first reactions are those of 'civilized' people. But as the story continues, we find ourselves being caught up in the thrill of the hunt and the exhilaration of slaughter and blood and the whole elemental feeling of the island and the sea…. The backing of Golding's thesis comes not from the imaginary events on the island but from the reality of our response to them. Our minds turn to the outrages of our century—the slaughter of the first war, the concentration camps and atom-bombs of the second—and we realize that Golding has compelled us to acknowledge that there is in each of us a hidden recess which horrifyingly declares our complicity in torture and murder….

The truth about Man is not merely that he is savage and afraid, but that he refuses deliverance and murders the messengers of light….

[The Inheritors] may be read as Golding's version of the Fall, with Neanderthal Man playing the part of prelapsarian Adam and Eve….

The assumption of the Wellsian theory [from which Golding quotes in the epigraph of the novel] is that behind homo sapiens there was a primitive monster lacking all qualities of self-control, civilization and moral goodness. Golding attempts to show that the predecessor of homo sapiens was on the contrary a lover of Nature, of children, of animals, that he cared for the old and self-sacrificingly nurtured the young, that he would not take life and ate flesh only when an animal died from natural causes. Golding's imaginative power and literary skill persuade us as we read that his version of Neanderthal Man could be true, and our minds fill with echoes of our primal innocence and our lost Edens.

The evil influence in Golding's Eden is not a serpent but homo sapiens himself…. In short, Golding is telling us that the Fall is to be understood, not in terms of primitive animalism, but as a concomitant of the rational consciousness itself. Homo sapiens is fallen from birth because moral evil is the other aspect of intellectual power. There is no need to posit some special act in order to account for the fall of man: moral evil is the price man must pay for his rationality and his creative imagination. It follows that there is no ground in man himself for hope of goodness; evolutionary progressivism is a delusion….

With considerable skill, Golding has recreated a precognitive innocence, not in our remote ancestors, but in ourselves. He has shown us what it feels like to be unaware of moral evil, what it is like to have as the content of the mind a succession of unrelated pictures instead of a connected sequence of words, what it is like to have little or no skill in mastering environment. It is not really Neanderthal Man that Golding describes, but homo sapiens himself in that recess of his being where he remembers the innocence which he knows he has lost. The point is made clearer in the later novel, Free Fall, where the whole problem of guilt and servitude is made contemporary by being concentrated in one twentieth-century individual, who searches his life to find the place where he fell from innocence and lost his freedom.

David Anderson, "Nostalgia for the Primates," in his The Tragic Protest (© SCM Press Ltd., 1969; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox Press, 1969, pp. 155-62.

In The Spire we have confirmation of the remark of Camus that when men believe that they are acting in the name of an Absolute, they quickly begin to regard themselves as absolutes and forget their inescapable contingency. In their very attempts to actualize their visions, men fall into the pit and let loose destruction. It is this sense of non-attainment at the highest level of the human spirit that is the most important meaning of the doctrine of Original Sin. We do not really require a doctrine to tell us that man is prone to violence and barbarism, because that is only too obvious; what we do need is a doctrine which questions our noblest aims and reminds us of the mingling of evil with good in the best of our actions.

David Anderson, in his The Tragic Protest (© SCM Press Ltd., 1969; used by permission of John Knox Press), John Knox Press, 1969, p. 171.

[The] work of one of the most able contemporary fabulists, William Golding, contains a rigid schematization that tends to force response on the basic of agreement or disagreement with the validity of the author's controlling abstraction. Lord of the Flies (1954), by its very form, insists on the recognition of the truth of the orthodox Christian version of essential human depravity: the concept and meaning of the novel rely on the validity of its Christian parallels. Similarly, the whole organization and direction of Free Fall (1959) depends on accepting the relevance of the Faustian bargain, the anguish of selling one's soul to Satan, just as The Spire (1964) is dependent on realizing the combination of pain and glory in building the monument that aspires to touch the heavens. To question whether the bargain for the soul is applicable to contemporary experience, or to ask if aspiration is really crucially important for man, to wonder about what Satan or the heavens are or even what they might stand for as metaphors, is to destroy the impact of either novel. Golding's novels are so tightly shaped, so intricately structured, that they rest almost entirely on the acceptance of the authenticity of their Christian parallels. Yet when, as in The Pyramid (1967), Golding abandons the fable for three tenuously related episodes in the development of a young man, he frequently lapses into sentimentality. Golding seems to require the rigidity of the fable, the strength of fictional commitment to Christian belief to give shape to his own perceptions about experience. The rigidity of his own shapes, his fables, demands an equal rigidity from the reader.

James Gindin, in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 341-42.

