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William Golding: the Dark Side of Man

    A band of British schoolboys on a tropical island, a clan of Neanderthals, and a sailor marooned on a rock: what could they possibly have in common?  In William Gerald Golding’s anti-utopian vision, they each embody, in their own ways, the inevitable evil and destruction humans bring with them.  In his most famous novel, Lord of the Flies, Golding shows how a group of children, when left without a controlling force of adult supervision and guidance, regress from the teachings of civilization to the subconscious pull of savagery, barbarism, and murder.  The clan of Neanderthals in The Inheritors follow a reverse path – they are hunted down and destroyed by the more culturally advanced society of homo sapiens.  And in Pincher Martin, a sailor who is marooned on a rock tries to survive through the wisdom of civilization, but is ultimately driven mad by his own internal guilt and sin.  These three books exemplify William Golding’s belief in the innate evil that permeates human nature and the fruitlessness of society’s attempts to eradicate man’s primitive, primordial instincts.

    Though the winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature and the author of one of the most popular and widely criticized novel, Lord of the Flies, William Golding had a hard time getting recognized and a harder time persisting in his literary success (“William” 1).  Before becoming a writer, he was employed as a schoolteacher at Salisbury and later went on to serve in the navy during World War II, “an experience that likely helped shape his interest in the theme of barbarism and evil within humanity” (“William” 1).  His first masterpiece, Lord of the Flies, was published in 1954, after having been rejected by twenty-one publishers.  For the first few years, it received mostly unfavorable or oversimplified criticism; in the United States, it sold miserably few copies and, for a while, went out of print (Oldsey 5).

    Soon, however, Lord of the Flies began gathering acclaim.  Many academic critics, having discovered its depth and sophistication, were recommending it to be included on student reading lists.  By 1959, its popularity overshadowed J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye among American college students (Oldsey 5).  In another two years, Golding was able to afford to devote himself fully to writing, resigning his post as a schoolteacher.  His next two books, The Inheritors and Pincher Martin (both published within three years of the first one), gave worldwide critics more food for thought; Golding himself was known to express a preference towards The Inheritors as being his best book (Oldsey 8).  His following novels, however, while popular among some critics, were widely regarded as unsuccessful attempts to recapture the splendor and intensity of his initial successes.

    Golding was a strong believer in originality.  “There’s... very little point in writing a novel unless you do something that either you suspected you couldn’t do, or which you are pretty certain nobody else has tried before,” he explained once in a radio discussion.  “I don’t think there’s any point in writing two books that are like each other” (Oldsey 1).  Though his novels are often viewed almost as allegories, myths, or fables (“William” 2), through them he expresses deeply personal, “corrective, and highly original” beliefs (Oldsey 1).  His first two books are refutations of popularly exemplified literary concepts.  The Inheritors, a book dealing with the gradual destruction of a Neanderthal tribe, is, according to Bernard Oldsey, Golding’s counterstatement to H. G. Wells; as its epigraph, Golding used a passage from Wells’s Outline of History.  Lord of the Flies, while interpreted on many levels and attributed to multiple influences, is most commonly believed to be Golding’s rebuttal of R. M. Ballantyne’s children’s adventure book from 1857, The Coral Island.

    In a dramatic reversal of Ballantyne’s concept of “the purity and innocence of youth and humanity’s ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions” (“William” 1), Lord of the Flies uses a similar setting (a deserted tropical island) and characters (two of the main heroes are named Jack and Ralph in both books) to enforce an opposite and much more dramatic moral.  In Coral Island, three British boys are shipwrecked on an island and, in the face of evil represented by nature, cannibals, and pirates, demonstrate strength, confidence, and virtue, conquering the elements and Christianizing savage tribes.  “Now [that you are an adult],” tells Golding, “you can see that people are not like that; they would not behave like that if they were God-fearing English gentlemen and they went to an island like that” (Hynes 1).  Instead of the romanticized, “falsified map of reality” of the Victorian era (“Lord” 193), Lord of the Flies offers a grimmer, more realistic version of a similar scenario.

