Famous First Words: Lord of the Flies
The son of a schoolmaster father and an activist mother, William Golding developed a penchant for class warfare throughout his youth. Born in 1911, he came from a family of modest means and quickly became familiar with the influence of privilege in Cornwall, England, where his community was sharply divided between relative commoners like the Goldings and the more affluent sect of the population whose children occupied the posh secondary school neighboring the one he attended. The fact of Golding’s working class status was an element of his existence that he was made keenly aware of during those years, instilling in him a sense of deep social alienation and an unfaltering resentment toward the rituals and conventions of the upper crust.
Golding made his first unsuccessful attempt at writing a novel when he was twelve years old. He studied English literature at Brasenose College at Oxford University, managing to publish a collection of poems before graduation that was mostly disregarded. After getting married in 1939, he went on to a job as a teacher of English and philosophy—with an intervening stint in the Royal Navy during World War II—and he continued to write all the while in spite of the seeming futility of the exercise. In 1953, he began work on a story about a group of boys from a haughty private academy who are airlifted out of school during nuclear war and end up on a remote island in the Pacific when their plane goes down. With no adult survivors to offer support and supervision, the boys are left to fend for themselves, working through the dilemmas of subsistence and the complexities of governance as they go. It was Golding’s intention simply to postulate “how they would really behave” in the complete absence of a senior authority. His vision was a famously bleak one.
For several months after it was completed, Golding sent the manuscript (with a provisional title of “Strangers from Within”) around to publishers, eliciting reactions ranging from indifference to mild disdain for the story’s construction and grimly distressing central argument. The unblinking evaluation of the more vicious predatory instincts and fundamental barbarity of an ostensibly civilized species was turned away without hesitation at every door, including Faber and Faber, but attracted the attention of a new hire on staff there named Charles Monteith. Under the condition of a substantial revision process, Monteith agreed to work with Golding to prepare his novel for publication. Lord of the Flies was released in 1954 and launched Golding’s lucrative second career, a forty-year, Nobel Prize–winning diversion for which Monteith would continue to be an integral collaborator.
Golding never had much use for the inconveniences of prestige, though. He rarely granted interviews and seemed genuinely pained by the prospect of being compelled to discuss his work. He was notoriously clumsy, often withdrawn, and was uncomfortable with the very idea of a biography about him being published while he was still alive. He had little interest in discussing his methodology for the purposes of posterity, and he was even less inclined to sort through the myriad influences and experiences that had conspired to shape his worldview. Golding was clear, however, on the subject of his landmark first novel, the book that he spent decades working toward and for which he endured adamant rejections from a couple dozen staunchly uninterested publishers before it was finally rescued from the slush pile. He hated it.
“Boring and crude” was the assessment of Lord of the Flies that would be offered in subsequent years by its author, who designated it a distinctly pedestrian effort in comparison to what he produced after. That persistent declaration was amended, however, through statements by Golding that were discovered later on, which revealed the main reason that he recoiled so instinctively at the characters in his most celebrated composition—he saw too much of himself in them.