William Golding : A Biographical Sketch

Parentage ; Education ; Experience of War
William Golding was born in Cornwall, England, on the 19th September, 1911. His mother was a suffragette and his father was a descendant of a long line of schoolmasters. The father was believed to inhabit “a world of sanity, and logic, and fascination.” Golding was sent to Marlborough Grammar School and then to Brasenose College, Oxford, to study science. Rebelling against the course which his father had set for him, he turned to literature and published a volume of poems (1934).

After graduation, Golding tried his luck at various occupations, and then became a teacher at Bishop Wordsworth’s School in Salisbury. He got married in 1939, but in 1940 he joined the British Navy. During the next five years he saw much action at sea because of the World War II which was going on at the time. He witnessed the sinking of the German warship, Bismarck, which had been thought to be invincible. He took part in the Allied invasion of Normandy and the landings on the French coast. Leaving the navy in 1945, Golding resumed teaching at Bishop Wordsworth’s School, where he remained until 1962. The war, Golding acknowledged, was a turning-point in his life. “I began to see what people are capable of doing. Anyone who moved through those years without understanding that man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head.” It was this view that inspired most of his novels.

Three Unpublished Novels. Then, “Lord of the Flies”
Golding wrote reviews and essays side by side with his teaching work, and after the war, produced three novels, none of which, however, found a publisher. He then gave up trying to suit commercial tastes. His days were occupied by English schoolboys and he found that any resemblance between these boys and the hero of Ballantyne’s novel, The Coral Island, was slight at best. He then told his wife about his plan to write another novel about boys, one which would contain a more realistic account of their behaviour on an uninhabited island. “I said to Ann (his wife) wouldn’t it be a good idea to write a book about real boys on an island, showing what a mess they’d make?” The result was Lord of the Flies (1954). Though this book was a near-failure in hard cover, one North-American paperback sold 7.5 million copies. The book focuses on a group of British boys who land on an uninhabited tropical island at the outset of World War III. The majority of the boys turn in course of time into a tribe of idol-worshipping savages and murder two of their own companions. But, in typical Golding fashion, a few boys hold on to their humanity. That spark of human decency gleams in all of Golding’s works. In his next novel, The Inheritors (1955), that spark of human decency shines among the Neanderthals who are vanquished by a new breed of rapacious homo sapiens armed with weapons. Golding regarded The Inheritors as his best novel, even though the general opinion gives that rank to Lord of the Flies.
Several More Novels About Evil and Destructive Forces
The Inheritors was followed by several more novels––Pincher Martin (1956), Free Fall (1960), The Spire (1964), The Pyramid (1967), Darkness Visible (1979), Rites of Passage (1980), and Close Quarters (1987). Rites of Passage won him the 1980 Booker McConnel Prize; Britain’s most honoured literary award. All Golding’s novels feature dark situations and some stern and obsti­nate characters. But the novels are “not only sombre moralities and dark myths about evil and treacherous, destructive forces. They are also colourful tales of adventure, which can be read as such, full of narrative joy, inventiveness and excitement.” Besides the novels, Golding has written a few non-fictional works such as A Moving Target.
The Nobel Prize
In 1983 Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature. In its official citation, the Swedish Academy honoured Golding “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.” There was, however, a howl of protest by writers and critics against the award of the Nobel Prize to Golding because they felt that the honour was not really deserved by him, especially because several other novelists, who in their opinion were far superior to Golding, had been left out.
Books About His Books
An unusually wide circle of scholars and critics have been attracted to Golding’s “strata of ambiguity and complication in which odd people (in his novels) are tempted to reach beyond their limits, thereby being bared to the very marrow”. Indeed, Golding takes a wry delight in noting that books about his books out number his works themselves. After confessing that he has read only about ten per cent of what others have written about him, he observes: “But it gives employment, doesn’t it ? Academic light industry.”
The Need of Understanding Human Nature
Bearded and gnome-like at seventy-five, with a mildness about his face “which proclaims him to be no devil*”, Golding has said:
In all these books, I have suggested a shape in the universe that may, as it were, account for things. The greatest pleasure is not, say, sex or geometry. It is just understanding. If you can just get people to understand their own humanity.
One of the evils of this century, according to Golding, is the mummification of figures like Marx, Freud, and Darwin; and indeed the tendency constantly to create totemistic images by which most people seem to live out their lives.
His Trip to India ; and His View About Himself
Early in 1987 Golding visited India. His trip was sponsored by the British Council, and he was accompanied by his wife. He travelled to all the principal cities of this country and said that he wanted to know Indians who had so far been like mythological figures to him. He told a journalist: “I am treated as a theologian, philosopher, psychologist, but what I really am at the bottom is a story-teller. If you can say ‘once upon a time’, convincingly enough to anybody you’ve got them.” Once when he was asked what, his stories were doing to improve the lot of mankind, Golding’s reply was that his stories were trying to entertain people. About the award of the Nobel Prize to him, he said that it had proved to be both an honour and a problem, not only because of the con­troversy it gave rise to but also because of the shower of attention and the inevitable nuisance value which such fame brought.
The Purpose of Literature, According to Golding
Golding has also said that he believes that the ultimate purpose of literature is to foster change : “it is the poetry of fact, the stuff of human courage and defiance, and has changed the face of history.” Recalling Churchill’s words which won for Churchill the Nobel Prize, Golding says that Churchill’s words were of the kind that could alter the course of human events. “Words express what a huge segment of the world thinks and, in that sense, literature has to be used for nation to speak to nation”, he has said.
“The Book’s the Thing”
Golding has travelled a lot but he especially visits Greece whenever it is possible. He has lectured in the U.S.A. He enjoys sailing; and, as a recreation, has taught himself classical Greek. He is an admirer of ancient Greek tragedy. A widely-known author, he yet shuns the public gaze and tries to avoid publicity. He believes that “the book’s the thing, independent of the author.”
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