    The plot of Lord of the Flies can be described as matter-of-fact, fast-paced, and intense.  A group of British schoolboys aged between six and twelve, while being evacuated from England and from nuclear war waged against the “reds,” are stranded on a deserted Pacific island when their plane is shot down.  Two of the boys, Ralph and Piggy, are seen wandering the beach in search of other survivors.  They find a conch shell half-buried in the sand, and Piggy teaches Ralph how to blow on it.  Hearing the conch, the other boys gather, among them the choirboys, led by Jack.  Having assembled, they elect Ralph to be the leader.  His first decision is to appoint the choir to be hunters.

    After exploring the island, the boys hold another meeting.  The conch becomes a symbol of democracy, and whoever holds it has the right of speech.  Having analyzed their situation, of which Piggy has the clearest understanding, Ralph decides that they must keep a fire on top of the mountain to attract any passing ships.  The boys rush off eagerly, forgetting the system of rules they had just made.  On the mountain, they use Piggy’s glasses to make a fire; however, they are careless and set fire to the forest.  After it has burned out, they discover that one of the “littluns” is missing (“Lord” 176).

    A couple of days later, Ralph and another boy, Simon, are seen trying to construct shelters.  When Jack comes back from hunting, he demonstrates growing antagonism towards Ralph and his rationale of keeping fire and insists on the importance of hunting.  Soon after the incident, Ralph notices a ship in the distance, but at that exact moment the fire goes out.  The hunters, whose duty it was to keep the fire going, return from their first successful hunt carrying a dead pig.  Ralph summons the assembly and tries to reassert the rules.  The littluns voice their fear of the “beastie,” saying it comes from the sea.  Simon suggests that the beast does not exist, that it is only their fears, but he is awkward and inarticulate, and nobody listens.  Jack does not deny the beast’s existence and declares that if there is one, his tribe of hunters will “hunt it down... close in and beat and beat and beat—!” (Lord of the Flies 83).  He chaotically disperses the meeting, and the boys scatter, leaving Ralph, Simon, and Piggy.  Ralph considers yielding his leadership to Jack but is dissuaded by Simon and Piggy.  In desperation, Ralph cries out, “If only they could get a message to us... If only they could send us something grownup a sign or something” (Lord of the Flies 85).

    In the night, the sign comes in the form of a dead parachutist that lands on the mountain.  When the boys investigate, they fail to recognize the human shape amid the tangled fabric and ropes swaying in the wind, and run away, thinking that this is the beast.  Back at the beach, Jack calls an assembly and advocates Ralph’s dismissal.  When the other boys refuse, he leaves; as Ralph is trying to reorganize the group, most of the “biguns” sneak off after Jack.  The hunters go off into the jungle and gruesomely kill a sow.  In sacrifice to the beast, they cut off the pig’s head and mount it on a stick.  Later, Simon, who had wandered off into the forest in search of the beast, encounters the head and hallucinates a conversation with it before he has a seizure and faints.  (One of the more prophetic and symbolic passages in the book, this section deserves a separate treatment and will be covered later.)

    At the beach, Ralph and Piggy are the only ones left.  They go to seek out Jack and find his group celebrating their kill.  In a tribal dance, the hunters reenact the hunting of the pig.  When Simon arrives, carrying the words of revelation, he is taken for the prey and ritualistically killed amid the maddening frenzy.  Though accomplices of his murder, Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric leave early and agree that they didn’t see anything.  Later in the night, a group of Jack’s boys raids their camp and steals Piggy’s glasses; the hunters now possess the power of fire.  Ralph’s group goes to the hunters’ new settlement, Castle Rock, to retrieve the glasses.  Facing the intimidating band of masked hunters, Ralph and Piggy try to defend their position.  A fight breaks out, and Roger, the cruelest of the hunters, hurls a huge boulder at Piggy, shattering the conch and launching Piggy into the rocky ocean floor below.  The twins are captured, and Ralph barely escapes into the jungle.

