William Golding Golding, William (Gerald) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William (Gerald) Golding 1911–

English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and poet. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 8, 10, 17.

Golding, who won the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature, is a widely read and seriously discussed author. His first and best-known work, The Lord of the Flies (1954), not only established Golding's reputation as a significant contemporary author, but also presented what has become his main theme: the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul. Although it was several years after its original publication before the novel gained popularity in the United States, it has now become a modern classic, studied in most high schools and colleges. Set in the near future, Lord of the Flies revolves around a group of school boys abandoned on a desert island during a global war. They attempt to establish a government among themselves, but without the restraints of civilization they quickly revert to savagery. Similar in background and characters' names to R. M. Ballantyne's nineteenth-century classic The Coral Island, Lord of the Flies totally reverses Ballantyne's concept of the purity and innocence of youth and humanity's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions.

Although none of Golding's subsequent works achieved the success of Lord of the Flies, he has continued to produce novels that elicit widespread critical interpretation. Within the thematic context of exploring the depths of human depravity, the settings range from the prehistoric age (The Inheritors, 1955) to the Middle Ages (The Spire, 1964) to contemporary English society. This wide variety of settings, as well as the vastly different tones and surface structures of his novels present dilemmas to critics attempting to categorize them. Nevertheless, certain stylistic devices are characteristic of his work. One of these, the use of a sudden shift of perspective, has been so dramatically employed that it both enchants and infuriates critics and readers alike. For example, Pincher Martin (1956) is the story of a naval officer who is stranded on a rock in the middle of the ocean after his ship has been torpedoed. The entire book relates Martin's struggles to remain alive against all odds. The reader learns in the last few pages that Martin's death occurred on the second page, thus transforming the novel from a struggle for earthly survival into a struggle for eternal salvation.

Golding's novels are often termed fables or myths. They are laden with symbols (usually of a spiritual or religious nature) so heavy in significance that they can be interpreted on many different levels. The Spire is perhaps the most polished example, equating the erection of a cathedral spire with the protagonist's conflict between his religious faith and the temptations to which he is exposed. Darkness Visible (1979), Golding's first novel after a silence of twelve years, continues to illuminate the universal confrontation of Good and Evil. Golding was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel in 1980.

Golding's experience as a member of the Royal Navy during World War II informs many of his novels, most notably the recent Rites of Passage (1980). This allegorical work, set in the early nineteenth century, takes place on a ship en route from England to Australia. The voyage serves as a device to isolate a microcosm of British society, allowing Golding to further develop his theme of the darkness inherent in human nature. Rites of Passage earned Golding the Booker McConnell Prize in 1980. Although Golding has ventured into other literary forms including the recently released collection of miscellaneous essays, A Moving Target (1982), his reputation derives from the strength of his novels.

Edward Blishen

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Few in recent years can have written better than William Golding about the sea and bullies. Pincher Martin, that terrifying metaphysical sermon, was marvellous about the action of water, the way it moved in the sun or under rain, when lapping that awful rock or being hurled at it in a storm. As for bullies, Lord of the Flies is a sort of treatise on the variety in which they come: and The Inheritors a statement about the supersession of an earlier, gentler human being by Homo Sapiens, your original hooligan.

Rites of Passage brings these strands together in a new fashion. Some time early in the nineteenth century, Edmund Talbot, a young man of aristocratic background, is on his way from England to Australia. It's an odd ship he's on: a man-of-war switched to passenger-carrying. He's keeping a journal for the eye of his godfather, a peer and man of influence, who's asked that it be kept frankly: he hopes to relive his own youth through it….

[On board the ship there] are emigrants, the people, at one end, and gentlemen and ladies at the other: with a white line on the deck to keep them apart. It's an allegory, already, of Regency Britain, and made more powerful by the construction of various devices for bringing about blindness. That's to say, the reader shares the gentlemanly blindness of never actually witnessing the world at the people's end, and the young toff, who's clearly going on to govern the British Empire, is blind to much that is going on under his own nose.

He understands perfectly well the nature of Miss Brocklebank, who is to be taken in a quick disgusted flurry in his cabin—or hutch, as he calls it. He can identify, if not understand,...

