Golding, William (Vol. 8)
Golding, William 1911–
A British novelist, poet, playwright, and short story writer, Golding is most famous for his Lord of the Flies which, according to Steven Marcus, is the "only recent novel of imaginative originality that I am aware of which implies that society, insane and self-destroying as it undeniably is, is necessary." See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 10, 17, 27.
William Golding has just turned sixty, an age when a man has made his life, done the best of his work, shaped and expressed his mind if he is ever going to. In Golding's case the work is modest in quantity (he has written a good deal less than Forster, for example), and has come out of a creative career of less than twenty years; nevertheless, it is all of a piece, a unified and impressive accounting of a unique imagination. When those first novels appeared, the originality of their conception was so great that many readers (and some critics) never got beyond the invention to the imagination; the astonishment with which one discovered the minds of the pre-human, or the ego of a dead man was blinding. And to find such an imagination functioning in the 1950s, in England, was even more extraordinary. Golding seemed to belong to no school, to exist quite outside fashion; one could not even be certain that he had read Joyce.
Now that the shock is past, we can see that Golding is in fact a very conservative novelist, as he is a conservative thinker. This is not to say that he is not original, but only that his originality has not needed more than the traditional novelistic tools to express itself. He does not play with reality, and he does not, like many novelists since Joyce, hold his readers on the arid level of language. He is concerned to tell a story, to engross, and to render experience. But he is also and above all concerned that experience should reveal its meaning, that fiction should tell truths; that is to say, he is a serious moral artist.
Golding has never been much concerned with the immediate present, and certainly seems to have no feeling that the present moment in human history is unique. His classical training, and his amateur interests in Egyptology and archaeology have encouraged him to see man's story as an evolving one, and have fed that quality of his mind that is most individual, and that makes him irreplaceable—his sense of the human species. His humanity reaches back beyond history, and finds us there; he is an anthropologist of the imagination. He is primarily interested in the cruxes in the evolution of consciousness, and the childhood of individuals or the childhood of races serves him equally well, providing those points at which a mind opens imaginatively to knowledge, learns to use fire or to impose discipline, learns evil or love or the nature of death. His courage in attempting such subjects is admirable, and when he has failed, he has failed courageously….
Golding has said that he wrote The Inheritors to refute Wells's Outline of History, and one can see that between the two writers there is a certain filial relation, though strained, as such relations often are. They share the fascination with past and future, the extraordinary capacity to move imaginatively to remote points in time, the fabulizing impulse, the need to moralize. There are even similarities in style. And surely now, when Wells's reputation as a great writer is beginning to take form, it will be understood as high praise of Golding if one says that he is our Wells, as good in his own individual way as Wells was in his.
"Origins of the Species," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd., 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), November 5, 1971, p. 1381.
[In Pincher Martin] Golding used [the traditional Robinson Crusoe formula, or Robinsonade] to establish in the reader's mind a sense of the ideal vision of natural and divine benevolence that its formulaic embodiments sustained. With the formulaic story in mind, the reader is made aware … of the ironic discrepancy between the ideal vision of benevolence sustained in the formula and the harsh reality of man and nature as Golding saw it. Golding is thus able to make both incident and diction ironic through the use of conventional elements from the formula….
The hero of Pincher Martin, Christopher Hadley Martin, is, as one might by now expect, shipwrecked upon a desert island. Nature on the island is, in a very limited and a very harsh sense, if that is possible, benevolent, in that food and water are available, even on an island that turns out to be composed of pure rock. Mussels attached to the rock provide food, along with something odious that Martin refers to as "red sweets." Obviously, the benevolence of nature in Golding's world is scarcely that which prevails in [earlier Robinsonades]. The island provides housing for Martin, a shed formed by a slab of rock under which he is somewhat protected from the elements. Unhappily, no goats, nor pigs, nor any animal, for that matter, have been left there by altruistic ship captains, and their absence is as important to Golding's vision as their presence was within the traditional Robinsonade. Martin is, like so many of his predecessors, a wily survivalist; he is capable of using his tools intelligently, and of applying a very rational mind to his dilemma. (p. 46)
Like his predecessors, the mastery of his environment is Christopher Martin's aim…. Of course, unlike the efforts of heroes of traditional Robinsonades, who do indeed dominate their environment, Christopher's efforts do not lead to survival, nor, as they do for most, to spiritual salvation. Once again, the formulaic expectations are violated for ironic ends. (pp. 46-7)
Golding's use of the Robinsonade formula enables a relatively direct ironic inversion of plot and language in order to propose a naturalistic explanation for the human condition. The ways in which the fiction relates to ideological shifts are made more explicit through the study of Golding's fiction along with the formula from which it derives. One may also see in the comparison aspects of the relationship between serious and popular literature. Golding's novel serves as a commentary upon the meaning of the fiction from the popular realm, and thereby, of course, a commentary upon the belief of a great number of people. On the other hand, the popular fiction provided plot, specific incident, and metaphor for the serious author. (p. 48)
Tom R. Sullivan, in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1974 by Ray B. Browne), Summer, 1974.