Skip to main content

William Golding: Genius and Sublime Silly-Billy

ISSUE:  Autumn 1984

The human race thrives on agreeable surprises, particularly spectacular reverses of fortune. When the underdog triumphs our moral fervor is engaged: out there, we feel, a merciful Providence is keeping an eye on things; virtue will out. When William Golding won the Nobel Prize for literature last year—the first British writer to do so in more than 30 years—the British reaction was agreeable surprise at the honor paid to English letters but little moral fervor. Someone said sourly, “There is no consensus that Golding is a terrible writer.” There was no consensus, either, among the Swedish jury that he was a good one.

The official citation praised Golding’s fiction as somber moralities and dark myths about evil and treacherous, destructive forces. “They are also colourful tales of adventure which can be read as such, full of narrative joy, inventiveness and excitement.”

This Swedish praise caught the reading public, in the United States as well as in Britain, on the hop. The majority had decided, over a period of 20 years, that Golding was a one-shot writer who had never equaled his first novel, Lord of the Flies. A minority was still coming to terms with Golding’s later novels, a powerful flowering in old age. To most people, Golding was a mystery, a part genius, part sublime silly-billy, a man of exceptional imaginative powers working too often on tasks not worthy of the effort; uneven and never predictable.

Golding is entirely his own man. Ever since his first book gave him financial security, he has followed his own course. Now that he is famous and emerges from time to time from his Wiltshire home to give television interviews, he looks like a local worthy who has wandered by accident into the center of things. He says he is humbled and happy to have received the prize but does not imagine it will change his life.

He has said that he likes “having more books written about my books than I have written books.” He feels that he has been tracked down, overwritten, overanalyzed. Despite the fact that he claims to have read only about 10 percent of what critics say about him, he added, “After a bit I seem to have no connection with their “William Golding.” But it gives employment, doesn’t it? Academic light industry.”

Golding does not exaggerate. The number of people who have written about his work grew even during his long period of silence, and a great deal of good will and ingenuity went into these works. At long last, Golding has made the thesis-writers the subject of a book, The Paper Men, published in London earlier this year to very mixed reviews. This is a 10th symphony of a book, a lighthearted but heavy-handed farce that may have all the depths its publishers claim for it, but it would be better to leave consideration of it until the pattern of Golding’s work has been charted so that we may see whether this is the apparent farewell to his art that some readers have liked. Or one of his descents into bathos after the height of the prize-winning and the supreme mastery of Rites of Passage.

I said it has been difficult in coming to terms with the late Golding not to see in him a typical English intellectual of the old school: well educated in the classics, a mine of odd information, determinedly provincial (in the world context), and not a little crackpot. He has had a publisher who allowed him to go his own way (Faber and Faber), no doubt perfectly content with the enormous success of Lord of the Flies and the lesser triumphs of the books of the middle period. He has never been under the kind of pressure that produced the Norman Mailer phenomenon, and he himself seems to suggest that he was not, for many years, under much pressure to write at all. Golding says he has been lazy. The truth is that he has probably been a very happy man, leading a retired life, sailing and horseback riding, a perfect modern inheritor of the old tradition of the country scholar and gentleman.

Except for the World War II period, Golding has spent his life in southwest England. He was born in Cornwall in 1911, studied science at Oxford, and became a schoolmaster in Salisbury until he was called up. He resumed his career after the war but became a full-time writer in 1961. The war was the major influence, and in one of his essays he spells out how deep that influence was: “I must say that anyone who moved through those years (1939—45) without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head.”

There is nothing in this statement with which a theologian would disagree, but when used as the guiding principle of Golding’s first novel it caused some surprise. Did it mean that Golding took Original Sin seriously? Lord of the Flies (1954) was a fable, and the fabulist, according to Golding, “is a moralist. He cannot make a story without a human lesson tucked away in it.” The fabulist is also didactic and wants to “inculcate a moral lesson.”

