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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...
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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.)
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One is impressed by the possibilities of [Golding's theme in "Lord of the Flies"] for an expression of the irony and tragedy of man's fate. Against his majority of little savages he places a remnant that convincingly represents the saving element of human heroism, thereby posing the eternal moral conflict. But he cannot quite find his meaning in this material. The heroes come to a bad end, having contributed nothing to such salvation as the society achieves. There is a great deal of commotion, and the last page is nothing more than a playwright's contrivance for bringing down the curtain. One is left asking: What was the point?…
In Mr. Golding's novel … the novelist's vision conflicts with that of the textbook anthropologist. The novelist sees good opposed to evil; he recognizes the existence and the utility of heroes. But the social scientist deals only with amoral phenomena. In his termite society the novelist's heroes are social misfits who must come to a bad end, one suspects, to confirm the tacit assumption that maladjustment is undesirable. The intimidated novelist, thus opposed by the misplaced authority of science, dares hardly suggest even that his heroes save the honor of mankind. The best he can do, at last, is to find a meaningless fulfilment in thrills and horror. His rocket explodes in the air, spectacular for the moment, but leaving only the memory of a light that went out and the dead stick of an academic conception.
Louis J. Halle, "Small Savages," in The Saturday Review (copyright © 1955 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 42, October 15, 1955, p. 16.
Mr. William Golding has talents of an unusual order. His second novel, The Inheritors, illustrates the truth of Dr. [Samuel] Johnson's remark that "uncommon parts require uncommon opportunities for their exertion." The theme is the impact of early man on his near-human predecessors, creatures of a Neanderthal type….
Cruel, brilliant man dazzles their slow gentleness and the book is a threnody for a world of reverence and peace. Whether or not the Neanderthalers had the almost Buddhist veneration for other forms of life with which Mr. Golding credits them, whether the limited thought-processes he so skilfully suggests could have achieved such a concept as "blame," are questions to leave to the anthropologist and the philosopher. Mr. Golding has the authority of real imaginative power to make his creatures what he will. Even at its most obscure his book has a strange, compelling force and his use of language is vivid and fresh. To bring off what he has tried to do would be an astonishing feat. He has come near enough to it to prove his outstanding powers.
"Blessed Are the Meek," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1955; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2799, October 21, 1955, p. 617.
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"Lord of the Flies" is an allegory on human society today, the novel's primary implication being that what we have come to call civilization is, at best, no more than skin-deep. With undertones of [George Orwell's] "1984" and [Richard Hughes's] "High Wind in Jamaica," this brilliant work is a frightening parody on man's return (in a few weeks) to that state of darkness from which it took him thousands of years to emerge.
Fully to succeed, a fantasy must approach very close to reality. "Lord of the Flies" does. It must also be superbly written. It is. If criticism must be leveled at such a feat of the imagination, it is permissible perhaps to carp at the very premise on which the whole strange story is founded.
How did these children come to be on the island at all? And why, among them, were there no grown-ups? Although Mr. Golding's answer is simple, it may not convince everyone. The boys have been "dropped" in the "passenger tube" of a plane during an attack in an atomic war; the pilot has been seen to vanish in flames. This possibility once accepted, even the most skeptical reader will surely be carried away by the story's plausibility and power, by its skillfully worked-out progress, by the perfection of its characterization, dialogue and prose….
[One] figure stands out, a character known to us all: the Fat Boy, commonly called "Piggy." This boy, however, has brains, and he is almost blind. And it is his blindness, by excruciating irony, that finally saves the lives of the surviving boys, while failing to save his own. Piggy is the hero of a triumphant literary effort.
James Stern, "English Schoolboys in the Jungle," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 23, 1955, p. 38.
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Fables are those narratives which leave the impression that their purpose was anterior, some initial thesis or contention which they are apparently concerned to embody and express in concrete terms. Fables always give the impression that they were preceded by the conclusion which it is their function to draw…. (p. 577)
[At the end of Lord of the Flies the] abrupt return to childhood, to insignificance, underscores the argument of the narrative: that Evil is inherent in the human mind itself, whatever innocence may cloak it, ready to put forth its strength as soon as the occasion is propitious. This is Golding's theme, and it takes on a frightful force by being presented in juvenile terms, in a setting that is twice deliberately likened to the sunny Coral Island of R. M. Ballantyne. The boys' society represents, in embryo, the society of the adult world, their impulses and convictions are those of adults incisively abridged, and the whole narrative is a powerfully ironic commentary on the nature of Man, an accusation levelled at us all…. Like any orthodox moralist Golding insists that Man is a fallen creature, but he refuses to hypostatize Evil or to locate it in a dimension of its own. On the contrary Beëlzebub, Lord of the Flies, is Roger and Jack and you and I, ready to declare himself as soon as we permit him to.
The intentness with which this thesis is developed leaves no doubt that the novel is a fable, a deliberate translation of a proposition into the dramatized terms of art, and as usual we have to ask ourselves how resourceful and complete the translation has been, how fully the thesis has been absorbed and rendered implicit in the tale as it is told…. Golding himself provides a criterion for judgement here, for he offers a striking example of how complete the translation of a statement into plastic terms can be. Soon after their arrival the children develop an irrational suspicion that there is a predatory beast at large on the island. This has of course no real existence, as Piggy for one points out, but to the littluns it is almost as tangible as their castles in the sand, and most of the older boys are afraid they may be right. One night when all are sleeping there is an air battle ten miles above the sea and a parachuted man, already dead, comes drifting down through the darkness, to settle among the rocks that crown the island's only mountain…. When it is discovered and the frightened boys mistake it for the beast the sequence is natural and convincing, yet the implicit statement is quite unmistakable too. The incomprehensible threat which has hung over them, is, so to speak, identified and explained: a nameless figure who is Man himself, the boys' own natures, the something that all humans have in common.
This is finely done and needs no further comment, but unhappily the explicit comment has already been provided, in Simon's halting explanation of the beast's identity: "What I mean is … maybe it's only us."… This over-explicitness is my main criticism of what is in many ways a work of real distinction, and for two reasons it appears to be a serious one. In the first place the fault is precisely that which any fable is likely to incur: the incomplete translation of its thesis into its story so that much remains external and extrinsic, the teller's assertion rather than the tale's enactment before our eyes. In the second place the fault is a persistent one, and cannot easily be discounted or ignored. It appears in expository annotations…. Less tolerably, it obtrudes itself in almost everything—thought, action, and hallucination—that concerns the clairvoyant Simon…. The boy remains unconvincing in himself, and his presence constitutes a standing invitation to the author to avoid the trickiest problems of his method, by commenting too baldly on the issues he has raised. Any writer of fables must find it hard to ignore an invitation of this kind once it exists. Golding has not been able to ignore it, and the blemishes that result impose some serious, though not decisive, limitations on a fiery and disturbing story.
The Inheritors, published in 1955, is again an indictment of natural human depravity, though to its author's credit it takes a quite different form. This time the central characters are a group of hairy, simian pre-humans, much like Yahoos in appearance but in other respects very different. (pp. 582-85)
Like its predecessor The Inheritors is a disturbing book to read, passionate, often moving, and with a rich command of irony. (pp. 585-86)
The narrative relies heavily on irony for its pungency, and even the title and the epigraph were clearly chosen for their ironic force. The title reminds us that it was the meek who were to inherit the earth. The epigraph … is tellingly reinterpreted in what succeeds, where all doubt as to who are monsters and who not is soon dispelled. The very core of the book is ironic, for its purpose is to play off against our smug prejudices—like those of the epigraph—a representation of their grounds that is as humiliating as it is unexpected. Irony of this kind is always valuable to an author who wishes to be challenging, as [Jonathan] Swift knew when he put Gulliver in Brobdignag, but what gives it a special value here is its capacity to function instead of an explanatory commentary. We are sufficiently familiar with the ways of men and women to form an adequate idea of the motives of the humans, but their actions are presented through the eyes of Lok and his companions. Thus a persistent discrepancy is maintained between appearances and realities, and it is across this gap that the sparks of irony can crackle most sharply. No explicit comments are needed, for even an inattentive reader can see what is going on, and how it is being misinterpreted. The effect is that propositions pass quite smoothly into plastic terms, leaving no unnecessary residue to clog the prose.
Golding's skill and assurance can be seen throughout The Inheritors, both in this implicit exposition and in the approach he takes, beginning with the people and, by initiating us into their mental processes, establishing their full claim on our sympathy. Only at the end is the viewpoint altered to allow us to identify ourselves with the humans, after seeing Lok from the outside as "the red creature," and by then of course it is too late…. Again, a fable so intimately concerned with semi-mythical creatures might easily seem sketchy or incredible. Yet it is sensuously and persuasively rendered and seems unquestionably real. The people's existence is remote from any conception of existence we possess but its physical conditions are carefully re-created, and any thinness in its subjective texture is naturally referred to the limited awareness they enjoy. Since there is no equivalent to the boy Simon, the irony serving to replace him, the book is also more strictly faithful to the canons of its aesthetic type. It seems to me a marked improvement over Lord of the Flies and that in itself is no mean praise. (pp. 586-87)
The essential point [of The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin] is that this is a story about a dead man. It is about a consciousness so self-centered and so terrified of the infinite that it creates for itself, even in death, a fantasy existence which, however arduous and painful, nevertheless still permits it the luxury of personal identity. Dead as he is, Martin clings savagely to the idea of survival, inventing a rocky outcrop on which he can exist, inventing the conditions of that existence, re-creating his naval identity disc to prove that he is still himself, continually applying the intellect of which he is so impiously proud to obliterate and deny the fact of death. (p. 589)
The book seems to me, in all seriousness, as brilliant a conception as any fable in English prose. Perhaps the execution is not absolutely faultless, but it is impressive, with the interest finely sustained through nearly two hundred pages of ambiguity. Yet the novel is more than a technical tour de force. It has the organization of a poem and, like a good poem, its ultimate power lies less in the resources of its parts than in its scope as a whole. The symbols that it uses—black lightning, eating, the Chinese box—may not be uniformly compelling but they are integrated into a pattern which is, a pattern where the meaning is difficult to exhaust. This is where the book differs from its predecessors, in a sense transcending the mode of fable itself. In the earlier books the thesis to be conveyed is comparatively specific: however trenchantly expressed, however sensitively embodied, it remains finite and in consequence limited, what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed. This one is richer because exploratory, a configuration of symbols rather than an allegory, and for this reason it will bear an intensity of attention that its predecessors could not sustain. Perhaps because it is exploratory it lacks a little of the clarity, and more of the warmth, of The Inheritors…. There is a degree of obscurity too about the symbol of the cellar, representing childhood terror, which seems to me either unnecessary or indicative of a limited but lurking incoherence. And there is some tenuity here and there, the result of conciseness, in the flashes of reality glimpsed in Martin's memories. But these are niggling criticisms. What impresses, beyond the qualification of any minor weakness, is the profundity and power of the emerging pattern, and the assurance that has left it to speak for itself. The book is arresting, with an originality all its own. It is also a penetrating comment on corruptions of consciousness which, however inveterate, are particularly in evidence today—some of them indeed, the less noxious, associated with our preference for fable over fiction.
This brings me back, uneasily, to my original point, that fable tends to tie a writer down within his conscious purposes, restraining him, while the freedom of fiction can draw him out beyond his ascertained abilities. In view of the level of Golding's achievement, especially here, it seems futile to insist that he will never be a major novelist, but the doubt must remain to taunt an admirer like myself. Obviously a man has to write in the vein that suits him best, so that it would be impertinent, and probably destructive, to urge a maker of fables to apply himself to fictions. (pp. 590-92)
To have published three such books as these in as many years, to be capable alike of the compassion of The Inheritors and the brilliance of Christopher Martin, to be able to write with the art and the succinctness that almost every page reveals—capacities of this order, in lean times like ours, inspire something close to awe. Already, working in a recalcitrant mode, he seems to me to have done more for the modern British novel than any of the recent novelists who have emerged. More, it may be, than all of them. (p. 592)
John Peter, "The Fables of William Golding," in The Kenyon Review (copyright 1957 by Kenyon College), Vol. XIX, No. 4, Autumn, 1957, pp. 577-92.
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["The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin", US title for "Pincher Martin",] is one of the most remarkable books of recent years—a short novel which, though it has no explicit social reference, profoundly expresses the philosophic pessimism that has affected so many European intellectuals since the Second World War…. All the twinges of [Christopher Martin's] battered body, the flutters of his agonized spirit, the stirrings of his tortured consciousness register in Mr. Golding's craggy yet highly sensitized prose…. This is more than good description; it is a rendering of sensation into language, the articulation of an experience almost beyond the reach of words.
But "The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin" is not a novel about man's struggle to survive. For a while, it looks as though it may turn out to be yet another celebration of the human will to live, and then Mr. Golding unobtrusively begins nudging us toward an awareness of the discrepancy between Christopher Martin's high estimate of his ability to survive and what he actually manages to do…. What is being tested is not his ability to survive but his belief that will and intelligence by themselves define the value of the human species. This belief is found wanting even on the rock, where, since there is no society, there can be no morality; we have gone through Christopher Martin's ordeal moment by moment, and we are not fully moved by his defiant determination; we are not persuaded that it is what we mean when we say that the human is a special category of creature; our sympathies are not engaged to the point where we feel that he is too precious a thing to be lost. Mr. Golding's triumph is that he gives Christopher Martin everything that could possibly arouse our deepest, most primitive compassion (lone man against the elements) and yet forces us to be critical of this compassion. (p. 189)
Norman Podhoretz, "A Look at Life," in The New Yorker (© 1957 by the New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), Vol. XXXIII, No. 31, September 21, 1957, pp. 189-90.
Mr. William Golding … emerges in his first play, The Brass Butterfly, as a satirist of society and one who brings … a quality of mind to the London stage that is as rare as it is welcome. At first glance his comedy seems based on the fairly simple device of putting an inventor of genius, whose projects include the pressure cooker, the steamship, gunpowder and printing, in the Emperor's villa on the island of Capri in the third century; but, as with all Mr. Golding's work, we keep on sensing hints of something much more profound below the surface. The emperor, the general, the inventor, his sister and the emperor's natural son are a set of characters that enable Mr. Golding to talk a good deal, and often most amusingly, about love and power, invention and romance, peace and war, but without integrating these themes to people who are truly aware of one another.
"The Satirical Mood," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1958; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 2944, August 1, 1958, p. 432.
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[William Golding's] three books, Lord of the Flies (1954), The Inheritors (1955) and Pincher Martin (1956) are romance in the austere sense of the term. They take the leap from the probable to the possible. Lord of the Flies has a strong pedigree: island literature from Crusoe to Coral Island, Orphan Island and High Wind in Jamaica. All romance breaks with the realistic novelist's certainties and exposes the characters to transcendent and testing dangers. But Golding does more than break; he bashes, by the power of his overwhelming sense of the detail of the physical world. He is the most original of our contemporaries…. [Golding] scarcely uses an argument or issues a warning. He simply shakes us until we feel in our bones the perennial agony of our species. By their nature, his subjects … could easily become the pasteboard jigsaw of allegory, pleasing our taste for satire and ingenuity; but the pressure of feeling drives allegory out of the foreground of his stories. He is a writer of intense visual gift, with an overpowering sense of nature and an extraordinary perception of man as a physical being in a physical world, torn between a primitive inheritance and the glimmer of an evolving mind. A dramatic writer and familiar with the strong emotions that go with the instinct of self-preservation—blind love for his kind, hatred, fear and elation—he is without hysteria. He is not cooking up freakish and exotic incident; he is not making large proclamations about man against nature, God, destiny and so on; he is seriously and in precise, individual instances gripped—as if against his will—by the sight of the slow and agonising accretion of a mind and a civilised will in one or two men, struggling against their tendency to slip back, through passion or folly, and lose their skills in panic. And there is pity for the pain they feel.