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Robertson Davies

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The deep satisfaction we feel in reading and reflecting on William Golding's novels rises from his power to isolate, describe and make real to us moral problems that concern us all. The notable moralists of our day are novelists and poets. Philosophy is remote from the average intelligent person and the churches rarely command his allegiance, but for all that he is eager to come to grips with serious problems of morality. Much popular fiction offers him nothing but a reflection of the easy, fashionable despair of those who paddle timidly in the shallows of experience, but William Golding tackles moral problems head on, and wrestles them to the floor.

How does he do it? His mind possesses a coherent, compassionate but unsentimental attitude toward life and mankind, and his scale of values, though not inflexible, is firm. In the broad sense of the term it is a religious mind, because it is engaged with the great themes of our existence and will not be content with easy, pessimistic approaches to them. Too often pessimism is achieved by ignoring whatever cannot be made to fit its needs. His reflections present themselves to him in the form of fiction, and here again he is not satisfied with the bonelessness that contents those contemporary writers whose novels remind us of Edward Lear's flopsican mopsican Bear. He brings a formidable professionalism to his writing, and his novels have the completeness that marks them as works of art….

[In his latest book, Rites of Passage, Golding's] splendid professionalism shows in the skill with which he takes the device of the personal journal and the letter, so familiar from the fiction of the period he has chosen for his story, and gives them convincing period quality, while at the same time insinuating into them a...

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Michael Waterhouse

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Although Darkness Visible (1979) is one of [Golding's] most forceful novels and it is certainly one of his most ambitious, it is surprisingly disorganized. Here we have the moral discussion placed right at the heart of society in the nineteen-sixties, as made familiar by the hallmarks of decline we read about in our newspapers: marital breakdown, sexual promiscuity and deviation, prejudices of all kinds and an attempted kidnapping. Some of the book is reminiscent of The Pyramid; the crises of youth experienced by both Matty and Sophy are told with the same witty compassion that tracked Olly through his adolescence. But there is also a far more sinister element. The first part of the narrative is primarily concerned with Matty, the second with Sophy, and in the third they, and most of the subsidiary characters, come together in the kidnapping with which the plot climaxes. That might appear taut enough, but although the events seem to follow a plausible sequence, there is a disparity between the characters and all they do, and a sense that underlying this crammed package of incidents there is an area of character interest which is touched on but which never surfaces. The Miltonic title seems to authorize this reticence. Darkness Visible begins and ends in flames and in between all we do see is hellish 'sights of woe', on which little light is shed, morally or psychologically.

As a child Matty was discovered in a Blitz fire, horribly disfigured and retarded, and he spends his early years moving from one job to another, ostracized and unloved. He travels to Australia, has his genitals crushed by an aborigine, and returns to England, obsessed with religion and convinced of his 'vision' (reminding us of Jocelin and Simon). Sophy, on the other hand, is very attractive, brought up in a comfortable middle class home, and bored. She experiments with sex and petty thieving, and then plans to kidnap—as much for reckless enjoyment as the promise of wealth—a young boy at the school where Matty works in the garden. The attempt fails, Matty dies in the fire which results, and Sophy flings about, desperate and unsure what to do. Golding draws no conclusions. Matty's vision that his 'mission' has something to do with the school and something to do with Sophy is proved correct, but then his prediction that the world will end on 6/6/66 is not. That the novel lacks a direction for its moral discourse may be to its credit; the experience it recounts is formless and Matty and Sophy are necessarily inarticulate. But for the novel to have succeeded as the tour de force it could have been, it needed to establish more firmly a causal connection between the degeneracy and the violence, and the society which bred them. For Golding, explanation and understanding strengthen a fiction; the novelist must search out plausible explanations for actions, no matter how thin they are. As it is, many of the characters and events of Darkness Visible seem to be on the periphery—Matty, handicapped and fanatical, Pedigree the pederast, the dropouts with which Sophy surrounds herself, and the whole alien world of the sequence in the Australian outback. The jumble of too many events clogs the novel and leaves us with an impression of bleakness that is essentially unintelligible.

It is tempting to argue that the new novel solves all the problems, but that would be to overstate the case. Rites of Passage is not as ambitious a novel as Darkness Visible and the journal format would have been inappropriate, as demonstrated by the constraints of the short section devoted to Matty's diary in Darkness Visible. It does, however, resolve the difficulty of finding a suitable setting in time and place and the shift of perspective has found its proper position within the novel's structure. Although the reader must make some effort to follow the 'tarpaulin' language and the period conventions of speech (indeed, part of the book's quality lies in its sophisticated use of what, at times, approaches pastiche), it has nothing like the remoteness of The Inheritors or The Spire. The isolation of these characters is...