    In the last chapter, Ralph is seen hiding in the forest, planning his own survival.  The hunters are no longer boys but are now described as “savages” and “the tribe” (Novels 177).  Back at Castle Rock, Ralph sees Sam and Eric keeping watch, and he approaches them.  They say that they’ve been forced to participate and warn him to leave, speaking vaguely of Roger’s cruel intentions.  Later, they are forced to disclose Ralph’s hideout, and he finds himself surrounded.  The tribe, however, once again manages to set the island on fire, and Ralph escapes in the commotion.  At the beach, when he is about to be ran down and killed, the rescue appears in the form of a naval officer who has seen the forest fire and brought his ship to the island.  With a sudden jolt in perspective, the savages are now seen once again as little crying boys with wooden sticks.  The officer naively admonishes the boys: “I should’ve thought that a pack of British boys – you’re all British, aren’t you? – would’ve been able to put up a better show than that—I mean—“ (Lord of the Flies 184).  He then looks back at his cruiser in the distance, a reminder that the rescue is a faulty one and that the world is still at war (“Lord” 177).

    Lord of the Flies, says James Stern, is “an allegory on human society today, the novel’s primary implication being that what we have come to call civilization is, at best, not more than skin-deep” (“Golding” 1182).  The deviation from civilized customs is best seen in Jack’s hunters: they start out volunteering to maintain the signal fire, but soon their preoccupation with hunting overshadows their long-term purpose to attract rescuers to the island.  “[They] become so intent on killing that they no longer understand that the aim of hunting was originally to provide the community with food.  They mistake the means for the end,” writes critic Michel-Michot.  ”The hunters become a savage group of outlaws... [deviating] further and further from the standards of civilized life that the other group strains to preserve.”  Their tribal tendencies, the deification of the sow’s head, and the barbarism of their rituals “stress the fact that the children have fallen into the state of savagery in which evil is all-powerful” (Michel 3).

    The wild life that the boys succumb to, according to critics, can be traced back to the ancient Greek plays of Euripides, particularly his tragedy “The Bacchae.”  In the play, Dionysus descends to earth to take revenge on King Pentheus, who has prohibited his worship.  He seduces Pentheus’s mother, Agave, to lead a group of girls in a wild frenzy of celebrations in which they wreck everything in their path, despite the king’s every attempt to stop them.  Maddened by Dionysus’s spell, Pentheus decides to spy on the orgies; the bacchantes see him as a lion and, led by Agave, wildly tear him to pieces.  As the final step in his revenge, Dionysus renders the revelers, who had tried to deny the god before, conscious of their crime and exiles them from their homeland to wander the earth (Baker 3).  Dionysus’s role here is more than just that of a god of wine, however; according to Baker, he was

“...The principle of animal life... the hunted and the hunter – the unrestrained potency which man envies in the beasts and seeks to assimilate... to resist Dionysus is to repress the elemental in one’s own nature; the punishment is the sudden collapse of the inward dykes when the elemental breaks through perforce and civilization vanishes” (3).

Baker compares the children in Lord of the Flies, who try to impose a rational societal order “upon the vital chaos of their own nature,” to King Pentheus; their punishment, just as in the play, is “bloodshed, guilt, utter defeat of reason” (4).

    The Dionysian theme goes together with the larger theme of reason versus emotion.  Piggy, as a strong believer in science and technological progress, can be said to exemplify reason, while Jack and his tribe, near the end of the book, seem to act purely based on wild passion (“Lord” 182). Most characters show traits of both, however, and it is the resolution of their internal conflict that determines what role they end up playing.  For instance, Roger exhibits cruelty throughout the book; in the beginning, though, when he throws rocks at littluns, “his arm is conditioned by rational society to avoid hitting” them, and it is only later, when “his emotions overcome his reason [that] he will loose the boulder that kills Piggy” (“Lord” 182).