Pain is the essence of Mr Golding's subject. (p. 146)
Mr Golding's sensibility to pain is the spring of his imagination and if, in all three stories, the heroes are smashed up, he is by no means a morbid or sadistic writer…. In Lord of the Flies we understand that the children are not cut-off; anthropology, the science of how people live together, not separately, reflects the concern of the modern world which has seen its communities destroyed. The children in Lord of the Flies simply re-enact the adult, communal drama and by their easy access to the primitive, show how adult communities can break up. Of course,… Mr. Golding's improbable romances remain improbable; they are narrow and possible. The modern romancer has the uncluttered chance of going straight to the alienation of the individual and to the personal solitude that is one of the forgotten subjects. In our world, which is so closely organised we are hardly aware of what we are privately up to. We use large words like calamity, disaster, racial suicide, devastation; they are meaningless to us until an artist appears who is gifted enough to identify himself with a precise body being washed up against a precise collection of rocks, a precise being sniffing the night air for his enemy or feeling the full force of a particular blow. Until then, we are muffled in our alibi: 'the imagination cannot grasp'.
Lord of the Flies is the most accomplished of Mr Golding's novels. Its portraits of the shipwrecked boys and its understanding of them are touching and delightful and he is master of a rich range of scene and action. In this book his spirit and his serenity are classical. Pincher Martin is more chock-a-block, but it has fine descriptions of the roaring, sucking, deafening sea scene on the rock which we know stone by stone. He is a modern writer here in that his eyes are pressed close to the object, so that each thing is enormously magnified. We see how much a man is enclosed by his own eyes. The important quality of all Golding's descriptions is that they are descriptions of movement and continuous change and are marked by brilliant epithets…. But [Pincher Martin] succeeds less when it takes us into the sailor's chaotic recollections of his life. It contains some flashes back to scenes of jealousy and rivalry which are hard to grasp. It may be that Golding's sense of theatre—often strong in writers of romance—has overcome him here…. But in making us feel in the current in the modern world, instead of being stranded and deadened by it; in providing us with secret parables; in unveiling important parts of the contemporary anguish and making them heroic, knowable and imaginable, he is unique. (pp. 146-47)
V. S. Pritchett, "Secret Parables," in New Statesman (© 1958 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LVI, No. 1429, August 2, 1958, pp. 146-47.
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The device [of shipwrecked boys surviving without adults] is interesting in itself; but rereading Lord of the Flies after the publication of two more major novels by its author should be able to keep it in perspective. It is interesting, certainly, that so evident a master should want to use it; Mr. Golding, who knows boys well enough to make their collapse into savagery perfectly plausible, has, strangely, a profound and tragic interest in what interests them. Among the half-dozen really potent boyhood myths there are two he dwells on; the old one, of an individual or group facing natural problems unaided by adults, and a newer one, of prehistoric fantasy—steaming swamps and megatheria and men primitive in language and techniques. The first makes for tragedy, the second for its explanation; enormously refined, they come together as an animating conviction which is essentially close to Rousseau's l'homme est un animal dépravé.
The price of human consciousness, of technical and linguistic power, is guilt. This theme is not centrally placed in Lord of the Flies, which is therefore much illuminated by The Inheritors, a novel about the supersession of an innocent predecessor by homo sapiens…. The Inheritors is Mr. Golding's most perfect book, ambitious in design and of terrific imaginative force, though, since it is concerned only with the Fall and not with the Last Things, it offers a less complete account of the Golding world than Pincher Martin. Together, these later books suggest that the author is much concerned with redemption. It cannot be had by retreat to primeval innocence; this we know from the superb conclusion of The Inheritors. Nor can the intellect, any more than the pig's snout, command death and hell, or, when the stolen fire destroys, blame its source; but that evil is human, and would vanish if the mind could alter its theme, is what the queer religious Nathaniel tells Prometheus-Pincher in the last, Æschylean novel. It is also what Simon, the sick visionary, discovers in Lord of the Flies….
Always a little nearer to raw humanity than adults, [the children] slip into a condition of animality depraved by mind, into the cruelty of hunters with their devil-liturgies and torture…. Evil is the natural product of their consciousness…. Simon understands, and this is the wisdom Golding treats with awe, that evil is 'only us'….
The texture of Mr. Golding's writing is highly individual and proper to the heroic scale of his fictions. He keeps one aware of many contexts, his men live in a world of rock and sea and amœbæ heaving in the pull of the moon, refusing to be locked fast by human imaginings of good or evil, obstinately talking its own language of sucking, plopping and roaring, against the human language which gives it another kind of life.
Frank Kermode, "Books: Coral Islands," in The Spectator (© 1958 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 201, No. 6791, August 22, 1958, p. 257.
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Amid a literary world dedicated to debating, reporting, or re-editing the effects of the human condition, William Golding on his lonely eminence continues to ponder its cause…. For others the private language, the prestige narcissist obscurantism; he must take up the archaic challenge of the artist, to make known, to attempt communication, and be seen to succeed or fail—a heroism so rare today as to seem almost quixotic. Mr. Golding communicates. His sayings are hard, but no harder than the thought contained in them; he speaks in parables, but they sharpen not fuzz the meaning. His subject is tremendous: man's first disobedience, and the fruit….
[In] "Free Fall" hell is harrowed, the rescued sinner pays the hard redemptive price of self-knowledge; the tissues of the spirit, healed and living, have become capable of pain.
Sammy Mountjoy, a painter and war artist, is in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp…. He is promised torture, then locked in a cell in total darkness to wait. Mr. Golding is a master of the worm's-eye view, the immediate impact, without hind-sight, of catastrophic sensations. Sammy endures a crescendo of terror whose extremity wrings from him a blind, de profundis cry for help; and is released into a new dimension….
He sees …, and here begins his purgation, what men might be, and what he for one has made of himself by gradual successive choice.
It sends him on a pilgrimage back through his life, seeking its point of departure. (The form here is rather arbitrary, flashback doubling round on straight narration, the Gestapo scenes neither climax nor frame; but the content is lucid always.)…
[Sammy] tracks down at last the moment of freedom when he chose with open eyes, selling the best for the good, and setting in motion those laws which must turn the good to evil.
To every life, Mr. Golding seems to say, comes such a crossroads; till we retrace our steps to it, we shall never find our way back home. The hope he offers is an austere one, proper to our time; but he has looked closely at the darkness of the human heart and there is authority in his consolation.
Mary Renault. "To See What Men Might Be," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1960 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLIII, No. 12, March 19, 1960, p. 21.
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Golding is, primarily, a religious novelist: his central theme is not the relationship of man to man but the relationship of man, the individual, to the universe; and through the universe, to God.
The symbolism of his novels is, in essence, theological. Both Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors are concerned with the primal loss of innocence. Pincher Martin, as the last chapter proves, explicitly concerns the sufferings of a dead man who has created his own Purgatory. It is a moral axiom of Golding's that man, and man alone, introduced evil into the world: a view which is hardly separable from the doctrine of Original Sin. To a critic who suggested that good was equally an exclusive human concept, he replied: 'Good can look after itself. Evil is the problem.' This attitude suggests both the emotional strength of his work and the intellectual paradox underlying it. He represents himself, theologically, as what used to be loosely termed a Deist; and yet the whole moral framework of his novels is conceived in terms of traditional Christian symbolism.
Nevertheless, the paradox can be resolved. In the first place a novelist with a fundamental moral problem to communicate must be understood by his audience; and to be understood he must use symbols which are familiar and can be readily apprehended. Secondly, Golding is a man in search of cosmological truth; and it might well be argued that—as he himself has often proclaimed in a slightly different context—the names, the labels, do not matter. It is only the ultimate reality that counts, and must at all costs be communicated. (p. 63)
Golding's explicit purpose [in Lord of the Flies] is to stand the Ballantyne myth on its head…. (p. 64)
Golding's children … are isolated on their desert island for a specific spiritual experiment, much as a scientist might isolate a culture in a Petrie dish; and their behaviour must be considered in the light of their author's known convictions.
At one level Lord of the Flies portrays a gradual reversion to the most primitive and bloodthirsty savagery….
Gradually the shibboleths of twentieth-century civilisation are erased from these middle-class boys' minds….
Behind [the] main narrative structure, as always in Golding's work, we find more universal moral implications. What Ralph weeps for, on the last page, is 'the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart'. (p. 65)
[It] is man who creates his own hell, his own devils; the evil is in him. (p. 66)
Man, Golding says, cherishes his guilt, his fears, his taboos, and will crucify any saint or redeemer who offers to relieve him of his burden by telling the simple truth. Man's heart is dark, and no innocence lives beneath the sun; or if it does, it must, inevitably, suffer and die as Piggy and Simon died, their wisdom and virtue destroyed. (pp. 66-7)
[In The Inheritors] Golding set himself the task of standing a traditional idée reçue on its head. This time he moved on a little, from old complacency to a new one. In Lord of the Flies he had attacked the moral self-satisfaction of Victorian society. In The Inheritors he challenged its successor, the progressivism of evolutionary science. (p. 67)
It is clear that there is a close thematic connection between The Inheritors and Lord of the Flies: Mr. Golding has simply set up a different working model to illustrate the eternal human verities from a new angle. Again it is humanity, and humanity alone, that generates evil; and when the new men triumph, Lok, the Neanderthaler, weeps as Ralph wept for the corruption and end of innocence.
But what most immediately impresses any reader of The Inheritors is its atmosphere of immediacy and realism…. Striking a superb technical balance between external comment (which permits intellectual glossing) and internal impressionism, Mr. Golding recreates convincingly the Neanderthaler's cloudy, static, non-abstract awareness of life. (pp. 67-8)
[Till] the last chapter we see Homo Sapiens entirely from the viewpoint of the Neanderthaler. Again the identification with Lord of the Flies becomes apparent. These new, bony-faced creatures, Tuami and the rest, hunting, performing magic, placating their devils—what are they but Jack and Roger reincarnate in the backwardness of time? From the beginning their triumph is inevitable; with a last flick of malice at Wells, Golding ends his story by making the New Men abduct a Neanderthal baby. Nothing is solved; corruption is complete; evil and knowledge have triumphed.
The Inheritors can be read as an allegory, at one level, of the Fall…. Lok and Fa … become anthropological analogues of Adam and Eve; but it is man himself whom Golding identifies with the Serpent, and who tempts Lok to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. (p. 68)
Mr. Golding makes it quite clear that Pincher's struggle for survival [in Pincher Martin] is not intended to be seen as heroic, but rather as egotistical, in the Hobbesian sense. He is clinging with fierce desperation to his own small, mean pattern of existence. Yet, paradoxically enough, it is just at this point that Pincher—like Milton's Satan—breaks away from his creator's original intention. However despicable his character he nevertheless compels our admiring respect for his epic, unyielding struggle in the face of overwhelming odds….
[He] is a mythic symbol of man's steadfast endurance. He is the much-travelled, long-enduring, crafty Odysseus. He sums up every quality that distinguishes man from the beasts.
To offset this Mr. Golding presents Pincher, in a series of flashbacks, as one of the nastiest characters ever to appear in fiction. For the purposes of Mr. Golding's allegory he has to be: if he were a good man, or even l'homme moyen sensuel, he would never have created this hell for himself in the first place. (p. 70)
This novel suggests the limitations as well as the possibilities of Golding's creative method. Au fond, Golding is a religious mystic, for whom the bulk of mankind is fiercely repellent, and in whose eyes only the saint or the prelapsarian—Simon, Lok, Nathanial—can justify human existence. This has some curious consequences. It virtually excludes the normal range of human relationships which the novel covers. As Mr. Harvey observed, Golding's imagination has always worked at a fair remove from the full body of human life. Only in Pincher Martin—and then only by means of flash-backs—is this rule broken; and here, so loathsome is the glimpse given of man's social behaviour, one returns to the bare wind-swept rock with a sigh of relief….
Golding said that he next wanted to show the patternlessness of life before we impose our patterns on it. In the event, however, [Free Fall] avoids the amoebic paradox suggested by his own prophecy, and falls into a more normal pattern of development: normal, that is, for Golding. In the title itself we can at once recognise his two overriding themes, the perennial conflict. Man is doomed by Original Sin; the Fall is a reality. Yet the will remains free: self-destruction is a matter of choice….
For the first time Golding is presenting us with first-person narrative; and in Sammy we have exactly the type of l'homme moyen sensuel which we missed in Pincher. Both novels use the same system of flashbacks to unite and give depth to the perspective of a single vision, and both depend on the use of delayed shock-treatment. (p. 71)
The web of memory shuttles to and fro: where was the failure, the wrong turning? It is in solitary prison confinement, alone in a dark room, that he comes through the truth—the same truth which Simon discovered in Lord of the Flies—that all terror, fear, despair are born of the human mind, and the human mind alone.
[This] novel is a flawed masterpiece, the inordinately ambitious work of an indisputable genius just missing the centre of the target. Technically, Free Fall buckles a little here and there beneath its cumulative weight of symbolism and flashback, the latter occasionally achieving a probably unintentional ambiguity. Here and there, too, the writing, normally so objective and crystalline, blurs a little, as though from sheer intensity of desire to express the inexpressible. The twin problem of loneliness and communication dogs Sammy, as it has always dogged his creator. But for moral sincerity and splendour of vision this novel towers above most contemporary fiction. Sammy is the character through whom Mr. Golding, one suspects, is beginning to be reconciled to the loss of his primal Eden. (pp. 71-2)
He is intensely, blindingly aware of physical immediacy. This narrowing of focus is Golding's strength; it releases him into cosmic awareness. Despite all his self-imposed limitations, he remains the most powerful writer, the most original, the most profoundly imaginative, to have turned his hand to fiction in England since the war. (p. 72)
Peter Green, "The World of William Golding" (reprinted by permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated; © Longmans, Green & Co. Ltd. 1960), in A Review of English Literature, Vol. 1, No. 2, April, 1960, pp. 62-72.
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Lord of the Flies is probably the most important novel to be published in this country in the 1950s. A story so explicitly symbolic as this might easily become fanciful and contrived, but Golding has mastered the art of writing a twentieth century allegory. (p. 112)
The idea of placing boys alone on an island, and letting them work out archetypal patterns of human society, is a brilliant technical device, with a simple coherence which is easily understood by a modern audience. Its success is due in part to the quality of Golding's Christianity…. In development of plot, descriptions of island and sea, and treatment of character, he explores actual life to prove dramatically the authenticity of his religious viewpoint.