The Pyramid is informed throughout by the prevailing note of irony apparent in all of Golding's work, but the narrative tone, perhaps best described as tragicomic, is new—at least in the degree to which it is employed here. Golding once characterized Pincher Martin (1956) as "a blow on behalf of the ordinary universe," and perhaps his subsequent novels may also be identified as such. However, as one may conclude from the direction of his development through Free Fall (1959) and The Spire, Golding has come to believe that such blows may best be struck by attempting to recreate that universe in terms more comprehensive, less symbolically intense. In a review of The Pyramid Denis Donoghue goes even farther, proposing that Golding would perhaps "like nothing better than to write a loose baggy monster of a novel, possessed of life to the degree of irrelevance." Donoghue judges The Pyramid as an attempt on a modest scale to write such a novel, as "an embarrassment, a disaster," because Golding's imagination is "alien to memory."

In dealing with a writer of Golding's stature, one feels compelled to reexamine his apparent failures—like Free Fall—to avoid judgments based on misunderstanding of their purposes, and to measure their possible contributions to the further development of his art. The Pyramid seems to represent an effort by Golding to explore the life of social man through fuller commitment to the mode of fiction, or as Donoghue would have it, memory, indeed an appropriate term in relation to The Pyramid. For Oliver's story is an exercise in reminiscence; and more important, the novel is full of correspondences to Golding's life and earlier works. In The Pyramid, as in his previous novels, Golding reexamines the sources of the insight that motivates the work at hand, this time traceable in large part to his own past. Knowing Golding's methods, one may not be surprised that his first real "autobiographical" novel was written only after it could be sufficiently justified by thematic and technical necessity….

The structure of The Pyramid invites comparison with Pincher Martin and Free Fall, since all three novels incorporate discontinuous time schemes and flashbacks. Golding's purposes differ, of course, from one novel to the other: the flashbacks in Pincher Martin hardly produce a coherent, substantial study of Martin's life and times; and Free Fall, too, is ultimately more concerned with Sammy than his surroundings; but both novels were assailed for their failure to create a sufficiently convincing sense of social reality, a sense that is definitely present in The Pyramid. The time scheme of The Pyramid is much less puzzling, less liable to misunderstanding than those of the earlier books; unburdened like Chris by the fear of reality, or like Sammy by the desire for significance, Oliver narrates clearly and at a leisurely pace; and the self-completeness of each episode leaves the reader free to draw parallels and infer thematic relationships as he will, without obvious authorial manipulations. Indeed, The Pyramid seems much like a second version of Free Fall, with more substantially realized—because more autobiographical—plot and characters, and less overt concern with the problems of significance and communication that were apparently resolved in The Spire….

Perhaps the most useful source of insight into Golding's symbolism in The Pyramid is "Egypt from My Inside" (The Hot Gates,… in which he discusses his life-long interest in Egyptology). Here, he identifies modern man with the ancient Egyptians in his capacity for banality, greed, and cruelty, and speaks of "our ant-like persistence in building a pyramid of information" …, drawing a parallel between modern man's exaltation of science and the purely scientific aspect of the Egyptian pyramids. Despite these similarities, and the social tyranny and "ponderous self-advertisement" … represented by the ancient pyramids, Golding nonetheless accepts them as the stuff of vision, "the thumbprint of a mystery"…. For it is the secret within the pyramid that makes it, like Jocelin's spire, a true symbol, "that which has an indescribable effect and meaning"…. In the depths of the tomb is the puzzling answer to the Sphinx's riddle of Free Fall: "Man himself …, timelessly frozen and intimidating, an eternal question mark"….

Turning to The Pyramid, one sees clearly how it embodies the ideas that Golding discusses in "Egypt from My Inside." For the novel treats the social aspect of the pyramid—its banality and hierarchial preoccupation, its exaltation of science over art—from base to apex. It focuses, too, on the mystery, the human enigma that Oliver, bound by artificial social strictures and his growing faith in science, ignores until almost too late. With De Tracy, Oliver misses the mystery almost completely; with Evie, he senses it incompletely and merely in relation to her. Only with Bounce Dawlish, appropriately after a visit to her grave, seated amid the relics of her life, does Oliver get inside the pyramid to confront the "eternal question mark" that is man. Only from this confrontation does he gain a measure of insight into his own humanity and that of others, the knowledge that in looking at Henry Williams he sees his own face, that of a man who will "never pay more than a reasonable price". Although Oliver drives away from Stilbourne as a man who cannot "love selflessly," he is at least aware of his condition. The bleak consolation of self-awareness is the most that Golding's novels offer to the majority of men as a possible source of qualified salvation.

