Golding's Themes


Thesis: A running theme in William Golding's works is that man is savage 

        at heart, always ultimately reverting back to an evil and primitive


     I.  The fall of man

         A.  Lord of the Flies

         B.  The Inheritors


         C.  Free Fall

         D.  Pincher Martin


    II.  Golding as a theologian


         A.  Lord of the Flies

         B.  The Inheritors


         C.  Pincher Martin

   III.  Man's fear

         A.  Lord of the Flies

         B.  The Inheritors


         C.  Pincher Martin

    IV.  The island

Golding's Themes

A running theme in William Golding's works is that man is savage at heart, always ultimately reverting back to an evil and primitive nature. The cycle of man's rise to power, or righteousness, and his inevitable fall from grace is an important point that Golding proves again and again in many of his works, often comparing man with characters from the Bible to give a more vivid picture of his descent. Golding symbolizes this fall in different manners, ranging from the illustration of the mentality of actual primitive man to the reflections of a corrupt seaman in purgatory.

 William Golding's first book, Lord of the Flies, is the story of a group of boys of different backgrounds who are marooned on an unknown island when their plane crashes. As the boys try to organize and formulate a plan to get rescued, they begin to separate and as a result of the dissension a band of savage tribal hunters is formed. Eventually the "stranded boys in Lord of the Flies almost entirely shake off civilized behavior: (Riley 1: 119). When the confusion finally leads to a manhunt [for Ralph], the reader realizes that despite the strong sense of British character and civility that has been instilled in the youth throughout their lives, the boys have backpedaled and shown the underlying savage side existent in all humans. "Golding senses that institutions and order imposed from without are temporary, but man's irrationality and urge for destruction are enduring" (Riley 1: 119). The novel shows the reader how easy it is to revert back to the evil nature inherent in man. If a group of well-conditioned school boys can ultimately wind up committing various extreme travesties, one can imagine what adults, leaders of society, are capable of doing under the pressures of trying to maintain world relations.

Lord of the Flies's apprehension of evil is such that it touches 

the nerve of contemporary horror as no english novel of its time has 

done; it takes us, through symbolism, into a world of active, 

proliferating evil which is seen, one feels, as the natural condition of 

man and which is bound to remind the reader of the vilest manifestations 

of Nazi regression (Riley 1: 120).
Golding's primary goal in writing Lord of the Flies is to create a readable story that people can relate to that conveys the message that man always reverts back to his savage nature. When he wrote the novel, he was "striving to move behind the conventional matter of the contemporary novel to a view of what man, or pre-man, is like when the facade of civilized behavior falls away" (Riley 1: 119).

 The Inheritors is Golding's second book. The death of the leader of a small group of simple-minded Neanderthals reduces their number to seven and the people find themselves tossed into a world with few pictures. The people think in terms of pictures; they have not yet learned to think rational thoughts. Golding labeled the characters with such names as "Fa", "Lok", and "Ha" to emphasize the simplicity of the society. When a new tribe of more advanced people discover the Neanderthals, they see them as devils and try to kill them. However, the Neanderthals are too naive to realize the motives of the new people, and they are only confused when their members begin to disappear. In the end, all of the Neanderthals are dead except for one, and the new people are the inheritors of the earth.

 It is ironic that the more advanced people are considered to be ore advanced. The innocents are peaceful and the new people are aggressive; they have regressed to a more savage state than even the savages. The new people "are our ancestors because their behavior matches that of the school boys in Lord of the Flies" (Baker 19). The boys in Lord of the Flies hunted each other because they were separated by the conflict caused by different views on the existence of a monster; the new people in The Inheritors hunted the Neanderthals because they were monsters, or devils. "Golding implies that the long course of evolution has brought no fundamental change in human nature. We are today essentially what we were in the past" (Baker 19). In the Inheritors, man evolved backwards a step in terms of his savagery. Golding is making the statement that with each cycle of human evolution, the evil nature of man becomes more and more apparent. "though we have inherited the earth, we remain hunters and ritualists, using our weapons and incantations with the same seriousness and blind conceit that possessed the first of our kind" (Baker 19). Both Lord of the flies and The Inheritors pit two tribes against one another to demonstrate that man is not "a rational creature in control of his own destiny" (Baker 19). At the conclusion of The Inheritors, one of the tribal leaders of the new men is rationalizing the murder of the innocents just as the boys in Lord of the Flies rationalize their manhunt as just a game (Baker 24). This is another example of Golding's integration of the darkness of man's heart into his novels. None of the characters take responsibility for their wrongdoings. The last scene in The Inheritors is of the inheritors sailing away on a huge lake. A vast isolated lake on which a few lost souls are sailing aimlessly provides a vivid image of the lonely, directionless state of man. This is the symbol Golding chose to use to illustrate the hopelessness and emptiness of man's heart.