    It is also possible to represent the conflicts in the novel as a thematic battle between good and evil without narrowing it down any further.  All the characters are seen in the beginning as essentially good, though reckless and lighthearted at times: Ralph demonstrates calmness, leadership, and rational thinking (though he often teases Piggy and makes fun of him, foreshadowing the deterioration to come); Piggy has knowledge and scientific understanding of their situation, to which he clings even through most dangerous developments; Simon shows sensitivity and acknowledgement, but not fear, of the evil; and even Jack, at the first assembly, is civil and volunteers his choir to maintain the fire and hunt food.  Yet once the seed of evil – the fear of the “beastie” – is planted, all these characters ultimately fall victim to evil’s forces, which in the end is exemplified by Jack and Roger.  Piggy loses his glasses and with them the ability to make fire – his one useful trait, the link to civilization.  The fire itself serves a dual purpose: in the hands of good, it provides heat, cooked food, and the hope of rescue, but in the hands of evil its destructive power is unleashed and it sets the forest on fire, first accidentally, then intentionally when Jack tries to smoke out Ralph.  Simon, who alone of all boys becomes conscious of the beast’s nature and comes to tell them, is killed by the frenzied boys.  After Piggy is thrown off the cliff by the almost completely evil Roger, Ralph is left without counsel, authority, and steadfastness given to him by the other characters, and only the timely interference of the naval officer saves him from becoming the dark force’s next victim.  And Jack, who is seemingly the agent and the avatar of evil, is also defeated by it, for he cannot control its turbulence (“Lord” 181).  Thus, everyone succumbs to the urge of the beast within; and because the characters are so young, the reader cannot blame their defects on the society that educated them.  In Golding’s own words, the moral demonstrated is that “the shape of society must depend on the ethical nature of the individual and not on any political system however apparently logical or respectable” (Baker 2).  According to Baker, humankind is severely limited by the “defect inherent in our species,” and though humans continue trying to rise above our animal natures, they are inevitably pulled back down (2).

    In tracing the boys’ defects, it is important to understand the role and symbolism of each of the main characters: Ralph, Piggy, Roger, Jack, and Simon.  Each fulfills a specific allegorical purpose and, depending on how the reader interprets the book, can be seen as a representative of a particular social, psychological, political, or religious concept.

    At the first assembly, Ralph is almost unanimously elected chief, owing more to his charm than any real leadership qualities:

“None of the boys could’ve found reason for this; what intelligence had been shown was traceable to Piggy while the most obvious leader was Jack.  But there was a stillness about Ralph as he sat that marked him out: there was his size, and attractive appearance; and most obscurely, yet most powerfully, there was the conch” (Lord 21).

As the boys’ leader, Ralph seeks to recreate the rational democracy that was the world they had left, and he accepts this role “because he sees that the alternative to responsibility is savagery and moral chaos” (Hynes 3).  However, when the antagonism between him and authority-seeking Jack escalates, Ralph rapidly loses followers – he “lacks the charisma and strategic skills to get the other boys to recognize what the conch represents – order, authority, dialogue, democracy” (“Lord” 180).  With enough ambition and directness yet discombobulated by occasional imperfections, such as the inability to find the right word to incite the boys during assemblies, Ralph is “a kind of everyman with whom we can each identify, but [his flaw] contributes to the gradual descent of the boys into a savagery to which Ralph himself succumbs by the end of the story” (“Lord” 180).

    Piggy, Ralph’s follower and adviser, “is a scientific-minded rationalist, who models his behavior on what he thinks grownups would do… in a society in which thought was enough he would be supremely valuable” (Hynes 3).  Piggy is the one to recognize the conch’s significance and to teach Ralph how to use it; he advocates the building of shelters and insists that Ralph deal with Jack’s enmity instead of surrendering leadership.  Yet without Ralph, he is useless and ineffective; crippled by his physical weakness, obesity, and asthma, and blind without his spectacles, he is “a man of thought, not action... After Jack has broken one lens from his glasses and stolen the other, Piggy is doomed” to struggle “in a society where irrational fears and physical strength are more respected than science, law, and dialogue” (“Lord” 179).  Piggy is ridiculed by almost everyone, even Ralph; yet he realizes that if Ralph surrenders leadership to Jack, Piggy will be the first to suffer the consequences: “If Jack was chief he’d have all hunting and no fire.  We’d be here till we died... He hates me.  I dunno why.  If he could do what he wanted—“ (Lord 84).  A sign of his inadequacy, writes Hynes, is the blind trust “in the power and wisdom of grownups” (3), and he uses the civilized standards to judge his environment even on the island: “’The trouble is: Are there ghosts, Piggy?  Or beasts?’  ‘Course there aren’t.’  ‘Why not?’  ‘Cos things wouldn’t make sense.  Houses an’ streets, an’—TV—they wouldn’t work’” (Lord 83).  It is important that when Roger launches the boulder at him, Piggy is destroyed simultaneously with the conch – the symbol of democracy, reason, and justice that he clung to and that betrayed him.