Lord of the Flies is a gripping story which will appeal to generations of readers…. [To] succeed, a good story needs more than sudden deaths, a terrifying chase and an unexpected conclusion. Lord of the Flies includes all these ingredients, but their exceptional force derives from Golding's faith that every detail of human life has a religious significance. This is one reason why he is unique among new writers in the '50s, and why he excels in narrative ability…. Golding can describe friendship, guilt, pain and horror with a full sense of how deeply meaningful these can be for the individual. The terrible fire which kills the young children, the fear of Ralph as he is pursued across the island, and Piggy's fall to his death on the rocks make us feel, in their vivid detail, Golding's intense conviction that every particular of human life has a profound importance. His children are not juvenile delinquents, but human beings realising for themselves the beauty and horror of life.
This faith in the importance of our experiences in this world is reflected in Golding's vivid, imaginative style. He has a fresh, delightful response to the mystery of Nature, with its weird beauty and fantastic variety. (p. 113)
His narrative style has an unusual lucidity and vitality because he never forgets the concrete in his search for symbolic action. (p. 114)
Simon is perhaps the one weakness in the book…. [Alone] among the characters his actions at times appear to be motivated not by the dramatic action, but by the symbolic implications of the story. (p. 116)
At certain stages of the story, Golding deliberately makes us forget that these are only young children. Their drama and conflict typify the inevitable overthrow of all attempts to impose a permanent civilisation on the instincts of man. The surprising twist of events at the end of the novel is a highly original device to force upon us a new viewpoint. The crazy, sadistic chase to kill Ralph is suddenly revealed to be the work of a semi-circle of little boys, their bodies streaked with coloured clay. But the irony is also directed at the naval officer, who comes to rescue them. His trim cruiser, the sub-machine gun, his white drill, epaulettes, revolver and row of gilt buttons, are only more sophisticated substitutes for the war-paint and sticks of Jack and his followers. He too is chasing men in order to kill, and the dirty children mock the absurd civilised attempt to hide the power of evil. And so when Ralph weeps for the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart, and the death of his true, wise friend, Piggy, he weeps for all the human race. (pp. 116-17)
C. B. Cox, "Since 1950: 'Lord of the Flies'," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 2, No. 2, Summer, 1960, pp. 112-17.
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[Pincher Martin] seems … to present, more clearly than any of Golding's other novels, a crystallization of certain distinctive features of his imaginative vision. (p. 247)
Whether or not we know about the ending, the greater part of the story must be read as an account of the experience of a living man struggling for survival in the sea and on the rock; there seems to be no other way of reading it. Only towards the end does this mode of reading give way to a different kind of response and it is essential for the effect of the book that the transition should be gradual. If Golding succeeds in his intention, the 'twist' on the last page should serve only to make us look back on our experience and recognize that our assessment of what we have been reading has indeed undergone a change. If we have really taken Golding's point and grasped the nature of the emerging pattern, the reassessment produced by the revelation of the last line should not be very great.
Golding is here aiming at a special kind of concentration. In each of his first three novels, he has chosen a situation that allows him to strip man down to his bare essentials: almost literally so, since in each the characters wear a minimum of clothing so that we can observe more clearly the "poor, bare, fork'd animal" that is "unaccommodated man"…. In [the earlier novels] the isolating situation is … a social one, but a social situation of a primitive kind, so that it can be argued that there is at least a partial breakdown in the correspondence between the problems of the characters in the stories and those of people living in a civilised society. This partial breakdown is not, I think, a casual accident; Golding has not yet shown himself capable of handling the subtleties of sophisticated social relationships and perhaps he never will; this may be a limitation, but not a damning one. In Pincher Martin, however, the limitation becomes almost a virtue for he turns directly towards his deepest concern, the soul of an individual man, and the potentialities within it for either salvation or damnation. It is a lonely interest and all the novels are lonely books, though none so much so as Pincher Martin. The recollections from Pincher's past life do seek to set his experience against a background of more or less sophisticated modern living, but only his life on the rock is vividly and convincingly represented and that spotlights the man in an isolation that can properly be called metaphysical, since in the last analysis it forces us to face questions about the nature of man as he exists beyond the level of social living. (pp. 247-48)
[Golding's success with allegory in Lord of the Flies] makes his procedure in Pincher Martin all the more surprising.
Not only does he abandon the allegorical framework that enabled him to draw out his significances with precision and some subtlety, but he also abandons all the major ingredients of an exciting story: with only one character, there is no possibility of dramatic conflict in the normally understood sense and the setting, unlike, say, that of Robinson Crusoe, offers little for exploitation. Instead of excitement on the narrative level, Golding draws on our odd but undeniable interest in the simple fact of human activity…. Throughout Golding achieves a remarkable precision in his descriptions of Martin's physical actions and, in so far as the reader is interested in human experience per se, he can be held by such descriptions. There is, however, a very definite limit to this kind of appeal, though the limit can be extended when the actions are closely associated with physical pain and mental suffering.
Martin's sustained agony raises a rather different kind of problem. Golding clearly felt that the terrible suffering of the man on the rock had to be established with considerable precision and elaborate detail because it was an essential element in the total impression he wished to create. But the experience of suffering is scarcely matter for art unless it can be shown to have some meaning and purpose, however obscurely apprehended, and the demand for such explanation grows more urgent as the story, painful to read from the start, becomes more disgusting and humiliating. Golding has then to give meaning to Martin's ghastly experiences without making the whole thing too blatantly symbolic and thus losing the force of the evocation of physical and mental suffering and, moreover, without sacrificing too much of the feeling of a life in which meaningfulness was almost overwhelmed by the minute-to-minute struggle to survive.
Golding achieves a certain flexibility by telling the story in the third person which enables him on occasion to slip out of the restricted circle of the character's own consciousness and to bring to bear on the reader a growing pressure of moral judgement. (pp. 248-49)
From a description of Martin's activity in the water we turn to the question of "the attitude of his consciousness". If this were expressible, it could be described as "a snarl"; in fact, the man was not snarling because "the mouth was slopped full". The snarl is then a 'spiritual' or psychological snarl, but Golding immediately takes up the metaphor as a fact and the sailor becomes "the snarling man". Furthermore, the concentration on the word raises questions about the moral status of snarling in human beings and implies a distinction between "a face" and "a snarl": the rest of the book might even be described, in one of its aspects anyway, as an exploration of the significance of these words. (p. 250)
Golding explains Martin's immediate experience of himself on the rock by an ingenious but effective dissection of the whole man into a number of separate elements. At one extreme is what he calls "the centre"…. [We] may define [the "centre"] simply as the central organizing principle, that which makes a man a man; or, perhaps, the being of a man. Something of the significance of the term may be gathered from the fact that, in the earlier stages of Martin's agony, an intermittent dissociation occurs between the 'centre' and the man's body. The body is conceived of as an assemblage of component parts which, when there is any weakening or relaxing of the grip of the central organizing principle, are liable to take on a kind of independent existence: so, for example, Martin's hands become increasingly detached from him, looking more and more like lobsters until, in a sense, they are lobsters…. A similar 'objectification' or detachment occurs with other parts of his body…. (pp. 250-51)
One of Pincher Martin's major endeavours on the rock is to bring these two extremes of 'centre' and body together and so to re-establish himself as a unified human being. The first stage in this process of 're-creation' is the recognition or recollection of his own identity…. He achieves a major peak in this quest when he recovers his name; looking at his identity disc, he speaks "with a kind of astonishment": "Christopher Hadley Martin. Martin. Chris. I am what I always was."… [Speech also marks] an important stage in Pincher's advance because it is the perceptible sign of his power to think.
Pincher Martin's recovery of the power of thought is the keystone of his 're-creation' of his personality. At first it serves only as an aid to the re-assembly of his fragmented consciousness…. Later it operates more positively, though still very simply, by naming, like Adam in Genesis, the parts of the rock and thus bringing them under the control of the mind, even if not of the body. The real valve of intelligence, however, is that it [enables a man to evade disaster by anticipating future threats and needs and it can explain everything that happens to a man and so strip the world of mystery]…. "Men make patterns"…. (pp. 251-52)
The successive stages of Pincher's struggle … manifest the heroic potentiality of man battling against the alien elements…. He may not claim to be a hero at this stage but an essential element in the effect of the whole book is the gradual building-up of Pincher Martin to heroic proportions until, in the later stages, he conceives himself as an archetypal hero…. The book seems to be constructed on a basis of parallel but related development of two antithetic themes, the heroic theme of survival against all odds and an anti-heroic theme that depends largely on the progressive consolidation of an adverse moral judgement in the reader's mind. (p. 252)
Martin is afraid to face the whole truth about his own situation and condition. This evasiveness hardly conforms to our traditional ideal of the heroic. But even more disturbing is the effect created by a long-sustained battle the object of which is predominantly physical and wholly selfish….
[The] moral judgements implicit in the account of Martin on the rock are conceptualized more precisely in the recollections from his past life. The gradual linking of these fifteen or sixteen fragmentary memories into a more or less coherent pattern represents a development parallel to Martin's re-creation of himself into a unified human being; they are indeed an important part of that process but ironically related to the main movement of definition, since they are so selected as to define him as a certain kind of man in adverse moral terms….
A more effective contribution to the emerging pattern of moral judgement is made by the repetition and elaboration, almost in the manner of Shakespearean image-themes, of certain, at first sight relatively unimportant, aspects of the memories. (p. 253)
[Life] for [Martin] was simply a matter of 'eating', not just in the sense of pursuing physical satisfactions but, more seriously, in the sense of conquering, killing and eating, other human beings. And this presents a major problem for him in his 're-creation' of himself on the rock…. (p. 254)
At last Martin begins to "understand the pattern"…. All his endeavours represent an affirmation that he is a man, that man has the equipment—intelligence, education, health, will—necessary for survival as a man, that man can help himself and is not in any sense dependent. Thus, in his last dialogue with the 'hallucination', which has a look of Nat but is evidently a personification of God, Martin insists that he has created out of his own mind, not only this hallucination, but also God Himself…. This is the ultimate ground of Martin's faith in his own autonomy, a faith that is challenged explicitly by God's echoing of his assertion, "You are a projection of my mind."… But the real challenge comes from the form of the whole book. Since Martin asserts his own autonomy and independence, the logical and appropriate retribution is for his premises to be accepted and realized. This is the purpose of the 'metaphysical isolation' at which Golding has aimed; to bring his protagonist to the point where he must face his essential contingency. Golding has played God's game. "You gave me the power to choose and all my life you led me carefully to this suffering because my choice was my own."… And the essence of this suffering is the fierce hammering home of the truth that man must have something on which to operate, a rock to control, a body to nurse and use, a mind to make patterns. (p. 255)
The whole shape of Pincher Martin is dictated by a firm, even crude, conviction that "the wages of sin is death" and that man's eternal destiny is ultimately his own responsibility….
[It] requires the acceptance of the 'fiction' of time in eternity; whereas traditional Christian teaching presents eternity as a static state, and the condemnation to hell or acceptance into heaven as final and immutable, even allowing for the intermediary state of Purgatory, the whole conception of Pincher Martin requires time to go on. The implication of [the book's last lines seems] to be that eventually the black lightning of God will succeed in breaking the grip of the claws and Martin's resolution will break and he will submit to God…. [They] present a sufficiently mysterious, impressive and faintly optimistic ending—some small consolation for the agony we have endured. (p. 256)
Michael Quinn, "An Unheroic Hero: William Golding's 'Pincher Martin'," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 4, No. 3, Autumn, 1962, pp. 247-56.
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No one could have written four more odd or outlandishly creative books than [William Golding] has. He has told us how it feels to go insane, to drown, to commit suicide, to be dead, to be a child—all in an uncannily convincing manner. He is certainly one of the most original writers of the day. But in his new book, The Inheritors, he tells us how it feels to be a Neanderthal man, and here he has perhaps gone a bit too far….
Fictional heroes with names like Lok, Oa and Fa somehow already suggest a questionable scope of dramatic action, allegorical or otherwise, and when each is saddled with an I.Q. of about 8, things are bound to be slow. The big question is: can the reader identify with a Neanderthal man? There is such a thing as "writing down" to an audience, granted—but this is nothing short of insulting.
Terry Southern, "Recent Fiction, Part I: 'The Inheritors'," in The Nation (copyright 1962 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 195, No. 16, November 17, 1962, p. 332.
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The Golding fashion among undergraduates has not, as yet at least, reached anything resembling the dimensions of the Salinger fashion which was operative on American campuses even five years ago, but those who like [Lord of the Flies] like it with a passionate intensity which tends to fly at the throat of adverse criticism of any sort. The spell exerted by Lord of the Flies (and, for those who have read it, by The Inheritors) seems to reside in its combination of fast-paced and violent action, all-embracing and rather facile pessimism, and heavy-handed and obvious symbolism. Both books devote much energy to telling us that they are profound, and youth has a weakness for profundity almost as fatal as its weakness for Weltschmerz…. Without too much hesitation, I would venture the prediction that the Golding craze, though certainly as silly, will prove neither as significant nor as long-lived as the cult of Salinger. (pp. 27-8)
Frank J. Warnke, "'Lord of the Flies' Goes to College," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1963 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 148, No. 18, May 4, 1963, pp. 27-8.
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With Pincher Martin, for all its real claims as a breathless and mysterious tour de force, two or three things went wrong. Mr Golding had taken a dive into the chaos of a single consciousness; to do this makes hay of the traditional novel, which is a work concerned with the differences between people. Pincher Martin was a one-man scream of pain. The defence may be that Golding is a poet-novelist, an exponent of the anti-novel, that he is writing 'black' literature or reviving the Gothic tradition; and these are worth considering. But it did look as though a distinguished writer was about to go down into the underworld of fashionable paranoia. The inquisitional scene in Free Fall, with its overtone of torture, confirmed this,… [In] The Spire, the process is complete and the result is obscurity, monotony and strain. His inventiveness is dulled. His clean narrative is choked and his sense of character and human conflict is paralysed.
Set, as far as one can judge, in the Middle Ages, The Spire is a story about the building of a cathedral. A dean overrides all opposition and organises the erection of an enormous steeple—say the spire of Salisbury cathedral—on a basic structure that cannot, according to the best advice, support it….
We are enclosed in the hysterical mind of the dean almost all the time. Only he exists; other people are mere fragments and glimpses caught in his agony. They live only in his obsession. In the necessary conversations with the master-builder it is plainly the idea and not a human being speaking; increasingly we feel—as always in these 'inner-consciousness' novels—that the only character is that non-character, that self-indulgent provider of rhetoric and diatribe, the excited author. Illusion is proclaimed but not created. And sustained suspense, which never ends in this book, leads to the paradox that the story stands still, as if the dean's state of mind had hypnotised it.
The Spire is the sort of mistake that Faulkner made when he wrote his symbolical, allegorical, mystical piece of mystification about the 1914 war, A Fable. The fruits are obscurity. One is rarely clear about what is happening; muddled about the meaning of it all, we suspect the author of believing that chaos heightens poetic insight. There is no counter-movement and no conflict in Golding's book; or rather it comes far too late and confusedly. There is a suggestion—if I understand this rightly—that perhaps, after all, the dean's attempt to fulfil his faith was perverted by witchcraft—and by the world, whose chief representative, hilariously, is a rich aunt who wishes to be buried with kings. One would have liked to have met her, in these pages, outside the dean's tormented mind.
