William Golding 1911–
English novelist, short story writer, dramatist, essayist, and poet. See also William Golding Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3, 8, 10, 27.
In all of his works, Golding treats the conflict between the forces of light and dark which are present in each individual. Golding's works have been called fables, but he prefers "myth"—that "which comes out from the roots of things in the ancient sense of being the key to existence, the whole meaning of life, and experience as a whole."
Before and after World War II, Golding taught English and philosophy at Bishop Wordsworth's School in Salisbury. In his first and best known work, Lord of the Flies, Golding uses a group of school boys as his central characters and abandons them on a desert island during a nuclear war with no adult supervision. They attempt to establish a government among themselves, but without the restraints of civilization they quickly revert to primitive savagery. Similar in background and choice of character's 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 civilized man's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions. Golding himself says the purpose of the novel is to trace the defects of society back "to the defects of human nature." Many critics feel its popularity among high school and college students equals that of J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, and it is often considered the most important novel of the 1950s.
In The Inheritors, Golding turns to the prehistoric age where he depicts the destruction of Neanderthal man by our own progenitors, Homo sapiens. Here, Golding draws on H. G. Wells's Outline of History and refutes his description of Neanderthal man as the evil original of the fairy-tale ogre—Golding sees Neanderthal man as totally innocent, destroyed by the evil Homo sapiens. Most of the action is seen from the viewpoint of the Neanderthal Lok, who thinks in pictures rather than words; thus the book becomes a series of images representing man's fall from innocence. Pincher Martin 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 struggle to remain alive against all odds. His death, which is only confirmed in the last pages, appears to have actually occurred on the second page, transforming the struggle into one for his soul rather than his life. The Spire describes the conflict between faith in God and personal aspirations.
Free Fall and The Pyramid are departures in setting for Golding. They function on one level as mere tales of man passing from youth to maturity in contemporary society. On the other hand, they deal with the same themes and moral preoccupations of the other novels—that humans are flawed and imperfect creatures. Golding's first novel in twelve years, Darkness Visible, again explores the human condition in terms of the good/evil conflict.
Golding's pessimistic attitude toward humanity stems from the atrocities he observed in the war while serving in the Royal Navy. Although all of Golding's works are extensively discussed and interpreted, he is often misread because of their rigid structure and style. Some critics find Golding's allegories inadequate in upholding reality. Received enthusiastically at first, interest in his books tends to wane as critics decide that the work is alien to contemporary thought.
Golding's novels can be read on many levels, which makes him extremely popular among students and teachers alike. All of his works have very different settings and narratives, yet all have the same basic theme. Even though Golding has ventured into other literary forms, his career is built on the strength of his novels. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 8, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 5-8, rev. ed.)