The lesson which this particular fable teaches is that man, without the framework of society, is no better than the beasts of the field. To rub his lesson home, in case the nations which had survived the Holocaust and the Stalinist terrors were still suffering from illusions, Golding built his fable in such a way that it amounts to an ironic inversion of the well-known Victorian boys’ adventure story, The Coral Island, by R.M. Ballantyne. This popular book, published in 1857, is about shipwrecked schoolboys who behave in an exemplary, frightfully British way, and thus it reinforces the island race’s notions about its own superiority and the value of 19th-century ideas on progress and human perfectibility.

Compared with the world created by Golding, The Coral Island is sanity itself. The narrator says, “There was indeed no note of discord whatever in the symphony we played together on that sweet coral island. And I am now persuaded that this was owing to our having been all tuned to the same key, namely that of love. Yes, we loved one another with such fervency while we lived on that island, and for the matter of that we love each other still. . . .”

No doubt Golding’s satirical purposes are the better served if the reader faced with the brutalities of Lord of the Flies carries such passages from the earlier book in his head. The schoolboys stranded on Golding’s island are younger than Ballantyne’s and more inept at fending for themselves. They are also more cruel, more swayed by evil rhetoric, with less moral ballast. These are not only, as some commentators have pointed out, post-Freudian children but post-Holocaust men. When they are rescued, we cannot imagine that they would want to continue one another’s acquaintance.

This bleak novel was well received but did not have much impact in Britain. It needed the enthusiastic response of American college students to make it the universal success it now is. It was shortly afterward made into a film and remains the cornerstone of the William Golding Literary Research Laboratory.

After the success of this novel, Golding’s second work was an anticlimax, the first descent into bathos: an idiosyncratic, self-indulgent book, The Inheritors, that takes the reader back into prehistory. Once again, he inverts an accepted text, this time something H.G. Wells had said that was critical of Neanderthal man. Golding thought Wells had misunderstood the species and so wrote a novel in which he attempted to get into the minds of primitive men and women. This may be accurate and visionary, but we can’t say, and there are passages in the book that are long-winded, even boring. This may have been how kindly Neanderthal man was destroyed by tribes with superior technology, but there seems no essential connection between them and us. What is the point, Kierkegaard asked, of bringing back the past if it does not link up in a meaningful way with the present?

In addition, the conversations in the book sometimes come close to the “Me Tarzan—You Jane” variety that lend themselves to parody. In his third novel, Pincher Martin (1956), Golding comes close to parody of another kind. It is the first of two novels which pitch the hero into extreme situations, in this one the lingering death of a British naval officer on a barren rock in the Atlantic. The writing is elliptical, hard to follow, the pace slow (80 pages to get the hero out of the sea), and the quality of Pincher Martin’s rather banal wickedness in civilian life is not such that one would want to build a symbolic structure on it. It takes seven days to uncreate this unhappy man, who had once been an actor and so can quote passages from Lear in his final delirium.

Here we have Fallen Man trying to make sense of his past life; but Golding offers us a sketch, an outline, even though, like a teacher with a pointer, he shows us the whole range of Christian complexity from free will to Divine Grace. Pincher Martin remains uncreated in novelist’s terms, and what remains when the book is closed is Golding’s powerful evocation of the Atlantic wastes, the rise and fall of cold tides, the bright eyes of birds that see but cannot see.

Free Fall (1959) is also a construct to enable the man who has fallen below his own standards to come to terms with himself or set up his own day of judgment. This is another difficult text, allusive, deliberately confused as it moves backward and forward in time and space. The moment of truth is in a Nazi prison: the hero is forced to choose between torture or betrayal. This situation is put over with Golding’s usual intensity. He wants us to feel every nail and board of the man’s jail as in the earlier books he had evoked the sea and the feeling of the earth under the feet of primitive men and women. The fabulist, concerned with human depravity, made the symbols the structure rather than the underpinning. Some commentators have found in Free Fall an inversion of Dante, but this is to add confusion to confusion.