Mr Golding's error was foreseeable in Pincher Martin, a much better novel, where his talent for a special kind of instantaneous description of nature was kept in order by a feeling for people and drama as a form of natural history. It is only right to point out that his dramatic preoccupation with man-on-his-own gains enormously from his sense of nature, or the outside world 'moving in' on a character's inner life…. By the time we have finished Pincher Martin we know every pebble, every cleft, every lump of seaweed, every hallucination on that Atlantic rock—not as part of the dry catalogue of a Crusoe, but as events in Pincher Martin's mind. It is true that this makes difficult reading, until one has caught on to Golding's eye for instants. What he records is the assault on the senses, the moment of conjunction between things and a fighting if ebbing consciousness, not some generalised statement.
In this book he did not make rhetoric out of chaos; he botanised it. He sought—and in this he is typical of many modern artists—the close-up known to the senses, and the monotony of too many close-ups is offset by the excitement and the suspense. Of course, suspense cannot go on for ever and I am sure Pincher Martin is one of the countless instances in modern writing where a novel should have been a short-story….
Nor did Mr Golding so dispose when he wrote Lord of the Flies, a work in the classical tradition, and underrated by those who think there is something deep in works of auto-intoxication. This novel was concerned with human differences. It was written from the outside and yet none of the things that preoccupy Golding seriously was sacrificed. The sense of a conjunction between the inner and outer worlds was there, the instantaneous sense of nature; fear and paranoia were distributed where they belonged. His sense of animal pain and horror was governed by the sanity of the natural historian, which stimulated his notable gift of imaginative invention. His powers were not lumped together as a personal hysteria….
That Mr Golding's chief subjects—the pain we incur in the fight for survival, the bashing that consciousness takes in the process, and the sense that we are alone—might tempt him to play a dangerous game as a novelist, is obvious. But, once more, he mastered himself in the extremely difficult story of The Inheritors. It was excellent that he wrote the story from the point of view of the defeated ape-man. He showed imaginative insight into the tragic aspect of the struggle for the survival of the fittest. His sense of the physical scene as it 'moved in' on dim minds was impressive. In short, as a humanist, Golding is a good novelist; as a symbolist or mystic, he fails—and especially as a mystic. (p. 562)
V. S. Pritchett, "God's Folly," in New Statesman (© 1964 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXVII, No. 1725, April 10, 1964, pp. 562-63.
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One never has to read more than a few pages of a William Golding novel to know that it contains the essentials of good fiction. First and foremost, one feels the energy that has been put into it—the intensity of mental concentration that one responds to as if it were a strong physical act. Second, one notes the precision and discipline that funnel the energy into the chosen course, and without which energy is just a sprawling nuisance. "The Spire" is only 215 pages long, but a bad author would have run twice the length in breathless pursuit of the same end. For these reasons alone "The Spire" must be welcomed and admired….
In brief, "The Spire" is a short, tight book that shows the author's hand sharply at work pruning, clipping, getting the right word, simplifying the fancy bits, correcting the aim whenever it is off target…. [Golding] can never be accused either of letting his material run away with him or of having no material worth chasing after. All five of his novels illustrate [George Bernard] Shaw's dictum that quality of style and depth of conviction are inseparable mates.
This unity of craft and convictions is made particularly interesting in the present novel by the fact that Mr. Golding has picked a master-mason of medieval times as one of his two main characters. Consequently, the whole novel is stuffed with technical matter like a bag of tools and the biggest part of its excitements turns on weights and measures and stresses and strains. The dean of a cathedral wants a spire added to his vast church and believes that faith alone will support the soaring addition. But the master-builder—the man of tools and earthly wisdom—knows that faith itself cannot change the decision of the plumb line, the T-square and the steel probe….
It will be seen at once that this is a fiction of symbols. The dean and his elevated vision are that spirit in man which demands, and often obtains, the impossible. The master-builder, who looks to the foundations for his decisions, is not a spirit at all; he is the body that holds us close to Nature and warns us never to let our heads tear loose from our trunks.
"The Spire" is the story of these two men's struggles with one another, and it moves very happily on two levels…. [a human commentary and a good story].
Mr. Golding has always written on these two levels. But "The Spire" will be of particular interest to his admirers because it can also be read as an exact description of his own artistic method. This consists basically of trying to rise to the heights while keeping himself glued to the ground. Mr. Golding's aspirations climb by clinging to solid objects and working up them like a vine. This is particularly pronounced in "The Spire," where every piece of building stone, every stage of scaffolding, every joint and ledge, are used by the author to draw himself up into the blue.
What the vine gets is an intensely close view of the materials to which it clings. Much of Mr. Golding's strength has always been in his impassioned close-ups of the shapes and textures of solids—and unlike movie close-ups, Mr. Golding's are always as short and sharp as he can make them….
One calls "The Spire" a "romantic" novel because, in the last analysis, it comes under the dictionary definitions of that word…. Like all Mr. Golding's novels, it stands out handsomely from the general run of fiction and cannot fail to be among the few good novels of its year. Yet for this very reason—and because Mr. Golding's work is generally so much more interesting than that of other novelists—one feels bound to wonder what the passage of time will do to it. For the theme, after all, encroaches on major territory. It belongs in the domain of [Henrik] Ibsen's "Brand" and "The Master Builder"—the domain, in short, of the heavyweight champions.
Judging by this high standard, one fears that as the years pass the sentimental element of the book will seem more pervasive and that the characters will not then stand up to close inspection. There is already something a little too familiar about these people; one feels that one has met them in many inferior romantic novels. The plot, swallowed hot, is exciting and pleasing, but a cold, critical taste may not find it so tomorrow.
Nigel Dennis, "Dream and the Plumb Line," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1964 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 19, 1964, p. 1.
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[The Spire] is a book about vision and its cost. It has to do with the motives of art and prayer, the phallus turned spire; with the deceit, as painful to man as to God, involved in structures which are human but have to be divine, such as churches and spires. But because the whole work is a dance of figurative language such an account of it can only be misleading. It requires to be read with unremitting attention, and, first time perhaps, very little pleasure. It is second-period Golding; the voice is authoritative but under strain. The style might have been devised by some severe recluse for translating the Old Testament; it is entirely modern, without the slighest trace of god-wottery, yet it is almost unnaturally free of any hint of slang—a modern colloquial English but spoken only by one man….
It is a prose for violence. All Golding's books are violent;… his basic figure for terror, violence, and bloody creation is childbirth. As such it is used in this book, and it breaks out of the language into the plot. This is part of a private vision; and one might hazardously conjecture that this novel, like some of its predecessors, is as much about Golding writing a novel as about anything else. But one need not believe that to agree that it is deeply personal. It gives one some idea of the nature of this writer's gift that he has written a book about an expressly phallic symbol to which Freudian glosses seem entirely irrelevant. It is remote from the mainstream, potent, severe, even forbidding. And in its way it is, quite simply, a marvel. (p. 4)
Frank Kermode, "The Case for William Golding," in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1964 Nyrev, Inc.), Vol. II, No. 6, April 30, 1964, pp. 3-4.
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[The Spire] is possibly the best thus far of William Golding's haunting parables of the human condition. The setting is medieval England at the time of the building of the cathedrals, but the atmosphere is at once so much of a never-never land and so full of nervous suspense that it seems like a cross between [Maurice] Maeterlinck's Pelléas et Mélisande and the high-strung melodrama of the early Graham Greene. The implications of Mr. Golding's tale, as always, are ominous for human nature. (p. 135)
Is Jocelin a saint, or a madman in the frenzied grip of an impossible ideal? Mr. Golding's answer is ambiguous. He does make powerfully clear that all faith rests on a quagmire, that our inheritance from the past is always imperfect, and that holy purposes have, in the way of the world, to do business with corruption and evil. But he seems to be suggesting, too, that without the absurdity of a faith like Jocelin's, no cathedrals would ever be built….
Agile and poetic, Mr. Golding's prose throws off wheels and spokes of light. In a symbolic story like this, the sheer intensity of style has to work hard to make up for a lack of substance in characterization. For all his fantastic passion, Jocelin himself is a rather thin character, on the verge of evaporating into his own hallucinations. We are not always sure when he is seeing devils in his head or in the world, and the confusion becomes a little fatiguing toward the end. The other characters float in and out of Jocelin's visions like insubstantial vapors. The novel as a whole has the startling quality of one of Ingmar Bergman's medieval phantasmagorias; but Mr. Bergman has at his disposal the unusually sharp focus of his camera, while Mr. Golding's images often blur. (p. 136)
William Barrett, "Reader's Choice: 'The Spire'," in The Atlantic Monthly (copyright © 1964, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass.; reprinted with permission), Vol. 213, No. 5, May, 1964, pp. 135-36.
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Presumably one starts with the hope—if not the belief—that Golding's thesis [in Lord of the Flies] is wrong, that finally man is more than a beast…. [But] it becomes clear how unsure Golding is of that thesis and of his ability to make his fable suggest it. He thinks he would be unable (or he knows we would be unwilling) to move from the terms of one to those of the other and so he continually makes the jump for us. Thus Ralph and Jack become, he tells us, "two continents of experience and feeling, unable to communicate" and are later opposed as "the brilliant world of hunting, tactics, fierce exhilaration, skill" and the "world of longing and baffled commonsense."… At one point Simon tries "to express man's essential illness," and the eyes of the pig's head into which he gazes are "dim with the infinite cynicism of adult life"; at another point Sam and Eric protest, Golding says, "out of the heart of civilization." And on the final page, as is well known, the cause of Ralph's tears is supposed to be "the end of innocence, the darkness of man's heart." It is as if Aesop had told us that the fox really liked grapes but was calling them sour because he was unable to reach them.
But Aesop was clear about the separation of his fable and his moral, and consequently so are we. He does not expect the fox's hunger pains to upset us; we can go on to join him in his conclusions about man's rationalizations. But we do care about children's hunger pains and about bullying, and realizing this, Golding is quick to name our concern as one for "mankind's essential illness." He does not trust us to move from the terms of one to those of the other, so he forces children into moral positions and attitudes they could never take and that he could not come out and make explicit in the novel itself. (pp. 155-56)
In objecting to what Golding is doing in Lord of the Flies there is no need to invoke Jamesian principles about intrusive narrators or more modern edicts about impersonality. Golding is obviously violating these, but we are learning not to rely too heavily on them and he is doing much more. For not only is he exploiting Ralph and Piggy and Simon but he is also exploiting the thousands of students who are committed to the book. Carried along by the excitement of a first reading it is not clear where the voice is coming from…. If Simon is trying to "express mankind's essential illness," it may seem plausible that we don't amount to much after all, that the effort isn't really worth it. It is an age in which the voice of despair is particularly seductive to the ears of a student, so Golding's easy cynicism usually goes unchallenged. And it is no more than "easy cynicism." That reference to "the infinite cynicism of adult life" need apply to no one else but to him. (p. 156)
One might account for the popularity of Lord of the Flies only in terms of Golding's exploitation of student bewilderment, but teachers of literature and political science, and, conceivably, "anthropologists, social psychologists and philosophical historians …" have contributed greatly…. [Though] they may not be looking for prophecies of doom they are all too eager to find some sort of significant statement or some symbolic use of language. And so a facile comment on the human condition is heard as an apocalyptic voice…. The book is eminently teachable: it "speaks to students," the symbolism can be "worked out." But what does not get demonstrated, apparently, is that in order to force its dubious conclusions upon us the voice that speaks relies not on any authority it possesses but on our inattention, and that Golding's symbolism emanates from a desire to support the conclusions rather than from a total commitment to his subject, whether that subject be defined as the fate of a handful of boys after a nuclear attack or the defects of society and human nature. (p. 157)
At the end of Lord of the Flies … a caricature of a British naval officer (i.e., civilization) rescues the boys, and barbarous Jack does not protest fair-haired Ralph's assertion that he is their leader. One critic has read the ending as an indication that "civilization defeats the beast"; another asserts that "only an idiot will suppose that the book ends happily" and defends the ending as "a deliberate device by which to throw the story into focus," a device by which Golding "underscores the argument of the narrative: that Evil is inherent in the human mind itself, whatever innocence may cloak it." Yes, we may step back and wonder at the thinness of the cloak, but we are still relieved that the book ends, if not happily, at least far less unhappily than it might have had Golding either carried its fable out to the conclusion that would be most natural to it or followed the implications of his thesis to the end. And we are also left wondering: if it takes no more than that to reestablish the world of organization, is the darkness not so powerful after all? or is Golding unable to face the implications of the thesis he has flirted with throughout the novel? We do see that once again Golding has manipulated his fable arbitrarily. Whether it be to support his thesis indirectly or to avoid its implications is not of primary importance. What is of primary importance is that he has used a delicate subject in this way and that thousands of readers have been used in their turn. (pp. 159-60)
R. C. Townsend, "'Lord of the Flies': Fool's Gold?" in Journal of General Education (copyright 1964 by The Pennsylvania State University Press), Vol. XVI, No. 2, July, 1964, pp. 153-60.
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How do you account for the enormous appeal of [Lord of the Flies], especially to adolescents and college-age students?… It enables meaningful questioning about the nature of man, the aims of society, the structure of the social order…. Golding … appeals to students as a spokesman of their generation and of the situation in which they find themselves…. The book helps to alleviate—vicariously—feelings of guilt and fear which students have individually felt unique to themselves…. Just as young people struggle to overcome feelings of fear of the unknown, of the future, and even of themselves, so they see the working out of these fears by the protagonists of the novel…. Since high school students are both older than the protagonists of the novel, yet younger than adults, they can entertain a degree of objectivity and even superiority to other readers in evaluating the view of man and society presented…. [Young] people appreciate that Golding tells the truth without excuses, that he reminds them of extremes which they would want to avoid in their own lives…. It is compact, yet rich in sense impression, characterization, and imaginative appeal. This work can delight with its inventiveness and vitality, even while its themes and philosophy discomfit. Students are also persuaded that children are capable of acting as Golding suggests and appreciate the novel's fusion of realism and allegory. (pp. 569-70)
Like a Gulliver's Travels, it can both entertain and appeal. (p. 571)
Gladys Veidemanis, "'Lord of the Flies' in the Classroom—No Passing Fad," in English Journal (copyright © 1964 by the National Council of Teachers of English; reprinted by permission of the publisher and the author), Vol. 53, No. 8, November, 1964, pp. 569-74.
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[Golding] satirizes the Christian as well as the rationalist point of view. In Lord of the Flies, for example, the much discussed last chapter offers none of the traditional comforts. A fable, by virtue of its far-reaching suggestions, touches upon a dimension that most fiction does not—the dimension of prophecy. With the appearance of the naval officer it is no longer possible to accept the evolution of the island society as an isolated failure. The events we have witnessed constitute a picture of realities which obtain in the world at large. There, too, a legendary beast has emerged from the dark wood, come from the sea, or fallen from the sky; and men have gathered for the communion of the hunt. In retrospect, the entire fable suggests a grim parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse. According to that vision the weary repetition of human failure is assured by the birth of new devils for each generation of men…. Each devil in turn lords over the earth for an era, and then the long nightmare of history is broken by the second coming and the divine millenium. In Lord of the Flies … we see much the same sequence, but it occurs in a highly accelerated evolution. The parallel ends, however, with the irony of Golding's climactic revelation. The childish hope of rescue perishes as the beast-man comes to the shore, for he bears in his nature the bitter promise that things will remain as they are, and as they have been since his first appearance ages and ages ago.
