William Golding Golding, William (Gerald)

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(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,...

(The entire section is 13,853 words.)