    “There was a slight, furtive boy whom no one knew, who kept to himself with an inner intensity of avoidance and secrecy.  He muttered that his name was Roger and was silent again” (Lord 20).  Only in retrospect could the reader tell that this quiet, withdrawn boy will emerge as the most vicious and bloodthirsty of all.  His darker instincts suppressed by civilization, Roger takes a while to realize the freedom he has gained on the island.  In the first chapter, he is seen sulking pessimistically about their chances of ever being rescued; a few days later, he tramples over the littluns’ castles and throws stones at littlun Henry, though not daring to hit him: “Round the squatting child was the protection of parents and school and policemen and the law.  Roger’s arm was conditioned by a civilization that knew nothing of him and was in ruins” (Lord 56).  Yet once Jack shows him the liberation from guilt and old life that a painted clay mask offers, Roger quickly comes under his power and soon stands to represent Jack’s “worst characteristic, his lust for power over living things” (“Lord” 180).  By the end, he undergoes a complete metamorphosis, becoming “the hangman’s horror... wielding a nameless authority” (Lord 165-6), and “with a sense of delirious abandonment,” he launches the boulder at Piggy, destroying their last link to civilization, science, and reason (Lord 164).

Ralph’s antagonist, Jack, maintains a forceful presence from the beginning.  At first ashamed at being rejected as chief, he accepts his role as hunter with carefree childish zeal, and though he often bickers with Ralph over the relative importance of shelter versus meat, he does not dare rebel against Ralph’s authority for a long time.  There is a mystical link between Jack and Ralph, immediate and inexplicable: “they grinned at each other, sharing this burden [log].  Once more… was shed that glamour, that strange invisible light of friendship, adventure, and content” (Lord 37).  Yet as Jack’s obsession with hunting and blood and power over others dominates him, he begins to have less and less respect for Ralph’s doctrine of rules and democracy.  In his essay, Hynes describes him as Ralph’s antithesis, the wild emotion unleashed:

“[Jack] is… the dictator, the authoritarian man-of-power who enters the scene like a drill sergeant, who despises assemblies and the conch, and who becomes in the end an absolute ruler of his tribe.  He devises the painted mask of the hunter, behind which a boy may hide, ‘liberated from shame and self-consciousness,’ and by painting the boys he turns them into an anonymous mob of murderous savages, ‘a demented but partly secure society’... he is the High Priest of Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies” (Hynes 3).

    The last of the book’s main characters, Simon, is the most symbolic and allegorical boy of them all.  In a religious interpretation of the novel, he is the prophetical figure of Christ, kind and sensitive yet misunderstood when he tries to deliver the truth about the beast.  From within his temple of leaves, he witnesses as the hunters, headed by Jack, kill the sow and mount its head on a stick, signifying the final release from the fear of killing and the homage paid to the new Dionysian god of the island.  The hunters, intimidated by the grotesque visage, “dim-eyed, grinning faintly, blood blackening between the teeth” (Lord 124), “an image of the hunter’ own nature” (Baker 5) gleaming in the dusk, run away, but Simon remains.  In a sickly onset of a seizure, he hallucinates the hideous revelation of the head, admonishing him as though he was a small, wayward child: “‘Don’t you agree?’ said the Lord of the Flies. ‘Aren’t you just a silly little boy?… You’d better run off and play with the others.  They think you’re batty.  You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you?’” (Lord 130).  Simon weakly tries to refute the inevitable truth:

“‘Pig’s head on a stick.’

‘Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!’ said the head.  For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter.  ‘You knew, didn’t you?  I’m part of you?… I’m the reason why it’s no go?  Why things are what they are?… You know perfectly well you’ll only meet me down there – so don’t try to escape!… My poor, misguided child, do you think you know better than I do?… I’m warning you.  I’m going to get angry.  D’you see?  You’re not wanted.  Understand?  We are going to have fun on this island. Understand?… So don’t try it on, my poor misguided boy, or else—’

Simon found he was looking into a vast mouth.  There was blackness within, a blackness that spread.