James R. Baker, "Introduction" (copyright © 1963 by James R. Baker; originally published under a different title in a different version in Arizona Quarterly, Vol. 19, No. 4, Winter, 1963), in Lord of the Flies: Casebook Edition by William Golding, edited by James R. Baker and Arthur P. Ziegler, Jr., G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1964, p. xxiii.
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[The Hot Gates is art because Golding's] talents simply are not for those matters which aptly fashion themselves into 'occasional pieces': trips to America, reviews of books about otters and headmasters, and potted-boilers on Copernicus. Mr. Golding goes through the Copernican motions. Just occasionally something from the world of the novels brings life with it…. Mr. Golding's imagination is kindled by fantasy as it hardly is by fact—at least, not the brochure-type facts about Stratford-upon-Avon or the stale news about Creative Writing courses which are trotted out in this book. Sententious, over-written, trivial and lumpishly jocose, much of this volume stands to the novels as did that inept play The Brass Butterfly….
Still, even if most of these essays are intrinsically slight, a good deal of extrinsic interest accrues to them. Mr. Golding's novels are certainly not slight, and whenever a filament reaches to the novels his prose regains urgency…. The essay on The Swiss Family Robinson and Treasure Island is somewhat banal in itself, but valuable as an annotation. Not as valuable, though, as 'Fable', a plain unvarnished account of the writing of The Lord of the Flies: its premises and its meaning. What is most notable about 'Fable' is the huge gulf between the distinctive vitality of the novel itself and the thin obviousness of this commentary on it…. [It] will be a pity if 'Fable' achieves classic status, even if a full understanding of Mr. Golding's gifts would involve pondering how he can write so inertly about what he wrote so forcefully. Now that The Lord of the Flies is a set text, authoritative diminutions of it are much in demand, and Mr. Golding has obliged.
Surprising that he did, because a basic tenet of The Hot Gates is a distrust of systems, of 'scientific' analysis. All that is really important in life is indefinable…. The trouble is that no justice is done here to 'system' and 'method', so that the transcendent victory over them sounds like propaganda. (p. 699)
Mr. Golding is not likely to make converts with The Hot Gates, where the Ancient Egyptian is trying to make bricks without straw. (p. 700)
Christopher Ricks, "Ancient Egyptian," in New Statesman (© 1965 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. LXX, No. 1808, November 5, 1965, pp. 699-700.
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The ordinary work of fiction can be defensibly judged only by its own laws; if a novel's world is consistent with itself, its divergence from a reader's own understanding of reality is irrelevant. But fables are different. They claim to describe our objective world, not their own. Such works can and must be judged by the accuracy with which they reflect our world and the perceptivity with which they interpret it. So judged, Lord of the Flies is open to several objections.
Perhaps the basic objection is that its subject is irrelevant. It claims to demonstrate that man cannot begin anew and create Utopia. But the human race cannot start from scratch; whatever we do, think, say, and assume is deeply conditioned by our past, rooted even in the structure of our languages. Nor could we isolate one generation. So when Golding tells us what happens when a generation is isolated, we may be academically interested, but we cannot—or should not—see in the children's situation any image of our own. They come to a bad end, and we may come to a bad end; but there is more coincidence here than prediction. Mankind has always been partial to the opinion that things aren't what they used to be, and in a time of crisis the opinion seems especially valid. But we cannot agree with every expression of this opinion simply because it flatters our own predilection….
In addition, we may argue that Golding tries to eat his cake and have it too. He shows us Jack's society as an image of ours, yet he criticizes and condemns it by our standards. He tells us that civilization reflects man's dominant qualities and that those qualities are evil; yet in the novel the influence of society is almost always a good one. (p. 419)
Golding's choice of children, rather than adults, for his utopian experiment suggests that he considers them better and more likely to succeed in establishing an ideal society…. Yet time and again he shows that he really thinks children worse than adults…. [The] reader repeatedly sees the children going wrong where he himself would not. Necessarily, then, he must conclude that this utopian experiment failed because of childish weaknesses and ignorance, not because of man's essential illness.
When he has concluded this, the reader has reversed what seems to be part of Golding's moral: the fable has become willy-nilly a defense of society rather than an attack on it. So potent a force is society, the reader finds, that even hunters like the naval officer can be kind, sadists can be kept from bullying children, and a hunter's son (Ralph's father is a naval officer) can become a moral leader. When we perceive the value of society, we must decide that Golding's images of society are erroneous. Our society, though bad, is not as corrupt as Jack's; our society's morality is not as impotent as that of Ralph's society. Even a skeptic must admit that society restrains barbarity more often than it licenses it. (p. 420)
J. D. O'Hara, "Mute Choirboys and Angelic Pigs: The Fable in 'Lord of the Flies'," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language (copyright © 1966 by the University of Texas Press), Vol. VII, No, 4, Winter, 1966, pp. 411-20.
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[In Lord of the Flies] Simon has been given the conventional characteristics of the mystic whose non-rational approach to the ways of knowing are presumably meant to reassert the mystery and to re-affirm the meaning of the universe beyond its apparent basis in natural law but, in point of fact, Simon first fails to do so and then brings back the truth of the opposite. We have been led to believe in the possibility of the mystery which we later learn the author himself is not willing to accept but, on the other hand, cannot quite abandon. However, I think it is possible to suggest how this confusion has come about, and the other half of the dual hero, the fat boy Piggy, will make this clear.
If Simon represents intuition, feeling, the mystic's approach to knowledge, Piggy represents rationality, logic, science and the processes of thought on which civilisation depends. Piggy is the thinker behind the leader, Ralph. He is connected with fire; his glasses (a modern "invention") are used to start the fire in the first place and when he dies on the rock his death is somewhat Promethean. Further preoccupations stressing the importance of names, labels, scientific devices and the need for clock time set him apart from Simon, and clearly suggest his role as a rational and civilising force.
Simon's inordinate shyness and his difficulties with communication express his essential incompleteness. Piggy's asthma, near-sightedness and obesity express his incompleteness. These disabilities undoubtedly suggest the modern "wound", an image which has persisted from Conrad through Henry James, Hemingway and Faulkner. The wound reminds the reader that while Piggy possesses intelligence and a degree of morality, he is finally vulnerable because he has no sense of the "mystery" underlining all things. He is incapable of the kind of intuitive knowledge which is Simon's strong point. Piggy, too, does not accept a literal "beast", but his conclusions for his reasoning rest on different matter, different "proof". (pp. 157-58)
Piggy has the right answer for the wrong reasons, in keeping with his philosophy, but his answer is finally the same as Simon's: the beast is within. (p. 158)
Piggy … is the real central figure in the book because, despite his limiting blindness, it is his universe not Simon's, and nothing which happens to Piggy or to the symbols around him violates Golding's central symbol of the dead airman. If this is so, then Simon's mysticism should have been invalidated, or Simon himself should have been removed from the book in an early draft.
Why, then, does Golding insist upon Simon?
William Golding is emotionally committed to the non-rational approach as a valid part of human experience, but he is intellectually incapable of accepting what the mystic normally finds and, when the chips are down, he must lead the mystic saviour toward the author's own understanding of the universe.
Further, Piggy represents a vanishing breed of men which we have come to associate more closely with the last two centuries than with our own. He is the hopefully over-optimistic rationalist who assumes that man is a naturally reasonable creature and that, once scientific law has been fully understood, man will live in accordance with it a utopian life on earth. (p. 159)
But the trouble is that Piggy, by himself, dramatises a rather shop-worn discovery—one which any reader of any sophistication takes for granted in this century, and another novel about over-optimistic rationalism will not make "a big book". Piggy, as hero (rather than Simon-Piggy), may very likely be the difference between comedy and tragedy. Golding knows that the important work still celebrates the mysteries, and ostensibly uses Simon to "enrich" his symbolism when, in fact, Simon's presence merely blurs it. (p. 160)
Harry H. Taylor, "The Case against William Golding's Simon-Piggy," in Contemporary Review, Vol. 209, No. 1208, September, 1966, pp. 155-60.
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The Spire is essentially a dramatic poem on the lines of [T. S. Eliot's] The Waste Land. Indeed in many ways, it is curiously similar to The Waste Land, and not the least in its power of arousing echoes which constantly refer one out to a variety of works and with varying degrees of significance. In some cases, the echo arouses little more than the pleasing sense of recognition…. At the other extreme, the myth of Balder is as essential to the construction of The Spire as the Grail legend is to The Waste Land and any reading which does not take account of it must necessarily be a partial one. (pp. 65-6)
The main myth connected with Pangall … is undoubtedly that of the Norse god, Balder. Balder, according to the myth, was rendered invulnerable to all physical hurt by the goddess Frigg, who made all things on earth and in Heaven swear not to harm him. But Loki, the mischief-maker, learned that the mistletoe had not taken the oath because, rooted as it was in the oak tree itself, it was neither in Heaven nor on earth. Using this information, Loki brought about Balder's death by fashioning an arrow from the mistletoe and encouraging the blind god, Hother, to shoot it at Balder. A whole complex of associations surrounding Pangall suggests that it is this myth that Golding is most interested in. There is his death by the mistletoe, of course, but more than this is the whole process by which Pangall is associated, through his ancestors who built the original church, with the very oak out of which the beams were made. According to the Balder myth, the life of the god was in the tree, a fact which was clearly manifest from the mistletoe, the golden bough itself, which even when the tree in winter seemed dead still gave sign (the mistletoe being evergreen) of the sacred presence. The mistletoe once pulled, the god would die; or, to put it another way shorn of the religious association, no oak could be truly seasoned (or dead) while the mistletoe lived on it. It is this that causes Jocelin, when he first scrapes his foot against the mistletoe at the crossways, to have fears about the nature of the oak which is to form the octagonal framework of the spire…. The cross-reference between pagan myths of the oak on the one hand and its true properties on the other might well reflect at the simplest level the differing points of view of the workmen and of Jocelin, of pagan superstition as against Christian enlightenment; but the use of the Balder myth in connection with the persecution and death of Pangall prepares one for an additional interpretation. For if Pangall is to be seen as Balder, it is equally relevant to see Jocelin as Loki, the mischief-maker who brings about the conditions when play (e.g. the original treatment of Pangall by the workmen which is described by Roger as a "joke" in the same way that, in the myth, the crowd amuses itself by testing Balder's invulnerability) becomes real earnest, and disaster follows…. The "giants of old", reduced to one impotent old man, were not themselves pagan for they built a Christian church, but they built at a time when such distinctions had little real meaning, when the religious impulse lacked the sophistication to discriminate nicely between Christ and Balder, but prompted men nevertheless to take the biggest of all dares and to erect impossible buildings, under impossible conditions, in impossible places.
Put in this way, it would appear that what Pangall's kingdom stands for is something very similar to that which the Neanderthals' kingdom stands for in The Inheritors—a state of religious innocence pre-dating what might be called theological man, and as much to be regretted in its passing as was that other kingdom. As much to be regretted, yet equally as in The Inheritors as much to be accepted; for if the incident of Jocelin's terror at the thought of what will happen to the spire if the wood is not seasoned has meaning at all, it is that it is necessary that Balder should die in fact as in symbol. (pp. 77-9)
What is remarkable about Golding's handling of the theme compared with that in The Inheritors, however, is not only the greater element of ingenuity (though that is undoubtedly there) but the fact that what 'argument' there is, is so unobtrusive, so intricately controlled, so layered in depth, that it reveals itself fully and satisfyingly only, as a poem does, in terms of the images and symbols out of which it is constructed.
And this finally is what makes The Spire Golding's most impressive work so far. It is not a book without faults and it is easy, in the thrill of the chase for a solution, to forget how irritating some of Golding's attitudes and verbal mannerisms continue to be. But it also marks a significant advance in his work in that it is the first of his books to escape completely from the thralldom of the prosaic 'idea' which has always, to a greater or lesser extent, tended to keep his novels straining hard but never quite getting off the ground. The Spire succeeds at a level that one feels Golding has always aspired to but never before reached—that of the dramatic poem, and it may well be a decisive indication that, in terms of his work as a novelist, the best is yet to be. (p. 79)
D. W. Crompton, "'The Spire'," in Critical Quarterly, Vol. 9, No. 1, Spring, 1967, pp. 63-79.
[Though] individually distinct in their particulars [Golding's novels up to and including The Spire] have expressed a single imagination and a single literary intention of a kind not usual in modern writing. The imagination in those books was allegorical, and the intention insistently didactic: Golding had set out to organize his matter into tight, diagrammatic patterns, to the end that mankind might be instructed in the truth….
It is [the] rationalistic conception of the creative process that has set Golding most strikingly apart from his contemporaries; it has made his novels distinctive in the high degree of their organization, and in the nature of their difficulty. Difficulty is scarcely an unusual quality in modern writing, but Golding's is of a particular kind; his books do not deal with difficult ideas nor present unusually complex characters. What they have to say about the shape of the universe is not new nor profound nor particularly modern, and none contains a memorable characterization. The difficulty is entirely a formal one, and it is that quality which has made them successful: they are marvellous, richly discussable verbal contraptions….
To the reader familiar with Golding's other novels, The Pyramid will astonish by what it is not. It is not a fable, it does not contain evident allegory, it is not set in a simplified or remote world. It belongs to another, more commonplace tradition of English fiction; it is a low-keyed, realistic novel of growing up in a small town….
The book is made of three separate episodes in the life of Oliver, son of a dispenser in a provincial town….
Among these three episodes there are certain connexions of character and scene, but these do not make for a very tightly or very elaborately structured book. The principal unifying element is perhaps the theme suggested by the epigraph: "If thou be among people make for thyself love, the beginning and end of the heart". In each episode Oliver is involved with a person who needs, and reaches out for love: Evie, the Town Crier's promiscuous daughter, Mr. De Tracy, the effeminate director of the musical show, and Miss Dawlish, the music teacher. But in each case he fails; he uses Evie, he laughs at De Tracy, and he admits, over Miss Dawlish's grave, that he is glad she is dead. Among people, he has made nothing.
This is a familiar theme in Golding's work…. The method seems at first glance a new departure. However, if one looks back at Golding's earlier work, one can see that his imagination has always had this other, less flashy side…. In those novels, Golding had subordinated his realistic imagination to his allegorizing ends, but actuality would thrust itself pushily forward; and it may be, if one reexamines those books in the light of the newest one, that they will appear less diagrammatic than one thought, and that Golding's critics will have to revise their critical vocabularies.
"Down to Earth," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1967; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3405, June 1, 1967, p. 481.