By 1964, when The Spire was published, Golding had established a solid reputation. At that time, George Steiner believed that this was greater in the United States than in Britain. Reviewing the novel, he wrote, “This is no accident. He represents, nearly too neatly, the classic contrast between the American tradition of the novel as romance, as dark fable and philosophic allegory, and the English form of social fiction. The natural precedents to Lord of the Flies and Pincher Martin are the tales of Hawthorne. . . . Golding’s peculiar conjunction of moral allegory and sensuous detail, the fantasy, solitude and violence of his outlook touch at many points on the art of Poe, Hawthorne and Melville. To find anything like it in the English tradition one would look to outsiders—to the Brontës, to Robert Louis Stevenson, to John Cowper Powys and his brother T.F. Powys. Consciously or not, Golding has chosen themes and settings remote from the conventions of the contemporary English novel.” The Spire was received with respect—and some bafflement. Once again, Golding had changed terrain and period and created a medieval city not unlike his own Salisbury. His chief protagonist is the dean of the cathedral, who orders the building of a spire against the advice of the master builder and the cathedral chapter. Before the spire is complete, the dean has ruined four lives; and to make anything significant of the novel the reader is somehow obliged to pin some symbolism on to the spire. Is it the tree of life itself? Is it a phallus that makes concrete the dean’s unsatisfied sexuality? The answer is a platitude. We are not really involved.

Once again, despite an uncanny power of evocation (this time of the way brutality and intense religious feeling are interwoven), Golding has not made a true work of fiction. The human relations in the novel are as stylized as the figures in a stained-glass window or a missal. The effect is often beautiful; but since much of the drama now depends on relations between men and women, we suddenly realize that Golding’s women are not very well realized. They tend to appear, as in morality plays, either as temptresses or mourners—hardly anything between Mary Magdalene and the Virgin. In this respect, The Spire fits well into the masculine patterns such as we find in 19th-century American fiction.

The academic critics dissected the book to fit their theses, and terms such as Free Will, Original Sin, Grace, and Redemption filled the air when The Pyramid appeared in 1967. In this book, Golding opened up a vein of what might be called Home Counties social comedy: three stories from oppressive provincial life that might, in essence, have come from a variety of novelists chronicling the annals of the parish. It could be a spikier version of Winesburg, Ohio.

In this triptych the emphasis is not on man as a religious being; rather it emphasizes the effect on ordinary lives of the English class system as it operated in a small southern English town. In the first, the daughter of the town crier is made, as we say nowadays, by every male in town, including—presumably—her father. A sordid story which is unrelieved by a single sympathetic character. The second is about the rivalries and passions in an amateur operatic company in the years before the casting couch was patented. The third, like an echo out of George Eliot, is the sad history of a snobbish spinster, a music teacher, hopelessly in love with the local garage owner, who is her social inferior.

Did this vision of Golding’s own England from the 1920’s onward suggest that he would not concentrate on the home scene? If readers thought so, they were to be proved wrong because the next work, The Scorpion God (1971), consisted of three tales set at widely differing periods in which Golding’s unifying preoccupation is the moment of change in human consciousness when man has to re-create his morality. The title story is set in ancient Egypt; the second, “Clonk, Clonk,” appears to be set in that part of East Africa where man first emerged as hunter; the third, “Envoy Extraordinary, ” is an incident in Imperial Rome, the adventures of a Greek inventor who tries to sell the steamboat, the explosive, and the pressure cooker to the authorities. The novella, written some time before it appeared in book form, is Golding at his most lighthearted.

After this, a decade of silence. Golding told interviewers, who continued to dog him asking questions, trying to find out what he meant, that he was writing a novel about England. Darkness Visible (1979) was certainly about the confusions of mid-century life; it was also, once again, concerned with larger, deeper issues. It seemed, at the time, to be in its fullness and obsession the direct successor to Lord of the Flies, which everyone had subconsciously or consciously been waiting for.