 The one Neanderthal that remained living after the ordeal in The Inheritors was a newborn child. One of the women in the new tribe adopted the child as her own because she had lost a child on their journey. This action is demonstrative of the hypocrisy of which the inheritors are guilty. They killed the simple savages because they were monsters, and yet they toss this devil into their society to make up for the loss of a single life. This is another example of the human selfishness which Golding so loathed and strove to point out in his works.

 Golding's third novel, Free Fall, deals with the fall of man in terms of patterns. The novel is about Sammy Mountjoy, an artist who flounders with the origins of his loneliness and unhappiness. Sammy is somewhat of a contemptible man; he badly exploits his lover and toys with the minds of the people around him. He lived a peaceful childhood, but like Golding, felt isolated at times. Mountjoy looks back on his adolescent years and tries to make the connection between his serene youth and his stormy adulthood. "There is no connection between the uncommitted boy and the self-concious fallen man" (Baker 60). Golding believes that life is natural and patternless and that it remains so until men intervene and press their patterns upon it. Man's mistake is that he fails to realize this patternlessness and invariably goes arrogantly about his life without any idea of his transgression. golding said in an interview by Owen Webster that "learning to live fearlessly with the natural chaos of existence, without forcing artificial patterns on it" is the basic problem of man (Baker 56). The very title of the novel -- Free Fall -- even suggests the fall of man.

 Pincher Martin is Golding's first actual exploration of the after-life of a fallen man. In the novel, Lieutenant Christopher Hadley Martin, of the Royal Navy, is on the verge of killing a fellow officer while in the North Atlantic on convoy duty during World War II when a torpedo fired by the opposition strikes his ship. Martin is thrown overboard and is apparently marooned on a rock jutting out of the ocean. He remains there for seven days reflecting on his life and is finally washed off of the rock in a storm. It is at this point that he seems to die. At the end of the novel, it becomes evident to the reader that Martin has not actually been marooned on the rock for seven days, but that that was actually a hallucination of his soul. There are two basic theories as to what actually happened. In the first, Martin experiences a flashback and his life flashes before his eyes. The second theory is that his soul is in purgatory before he realizes that he is no longer alive. In any event, his body ceased to live instantly after he was thrown from the ship.

 Christopher Martin was, indeed, a pincher, and Golding nicknamed the man accordingly. Martin pilfered things from other people and while he was in purgatory (that is the more popular theory among critics), he was relieved of these items, at least in spirit. He was a corrupt man and this is multiplied by the fact that just before he was killed, he was plotting and attempting to carry out the murder of one of his peers. Had Golding chosen to dash a clergyman with an immaculate soul to death on the rocks, the illustration of man's malevolent roots would not have been nearly as vivid. The priest would perhaps have seen the times in his life that he had thought ill things towards others, among other trifling sins, but the image is not quite as clear as the one of a man who cheats people, is covetous, and is an overall unrepentant sinner. Golding created a character with whom many readers can identify, although on a ower level, and this is how he makes the point in Pincher Martin that man is ultimately evil. Frank Kermode stated in an interview with Golding that "the struggle on the rock is of mythical proportion in that Martin, an arch-sinner, represents 'fallen man'" (Baker 37). In reply, Golding said that Martin is "very much fallen -- He's fallen more than most. In fact, I went out of my way to damn Pincher as much as I could by making him the nastiest type I could think of, and I was very interested to see how critics all over the place said, 'Well yes, we are like that'" (Baker 37).

