Sir William Golding (1911-1993)

Sir William Golding published his first and best-known novel, The Lord of the Flies in 1954, at the age of forty four, but continued his career as a school teacher until the success of his novels allowed him to take up writing full-time. As well as several novels he published poems, essays, and a play. He received the Booker Prize in 1980, the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983, and a knighthood in 1988.

Golding published his first work, Poems (1934) while he was at Oxford. After university he attempted to live as an actor-writer, but the need to earn a living led him to take up a teaching post, until he volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1940. He witnessed the sinking of the Bismarck in May that year, and in 1944, as a lieutenant, commanded a rocket ship off the coast of Normandy. He returned to teaching when he was demobilised in 1945.

The Second World War left Golding doubtful about the state of European civilisation and the prospects for human progress. The immediate onset of the 'Cold War', bringing fears of the destruction of humanity by nuclear weapons hardly made him feel more optimistic. He has a reputation for painting a grim picture of the human condition, although he claimed in his Nobel acceptance speech that he was not a pessimistic writer. Rather, he said, he was acutely aware that history, and, by extension, literature, is written by survivors, and the ethical question that troubled him most was whether survival is its own justification.

The manuscript of The Lord of the Flies was rejected by many publishers, but on publication it gained rapid success. It was fresh and highly readable in its day and has outlived other works of the mid-1950s. The novel is allegorical, telling the story of a group of well-bred boys who, when stranded on an island, quickly lapse into barbarism. The strong subdue the weak and their conflicts lead to the deaths of two of them. Out of the darkness of their minds they conjure an image of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, and worship him in the form of the severed head of a boar they have captured and slaughtered. Meanwhile, the adult world has been devastated by nuclear war, and no help comes until the very end.

The novel is, in part, Golding’s riposte to The Coral Island (1857) by Robert Michael Ballantyne (1825-94). Ballantyne’s novel, also about boys marooned on an island, was based on the conviction that human beings had innate virtues which would sustain their humanity even in isolation from society. In contrast, Golding’s work shows his characters reverting to a more primitive state, suggesting that this would be a natural outcome in the absence of civilised models and rules. He implies that there are no innate moral constraints on human behaviour, and that men behave in a civilised fashion only from fear of punitive consequences.

The themes of fall, guilt, corruptibility, and the depravity of human nature run through Golding’s subsequent novels, and in a clear reference to Paradise Lost, the title of one of them, Darkness Visible (1979), is taken from Milton’s depiction of Hell.

The darkness of Golding’s subject matter can be contrasted with the lucidity of his prose. He showed men as behaving irrationally, but capable of reason, and believed that man’s best hope for the future lay in the exercise of his reasoning faculty in communication with others. In consequence, there is little by way of experimentation in Golding’s prose, and he deliberately imitated an eighteenth century style in his later books Rites of Passage (1980), Close Quarters (1987), and Fire Down Below (1989). In part this befitted the period in which the novels were set, the early 1800s, but it also served to illustrate his point that writing in a clear and interesting manner is a difficult enough task in itself, without attempting the avant-garde postures of Modernist writers. He wished to speak directly to his readers, rather than impress them with cleverness and learning.

Golding regarded science fiction and historical novels as legitimate forms of literature, and his second book The Inheritors (1955), is a work, effectively, of science fiction, the story being a challenge to H. G. Wells’s optimistic view of human progress. The novel shows the destruction of Neanderthal man by the more aggressive Cro-Magnon breed of Homo Sapiens, in what would now be called genocide, or ethnic cleansing.

Pincher Martin (1956) describes a naval officer adrift after his ship has been torpedoed. Free Fall (1959) concerns the reflections of an artist in 1950s England. The Spire (1964) tells the story of how a medieval dean instigates the erection of a cathedral spire, supposedly to the glory of God, but bringing all manner of human corruption in its wake.

Golding was not a prolific writer but aimed for quality rather than quantity. Living quietly in Cornwall he was regarded as a mildly eccentric and reclusive literary figure noted for his shabby clothes and long hair. The award of The Booker Prize in 1980 for Rites of Passage, which portrays a voyage on a sailing ship to Australia during the early years of British colonisation, returned Golding to public attention.

At the time of his death in Cornwall at the age of 82, Golding was working on The Double Tongue, set in Greece under the Roman Empire. It retells the life of Pythia, last priestess of the Oracle at Delphi, and is an exposition of the author’s theme that that which is worthy of preservation is not necessarily that which endures.

Authors: Stephen Colbourn, Ian Mackean

Selected works:
Poems (1934), Lord of the Flies (1954), The Inheritors (1955), Pincher Martin (1956), The Brass Butterfly (1958), Free Fall (1959), The Anglo-Saxon (1962), The Spire (1964), The Hot Gates (1965), The Pyramid (1967), The Scorpion God (1971), Darkness Visible (1979), Rites of Passage (1980), A Moving Target (1982), The Paper Men (1984), An Egyptian Journal (1985), Close Quarters (1987), Fire Down Below (1989), The Double Tongue (draft) (1995).

William Golding Links
Other essays on this site
Lord of the Flies: Loss of Identity
Lord of the Flies: Symbolism
Lord of the Flies: Chaos vs Civilization
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