The novel’s theme is promising, even as described by Golding’s publisher on the dust jacket. It contains two separate stories which meet in a confusion of motives in the third section. In the first, Golding tells with a minimum of fuss the history of a man who had appeared, unparented, out of the conflagration of the London air raids. He is so scarred that he wears a black, wide-brimmed hat to hide half his face. He is teased and ill-used by his fellows; he is haunted and sustained by inner voices and visions. He keeps a diary of a most particular obscurity. Is he mad or inspired? A cynic might reply, neither. He is merely tedious. Yet this man, Matty, represents the forces of goodness, and it is his and our problem that he is not able to express himself well.

The forces of evil are twin girls, Sophia and Antonia, who grow up in a loveless household and, eventually, turn into terrorists. There is much in this section that appears to echo John Symond’s extraordinary novel, The Shaven Head, but the two sisters are original creations. The forces of good and evil clash at a private school, where Sophia plants a bomb. Matty is working there, on the ground staff, and is directly involved. I can’t tell the full story, not because of the unwritten rules of criticism but because it is so confused. Golding intends the whole thing to be a mystery, a text about the weirdness of life; and that about describes it.

What makes the book, for all its confusion, remarkable in the Golding oeuvre is that it shows him possessed, for the first time, with an ear well-tuned to the way people speak. In many of the novels, dialogue veers uneasily between normal conversation and stylized inner speech. In Darkness Visible, Golding not only captures the intonations of different speech patterns, Australian, Welsh, preppy-superior, and working-class punk, he takes in large areas of the present-day scene that he had so far ignored.

It’s as though the rural moralist had been taken to London for a crash course in contemporary studies, armed with a tape recorder to catch every absurd idea floating in the air. Relations between men and women, almost always in the past described with some embarrassment or sniggering, are here set forth fully and meatily. Of course, the world as it impinges on Golding’s consciousness is like a huge zoo at feeding time. Among the obscene gruntings and puffings of human beings motivated by lust and the need for power and money, we divine that the coral island of Lord of the Flies is now England, the once-civilized world. The barbarians are inside the gates, as Golding’s devil-possessed Sophia understands only too well: “Everything’s running down (she says). Unwinding. We’re just tangles.”

This novel appeared when Golding was touching 70, and its vigor suggested that, in the mysterious way of genius, he had renewed himself. Rites of Passage, published in 1981 and awarded the supreme British award for fiction, the Booker Prize, put the case beyond doubt. Not only is it the book that had been wandering about in Golding’s secret working mind for many years and in terms of accessibility and force can stand comparison with his first; it also embodies all his obsessions in satisfactory fictional form. The nature of man, with the light of eternity on him, is intertwined with Golding’s vision of man as a cunning and heartless social animal: the creator of his own ills and a master self-deceiver. Every character has his or her voice; every link between the parts of the book is inevitable. We may, at first, have some trouble in penetrating the early 19th-century style in which it is written. But once we achieve this breakthrough and follow the story to its end, we see that Golding has made his creaking old ship of the line sailing from England to Australia toward the end of the Napoleonic wars a microcosm of the universe and of his class-ridden England.

The main part of the novel is the diary of a superior young man with powerful social connections sailing first class to some official post in the new colony. On the boat is a selection of military men, emigrants, —and livestock. Among the emigrants is a young Anglican priest bound for Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania). He, too, keeps a journal in which his religious enthusiasms are interwoven with accounts of his social misadventures. For reasons that would be a mystery to the passengers and crew, the simple-hearted priest is chosen as the scapegoat and butt. He is bullied by the captain, he is chosen to stand trial in the ceremonies marking the passage across the Equator, he is treated disrespectfully, and he is made drunk. While he is drunk, he is either forced or seduced into homosexual play with some of the sailors. When he realizes what he has done, the poor man dies of shame. The final irony is the way that the inquiry into his death is turned into an exercise in skin-saving. The man has been degraded and destroyed, and those who worked for this, either consciously or through their indifference, will not be blamed except, perhaps, by their own consciences.

After this, given the experience of the falling off as between Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, it might have been expected that Golding’s next book would be an anticlimax, and so it is. The Paper Men is a short story blown up into a novel, and it is no excuse that Golding has put into it all the exasperation and pleasure he has experienced since 1954 in being taken seriously by academic and professional critics. What really is he complaining about?

