William Golding’s novels are famous for their bleak depiction of the human condition in which violence, dark urges, and primordial egotism prevail. The author, however, made it clear in his Nobel Lecture that he is ‘a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist’,[1] and while his opinion of the human as such might not be a favourable one, his pessimism about people does not transfer to the whole of reality. While by no means a posthumanist writer, and regarded by critics as a classic anti-humanist, Golding seems to share surprisingly many posthumanist ideas about the human condition. His novels do more than just question Christian anthropocentrism, or contradict Rousseau’s theory of inherently noble and innocent human nature, or for that matter, undermine the belief in the transformative power of human progress based on Darwinism. Apart from challenging the validity of those important presumptions of humanism – which exists in both theistic and atheistic versions, either of which perceives a human being as a creature marked by certain distinct qualities which justify their leading position among other beings – his works also stress the fundamental role of human corporeality which intimately connects us with the world. The definition of a human being which transpires from Golding’s narratives is one of Homo somaticus vivens, rather than Homo sapiens, as it focuses on the intricacies of human sensual existence on the one hand and on the necessary intra-connectedness between an individual and sentient, active matter on the other.

The two novels in which this is particularly manifest are Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors, both of which offer an in-depth analysis of human embeddedness in the ‘flesh of the world’.[2] The progression of the two narratives seems to proceed in opposite directions. In Golding’s first novel a group of English castaways undergo a steady regression to the ‘primitive’ state of humanity before civilisation took over, whereas the protagonists of The Inheritors, a group of Neanderthals, face the advent of civilisation embodied by much more developed Homo sapiens. In an important way, however, both novels display the author’s belief in human-nonhuman interdependence which is the bedrock of human existence and which informs our perception of the world.

What probably strikes the reader most in The Inheritors is the predominantly sensual nature of the main characters’ experiences. Sense perception plays a crucial role in the process of forming the characters’ identities to the point when just by sniffing the scent of ‘the new people’, Lok, the Neanderthal protagonist, suddenly takes their point of view,[3] adopts their mentality and sensuality: ‘With the scent of the other I am the other’ (Inheritors, 97). Their mental operations never deal with purely abstract concepts as their thoughts rely on sensory input and always refer to their immediate physical surroundings. Any thought process necessitates from the Neanderthals some bodily activity – in order to get a ‘picture’, which is what they call a thought, the characters touch their heads (127) and when reconstructing past events, more important than telling the actual story, they repeat whatever movements their bodies were making at that time (66). The strong connection between their acts of perception and mental processes makes the boundaries of their selves extremely fluid, so that it is impossible to determine a clear border between what forms the ‘inside’ of their bodies and minds and what belongs to the ‘external’ world. Undoubtedly, however, what informs the actions of the novel’s protagonists is their ‘bodily wisdom’, i.e. a faculty of the body which allows one to respond to external stimuli without the involvement of conscious mental processes and which is of great importance for the way in which the author structures his characters. It turns out that the characters’ bodies themselves are capable of exchanging information with the world with uncanny accuracy without involving consciousness, as, for example, when Lok ‘becomes eyes’ that ‘would later remember what now he was not aware of’ (151), or when ‘Lok’s ears spoke to Lok. But Lok was asleep’ (43). The peculiar understanding or coherence between the body and its surroundings depicted in the novel appears to be rooted in a particular kind of ‘intraactivity’ between the body and the material world, the basis of which is their common material substratum. This naturally makes one think of the concept of material intraactivity posited by Karen Barad who believes that: ‘Reality is not composed of things-in-themselves or things behind-phenomena but “things”-in-phenomena’.[4] An unalienable link between the observer and the observed is stressed here; with their fluid ontological boundaries the protagonist is a component of a phenomena rather than an independent being with pre-established unchanging qualities.

In Golding’s literary world meaning is actively formed in the ongoing creative material process rather than established once and for all, and so are the bodies of his protagonists. The author makes the interdependence between humans and their surroundings a crucial aspect of the human condition. However, the gravity of the human-thing relationship presented in the novels does not exhaust itself in the symbolic dimension, which has been the focus of Golding’s critics so far. It relies on the tactile immediacy of material objects,[5] which, rather than merely reflecting the mental states of individuals, come into contact with humans and affect them significantly. The basis for this human-nonhuman relationship is their common vibrant materiality: ‘If matter itself is lively, then not only is the difference between subjects and objects minimized, but the status of the shared materiality of all things is elevated’, argues Jane Bennett, stressing the profound impact things have on us.

The above mentioned identity-building quality of external stimuli, so evident in the characters of The Inheritors, plays a central role in Lord of the Flies as well, where a dramatic change in the material reality in which humans find themselves leads to a substantial transformation within them. The group of English boys quickly transforms into a tribe of hunters. As soon as the cultural norms of behaviour are obliterated and they become exposed to the primeval ethical amorphism of the island, they set out to rediscover their own primal identities and create their own moral code from scratch. What remains of the doctrines of humanism harboured by them initially, is human hubris and existential fear which they try to relieve by acts of aggression. Surprised by the excitement generated by the act of penetrating into animal flesh, they are eager to explore their own corporeality too, playing with its plasticity and (death-dealing) potentiality. In so doing they transgress the moral boundaries of the culture they were raised in which idealises humans, perceiving them as creatures whose spirituality prevails over their physicality.