 Pincher Martin brought his suffering and damnation upon himself because he refused to admit that there was a power above him. "Christopher Martin's soul tries to survive on its own terms, and it pays for this conceit by perpetuating the misery it knew in life" (Baker 45). This arrogance is another of the personality flaws in humans that inhibits their true rise to righteousness. Mankind tends to think "we are at the top of the food chain and we are the most evolved species, therefore we have to answer to no one," and Golding proves this attitude wrong by making Christopher Martin answer to himself.

 In his first three books, Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin, and Free Fall, Golding "employed traditional form" and contributed to the impression that he was a deeply traditional thinker" (Baker xvi). Many critics thought of Golding as "an old-fashioned Christian moralist" while others felt that he was an existentialist (Baker xvii). Golding's reputation as a staunch Christian* is supported by his inclusion of Christian symbols and motifs in his works.

 In Lord of the Flies, Simon is a peaceful lad who tries to show the boys that there is no monster on the island except the fears that the boys have. "Simon tries to state the truth: there is a beast, but 'it's only us'" (Baker 11). When he makes this revelation, he is ridiculed. This is an uncanny parallel to the misunderstanding that Christ had to deal with throughout his life. Later in the story, the savage hunters are chasing a pig. Once they kill the game, they erect its head on a stick and Simon experiences an epiphany in which he "sees the perennial fall which is the central reality of our history: the defeat of reason and the release of... madness in souls wounded by fear" (Baker 12). As Simon rushes to the campfire to tell the boys of his discovery, he is hit in the side with a spear, his prophecy rejected and the word he wished to spread ignored. Simon falls to the ground dead and is described as beautiful and pure. The description of his death, the manner in which he died, and the cause for which he died are remarkably similar to the circumstances of Christ's life and ultimate demise. The major inconsistency is that Christ died on the cross, while Simon was speared. However, a reader familiar with the Bible recalls that Christ was stabbed in the side with a a spear before his crucifixion.

 In The Inheritors, the child that remains living after the rest of the Neanderthals are dead is hesitantly adopted into the Homo Sapien society despite the fact that it is an outcast. It is different, pure, and is not readily accepted by the new people. This rejection of something different symbolizes the rejection that Christ faced daily. The fact that the child was brought into the society despite its differences is representative of the attitudes of people who did accept Christ.

 The murders of the primitive men in The Inheritors symbolizes the end of an era. The time of innocence has ended at the hands of a devious, evil people. The Homo Sapiens assumed that the Neanderthals were evil without first carefully observing them to discover what their true nature was. The first fearful reaction of the new people was to kill the outcasts because they were different. Jesus Christ walked the Earth as a different type of man. His holiness was a threat to the scribes and Pharisees and so they had him killed without first carefully observing what his true nature was. Golding, a historian, was aware of this when he wrote The Inheritors and he included the parallel not only to indicate to readers man's general lack of ability to accept others, but to trace this shortcoming back to man's roots.

 In Pincher Martin, Martin was stranded on the island (or in purgatory) for a period of seven days. Over this time, he considered the elements of which he was composed. The duration of seven days as well as the reflection of Martin's evil origins parallel the Biblical portrayal of the creation of man.

 Golding parallels stories from the Bible, particularly the persecution and crucifixion of Christ, to compare humans to a more Godly man. The comparison and the ultimate dethroning of the Christ-figure, or the failure by man, in the Biblical situation shows the vile state of the human race as perceived by Golding.

 Many of William Golding's works discuss, in some context, man's capacity for fear and cowardice. In Lord of the Flies, the boys on the island first encounter a natural fear of being stranded on an uncharted island without the counsel of adults. Once the boys begin to organize and begin to feel more adult-like themselves, the fear of monsters takes over. It is understandable that boys ranging in ages from toddlers to young teenagers would have fears of monsters, especially when it is taken into consideration that the children are stranded on the island. Golding wishes to show, however, that fear is an emotion that is instinctive and active in humans from the very beginnings of their lives. This revelation uncovers another weakness in man, supporting Golding's belief that man is pathetic and savage at the very core of his existence. Throughout the novel, there is a struggle for power between two groups. This struggle illustrates man's fear of losing control, which is another example of his selfishness and weakness. The fear of monsters is natural; the fear of losing power is inherited. Golding uses these vices to prove the point that any type of uncontrolled fear contributes to man's instability and will ultimately lead to his [man's] demise spiritually and perhaps even physically.

