The Man Who Wrote ‘Lord of the Flies’
by John Carey
Free Press, 592 pp., $32.50
Kill the pig! Slit her throat! Spill her blood!
Just pronounce those words and anyone who’s been to high school during the last 50 years will instantly remember their source: William Golding’s great and greatly disturbing Lord of the Flies. I would guess that it’s the most widely taught 20th-century British novel in America. The only serious competition that comes to mind is another fable, George Orwell’s more intransigently political Animal Farm.
Yet while almost anyone can name other works by Orwell, starting with Nineteen Eighty-Four and the much-studied essay “Politics and the English Language,” I suspect that few American readers know any of William Golding’s other novels. This is a pity, for he is—as John Carey’s superb biography shows—one of the essential novelists of the second half of the 20th century, possessed of an unflinching vision of both the human condition and the doleful human comedy. If you want to situate so sui generis a writer as Golding, imagine a cross between Thomas Mann and Marilynne Robinson: All three of them highly intellectual, yet full of deeply felt emotion, obsessed with the nature of good and evil, alive to sexual tensions and ambiguities, and nothing if not serious about the art of fiction.
Only a few years after its publication in 1954, Lord of the Flies had already become something of an albatross to Golding; he once even dismissed it as relatively minor. His own favorite among his novels was his second, The Inheritors (1955), in which early man, Homo Sapiens, commits the first genocide by wiping out the last band of loping, ape-like Neanderthals. It’s the only other Golding book that people sometimes know, in part because fantasy and science fiction fans have adopted it as one of their own. Golding himself probably wouldn’t object to this, since he was himself an avid reader of sc-fi.
Indeed, there have been interpretations of The Inheritors that claim the novel isn’t about the past at all; that it actually reveals a future in which mankind has been bombed into the stone age. The book thus describes the first steps in the march back toward technological civilization—and probably to another holocaust. From this perspective, it may be linked not only to Lord of the Flies (actually set during an imagined World War III) but also to such dystopian visions of tribalized life after nuclear disaster as Stephen Vincent Benét’s famous story “By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980).
But whether located in the past or future, The Inheritors does what a great work of art should always do: It makes us see with new eyes. The novel’s point of view is largely that of Lok, a proto-hominid with the mental age of a human two-year-old, who almost incomprehendingly suffers the destruction of his “people,” of his very species. As a moralist, Golding compels us to recognize that humankind’s dominance on this planet has always come at the expense of other creatures—and yet he doesn’t portray the smarter Homo Sapiens as evil or sinful. They, or rather We, are the next big thing. But for Lok and his kind? This is the way the world ends.
Golding’s third novel, Pincher Martin (1956), is yet another tour de force: It opens with a man drowning, fighting for his life:
He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.
When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place—burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt. He hutched his body towards the place where air had been but now it was gone and there was nothing but black, choking welter. His body let loose its panic and his mouth strained open till the hinges of his jaw hurt. Water thrust in, down, without mercy.