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Dr Alistair Brown | Associate lecturer in English Literature; researching video games and literature

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William Golding

Saturday, August 06, 2005

With the recent BBC dramatisation of To The Ends of the Earth (which I did not catch on TV), I thought I'd dig out and post a brief biography of William Golding that I wrote some time ago:

Golding's father was perhaps the most important influence on his career, setting the ethical terms against which his son would define himself and his work. Alec Golding was rationalist, atheist and socialist; a science master at Marlborough Grammar School, he also published several scientific textbooks, gained degrees in music and architecture, and was elected to the Royal Geographical Society. William Golding admitted the influence this scientist who had rejected religion had on his life, describing him in his autobiographical essay "The Ladder and the Tree" as "incarnate omniscience."

Having entered Brasenose College, Oxford to read natural science, Golding seemed destined to follow in his father's tradition, but after two years Golding transferred to read English literature. This was a turning point, with Golding acting out his growing belief that art was more important than science because, whereas the rationalist desires the unattainable end of perfect order and control, the artist acknowledges and more accurately represents the chance way the human world works.

Golding's experience of the Second World War, in which he worked both as a scientist and saw action at the front during D-Day, confirmed that the attempt of the rationalist to paint an image of the world which could, through its methods, be improved and progress to an ultimately unified society, was wrong. It was the pivotal event in which Golding "began to see what people were capable of doing", bringing about the belief that since man "produces evil as a bee produces honey", science would always be recruited to achieve detrimental social ends.

On returning from the war, Golding taught English and classics (with which he had become engaged during his long hours on watch in the military), and simultaneously began to write the novel that would develop into Lord of the Flies, whose publication in 1954 projected Golding to the status of a household name. This book deliberately and explicitly (the names of the characters were kept the same) reworks R. M. Ballantyne's The Coral Island (1858), correcting its smug Victorian belief in the validity of the imperial enterprise, and portraying of human evil in the light of the horrors of World War Two, itself an imperialist enterprise.

Some of Golding's other novels also draw heavily on pre-existing texts and narratives, updated to indicate their relevance, or irrelevance, in a post-war age. His next work - which he considered his favourite - was The Inheritors (1955), a re-imagining of a Well's short-story, "The Grisly Folk". Here Golding imagines the perceptual modes and expressions of a tribe of Neanderthals, seeing through their eyes the arrival of the tribe of Homo Sapiens who will eventually wipe them out. Although explicitly detached from contemporary society through time (as Lord of the Flies was by its setting on an island), Golding examines modernity by studying from an unusual viewpoint how any human group may, even when isolated socially from wider society, develop along a natural path to authoritarianism, lust and jealousy. As he wrote in his essay "Belief and Creativity":

The themes closest to my purpose, to my imagination have stemmed from this preoccupation, have been of such a sort that they might move me a little nearer that knowledge. They have been the themes of man at an extremity, man tested like building material, taken from the laboratory and used to destruction; man isolated, man obsessed, man drowning in a literal sea or in the seas of his own ignorance.

Still unable to break completely from the mould of his father, Golding's works do, then, have something of the scientific method - tested in isolation from external (social) influences - in their structure and interest. Some critics have suggested that his style is, therefore, too manipulative and overtly critical of man's morality. Certainly it is difficult to read certain passages - such as the scene in The Inheritors, where the early hominids get drunk and give in to primitive sexual urges - as offering anything other than a irredeemably damning view of human nature.

Until he published Rites of Passage, which won the Booker Prize in 1980, Golding's work after The Inheritors largely dropped off the critical and public map, as his work continued in its pessimistic vein but with less of the innovation of perspective which characterised Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. Rites of Passage - the first book of a trilogy - restored the "universe in little" structure of these first two works, studying a society on board the detached and closed environment of a ship.

Re-established as an important modern novelist, Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983, for "for his novels which, with the perspicuity of realistic narrative art, and the diversity and universality of myth, illuminate the human condition in the world of today". In his Nobel lecture, Golding happily maintained his reputation for denying the redemptive possibilities of science, "universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist", the cosmic side being the spiritual, religious dimension of human activity.

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Posted by Alistair at 4:27 pm

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