William Golding’s Lord of the Flies has sold over a million copies in the American paperback edition alone. It has, by all accounts, succeeded The Catcher in the Rye as the livre de chevet of educated American youth. I doubt if anybody is really qualified to say why this should be so: books make their way inexplicably. This one was published in 1954, and certainly it was noticed; E. M. Forster commended it and “everybody” talked about it, but with a sense that it was caviar rather than chowder—a book to tempt an intellectual into believing he had discovered a classic at its birth, but hardly a best seller. In the years that followed Golding did much to confirm this belief, but very little towards making himself a popular novelist. The Inheritors is a technically uncompromising, fiercely odd, even old-fashioned book about the overthrow of Neanderthal man, wonderfully distinguished but inconceivable as a big seller; Pincher Martin is as difficult as it is masterly; and Free Fall is complex, original, and in many ways reader-repellent. Golding’s fifth and latest novel, coming five years after Free Fall, is unsurprising in one way at least: it is fire-new, magnificently written in what, despite its novelty, we can identify as a style bearing the impress of Golding’s peculiar presence; but difficult, inviting only slow and submissive readers.
And yet Lord of the Flies has the vast readership. One can’t help guessing at the reasons. For one thing, it is a horribly comforting book; it assures us that evil is natural to men, and not something that we have recently invented. It is absolutely free of desperately “forward” thinking—no Zen, no diagnosis of modern civilization, only of civilization. Yet is is spare and diagrammatic, and lends itself to techniques of sophisticated reading now widely taught in American colleges. Ultimately it derives from, or, as the word is, displaces, a familiar myth, that of the Earthly Paradise, which it handles ironically. And as it develops the myth with intricate passion, it alludes implicitly (as Golding, I think, could never do explicitly) to Freud and to all other conceivable systematic explanations of the phenomena. One might say cautiously that the book has a kind of innocence, thinking of two things: the later novels, which are more occult; and Golding’s own view, since abandoned, that there is only one true way of reading a novel, and that the author alone can know it, so that he takes upon him the responsibility of ensuring that a good reader can read it in that way.
This is a bad doctrine, and it does not distinguish between a novel and a riddle. It cannot be maintained in respect of Lord of the Flies, but Golding thought it could; and oddly enough the error had beneficial results. The novel has an extreme sharpness of outline, an exactness of invention, which come from its closeness to diagram, and which make it unusually susceptible to the …