‘—Or else… we shall do you.  See?  Jack and Roger and Maurice and Robert and Bill and Piggy and Ralph.  Do you.  See?’” (Lord 130-1)

    The Beast’s intentions are clear: having seized the minds of the boys, it was going to grow, fester, and dominate them.  Already, on the beach, the hunters are reveling in their triumph and preparing to do the ritualistic dance which will bear Simon’s demise, his penalty for stumbling onto “the truth which is inaccessible to the illusion-bound rationalist and to the unconscious or irrational man alike” (Baker 5), just as the Beast prophesies.  The underlying revelation is that once Simon perceives the true nature of the Beast and the boys themselves, once he ventures up the mountain and recognizes the intimidating being as the decaying parachutist, “Man himself ‘at once heroic and sick,’ a fallen creature... a symbol of war and decay” (Michel 3), he is forbidden to return and share his insight with the others and is martyred in the frenzied tribal dance.

    When viewed allegorically, every major character in the novel can be made to fit a categorical niche.  Such, from a religious standpoint, while Simon is the figure of Christ, the island “becomes a symbol of the Garden of Eden,” and “Jack’s identification with hunting and Ralph’s identification with shelter as well as their natural antagonism appear to be allegorization of the Cain and Abel story” (“Lord” 188).  The whole novel becomes a reenactment of the Fall of Man or, alternatively, “a grim parallel with the prophecies of the Biblical Apocalypse” (Baker 7).  As a political allegory, the characters are made to represent government concepts.  Ralph is a “goodhearted but not entirely effective leader of a democratic state... who wants to rule by law derived from the common consent.”  His sidekick Piggy acts as “adviser, someone... unable to rule because of his own social and physical shortcomings, but who is able to offer sound advice.”  Ralph’s antagonist Jack “represents a totalitarian dictatorship [who] rules by charisma and hysteria.”  And Roger is seen as “the henchman necessary for such a totalitarian ruler to stay in power” (“Lord” 188).  This view makes the most sense in context with the times following World War II, when the world seemed to divide itself into the Western “free powers” and the communist nations of Eastern Europe and USSR.  Finally, the book can be interpreted as a Freudian psychological allegory, with moralistic Piggy being the superego, Jack’s animal impulses for immediate gratification being the id, and Ralph serving as the ego, trying to mediate between the other two (“Lord” 188).  The killing of the sow, which marks a key point in regression of the hunters, is described brutally and with implicit sexual overtones that could as well be used to depict rape, marking another theme in Freudian psychology:

“Here, struck down by the heat, the sow fell and the hunters hurled themselves at her.  This dreadful eruption from an unknown world made her frantic; she squealed and bucked and the air was full of sweat and noise and blood and terror... Jack was on top of the sow, stabbing downward with his knife... the spear moved forward inch by inch and the terrified squealing became a high-pitched scream.  Then Jack found the throat and the hot blood spouted over his hands.  The sow collapsed under them and they were heavy and fulfilled upon her” (Lord 123).

    Not only the characters, but also some key objects and concepts perform a symbolic role in Lord of the Flies.  Perhaps the most obvious, the conch is the symbol of democracy, civilization, and reason, and as Jack and his boys deviate further from societal norms, so does their respect for the conch’s authority diminish; Ralph’s makeshift democracy is “inadequate and powerless confronted with violence and tyranny” (Michel 5).  The fire represents rescue and the boys’ “attachment to civilization... it is a distant end that will be reached only at the price of an everyday effort; it is a duty that must be done for no immediate end: it can be culture and education” (Michel 6).  When used for the common good, it can also stand for humanity’s scientific and technological achievements “at their best, serving humans with light and heat... When uncontrolled, however, fire represents science and technology run amok” (“Lord” 183).  If the tropical island is taken as a microcosmic representation of the world, its ultimate destruction by Jack and the hunters would be the atomic apocalypse caused by the warring superpowers, blinded by their doctrinal fanaticism and obsession with control.