 The primary fear that Golding discusses in The Inheritors is the fear of monsters. The new people viewed the Neanderthals as devils and killed them accordingly. The inheritors' reaction to their terror was not thought out; the message that Golding wishes to convey is that fear often leads man to hasty and often unwise decisions. Humans cannot control their fear, and this supports Golding's idea that man is not in control of his own destiny, as he would like to believe.

 Christopher Martin, in Pincher Martin, was afraid of a higher power. There were no monsters for him to fear and losing his power is not a concern he holds; he is secure in his position as a lieutenant in the Navy. He does, however, refuse to admit that a controlling power greater than himself exists. A refusal to admit something is often indicative of fear. For example, alcoholics frequently deny their drinking problems because they are afraid of the consequences. The same is true of Pincher Martin and his theory that he is in control of his life. A defamation such as the one Martin would face if he admitted that he was not almighty would be degrading to him, and the inferiority complex that could result is not a pleasant thought to him. Golding wishes to expose the evils of arrogance and self-centeredness. If one feels that he has no higher power to answer to, his principles will sink lower and lower. Martin cheated people throughout his life and eventually wound up plotting to kill a man.

 Golding incorporates into his his work many islands. "The island is an important symbol in all of Golding's works. It suggests the isolation of man in a frightening and mysterious cosmos, and the futility of his attempt to create an ordered preserve for himself in an otherwise patternless world" (Baker 26). The island in Lord of the Flies is the actual island; it is not simply an island, though. It is a microcosm of life itself, the adult world, and the human struggle with his own loneliness. In The Inheritors, the island is more metaphorical. The fact that the original tribe of people are the last of the Neanderthals isolates them. The primitives are unable to link their metaphorical island with its respective mainland because they lack the common physical and mental characteristics that the new people possess. Christopher Martin's soul (and apparently for a little while, at least, his body) is abandoned on the protruding rock in the ocean. This separates him from the physical adn spiritual worlds so that his sparates him from the physical adn spiritual worlds so that his soul can process his situation and torment itself in privacy.

"Left alone on the island of the self, man discovers the reality of his 

own dark heart, and what he discovers is too abominable for him to 

endure.  At the highest pitch of terror he makes the only gesture he can 

make -- a raw, instinctive appeal for help, for rescue" (Baker 67).
William Golding's popular theme that man is, and always has been, essentially evil by nature is apparent in many of his works. Man grows more savage at heart as he evolves because of his cowardice and his quest for power. Golding proves this by throwing together opposing forces (whether the forces be two tribes of conflicting boys or the inner conflict of a condemned man) into a situation that dowses them with power struggles and frightening situations. By comparing mankind in general to Biblical characters in similar scenarios, Golding provides images of the darker side of man. This darker side of man's nature inevitably wins and man is proven to be a pathetic race that refuses to accept responsibility for its shortcomings. 
* It has been brought to my attention that Golding was apparently not Christian, but was Jewish. I haven't looked further into this yet, but I recommend that you do so, so that you do not write a false statement in a paper, as I apparently did. 

Works Cited

Baker, James R.  William Golding, A Critical Study.  New York:

     St. Martin's Press, 1965.

Golding, William.  Free Fall.  London: Faber and Faber, 1959.

Golding, William.  Lord of the Flies.  New York: Harcourt, 1962.

Golding, William.  The Inheritors.  New York: Harcourt, 1962.

Riley, Carolyn, ed.  Vol. 1 of Contemporary Literary Criticism.

     Detroit: Gale Research Company, 1973.

© Copyright 1995 Daryl L. Houston 
Upon looking back at this paper a year after writing it, I'm almost ashamed to have put out a work so shabby and incomplete, but I'm publishing it nonetheless, with the hopes that it will benefit someone. Feel free to use anything you deem applicable to your endeavors, but please don't steal my work. 

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