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After the pretension of "The Spire" William Golding seems to be relaxing, or at least thudding down to earth, with "The Pyramid." Its ugly-jolly narrative is in the reminiscent, realistic vein of "Free Fall" rather than the mythmaking manner variously seen in "Lord of the Flies," "Pincher Martin," and "The Inheritors."…
Even among the crude humor, old-fashioned shock effects, vagrant symbols, and stitched-together set-pieces of the new novel, there are hints of the old thrust toward significance. "We cannot even think, without leaving a mark somewhere on the cosmos," says the narrator, making a nice point but one that is only loosely illustrated in the novel. Soon after, he yearns for absolution from his parents, "that the days of our innocence might return again." The feeling may be authentic but it occurs after such a sequence of slapstick seduction scenes, melodramatic disclosures of perversion, etc., that it is hard to take seriously.
Perhaps the most fruitful approach lies in a later statement when the now grown narrator returns to his village to find the vintage car from his youthful adventures on display as a showpiece: "Nor was I examining the two-seater closely, though I seemed to. I was busy examining myself."
Though the narrator seems to be examining the characters, the class distinctions, the comedy of amateur theatricals, the sadness beneath the skin of his village, he is busy examining himself at different stages. What he sees is often achingly plausible—the boy who becomes aware of the gradations of snobbery as he goes along with them, the child's observations of things that only later become clear, the vacationing undergraduate's being resignedly caught again in family activities he thought he'd left behind him, the married man's return to the strange-but-in-the-blood places of his youth.
The insights seem to add up to the still useful idea that the mature man is a sum of what has gone before—with an additional clue in the epigraph's exhortation to "make for thyself love." Perhaps Golding is trying to freshen platitudes by deliberately putting them in a seemingly casual and unbalanced narrative…. But, to an admirer of the early Golding, he paradoxically seems out of his depth in well-traveled shallows such as these.
Roderick Nordell, "Insights in the Margins," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1967 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), October 19, 1967, p. 11.
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Simon, it is clear, is the Christ-figure, the voice of revelation [in Lord of the Flies]…. He alone does not fear the false god, the messenger from heaven, the slain airman—a metaphor for history—who is dead but won't lie down…. Simon sees him and understands; he knows that "the beast was harmless and horrible; and the news must reach the others as soon as possible." Like Moses, then, he comes down from the mountain bearing the truth—which in Simon's case is that the beast is Man himself, the boys' (and man's) own natures. But when he comes out of the darkness, bringing the truth, he is not heard—for what ordinary man can live with so terrible an understanding? Like Jesus, he is killed. (pp. 24-5)
Thus men, Christian men, even … those who had once worn priest-like robes, reject the authority and the truth of revelation. They dance and chant and kill; they revel in their passionate joys; they exercise power; but they do not heed the voice of God.
Piggy I take to be Socrates, the voice of reason. Like Socrates, he is ugly, fat, and—to men unappreciative of reason—a bore, with a disinclination for manual labor. He is the "outsider." He alone shows marks of intelligence; he can think; he has brains…. [It] is Piggy who reminds the others not to act like children but to behave like grown-ups. Above all, it is he who recognizes that there is no beast and no fear—"unless we get frightened of people." All in all, he is indeed "the true, wise friend."
But Piggy too is killed, and with his death all sense, all reason is gone; the ultimate in madness sets in. Authority must be found elsewhere, for men accept reason no more than they do revelation.
Ralph is democratic man, the symbol of consent…. Chosen chief by an election, he sought always to maintain parliamentary procedures, to respect freedom of speech, to rule through persuasion, with the consent of the governed. (pp. 25-6)
But Ralph too is rejected. The boys secede from his rule; they destroy the conch; and ultimately, their passions inflamed, they seek even to put him to death. Thus consent, like reason and revelation, is abandoned as a principle of authority. (pp. 26-7)
Jack then, is authoritarian man. Like Hitler and Mussolini, he came out of an authoritarian tradition; himself a Satanic figure with his red hair and black cape, he was also the leader of a black-capped and black-cloaked gang that marched in step—"something dark [that] was fumbling along"—and followed orders. His "was the voice of one who knew his own mind," and when it was suggested that there ought to be a chief he immediately and arrogantly demanded that position for himself…. Madness came often into his eyes, and when as hunter and warrior he again cloaked himself, this time behind a mask of paint, he lost all inhibitions; "he was safe from shame or self-consciousness"; he gave full vent to his passions….
Yet he prevailed. "Power lay in the brown swell of his forearms: authority sat on his shoulder and chattered in his ear like an ape." (pp. 27-8)
The boys are the flies and the beast, the evil, the senseless passion that is in man; in each and every man—in Jack, in Roger, even (under special circumstances) in Ralph and Piggy, even in you and me—is the Lord.
This is possible because the boys live in the dark. In the light they would be ashamed; and he who has common sense, who—like Ralph—would live in the light, is an outcast. (p. 28)
With the triumph of the Lord of the flies, the darkness in man's heart, Ralph weeps for the end of innocence. But the final, most devastating, most ironic note has yet to be sounded. For at the very moment when Ralph thinks he is saved, when all the children are saved, by the appearance of adults on the island, we know that he and they are not really saved…. The boys move not from one evil to another evil, but from one aspect or level to another of the same evil; they go from the Lord of the flies writ small to the Lord of the flies writ large. For power based on the authority of force has been supplanted not by a different principle of authority, but only by another, though greater, power based also on the authority of force. And who, or what, will control this greater power?
So the moral remains the same: when all else fails, clubs are trumps. And all else must fail.
So, at least, Golding would have it appear. But is this really so? Has Golding proved his case? (pp. 28-9)
[While] Golding has called our attention to a profound but partial truth, to what he has strikingly and properly called "the terrible disease of being human," I would contend that—precisely because he has built on but a partial truth—he has fallen short, far short, of establishing his case.
For what Golding has forgotten is that a state of nature is not necessarily a state of political and moral innocence. The boys who inhabited the island did not spring up full-blown…. They were the carefully chosen products of an already established middle-class society. They were socialized in, and were a partial microcosm of, twentieth century English (or Western) civilization; and they had brought that civilization, or what fragments of it they could remember, with them. Hence the values they possessed, the attitudes they displayed, the arrangements they established, and the practices in which they engaged, were all in some degree or other a reflection of the world into which they had been born and within which they had been educated and fashioned. (pp. 29-30)
Hence we still don't know, any more than we know from the story of Robinson Crusoe, what man, innocent, naked, non-socialized man is really like. We still don't know what is innate and what is environmentally conditioned in man. Nor can we ever hope to attain this sort of knowledge; for the individual apart from society is an inconceivable thing—he is always, no matter how peculiar or unique a person, still a social animal. And if it be said, despite this, that all societies are evil, or that there is evil in all societies, which means that men however created or evolved are necessarily the source of that evil, it is still not shown what in man or in his circumstances produces that evil, or why, and whether this is irredeemable.
Golding's truth, if truth it be, is thus true only for his English schoolboys, and those of like circumstances. It is not necessarily true of the products of other cultures and civilizations, or of other times. (p. 30)
David Spitz, "Power and Authority: An Interpretation of Golding's 'Lord of the Flies'," in The Antioch Review (copyright © 1970 by the Antioch Review Inc.; reprinted by permission of the Editors), Vol. XXX, No. 1, Spring, 1970, pp. 21-33.
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Golding [would be] a major figure among contemporary English novelists had he written nothing but Lord of the Flies and would still [be] a major figure had he written nothing but his other novels.
Lord of the Flies is not the first time that parody has turned to a novel in its own right…. Stung by what he considers an unreal view of life, the novelist is too magnanimous to stop at exposing the faults of another but goes on, to show incidentally that he can do better, but mainly to tell the truth. This is not the whole truth, but the truth about a part of life—perhaps only for part of the time…. Golding, I feel, knows the truth about part of human nature part of the time. An infringement on his speciality provoked him to write Lord of the Flies.
R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island, which provoked Lord of the Flies, shows marooned boys responding to life on their island as if it were an Outward Bound course. Ballantyne overlooks that 'where every prospect pleases' then 'only man is vile'; yet singing the hymn that contains these lines and reading The Coral Island must have gone together in many boyhoods a generation ago—including Golding's? Golding applies the religion to the story: the kind of obvious step it is a mark of genius to make. Original sin is only part of religion, I agree, but it is a part that Golding is not alone in emphasizing. (p. 152)
I feel there are three beauties of Golding's art in this novel. I have already referred to his insistence on the application of religion to life: a judiciously obvious yet unexpected application to a playground—the tropical playground of the travel agencies. Once the application has been made any teacher can feel its judiciousness; Lord of the Flies has a knack of bringing to mind what one sees in patrolling the macadam at mid-morning. A comparison with Graham Greene's Brighton Rock, where more religion is applied more earnestly with less success, indicates the sweep of genius in Golding's achievement. The many boys of all secondary school ages that I have known to read Lord of the Flies have never been offended by its religion; the fewer who have read Brighton Rock have seldom failed to be so offended.
A subtlety of Lord of the Flies that might be overlooked is the way in which the symbolic island rescued from Ballantyne is used in its own right. It is a retreat where the boys as far as they can discover themselves, just as Robinson Crusoe's island in the first and better part of that book provides him with the same facilities.
The third beauty of the book is the way in which, for most of its length, its allegorical content can be absorbed unconsciously. At its best in the faultless opening chapters, it ranks there, for this feature, with Moby Dick. Towards the end there is a tendency for the allegory to write the story, especially at the very end, which at the back of my mind I rewrite to allow the implications of the novel to work themselves out to the logical conclusion of Ralph's being killed. Pessimism is the mood in which the novel ends, yet the arrival of the naval officer must mean allegorically that civilization is given an undeserved second chance.
I regard The Inheritors as a hand of cards, lightly shuffled, which when it is dealt again has traces in it of the tricks of the previous game. Lord of the Flies shows boys as Neanderthal men; The Inheritors shows Neanderthal men as boys. Like the converse of a theorem, it lends extra conviction to our acceptance of the original theorem…. With Pincher Martin Golding moved on to new subject matter, wrongly directed human will, and used it in his three subsequent novels. (It seems to me that in Lord of the Flies Golding shows how original sin makes human beings prone to evil; in these later novels he shows human beings exerting their will in directions that they know more or less are wrong—they are practising sinners.) (pp. 152-53)
In Pincher Martin we may not be meant to admire Pincher's struggles, but we do; in both senses he died with his boots on. He is as theoretically reprehensible and as actually attractive as the Satan of Paradise Lost. I feel that it is an error artistically, after so involving the reader in Pincher's struggles on the 'rock', to mock them by a trick ending….
What strikes me about Free Fall and The Pyramid is the role of women. They are there as the victims of men and therefore are extensions of male characters, making explicit their evil wills. Beatrice Ifor and Miss Dawlish are taken advantage of and driven to madness. The crime is made worse by these women's not even being attractive…. Structurally Free Fall is extremely skilful in the way in which, as the reader's knowledge of Mountjoy's character grows, Golding brings back to the witness box parts of his biography to be re-examined in greater detail and with greater understanding. This novel might well be taken as an example of that use of realism by which Golding keeps allegory from becoming too brittle. It is the realism of the remote or fantastic that Golding does best—here, of the prison camp and solitary confinement—and it is such realism that is, of course, most useful to him. A documentary treatment of the pedestrian is neither to his purpose nor to his taste; the working-class childhood of Free Fall is rather thin and the simple country town of The Pyramid seems remoter from reality than the island of Lord of the Flies.
The Spire, like Lord of the Flies, carries the reader away by sheer story-telling. Descriptions of the changing view and hints of people's reactions create a giddying sensation in the reader as the spire rises…. The allegorical element of The Spire, like that of Lord of the Flies, works in the unconscious and only after finishing the book does the reader feel—and then with a sense of mystery—that Jocelin has externalized his tubercular spine, as a spire without foundations: works without (however much he may bandy the word) faith. The spire is a true symbol, suggesting more than the reader knows or Golding meant.
In a party mood away from his novels Golding has written a play, The Brass Butterfly, based on his long short story Envoy Extraordinary, where as a change from seeing man reeling back into the beast we see him striding forward into civilization. With a gentle insistence on there being some moral he associates Christianity with the steamship and the pressure cooker; but I think the reader is more likely to accept this as amusing than to reject it as arbitrary.
Thus, even in relaxation, Golding is serious, like a Milton. His earnestness as a thinker is obvious, as is that of many of his contemporaries; his earnestness as an artist is also obvious, as is that of many other of his contemporaries. His combination of dedication to both form and matter is, in my opinion, beyond that of any of his contemporaries. If he has any limitation it is in the documentary accumulation of realistic detail. For example, life in the country town of The Pyramid is as imperfectly related to life as that of the comic opera his characters perform. It is therefore not surprising that he is at his best in Lord of the Flies and The Spire, where the strangeness of the setting makes detailed realism impossible and a check on it by the average reader impracticable. (pp. 154-55)
Stanley Cook, "Modern Authors: William Golding," in The School Librarian, Vol. 18, No. 2, June, 1970, pp. 152-56.