    The novel’s outcome, while giving the illusion of a rescue, recapitulates the book’s message.  In Golding’s words, “The whole book is symbolic in nature except the rescue in the end where adult life appears, dignified and capable, but in reality enmeshed in the same evil... The officer, having interrupted a man-hunt, prepares to take the children off the island in a cruiser which will presently be hunting its enemy in the same implacable way.  And who will rescue the adult and his cruiser?” (Oldsey 6).  Near the end, the reader no longer views the characters as little boys, and by suddenly switching the perspective Golding delivers a shocking ironic twist.  As Hynes explains, “we see with sudden clarity that these murderous savages were civilized children; the point is... that the human propensity for evil knows no limits, not even limits of age, and... there is no Age of Innocence” (6).  The second irony is that the “large, efficient, confident” adult, for whose presence Ralph wishes all along, is expected to bring order and justice to the scene; yet “his words show at once that he is a large, stupid Coral Island mentality in a peaked cap, entirely blind to the moral realities of the situation.  He may save Ralph’s life, but he will not understand” (Hynes 6).  The boys will never be the same, and though the “savages” are restricted by the adult presence, the reader cannot forget or overlook their cruelty and murderous intentions or “the potential evil that will come to the surface again whenever the circumstances permit it” (Michel 4).

    Lord of the Flies is by far the richest of Golding’s novels in depicting the retrogression of humans to a primitive animalistic state, kindled by fear and reinforced by a “mob security” mentality.  Golding’s second novel, The Inheritors, while examining the same topic, looks from the opposite perspective: instead of following the “civilized” hunter, it tracks the “primitive” prey – a peaceful tribe of Neanderthals.  Having encountered their mental superiors, the homo sapiens, these “savages” are forced to adapt to survive, and in doing so, take a progressive jolt forward. Nonetheless, it does not save them, but only brings them face to face with the corruption and barbarism of the supposedly civilized homo sapiens tribe.  “Progression in The Inheritors and retrogression in Lord of the Flies have the same results,” summarizes Oldsey (7).

    Just as Lord of the Flies was Golding’s literary counterstatement to Ballantyne’s Coral Island, so was The Inheritors meant to rebuke the theory put forth by H. G. Wells’s Outline of History.  As the book’s epigraph, Golding chose an excerpt from Wells that describes the Neanderthal as “an ugly, repulsive brute, inferior in all ways to our own immediate ancestors” (Oldsey 7).  Yet his own thesis is exactly the opposite.  Set in the prehistoric era during the dawn of man, The Inheritors follows Neanderthals Lok and Fa as they and their extended family migrate across the land.  Their blissful world is shattered when they discover, gradually, the new race of homo sapiens, who demonstrate their cultural “superiority” and excellence by killing off Lok’s tribe (“Overview” 7).  By telling most of the novel from the perspective of Neanderthals, Golding manages to achieve an inimitable sense for their personality and their interpersonal relationships and emotions; and when they are pitted against the more advanced humans, it becomes brutally clear that despite the better “technology,” the superior cunning, the mastery of water travel and fire and inebriating honey, the homo sapiens are morally inferior to the primitive, basic, yet ironically human Neanderthals.  “Again, it is humanity, and humanity alone, that generates evil” (“Overview” 8), maintains Golding.

    Lord of the Flies takes place in the near future; The Inheritors – remote past.  Golding’s third book, Pincher Martin, was contemporary to his own time and utilized some of the author’s wartime navy experiences.  In this novel, Christopher Martin (“Pincher” being a slang British term for “petty thief”), officer of a torpedoed battleship, is knocked overboard, and through inhuman efforts manages to stay afloat and coast to a small rock island in the middle of the ocean – “one tooth set in the ancient jaw of a sunken world” (Oldsey 9).  The rest of the novel tells of his extraordinary pains to survive and signal a ship.  Yet “he cannot survive by [strong] will alone,” states Oldsey (9).  In a classic last-page shocker, the reader discovers that he hasn’t survived at all; that, in fact, Martin drowned sometime in the second page of the novel, and the rest – the fighting against the storm, his arrival at the rock, hunger, pain, suffering, flashbacks choked out by ill delirium – was his dying mind’s instantaneous desperate hallucination.

    Throughout the novel, as Martin heroically deploys his knowledge and skill to plan his survival and rescue, he periodically reminisces about his past life.  Via these flashbacks, the reader begins to develop a different view of his nature: that of a villain, not a hero.  In a radio interview, Golding explained his own opinion of Martin’s character:

“Christopher Martin had no belief in anything but the importance of his own life… The greed for life… forced him to refuse the selfless act of dying.  He continued to exist separately in a world composed of his own murderous nature… [his] ravenous ego invents a rock for him to endure on… but deep down he knows the truth.  He is not fighting for bodily survival but for his continuing identity in face of what will smash it and sweep it away – the black lightning, the compassion of God.  For Christopher… has become… little but greed” (Oldsey 9-10).