Clearly, The Pyramid is much more complex than most of its early reviewers and critics have found it to be; the book is as symbolically dense as any of Golding's previous novels while at the same time dealing more extensively with the contemporary world and exploring new dimensions of characterization and human interrelationship. Much of the added social breadth and detail of the novel [stem] from its autobiographical aspects; much remains in Oliver's story, however, that cannot be easily traced to autobiographical sources or to the working out of its intricate symbolic pattern. A close reexamination of the book reveals that here, as in Free Fall, Golding's imagination apparently challenges the vision of a towering literary figure: The Pyramid, Golding's first real attempt at a social novel, seems to parallel ironically the finest social novel of England's greatest social novelist, Charles Dickens. Oliver's story corresponds, in a number of important respects, to that of Pip, the protagonist of Great Expectations.

The parallel is suggested even by general likenesses: both novels deal with the central theme of spiritual blindness, as caused both by the pressures of society and individual obsession; both emphasize in similar ways the power of selfless love and count the cost in guilt and wasted lives of blindness to its necessity; both are first-person narratives of a young man's journey in such darkness to a somber self-awareness of his guilt in middle-age; both possess an anecdotal flavor and a tendency to derive both humor and insight from human eccentricity and the ironic possibilities of an immature narrator….

The intent of such a parallel would seem twofold: to render Golding's criticism of the modern world more trenchant; and more important, to "correct" Dickens' novel, both thematically and technically. On the one hand, Golding underscores, by comparison with Dickens' fictional world, the banality and meanness of his own; in almost every instance …, the modern characters are distinctly diminished in moral or dramatic stature in comparison with their nineteenth-century counterparts, and their world, consequently, is a duller, less hopeful place. This is precisely Golding's point: the world of The Pyramid, unlike that of Great Expectations, is carefully pruned of any sentimentality that might soften its somber theme. Conversely, the issue of guilt is deliberately clouded in The Pyramid, to emphasize the complexities that plague modern man's attempts either to affix or accept moral responsibility….

Without clearcut villains, The Pyramid has no Dickensian melodrama and coincidence, digression and repetition…. Although The Pyramid succeeds in presenting a more "realistic" and concentrated embodiment of its themes than does Great Expectations, it does so at considerable cost in other important fictional elements. Golding's apparent reduction of Dickens' world to a size that corresponds to the world of his own vision demonstrates not only the persistent single-mindedness of that vision and his confidence in his own powers, but also his present limitations as a writer. If The Pyramid creates a world more typical than that of Great Expectations and presents an accurate picture of modern man's isolation from his fellows, it also sacrifices Dickens' wider sense of humanity, his delight in weaving a complex and fascinating web, not primarily of symbols, but of human action. Perhaps more important, The Pyramid sacrifices the high dramatic tension, not only of Dickens' novel, but of Golding's own earlier works.

The Pyramid shows Golding once more in a state of artistic flux, expanding his own vision beyond its former limitations, but at the same time unwilling to abandon himself completely to chaos. Unlike Dickens, he is not yet, and perhaps will never be, a writer who "revels in the vitality of the ordinary universe."…

Perhaps the major difficulties that Golding faces in a future working out of his expanding vision may be seen by focusing on two related features of his first six novels. The first of these is his tendency, as in The Pyramid, to use works by other writers as ironic foils of his own, his tendency to say, like Sammy Mountjoy [in Free Fall], "Not that—but this!"

The second feature of Golding's works that must be resolved, if his new approach to fiction is to succeed, is his apparent inability to find in the contemporary social world more than the vitiated drama and tragedy of such characters as Oliver and Sammy Mountjoy. Only in The Spire, which is far from contemporary, does Golding seem to create a fully integrated blend of the historical and the tragic. Perhaps the answer lies … in his choice of protagonists. Golding's art, reactive as it is, seems to require as a protagonist a foil of sufficient stature to allow his vision the detachment it needs to realize its full dramatic power. In his last three novels only one protagonist, Jocelin, of The Spire, has been a successful foil; Sammy and Oliver—perhaps because of their autobiographical aspects—seem too close to Golding to lend themselves to such treatment. The requirement of a foil, so much akin to his use of literary parallels, is at once Golding's most striking limitation and a major source of his unique power.

Arnold Johnston, "Innovation and Rediscovery in Golding's The Pyramid," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XIV, No. 2, 1972, pp. 97-112.

Glancing … back into Golding's career—to Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955)—we recall that he has long had the knack for manipulating the time machine in the Wellsian manner. He has also proven himself a very knowledgeable anthropologist, with some romantic tendencies perhaps, yet always capable of blending science and art through a kind of stylistic alchemy which seems to make the two cultures one. "The Scorpion God," the [title] story in the new volume, is pure Golding. Though the others are not so impressive, once the reader learns to play the mental games they require, he is in for some hilarious fun. The comic spirit is everywhere evident, but this fact alone does not signify a completely new phase in Golding's art or thought. The comic element is not new; it is possible to look at the grotesque limitations of human nature as either comic or tragic, and Golding has already tried these extremes. The Scorpion God, however, avoids simplistic extremes and creates instead a more subtle serio-comic perspective. The ultimate effect represents a considerable gain in sophistication as well as a valuable clarification in Golding's mature views on evolution and history.

