William Gerald Golding is considered one of the most distinguished twentieth century British novelists. His first novel, Lord of the Flies, has not only been canonized by school curricula but also entered mythology. Golding was born in a small village in rural southwest England to Alex and Mildred Golding. He was educated at an academically sound but unprestigious state-funded grammar school and at Brasenose College, University of Oxford. After graduation in 1935 and a brief spell as a writer, actor, and producer with small theater companies (experience evident in the tight plotting of his novels and his choice of dramatic situations), Golding became a master at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in the cathedral town of Salisbury; this appointment contributed toward the strong sense of place evoked in his novel The Spire. He married Ann Brookfield in 1939 and the following year joined the Royal Navy, where he saw such action as the sinking of the German battleship Bismarck and commanding a rocket-launching craft during the Allied invasion of France; these experiences infuse the novel Pincher Martin. After World War II ended, Golding returned to teaching, and he remained a teacher until 1960.
No one could have suspected in 1954 that the intensely private author of Lord of the Flies would come to occupy a central place in British culture. This first novel was initially regarded as little more than an exciting but darkly unpleasant adventure story of a group of schoolboys stranded on a desert island, who degenerate into savagery under a “dictator.” Yet the novel’s cultural roots go deep. It turns upside down the world of R. M. Ballantyne’s children’s classic The Coral Island (1857) and subverts the essential optimism of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) to create a modern myth that unfolds with swift and brutal inevitability. In addition to having the pent-up energy of a long-meditated work, Lord of the Fliesshows a grasp of telling detail that bespeaks the author’s experience with real-life schoolboys. The book rapidly achieved cult status, and it was made into a film in 1963.
A period of considerable productivity followed this success. In The Inheritors, Golding challenges H. G. Wells’s theories about Neanderthals; indeed, the novel is written entirely from the point of view and in the strange and limited language of a sensitive Neanderthal whose family tribe is wiped out by the savage new race, Homo sapiens. This novel was followed by Pincher Martin and Free Fall, the stories of a guilt-ridden naval officer’s last hours and a painter’s complex attempt to locate the point at which he lost his innocence. This first phase of Golding’s work culminated with The Spire. At the center of this novel is Joscelin, whose construction of an immense spire on his cathedral, an act both hubristic and inspired, parallels the construction of the novel itself.
It has been suggested that The Spire’s very “monolithic” completeness may have blocked Golding’s way forward. Certainly there was cooler critical acclaim for The Pyramid, a set of three interrelated narratives centering on the hierarchical British social structure of which the pyramid is the symbol. Following the relative failure of this work, more than a decade passed before the publication of Golding’s next novel, Darkness Visible, a richly allusive, visionary book that precipitated a new wave of critical interest in Golding. Darkness Visible was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1980, and Golding’s next novel, Rites of Passage, received Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award, the Booker Prize. The Nobel Prize in Literature followed in 1983. Increased recognition made it difficult for Golding to keep the low profile he preferred; his rather slight 1984 novel The Paper Men was born of his frustration at finding himself the “raw material of an academic light industry.”
Golding was a consciously serious novelist, a difficult position to maintain in the fragmented late twentieth century. He was versatile in his command of a wide variety of forms and historical backgrounds. None of his later work had the popular impact of Lord of the Flies, but it was scrutinized with equal intensity. Golding’s fiction is informed by his passionately held but tentative religious convictions: In coming to grips with what he called the dark “patternlessness of life,” in which “man produces evil as a bee produces honey,” it also uncovers moments of joy and affirmation. Rites of Passage, the first book in a trilogy based on a historical incident of the Napoleonic Wars, is in many ways representative of the fablelike orientation of his fiction. As is characteristic of his later novels, Golding anatomizes a small society. The narrative builds toward a ritual moment in Rites of Passage, “crossing the line”–both the equator and the boundary between order and revolution, reason and superstition. The trilogy concluded with Close Quarters and Fire down Below. At the time that he died of a heart attack in 1993, Golding was revising a new novel. Published in unfinished form in 1995 as The Double Tongue, this work is an ironic treatment of the oracle at Delphi.