    Christopher Martin is his own Ralph and Jack, his own savior and devil.  After the initial shock of being stranded on a barren rock in the midst of the ocean, he determines to overcome his physical illness (ubiquitous pain caused understandably by half-drowning in freezing water and being dashed against the rock), sets up an agenda to provide himself with food, drink, and rescue, and carries it out with military discipline.  Yet in a few days, he finds himself drifting away into a hallucination of his past life, and what is seen there – egomania, greed, jealousy, selfishness, rape – proceeds to gnaw at his soul and gradually drives him mad, deeper and deeper into the terminal gap of self-guilt:

“There was nothing but the center and the claws.  They were huge and strong and inflamed to red.  They closed on each other.  They contracted.  They were outlined like a night sign against the absolute nothingness and they gripped their whole strength into each other... The lighting crept in” (Pincher 179).

In this final distorted mental image, “the center” is Martin’s inner mind, and “the claws” are his scraped, blistered hands.

    “William Golding has been described as pessimistic, mythical, spiritual – an allegorist who uses his novels as a canvas to paint portraits of man’s constant struggle between his civilized self and his hidden, darker nature” (“Overview” 1).  The theme of man’s inherent corruption prevails throughout his first three novels; in Lord of the Flies, it is shown with the most depth and complexity, and the other two books support an alternative twist on the subject.  None of his characters are purely evil, having been shackled by societal restraints and norms; but neither is anyone free from sin or imperfection: Ralph is a poor orator and debater, Simon is “batty,” Piggy is fat, asthmatic and ridiculous, the Neanderthals are fatally naïve.  Master of characterization, Golding meticulously introduces all of his heroes, and then proceeds to show how, when thrown into a situation of loneliness, despair, and fear, the Beast gnaws at each of them from within, tempting them to succumb to their urges.  If they don’t, they are destroyed: Piggy is slain holding onto the conch, his remnant of faith in society; Simon discovers the truth about the beast and is brutally sacrificed; and Lok’s tribe is hunted down and killed.  Yet if they do give in to the Dionysian temptation, the characters pay dearly for it: Ralph is an unwilling accomplice to Simon’s death, Jack has his ego shattered by the naval officer’s appearance, and Pincher Martin wastes away in guilty delirium.  This is precisely Golding’s point – since the human is innately evil, there can be no salvation, no path to justice, order and truth.  Each novel’s ending illustrates this: the grownup’s ship is ready to take the boys off the island to wage a war, this time a real one, against other humans; the homo sapiens hunters paddle victoriously away, having annihilated Lok’s culture and reduced him, through the author’s clever perspective shift, to a grunting beast; and Martin’s heroic struggle against the elements proves useless, as it only happened during preconscious flashes of his drowning mind.  The three sets of characters – innocent children, civilized adults, primitive tribesmen – are all reduced to the same state of being, proving Golding’s cynical conviction: society and culture can keep unwanted primordial instincts at bay, but they can never eradicate them.  The evil will surface.


Baker, James R.  “Why It’s No Go.”  Critical Essays on William Golding.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

Golding, William.  The Inheritors.  New York: Pocket Books, 1974.

---.  Lord of the Flies.  New York: Perigee Books, 1954.

---.  Pincher Martin.  New York: Capricorn Books, 1956. 

“Golding, William (Gerald) 1911-1993.”  Major 20th Century Authors.  Ed. Kathleen Wilson.  Vol. 2.  Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1999.  1181-1185.

Hynes, Samuel.  “William Golding’s ‘Lord of the Flies’.”  Critical Essays on William Golding.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

“Lord of the Flies: William Golding.”  Novels for Students.  Ed. Diane Telgen.  Vol. 2.  Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1997.  176-195.

Michel-Michot, Paulette.  “The Myth of Innocence.”  Revue des Langues Vivantes, Vol. 28.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

Oldsey, Bernard.  “William Golding.”  Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 15.  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

“William (Gerald) Golding  1911-1993.”  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.

 “William (Gerald) Golding  1911-1933: Overview of Author’s Works and Career.”  Discovering Authors.  Vers. 2.0.  CD-ROM.  Detroit:  Gale, 1996.