A still from the 1963 film of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. Photograph by Ronald Grant

The relationship between humans and things depicted by Golding exceeds the symbolic level on which Piggy is associated with his glasses, Ralph with his conch, Jack with his mud mask and Roger with his stick sharpened on both ends. Not only do material objects function as extensions of the protagonists’ selves, but they become agentive powers actively influencing the characters’ behaviour. Peculiar closeness between a human being and a thing which is based on participating in the same material substratum is particularly well visible in the central scene of the novel in which Simon becomes engaged in a conversation with the pig’s head – the eponymous ‘Lord of the Flies’, Beelzebub. Quite paradoxically, it is the inanimate object that appears to initiate the interaction. The head’s agential activity surpasses the activity of the boy, who, due to a fit of epilepsy remains motionless, passive and almost mute. Golding seems to equate subjectivity with the ability to relate and consequently attributes agency and subjectivity to inanimate objects as well.[6] This is precisely what Jane Bennett suggests when she equates ‘affect with materiality, rather than posit a separate force that can enter and animate a physical body’ (Vibrant Matter, xiii).

What constitutes a pivotal aspect of both novels is numerous parallelisms between the human and the nonhuman. In Lord of the Flies this is stressed by animal imagery: the boys swarm, produce buzzing sounds, pant and sniff around like dogs, they look like ‘black birds’ (Lord of the Flies 17), walk ‘dog-like’ on all fours (48), and the act of killing Simon is marked by ‘no words […] but the tearing of teeth and claws’ (169) in which they resemble nonhuman animals. In The Inheritors, on the other hand, the inanimate elements of the natural world are personified, and so a ‘huge cliff looked down for its feet’ (28), water is ‘eager to snatch them over the fall’ (41), and the sun ‘will drink up the mist’ (47).

The aim of Bennett’s vital materialism ‘is to theorize a vitality intrinsic to materiality as such, and to detach materiality from the figures of passive, mechanistic, or divinely infused substance’. [7] The animate-inanimate binary opposition is deconstructed in the novels, while the inherent agency of matter is stressed. Its vitality is apparent in the scene in Lord of the Flies when Simon’s dead body, depicted as ‘a silver shape beneath the steadfast constellations’, caressed by the gentle silver waves, is finally reunited with the ocean.[8] Importantly, not only is matter personified, intrinsically animate and powerful, but its actions are depicted as intentional. The human characters, on the other hand, are portrayed as the objects of the island’s agency. Through the personification of various forms of matter – ranging from small physical objects to the elements: earth, air, fire, and water – the writer makes matter appear to be endowed with an inherent vitality, creativity and agency. One cannot help but notice a number of similarities between human ‘bodymental’ processes and natural phenomena made visible in Golding’s repeated application of imagery based on the natural elements. Their role in the novels goes beyond the illustrative function of symbolising inner human states: acting as independent agents, the elements actively contribute to, and at times generate, certain human reactions.

Human bodies are thus portrayed as entities subjected to transformative changes resulting from biological forces, which determine their behaviour and more broadly, what they are. Human identity is thus presented as a point of intersection between material and non-material determinants, whose indispensable formative influence on a human being undermines the possibility of ‘individual freedom’ understood as absolute independence from external factors. Not defined solely by either nature or culture, the boys partake in both. Golding’s understanding here appears to be similar to Donna Haraway’s idea of naturecultures,[9] a term which refers to a collective of different forms of existence unified by a common material foundation. Far from supporting the nature-culture polarity, the novels show nature and culture as two sides of the same ‘natureculture phenomenon’ characterised by continuous interchange of dynamic elements. According to Barad: ‘The world is an ongoing open process of mattering through which “mattering” itself acquires meaning and form in the realization of different agential possibilities’.[10] Matter is inherently meaningful and its constant transformation is at the same time the process of creating meaning. Thus the prehistoric humans in The Inheritors and the modern adolescents in Lord of the Flies alike partake in the unceasing psycho-corporeal process of mattering in which new meanings emerge and whatever they are is a manifestation of some potentiality within matter itself.

– Krakow, July 2020


[1] William Golding, ‘Nobel Lecture’, 7 December 1983; available online at: https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1983/golding/lecture/ [Accessed 8 June 2020].

[2] The phrase is often used by Maurice Merleau-Ponty who perceives the world as mysterious substance or tissue in which both human and non-human beings are ontologically rooted (see e.g. M. Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968), pp. 267, 274). Merleau-Ponty’s corporeal theory, which stresses human material and cognitive interconnectedness with the world has proven particularly inspirational for a number of posthumanist researchers (esp. Jane Bennett, Karen Barad, Diana Coole and Vicki Kirby).

[3] William Golding, The Inheritors (London: Faber&Faber, 1997), p. 77.

[4] Karen Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28.3 (2003): 815.

[5] Jane Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010), pp. 12-13.

[6] See Nurit Bird-David whose ‘new animism’ calls for a rephrasing of René Descartes’s famous words as ‘I relate therefore I am’ (in N. Bird-David, ‘“Animism” Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology’, Current Anthropology 40.S1 (1999): 78. The interrelatedness of everything that exists and the inherent animism of matter are also core ontological premises in both Bennett’s and Barad’s work. It should be stressed, though, that theirs is not a ‘traditional’ animism which merely tends to add a spiritual element – a soul or spirit – to ‘passive’ matter. Instead, for ‘new animism’, matter as such is animate, matter is life.

[7] Bennett, Vibrant Matter, p. xiii.

[8] William Golding, Lord of the Flies (London: Faber&Faber, 2010), p. 170.

[9] Donna Haraway, How Like a Leaf. An Interview with Thyrza Nicholas Goodeve (London: Routledge 2000), p. 105.

[10] Barad, ‘Posthumanist Performativity’, pp. 801-831.