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Lord of the Flies is on the decline. (p. 447)
It is natural to tire of familiar things and to pursue instead the excitements which come with novelty and the sense of discovery. But I wish to argue in behalf of Lord of the Flies, not because I have discovered something startling and new to abash the jaded scholars …, but because the decline of Golding's book is a symptom of a dangerous tendency in our academic and intellectual life…. [All] of humanity is involved in explosive crisis and is on the edge of disastrous violence. It is hard to look steadfastly at this general picture…. We must somehow overcome our myopia, with its attendant illusions of efficiency and power, and we do not like to face up to this any more than Ralph or Piggy does. Lord of the Flies forces us to recognize the likelihood of apocalyptic war as well as the wanton abuse and destruction of environmental resources on which an increasing population depends for survival. It also demands examination of the genesis of crisis and violence. The moral of the story is that crisis has grown out of our conditioned responses to existence and that we, like the boys on the island, must soon discover the means of rescuing ourselves from ourselves—a discovery which cannot be made through our habitual preoccupation with social techniques—before some bomb goes off and our little ship of fools sinks out of time altogether. (pp. 447-48)
[Lord of the Flies] is still a relevant prophecy, the best thing that can be used on a large scale to make people realize certain neglected dimensions in the contemporary predicament and, to some extent, understand how the spreading crisis arose to threaten their existence…. The main reason for the decline of Lord of the Flies is that it no longer suits the temper of the times. Most readers today do not accept the moral of the fable because it contradicts their faith in social manipulation. Actually, this response is not entirely new. We have merely reached a climax in a long-standing antagonism between Golding and his public. From the very beginning Lord of the Flies provoked some extreme reactions in the realms of education and politics, especially where these two converge, and in the last few years they have come to blend almost indistinguishably. (p. 448)
According to Golding, we have been reared in a tradition of optimism about man and his potentials, and as a consequence we suffer from "an appalling ignorance" of our real nature. His symbolic adventure story dramatizes the dangerous consequences of a heritage of conceits and illusions. The fable offers no politics but shows instead the failure of politics. That is, says Golding, the most obvious point of the story…. Thus Lord of the Flies goes against the whole trend and spirit of recent enthusiasms in the American academy, and many of today's youth … bring against it the charge of pessimism or negativism. They do not like the tragic view of man … because it seems to deny them what they claim as their birthright: easy hopes, a commitment to democratic ideals and beneficent transformations in society; in short, a fulfillment of their ardent dream of the sweetness and light to prevail after the current "revolution." There is in this rejection of Golding's fable an impatient pragmatism common to the early stages of life, something further encouraged by the American social heritage of positivism, and now frequently bursting into rampant hysteria in the face of the natural recalcitrance of adults and the agonizing slowness of the laws of change. (p. 450)
Like the boy Simon, Golding had come to see the human being as "heroic and sick," blessed with marvelous capacities and strengths but cursed by often fatal limitations. This treacherous ambiguity was demonstrated on both sides [in World War II] and without regard to political systems or announced national goals. Everywhere one saw a rigid organization of skills in behalf of war and … the subordination of human values to technology. The old dialectics of violence had begun again, this time on an unprecedented scale, and they seemed to unfold out of some elemental source that lay beneath all cultures, all religious codes or appeals, all politics. This sense of pervasive moral disease was the origin for Lord of the Flies. But Golding's response to the war was hardly unique, and it would be accurate to say, though incomplete as evaluation, that he wrote a spiritual biography or history for his generation. It is still timely, however, because it offers more than disillusionment and bitterness. The young today stand in the position of Ralph at the end of the island adventure: behind them is the nightmare of the recent past (perpetrated by those over thirty) and before them the prospect of a perilous voyage into the future. What could serve them better than the heritage of tragic knowledge? Still, as though they were caught in some repetitive and inescapable cycle, their hand rises in a purblind gesture of rejection. The sources of this reaction are the somewhat ambiguous text, the critics, and the temper of the young themselves. These function together in a covert, largely unconscious, conspiracy, and the unfortunate result is to obscure the really useful and positive elements in Lord of the Flies. (pp. 451-52)
In Lord of the Flies we have perceived a re-enactment of the fall of man, perhaps a juvenile version of Paradise Lost, and an awful fulfillment of the gloomy prophecies of Revelation; but these are only descriptive metaphors and not definitive analogues or parallels. The intention is to undermine our naive faith in the moral progress we like to read into modern social history. We are not asked to abandon hope. We are only urged to recognize that "human nature" is dynamic and capable of extraordinary transformations which may result in social good or ill. This is an insistent theme in all of Golding's work. (p. 454)
A second factor in misinterpretation is the structure common to all his novels. Here the primary analogy is classical tragedy. The effect is to provoke a clash with the optimistic social progressivism of the Establishment reader and, on the other hand, the creative anger of the youthful revolutionary zealot. Golding's fables or plots invariably show a protagonist moving toward a psychological crisis which ends with the shattering of his preconceptions and a belated recognition of the folly and damage they have caused. In every book the larger universe is finally revealed to the distressed mind as a complex and ambiguous mystery beyond rational grasp. These belated epiphanies, analogous to the "tragic knowledge" of the great classical dramas, emerge only after a "fall," a failure of ego, followed by an unaccustomed humility blended with nostalgic lament for lost innocence. In Golding's stories the "innocence" is always a rational projection of one kind or another, something readily available in the cultural environment provided by one's tribe or nation, and therefore not simply generic or inherent in a "depraved" human soul. In Lord of the Flies the children on the island do not really have a chance to make a fresh start. They bring with them a social heritage of optimistic and simplistic conceits epitomized (in juvenile and sentimental form) in Coral Island but operative in contemporary adult society as well. (pp. 454-55)
The decline of Lord of the Flies is symptomatic of the decline of literary modernism in general, and Golding's fate, far from unique, is partly an inevitable result of this cultural change. (p. 455)
The appearance of Lord of the Flies coincided with the beginning of the decline of literary modernism, and though certain elements in the book anticipate the new departures and complexities of the later Golding, it was fated to meet with resistance by the rising generation of neopragmatic "revolutionaries." (p. 457)
[Golding's] steadfast opposition to the outworn public myths of the modern age is not simply negative or nihilistic. Neither contemporary nor despairing modernist, he is more accurately described as a child of the "two cultures." All of his fiction shows us the possibility of a new mentality struggling to be born against the terrific odds imposed by the patterns of our social heritage and the limitations of our species. We are given models of the necessary breakthrough which ends in the requisite "spiritual pragmatism." Golding implies a psychological ecology, a synthesis of perspectives, and it is not going too far to speculate that he would welcome the triumph of the new ecology proposed by an increasing number of specialists and generalists. Nothing else than the total picture will do any more. (p. 460)
James R. Baker, "The Decline of 'Lord of the Flies'," in South Atlantic Quarterly (reprinted by permission of the Publisher; copyright 1970 by Duke University Press, Durham, North Carolina), Vol. LXIX, No. V, Autumn, 1970, pp. 446-60.
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The leading proposition in Golding's mind as a writer, endorsed alike by Freud and Christian theology, is that each of us recapitulates the history of the race. For Golding, the ink is not yet dry on the social contract. Civilisation, like Jocelin's spire rests on foundations still writhing like hell-mouth. This being his bent, his interests naturally concentrate on boyhood—that is, on the embryonic stage of the civilised human: for there animism and polytheism, matriarchy and the primal horde, are re-experienced one by one—as is the Fall, if you believe in the Fall. But indeed, for good or evil, Golding is somewhat tied as a writer to boyhood, for some imaginative block prevents him from handling adult life with confidence. With great tact and intelligence, he has largely accepted the limitation, which is also a stimulus. He began writing in the era of Camus, Sartre and Orwell, a classic age for the fable, and his allegories are now part of the permanent furniture of our minds—or, perhaps I should say, of English minds, obsessed as they are with boyhood. (p. 579)
The three stories in Golding's new volume are set, respectively, in Ancient Egypt, the Stone Age and the later Roman Empire. And what first strikes one about them, as compared with Wells and the great preceding school of Edwardian fable, is the extraordinary rigour of Golding's method. Here there is no impressionable time-traveller, no measurement-taking visitor, to make things easy. The reader, bundled blindfold into an action, must make out the rules, learn what the human score is, and take sides into the bargain, while the game goes on. This disciplined anthropological and archaeological dreaming is marvellous, and is the main interest in these stories, which have less in the way of message than his longer novels. In his Egyptian story ('The Scorpion God') particularly, the dream springs from deep levels: Egypt of the Pharaohs, as Golding has told us elsewhere, is the place nearest his own obscurantist, necrophilic, boyish heart. It is a place where the humanist is a low, rancorous fellow, sordidly prizing his one life and his own shabby skin above the golden dignity of immortality; where the smuttiest joke you can make is about making love to a stranger, a person neither your parent nor sibling. Golding's style is all alive in this story, leaping to the demand—as he once put it—of 'my own mournful staring into the darkness, my own savage grasp on life'…. Dimly we discern a parallel to this Egypt. It is England, the England of 'The Ladder and the Tree' and The Pyramid (is the title a clue?): a sheltered West Country childhood, sex shut out like a horror behind the lace curtains, and in the midst a golden-haired savage, dreaming necrophilic dreams while his progressive father tinkers with wireless and stumps the country for Labour.
I don't think Golding intends the modern allusion, though he would not be perturbed at our taking it. In his Stone Age fable 'Clonk Clonk', on the other hand, he positively insists on the English-boyhood parallels: they are part of his point, as well as his jumping-off ground…. Clearly it's an anthropological-mythological reworking of 'Billy the Kid', Golding's light-hearted account of his first days at dame school—when he likewise was sent to Coventry and then, worse horror, was welcomed back too heartily to society by an agape-drunk posse of girls: 'I never stood a chance against those excited arms, those tough, silken chests, those bird-whistling mouths, that mass of satin and serge and wool and pigtails and ribbons.' It is a translation only Golding would have dared, and it highlights both his genius and a certain perversity. Never has he written with more mastery, more fine pathos and imagination, than when describing Charging Elephant's loneliness; rarely has he evoked dread so convulsingly as in his rape scene. Yet a page or two later we are in a smiling 'Junior Bookshelf' joke-land. The awesome She Who Names the Women turns sensible Scotch body and exclaims: 'And don't think I'm going to have a man under my feet all the—' There's a denial of logic here, surely? Dame-school experience does contain all the darkness and grandeur of the rise of Homo Sapiens; but the Stone Age did not, and does not, anticipate the bright humorousness of the dame school. Unless William Golding is a more unabashedly 'camp' writer than we have taken him for, he is being untrue to his inspiration here, just raising the doubt, never strong but never quite absent, that his books are just books for boys after all. (pp. 579-80)
P. N. Furbank, "Stone Age Boys," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1971; reprinted by permission of P. N. Furbank), Vol. 86, No. 2222, October 28, 1971, pp. 579-80.
[Golding is] 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….
The Scorpion God is not major Golding, but the book is nevertheless a pure example of Golding's gift…. The title story is from Golding's Egyptological side: set in ancient Egypt…. By treating the unfamiliar with familiarity, explaining nothing, he teases the reader into the strange world of the story. It is as brilliant a tour de force as The Inheritors, if on a smaller scale.
The other story, "Clonk Clonk", is somewhat less satisfying. It is one of Golding's "childhood of the species" stories, set apparently in Africa…. As a fable of the relations between the sexes the story is clumsy; as a fable of a growth of consciousness it scarcely works. One must judge it one of the honourable failures….
["Envoy Extraordinary"] is unique among Golding's writings in that it is witty and amusing, and quite lacking in the solemnity that rather weighs down his other work. Though classical in setting, it plays with anachronisms in a cheerful, unserious way—though the story has its Golding-esque point about civilization and its discontents….
[Golding and H. G. Wells] 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. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3636, November 5, 1971, p. 1381.
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The truth is that the author despises the boys [in Lord of the Flies]…. [His] knowledge and understanding are tarnished by cynicism, the product of a limited vision of human nature, a partial view of history and a schoolmasterish tendency to denigrate children. Cynical contempt appears time and again in the novel, characteristically in the form of gratuitous judgment by an adult observer. (p. 103)
Mr. Golding, in leaning too heavily on [an idea], causes it to split apart at the seams. The death of Piggy is an emblem of the Fall—the later reference to it makes that interpretation indisputable. But the power of Mr. Golding's art depends also upon the show—the shown significance of the 'grunt' (which 'means' more than the author's clever sneer), the smashed conch and the spilt brains…. The alert pupil is expected to register through those carefully presented symbols the ultimate fragility of the boys' tenuous grasp on sense, order and legitimate behaviour. That the falling Piggy, representative of intelligence and the rule of law, is an unsatisfactory symbol of fallen man seems not to worry Mr. Golding, whose willed insistence on administering the pill and leaving the sugar to look after itself—who hears the grunt or sees the conch disintegrate?—exposes his art as the incoherently conscious thing it is.
The same point, finally, must be made of the rescue. There is … a happy ending to Lord of the Flies, and it is contained in the fulfilment of Simon's promise: Ralph will return to where he came from. The irony of the successful smoke-signal seems to me much more germane to the tensions and quarrels of the book than the imposed idea, in the last sentence, that the boys have merely been doing in their small corner what the adults are doing in the world at large. The idea—perfectly in accord with Mr. Golding's scheme—in fact constitutes a snub to the children's tears of mortification and relief.
The morally and artistically disabling idea governing Mr. Golding's fiction hardly qualifies as 'thought'—indeed the author has himself disclaimed any thought on the Fall beyond its topical manifestation in war and mass-murder. Yet for all its limitations, or perhaps because of them, Lord of the Flies has become an educational institution, widely taught on both sides of the Atlantic…. I suggest that the teachability rather than any clearly established merit of the book is responsible for the general acclaim with which it has been received. (pp. 105-06)
A. C. Capey, "'Will' and 'Idea' in 'Lord of the Flies'," in The Use of English (© Granada Publishing Limited 1972), Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1972, pp. 99-107.
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Although critics have acknowledged that the narrator of Free Fall, Samuel Mountjoy, must not be identified with Golding, they have failed to distinguish clearly between Mountjoy's purpose in writing his narrative and Golding's in writing his novel…. [Critics] have taken the wrong approach to Mountjoy's assumption that it is possible freely to relinquish one's freedom of will. It is only when we recognise that this assumption is not shared by Golding that novel and narrative appear in the proper perspective: the narrative as Mountjoy's confession cum self-justification, and the novel as Golding's parable of the abuse of freedom. (p. 73)
Rather than having lost his freedom, [Sammy] has abused it in behaving selfishly to Beatrice and in contributing, perhaps, to her mental breakdown. But because Mountjoy has acted not entirely on his own initiative, but instead, under the influence of characters like [his teacher and mentor] "Old Nick" (the schoolboys' nickname for him) Shales and cunning Philip Arnold, his sin is seen to be not entirely wilful, and mercy is extended—by Golding. Mountjoy is cast into the wilderness in a figurative sense, in acutely feeling the need to relieve his guilty conscience. Yet Golding grants him experience of two kinds of Paradise—both related to his being an artist.
For Mountjoy's narrative tells not only of his seduction and desertion of Beatrice, but also, of his rise to artistic success. As in the one, so in this other part of the story, Beatrice' role is significant. Mountjoy sketches her hurriedly one day in art class; she appears to him to be surrounded in metaphoric "light." He is as excited by the light as Dante is in the Vita Nuova at the sight of another Beatrice, and hopes to catch another glimpse of it in the act of drawing her again. (pp. 78-9)
[But] throughout his adolescence and young manhood, Sammy's artistic vision is blunted by the selfish, sensual element in his outlook on life. In adolescence he does not re-discover the metaphorical light that surrounded Beatrice the first time he drew her.
It is not until the war—not until Halde orders his brief solitary confinement in a darkened cell—that he undergoes the psychological conversion necessary to restore his "sight."… [After] he has been released from the cell, Sammy is aware that the "thing within" has perished. Walking through the grounds of the prison camp, he feels, though, like "a man resurrected" …: the world appears to him as "a burst casket of jewels."… Everything seems to irradiate the metaphorical light that had surrounded Beatrice' face years before. Moreover, he now appreciates that an ordered society depends heavily on the concern and compassion of man for individual man. The death of the "thing within"—clearly an aspect of Mountjoy's selfishness—has brought about the restoration of his artistic vision and a renewed and intensified concern for other people…. Beneath the shell of adolescent self-centredness is a fund of humaneness in Mountjoy: it is this that accounts for the intensity of his suffering over what happened to Beatrice.
Mountjoy's description of his restored aesthetic "sight" recalls not only Dante but Blake. "If the doors of perception were cleansed," the latter wrote, "everything would appear to man as it is, infinite and holy." The metaphorical door burst by the "thing within" is thus not only a door of death, but a door of aesthetic perception…. To his misguided, but nonetheless humane and therefore sympathetic character, Golding restores paradisical vision, enabling him to succeed as an artist and attain to a house in the fashionable district of Paradise Hill.
By palliating his character's suffering in this way, Golding diminishes the reader's sense that Free Fall is a purely naturalistic account of Mountjoy's psychological development…. Free Fall is the story of Samuel, a character who, like the Biblical prophet, is visited by spiritual revelation and is involved (as an artist) in confounding the philistines. But most important of all, it is the story of Mountjoy, the man who mounts his own joy above that of others, and suffers in consequence.