These virtues are achieved via the familiar techniques. Ever since the publication of The Inheritors we have grown to expect certain difficulties, certain functional obscurities, and the new stories present these old challenges…. There are various means of complicating this game, and at one time or another Golding has used them all: the usual radical movement backwards or forwards in historical or geological time opens several possibilities; there is also the device of transposition from one cultural and religious dispensation to another; time and space exhausted, a further range of complications may be opened by showing the autonomy of individual psychological worlds inhabited by people moving in the same social context; and, finally, all of these situations can be riddled with further ironies by introducing an outsider from another island with his own repertoire of manners, mores and psychological quirks. The aim is always the same—to dramatize the logical and psychological integrity of conflicting points of view, and ultimately, the mind's failure to grasp the greater reality that lies beyond all its petty patterns….

In New Maps of Hell (1960), an historical survey of science fiction, Kingsley Amis concluded that Golding was an unusually serious and sophisticated writer in that tradition, but this is not very flattering and certainly not an adequate indication of Golding's aims or achievements. He is not really a futurologist. We are dropped down at different points in time, among strange peoples, only to be shown that something essentially human and unchangeable endures through time—our mythopoeic genius. Thus it would be better to rank Golding as one of the major novelists of sensibility who (along with Lawrence, Forster, Durrell and others) has made a special study of the modern mentality and its particular deficiencies; or, alternatively, it might be even more accurate to think of Golding as a philosophical novelist intent on the abiding essences of experience, so much so that he tends to neglect the topical excitements recorded by the sociological novelists. The comparison with Wells is no more than superficially attractive, since it breaks down at the level of themes and values. Wells traveled back and forth along the track of time for the purpose of measuring and demonstrating the advancing course of evolution and the still greater things to come in the distant future, but neither we nor Golding share his confidence in evolution or in the imminent triumph of scientific humanism….

The binding theme of The Scorpion God suggests more clearly than ever before that Golding belongs in the modernist tradition. One must not be deceived by the ancient settings. The stories mock what Yeats called the "myth of progress"; they are written in a spirit of worldly cynicism which accommodates the ambiguities of experience; they are neither tragic nor purely comic….

Golding's idea of the novelist is … [that he] must remain intransigent in the face of accepted beliefs and insist upon alternative perspectives, obscure rhythms, beneath the surface of contemporary clichés. Like Forster, he disowns all metaphysical systems and recognized gods; both novelists show pantheistic inclinations and a longing for the mythic powers of perception to be attained through unity of head, heart, and soul. Until the whole man is born, we shall continue to suffer from the distortions and misjudgments common to limited beings. Both writers agree, we remain troubled and incomplete creatures: evolution is slow; history, meanwhile, a tissue of mad charades. Human nature and history are linked, fused in a single shape, while the indifferent cosmos lives on, following its own rhythm, moving in directions we cannot determine and toward ends we cannot understand.

This point of view on evolution and history is not popular with the general public. The picture of funny little men rotating absurdly on a third-rate planet undermines the ego and undercuts our ambitious hopes. History is drained of its value, time is flattened out, all our politics and sociology reduced to sound and fury. No avid existentialist can accept this. If God is dead, we are not, and we do not willingly relinquish our hold on some mode of progressivism or, at least, faith in an eventual evolutionary breakthrough. Otherwise, we are likely to fall into despair, overwhelmed by the pointlessness of things, the grotesque joke. What vision will orient our lives and sustain us in this cosmic chaos?

In The Scorpion God, and elsewhere, Golding offers little or nothing to satisfy our immediate needs. Obviously, he does not accept the wedding of literature and politics heralded in Sartre's essays on the responsibilities of the writer in modern society. He neglects the headlines and leaders, ignores this week's crisis, and continues to generalize at impractical levels. He does not say whether he thinks the world is dying in the smog or greening up toward a new golden age, and for this failure to conform some reviewers have felt obliged to condemn him. What Golding says may be true, they reason, but it is not the thing to say. Today's anxieties demand recognition today. In a period of crisis and confusion, we expect every writer to give us our due. The political activist is not amused.

It is possible to turn these imperious judgments around and argue that the decline in Golding's popularity since the mid-sixties is an indicator of his qualities. He has established an identity which places him outside of the clichés of the decade: he does not speak for the Establishment; he does not support pot-party dreams of a pastoral counter-culture. Many of the great modernists have declined for the same reasons.

James R. Baker, "Golding's Progress," in Novel, Fall, 1973, pp. 62-70.

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Golding, William (Vol. 2)


Golding, William (Vol. 8)