The winner of the 1983 Nobel Prize in literature, Golding is among the most popular and influential British authors to have emerged after World War II.
Golding's reputation rests primarily upon his acclaimed first novel Lord of the Flies (1954), which he described as "an attempt to trace the defects of society back to the defects of human nature." A moral allegory as well as an adventure tale in the tradition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719), R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1857), and Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), Lord of the Flies focuses upon a group of British schoolboys marooned on a tropical island. After having organized themselves upon democratic principles, their society degenerates into primeval barbarism. While often the subject of diverse psychological, sociological, and religious interpretations, Lord of the Flies is consistently regarded as an incisive and disturbing portrayal of the fragility of civilization.
Golding was born in St. Columb Minor in Cornwall, England. He enrolled in Brasenose College, Oxford, in 1930, initially intending to obtain a degree in the sciences. After several years of study, however, he decided to devote himself to the study of English literature. He published a volume of poetry, Poems, in 1934 to scant critical notice; he himself later repudiated the work. Receiving a degree in English in 1935, he worked in various theaters in London, and in 1939 he moved to Salisbury, where he was employed as a schoolteacher. He served five years in the Royal Navy during World War II, an experience that likely helped shape his interest in the theme of barbarism and evil within humanity. Following the war Golding continued to teach and to write fiction. In 1954, his first novel, Lord of the Flies, was published to much critical acclaim in England. He continued to write novels, as well as essays, lectures, and novellas, throughout the next three decades. Most of these works, however, were overshadowed by the popular and critical success of Lord of the Flies.
Golding's Lord of the Flies presents a central theme of his oeuvre: the conflict between the forces of light and dark within the human soul. Although the novel did not gain popularity in the United States until several years after its original publication, it has now become a modern classic, studied in most high schools and colleges. Set sometime in the near future, Lord of the Flies is about a group of schoolboys abandoned on a desert island during a global war. They attempt to establish a government among themselves, but without the restraints of civilization they quickly revert to savagery. Similar in background and characters to Ballantyne's The Coral Island, Lord of the Flies totally reverses Ballantyne's concept of the purity and innocence of youth and humanity's ability to remain civilized under the worst conditions.
While none of Golding's subsequent works achieved the critical success of Lord of the Flies, he continued to produce novels that elicit widespread critical interpretation. Within the thematic context of exploring the depths of human depravity, the settings of Golding's works range from the prehistoric age, as in The Inheritors, (1955), to the Middle Ages, as in The Spire (1964), to contemporary English society. This wide variety of settings, tones, and structures presents dilemmas to critics attempting to categorize them. Nevertheless, certain stylistic devices are characteristic of his work. One of these, the use of a sudden shift of perspective, has been so dramatically employed by Golding that it both enchants and infuriates critics and readers alike. For example, Pincher Martin (1956) is the story of Christopher Martin, 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 struggles to remain alive against all odds. The reader learns in the last few pages that Martin's death occurred on the second page—a fact that transforms the novel from a struggle for earthly survival into a struggle for eternal salvation.
Golding's novels are often termed fables or myths. They are laden with symbols (usually of a spiritual or religious nature) so imbued with meaning that they can be interpreted on many different levels. The Spire, for example, is perhaps his most polished allegorical novel, equating the erecting of a cathedral spire with the protagonist's conflict between his religious faith and the temptations to which he is exposed. Darkness Visible (1979) continues to illuminate the universal confrontation of Good and Evil; Golding was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for this novel in 1980. Throughout the 1980s Golding's novels, essays, and the travel journal An Egyptian Journal (1985) have received general praise from commentators. Lord of the Flies, however, remains central to Golding's popularity and his international reputation as a major contemporary author.
Further Reading on William Golding
Allen, Walter, The Modern Novel, Dutton, 1964.
Anderson, David, The Tragic Past, John Knox Press, 1969.
Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Volume 5, Gale, 1991.
Axthelm, Peter M., The Modern Confessional Novel, Yale University Press, 1967.
Babb, Howard S., The Novels of William Golding, Ohio State University Press, 1970.
Baker, James R., William Golding: A Critical Study, St. Martin's, 1965.
Biles, Jack I., Talk: Conversations with William Golding, Harcourt, 1971.