Mountjoy's narrative is a search for the moment of lost freedom, but the allegorical element in Free Fall clearly suggests that in Golding's view, Sammy has abused rather than relinquished free choice. (pp. 80-2)
Of merely incidental importance to [Mountjoy's] narrative is an aphorism he forges in reference to his love for his mother: "Love selflessly and you cannot come to harm."… The remark is irrelevant to his search for lost freedom; but it is the crux of Golding's novel/parable. (p. 82)
James Acheson, "Golding's 'Free Fall'," in Ariel (copyright © 1976 The Board of Governors The University of Calgary), Vol. 7, No. 1, January, 1976, pp. 73-83.
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[Darkness Visible] is a malign work which, in spite of the presence of the charred saint who wanders through it, gives few directions for recovery. One is thrown back and forth by the constantly alternating brilliance and obscurities in the writing, as well as being brought to a critical standstill by a sequence of great scenes….
[In his scarred inconnu, Matty], Golding has invented one of his most compelling characters.
Virtue on the scale which Matty so guilelessly practises is essential, for the rest of the action involves first, that peculiarly British form of furtiveness and retribution which is still profitably maintained by the popular Sundays; and, second, current trends in sociosexual amorality among the young, as well as a completely new brand of heartlessness. It reveals the allure, moral ignorance—rather than innocence—and treachery of children being carried forward into a maturity that now constitutes an entirely fresh type of behavioural squalor. Look around you, Golding is saying, and see what is being condoned. Not fluttery old boylovers like Mr Pedigree, of course; see, rather, the pitiless faces of beautiful and cruel young adults who operate their lives outside all the understood affiliations, particularly that of fellow-feeling…. Golding's punkish people are not youngsters passing through a stage, as they say, but the anarchic phenomenon of our times. The smilers with the knife, pad-bred and outrageous. A middle-aged novelist's pronouncement of anathema upon the nastier extremes of our subculture? Partly—and partly, also, a transference of his compulsive watching of the ill-will of children to that of these dreadful new adults, only to find how similar it is. Except that as it is now fired (if this is the word) by sex and politics, it could all go a lot further than we care to imagine. Golding himself imagines what makes Sophy and her friends tick with a fascination which puts him in danger of moral disgust. He is deeply involved in the actions of the immature, and in seeing just how far they can go….
The analysis of the personalities of Matty as the mutilated being who carries salvation within him, and Sophy as the mutilator who echoes with all the vacuities and self-centredness of the Seventies, is extraordinarily powerful. In outline, such a tract is familiar enough; but Golding fills it in with ancient symbols and modern frightfulness until it rocks our reason, like the Book of Revelations itself. His getting into Sophy's head is a remarkable achievement….
It is [the] shorthand of our hour which Golding spells out, telling us about it in a narrative which is much convoluted by his need to drive home his own tortured vision of a society which is becoming more and more at the mercy of the infantile.
Ronald Blythe, "Golding's Punkish People," in The Listener (© British Broadcasting Corp. 1979; reprinted by permission of Ronald Blythe), Vol. 102, No. 2631, October 4, 1979, p. 462.
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I have … never met a more melancholy example of an author yielding to the intrinsically worthy impulse to tackle the world's problems and, by so doing, wrecking his own book than that represented by William Golding's [Darkness Visible].
I read the first part in a trance of admiration. It tells how a boy, nameless but later informally christened Matty, walks out of the heart of flame which is London's firebombed East End. Golding's prose flares white and rose with the blaze and plods with the charred victim. It groans with the long agony of his surgical restoration, brightens with the rare tenderness he encounters and peals with compassionate mockery at the scorn his repaired but still-ghastly countenance arouses. This prose delicately and impeccably fashions itself to the evocation of Matty's strange story.
It puts forth fronds of sophistication to generate Mr. Pedigree, a tormented, demonic paedophile to whose class Matty is consigned. It becomes the ironmonger's shop in which, after a tragedy at the school, Matty works and also the wondrous being, a girl, at whom Matty peers before retreating, sensing that human love is forbidden him forever. It turns into Australia, to which Matty emigrates, and the desert and, perhaps most mysteriously of all, it becomes the steaming pool in the forest, writhing with parasites, in which Matty baptises himself before embarking on his mission to….
To what? For somewhere about here came the caesura, the break with the imagination. I can only speculate as to the real cause. Perhaps Matty simply wandered beyond the sphere of art and there was nowhere aesthetically credible for him to go. Perhaps Mr. Golding just ran out of vision. The break is not abrupt. Matty travels on in almost pristine form a little further, back to England where he meets the blue and red Spirits of Paranoia or, if the author really accepts the supernatural, of the Hidden World and is directed by them towards a new encounter with Mr. Pedigree, who is now a confirmed police case. But all the time the prose is shrivelling underfoot, like grass denied sun and water.
There are 265 pages in this book. Part one takes us to page 102 and ends with a long extract from Matty's mystic journal which, if not quite so fine as the preceding narrative, is still delicate and convincing. Of nothing that follows can this be claimed….
But I have neither space nor heart to recount all the silliness and tedium that drags us through the final three-fifths of this book. Whereas the first part is not only beautiful and artistically true but also unified, the remainder is an untidy mish-mash of contemporary themes forcibly grafted onto the excellence that went before….
I was left with a sense of loss and outrage. If Mr. Golding had really reached the end of an imaginative trail, he should have stopped. He might still have published the work as a fragment. Even incomplete it would have been an ornament to English Literature. As a rag-bag for his not always savoury views (there are sour observations about 'pakis' and 'nigs') it is merely an ignoble ruin.
Paul Ableman, "Ignoble Ruin," in The Spectator (© 1979 by The Spectator; reprinted by permission of The Spectator), Vol. 243, No. 7892, October 13, 1979, p. 23.
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William Golding is a militantly spiritual Englishman who seems to have inherited … the fearless Puritanism that still shakes souls. Golding, like a Hellfire lay-preacher, attacks with words and shows no mercy for the ignorant, the weak, or even the arguably innocent. He does not blanch before the Puritan doctrines of total depravity and predestination, the cruel certainty that some will be damned regardless of what is done. To this reviewer's mind, Darkness Visible is a black novel made darker still by the fact that Golding permits, with the eloquence of a rhetorician holding out a vision of Paradise to exhausted sinners, one ray of hope to enter his tale before he slams shut the tomb on its tormented characters.
Yet this darkness is in keeping with Golding's career, indeed has marked him through six previous novels as one of Britain's two most compellingly original novelists since World War II. (The other is John Fowles.)…
Three themes can be said to inform Golding's fiction, and it is necessary to trace them through his work to understand how completely and faithfully he has triumphed in Darkness Visible. In ascending order of weight, Golding argues (1) that the intellect separated from the intuition leads to madness and tragedy; (2) that Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, that is, that entropy, the tendency of a closed system to lose energy and fall toward cold, lifeless stasis, is the result of human wickedness; and (3) that man is capable of two things, killing and believing in God, and that man's belief in God can help him become, with sacrifice, "a local contradiction" to entropy, reversing the drainage of energy from the cosmos, moving back to sunlight, if only momentarily….
Golding, it seems, arranged [Lord of the Flies] as neither neo-Hobbes nor mock anthropology. Ralph the intellect is separated by events from Jack the intuition, and this divorce leads the island to tragedy, including the death of Piggy (a bureaucratic adjunct to Ralph) and the rise of Roger (a brutal adjunct of Jack). The Lord of the Flies—the pig's head ringed by flies that talks in "voices" in a child's mind—is Satan, of course, and his point that he can't be killed is Golding's first indication that entropy cannot be stopped. At least in this first working, Golding does not vouchsafe "a local contradiction" to evil's entropy.
The Inheritors (1956) is minor Golding, and of interest here because it further dramatizes the inevitability of evil. Set in prehistory, it tells of a family of eight Neanderthals—as hairy, stupid, good-natured as dogs—who are relentlessly overcome by a family of homo sapiens, the supposed next stage of natural selection. What makes The Inheritors perverse is that for Golding the homo sapiens are bad. They do not merely overwhelm the innocent Neanderthals, they murder them. [Golding] … might be trying to identify the genetic depths of mankind's corruption; more likely he is working out in metaphorical terms—certainly not anthropological ones—how ultimately defenseless goodness is before wickedness….
The writing in [The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin] is fierce and insular. The themes and symbolism are complex (one critic has counted six levels of meaning). The story is unrelieved horror and pain, and the famous trick ending, when Martin's body is recovered and we learn that he couldn't have lived more than a minute after the torpedo hit—that the whole book has been Martin's phantasms—still entertains this reviewer.
Martin's speech at the close raises the issue of determinism, a corollary to Golding's pessimism about men. Speaking to God, Martin says, "You gave me the power to choose and all my life you led me carefully to this suffering because my choice was my own…. All my life, whatever I had done I should have found myself in the end on that same bridge…. Yet suppose I had climbed away from the cellar over the bodies of used and defeated people, broke them to make steps away from you, why should you torture me?"
Free Fall (1959) is an answer to Martin's question….
[It] is an assertion of the paradox of free will and predestination.
The Spire (1964) was a disappointment to Golding's readers, because it employs his "inner consciousness technique" on a metaphor—the raising of a church spire despite the fact that the church's foundation is corrupt—that many found ostentatious…. [The] novel was nonetheless a marvel. (p. 43)
The Pyramid (1967) is a departure for Golding, and further worried his readers. It employs no tricks, like island exiles, drowning, isolation, or church building. It is a turn to realism, a development not dissimilar to H. G. Wells's career, when Wells moved from sheer fabulousness toward earnest dissections of the Condition of England. There is a marked increase in plot, as Golding's first-person narrator, Oliver, recounts three thematically overlapping episodes from his life between the ages of 18 and 50 in his home village of Stillbourne, England. Much of the characterization is very English; but Golding is not one to rely on color and dialogue, and there is one character, Evie Babbacombe, whose biography fascinates.
Evie is the daughter of the town crier, and her voluptuous adolescence attracts men of all ages, classes, and sexual proclivities. She is also Golding's first major female character, and he shapes her complexly. She is good and bad, capable of bizarre charity, such as acquiescing to sodomy with a war-disabled sadist, and equally capable of twisted falsehood, such as unfairly accusing Oliver, the only man who ever treats her decently, of being the cause of her hatred of men: "It all began, when you raped me." Wells is full of steamy females like Evie, profound, unforgettable, and in The Pyramid Golding matched the master of British allegory. Golding returns to his genius with Evie in Darkness Visible.
Darkness Visible is constructed from the characters, plots, and themes of the previous books; one could probably diagram Golding's life-work like the Synoptic Gospels—what is duplicated, what is discarded, what is new. Darkness Visible certainly reads like 12 years' labor. Herein are the control of prewar Britain and the passions of the '70s—which make for a tension so palpable that it may explain why Golding … has refused to be interviewed about it…. (pp. 43, 47)
Matty is surely the Christ-figure for Golding, though it is important to note that Golding's imagery is never just Christian but also syncretistic, and betimes dizzying in its obscure references…. Whatever Matty is [he is] Darkness Visible's one completely good man; he is rescued from the fire by a God who has a mission for Matty before he returns him to the fire. Matty is a wounded outcast who, like the proto-Christ in the Fourth Servant Song of Isaiah, will redeem men with his sacrifice….
Golding follows them from their 10th year, as insular and precocious girls, into young womanhood, when [Sophy and Antonia] become bad witches to Matty's good witch.
Importantly, Sophy, who is intellect, has the same sense of difference as Matty does, but chooses freely to corrupt her "weirdness."… Sophy becomes at various times the great Whore of the Apocalypse (who heralds "the second death," and "the lake of fire" in Revelations 20) and also the Hellenistic Sophia, the embodiment of Wisdom who, in some creation myths, was separated from God and doomed to be imprisoned in matter, recurring as "daughters of men" to lust after the sons of God.
It is complicated. But Golding holds his polygonal imagery together with the convincing melodrama of Sophy's willful fall to becoming a servant of Satan, a woman who welcomes entropy, who believes "Everything is just winding down … we're just tangles." Sophy seeks the simplicity of cold stasis by encouraging and committing outrages. Separated unnaturally from her intuition—who is embodied in her twin, Toni, a soulless political terrorist—Sophy is mad, wicked, cruel beyond forgiveness….
Sophy steals, tortures, and plots the kidnapping of an Arab child from the posh school in Greenfield where Matty works. This leads in the final section of the novel, "One Is One," to the collision of Matty's goodness and Sophy's evil, and to the stemming of entropy by a confrontation that Golding would have us understand was ordained before time….
And then the gripping finale, with the kidnapping, the transcendentalism, and the subplots washing together and over the reader like a furnace blast. Golding can philosophize and equivocate with the oddest of the British occultists, and critical references to J. C. Powys about this book are not mistaken. But when Golding wants to move his story—write action—he is lean and quick. This reviewer challenges any reader to remain still at the climax of the novel.
If Satan is the Second Law of Thermodynamics, then surely William Golding is a writer who, even in his despair over the corruption of the human condition, can reach out and muscle aside the demons. Darkness Visible is not depressing, not hopeless, not defeatist. In holding out the possibility that one man—ugly, unloved, untouched, reviled—can for a moment beat the Devil with faith alone, Golding has written a cheer for human courage. (p. 47)
John Calvin Batchelor, "Golding Beats the Devil" (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice and the author; copyright © News Group Publications, Inc., 1979), in The Village Voice, Vol. XXIV, No. 45, November 5, 1979, pp. 43, 47.
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[Darkness Visible] is a difficult and in many ways a painful novel to assess…. The melodramatic plot, unwisely borrowed from Iris Murdoch, escalates frantically and becomes, at the end, not even trashily cinematic so much as electronic: Sophy and her kidnapper cohorts, Toni and her clichés about freedom and justice, are imaginable, if not credible, only as elements in a situation comedy gone askew. (p. 32)
Golding's embarrassing fictional stereotypes … and his heavy-handedly ironic attempt to create a visionary-moron … might be halfway redeemed if presented, as Iris Murdoch's similarly caricatured people often are, in witty or cogent or intelligent prose; but Golding's style here is flaccid and indifferent, and appears at times to function as little more than a means for revealing the author's contempt for his characters….
Golding's theology, presented fairly explicitly in his earlier, more parable-like novels, does reduce, of course, to an extremely pessimistic view of human nature, and an unfortunate consequence of such a pessimism is contempt for people…. Sophy's modish nihilism might well be describing Darkness Visible itself: "Everything's running down. Unwinding. We're just—tangles. Everything there is just a tangle and it slides out of itself bit by bit…. Go with the disentangling…. On and on, wave after wave arching, spreading, running down, down, down…." (p. 33)
In the interstices of this unfortunate novel there is a story about a maimed child, a victim of the German bombing of London, who grows into a maimed but sensitive adult with possible visionary powers. One can see why Golding shied away from this story—it might turn out sentimental, it would demand, in any case, too much sympathetic "realism"—but one cannot help but regret that the allegorical mode triumphed. Here, all is cartoon, surface, sneering contempt; the retroflexive spirit required for a serious work of art is lost. Less is less. (pp. 33-4)
Joyce Carol Oates, "Books and Arts: 'Darkness Visible'," in The New Republic (reprinted by permission of The New Republic; © 1979 The New Republic, Inc.), Vol. 181, No. 23, December 8, 1979, pp. 32-4.