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William Boyd

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Towards the end of William Golding's latest novel—Rites of Passage—its protagonist Edmund Talbot remarks to a naval lieutenant that 'life is a formless business, Summers, Literature is much amiss in forcing a form on it!' The notion is a central one in Golding's work and also in any appreciation of it, for literature, we are now fully aware, cannot do else other than impose a form, even when aping life at its most random and contingent. From one point of view Dean Jocelin's vision and construction of his cathedral spire is a prolonged debate on the futility of the entire purpose of trying to shape and create something out of redoubtably intractable material—the writer's problem no less than the medieval...

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David Montrose

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Just as Eliot's criticism is read more to learn about Eliot than, say, Marston or Massinger, so [A Moving Target, a] collection of lectures, essays, reviews, and travel articles, will be read primarily for sights of the author rather than in expectation of intrinsic merit. Golding will not be pleased with this state of affairs … he dislikes 'value by association', disparaging in 'My First Book', the situation whereby his Poems, published in 1934, 'has been on offer in the United States at 4,000 dollars'. The dislike is at least partly justified; like Eliot's essays, some of Golding's occasional pieces—as The Hot Gates (1965) demonstrated—repay perusal on their own account.


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Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

William Golding is evidently a bit fed up with being the author of Lord of the Flies. It was greeted with proper applause when it came out in 1954, but soon became the livre de chevet of American youth, and, worse, a favoured text in the classroom in the years of the great boom in Eng Lit, when a sterile popular variety of the New Criticism was encouraging all manner of dreary foolishness; whereupon the cognoscenti turned away, and called the book naive. Yet it was indeed a noble and a novel performance, to be followed in quick succession by two even more remarkable books, The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956)…. The powerful, idiosyncratic voice came through again—always on...

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Ian Gregor and Mark Kinkead-Weeks

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The first impression of [Rites of Passage] is its 'immediate accessibility'. Not since Lord of the Flies has a Golding novel enjoyed such happy recognition, indeed it is difficult to resist the thought that part, at least, of the success of Rites of Passage came in the form of re-assurance, that the author of the earlier novel was alive and well, and that the quarter century which separated the two books had not diminished his narrative power. There was a similar recreation of detail and atmosphere, the south sea island replaced by a ship of the line. The smell, the cramped quarters, the clanking pumps, the sand and gravel in the bilge, the constantly tilting decks, the wind in the ropes—the...

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Virginia Tiger

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The fiercely obdurate quality of Golding's imaginative achievement—what has been called his poetic intensity—derives from his ability to construct solidly patterned novels on foundations of the most daring verbal modes. His technical range is great, encompassing material as diverse as a sailor's sea-washed body, the befuddled encounter of prelapsarian creatures with rapacious interlopers, an 18th-century sea voyage across the equator. Yet, however, heterodox his fictional topographies may be, his seminal themes, like those of other obsessional artists, are limited and homogeneous. Each of Golding's novels represents another face carved from his earliest, most deeply held conviction that the two signs of man are...

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Gabriel Josipovici

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In his preface [to A Moving Target] Golding explains that five of the pieces included began life as lectures. And he says: "When you get down to it, what an audience wants to hear from a novelist is how he writes. Since how he writes is in intimate association with what he is and how he lives the novelist finds himself in danger of being his own raw material." He goes on: "I have always tried to resist this and have always given way in the end so that at last I find myself talking about myself with the grossest liberality. This leads to nothing but self-disgust." I find the tone of this disturbing. If the self-disgust is genuine, why agree to give the lecture? Even more to the point, why publish such pieces...

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Samuel Hynes

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

I may as well begin with a flat proposition: I think William Golding is the most interesting English novelist now writing…. I'd be rather surprised if [that proposition] were widely accepted; my impression is that Golding tends to be overlooked when the Novelists' League Standings are made up, as though he was known to be good, but at some other game. The rankordering of artists is, of course, unimportant—it's only a book reviewer's parlor game; but it is important to ask why a novelist of such extraordinary originality and power has somehow reached old age without having become an acknowledged classic. (p. 36)

[Golding's] interest has always been in finding possible forms for his moral vision,...

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