The Paper Men is a grumble, in the English philistine tradition, against taking the life of the imagination seriously. It runs through English intellectual life at all levels and is best summed up, perhaps, by Sir Edward Elgar’s claim that he would rather play golf than write music. It suggests that somehow the writer is ashamed of his gifts, ashamed of being seen sitting at his desk day after day trying to convert his inspirations into works that other men and women can enjoy and, perhaps, derive inspiration from.

In a way this runs against Golding’s own statement that “I am very serious. In all my books I have suggested a shape in the universe that may . . .account for things.” Golding believes that the writer’s role is to help readers understand their own humanity, and he puts understanding as the supreme pleasure, greater than geometry or sex (his choice of words). He has not always lived up to his own high ideals. How can he help human beings to understanding if his texts are capable of being interpreted in different ways, if he engages in willful mystification? Imagine the great religious texts had the prophets and their scribes indulged in word-play and mental games: the Sermon on the Mount reduced to the flashes and burble of an epileptic; the Epistle to the Corinthians made less powerful because Paul had refused to say whether his tone was wholehearted or ironic.

Golding might say that this, even though he takes himself seriously, is pitching the argument too high. Such thoughts would certainly be out of place if only The Paper Men were under discussion.

I have said that this is a 10th symphony of a book, a little frolic to mark the completion of the great 9th, but I also have to say that it is more embarrassing than funny or instructive. The two men of the title are Wilfred Barclay, a famous but drunken writer for whom everything is going wrong, and Professor Rick L. Tucker, of Astrakhan University, Nebraska, whose one ambition is to be the world authority on Barclay. Locked, as the publisher’s blurb puts it, in a lethal relationship they stumble across Europe, shedding wives, self-respect, and illusions. The reader soon loses one illusion: that Golding has written a worthy successor to Rites of Passage.

The Paper Men is a dreadful book, improbable, unfunny, labored. Neither Barclay nor Tucker is in any way believable either as human being or symbol. The auxiliary characters are sketched in with little attempt to make them interesting or relevant. I wonder whether any of the American admirers of Golding’s work are going to feel offended by Golding’s portrayal of Tucker or by the patronizing way he affects a command of American idiom.

The danger is that, fed up with the charade, the readers will abandon the book. Golding is aware of the dangers, for only recently, in another essay, he wrote: “The novelist is lord of birth, of love, of death. We invite him in, we let him do what he likes. But observe. It is easier to put down a book than it is to leave the seat of a theatre. The novelist can doodle as much as he likes but may come to with an awful start to find nobody is listening.”

When Rites of Passage came out, it seemed a vindication of all the risks which Golding had taken in his career: the eccentric themes that nobody else would have dreamed of tackling, the attempt to penetrate modes of being other than our own. It was even encouraging proof that man, despite the lessons of Lord of the Flies is a perfectible animal, who can, if he chooses, go on learning, overcoming his limitations, increasing his sympathy and understanding of those around him: in essence, becoming a good Golding man. The lesson which Golding appeared to have learned was that novels are not created with good intentions or heavenly thoughts but must embody through their characters the truths which the author has believed important. Barclay and Tinker embody little but a caricature of both the creator and the man (or woman) who tries to explain the creator’s work. Looking over the mass of material on Golding, I think that on the whole he has been well served by his academics, who have tended to give him the benefit of the doubt. Without these books of exploration and reverent interpretation, Golding’s work would, in part, be even more obscure than it is, and whatever coherence this essay possesses owes much to the pioneer work of scholars such as Virginia Tiger, John Whitley, Ian Gregor, Mark Kinkead-Weekes, and many others. The question at the end of The Paper Men is simple: why savage your friends?

* * *

N. B. This review makes no mention of Golding’s two books of essays: The Hot Gates (1965) and A Moving Target (1982). I have quoted from one or two of them, mostly when they illustrate his working practice. The range of subject is far wider than this, exploring ideas, charting Golding’s travels, and discussing books he has enjoyed.


By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.

Recommended Reading