The Concept of Evil in William Golding

Seminar Paper, 2005

16 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Definition of “Evil”.
2.1 Common definition
2.2 Golding’s definition

3. The Concept of Evil in The Inheritors
3.1 Summary: The plot of The Inheritors
3.2 Characteristics of Golding’s Neanderthalers
3.3 Homo sapiens’ characteristics
3.4 An interpretation

4. Evil in Lord of the Flies
4.1 Summary: The plot of Lord of the Flies
4.2 Evil in Lord of the Flies

5. Conclusion and perspectives


1. Introduction

As the motif of evil is the central theme in William Golding’s work[1], I will consider in my term paper his definition of evil and its realization in his first two novels Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955). How did he understand this complex but central motif of human life and religion? Is there a general position towards evil that can be recognized in his work? Did he consider human beings as generally evil or generally good? – Thinking about the idea of “evil”, many questions arise. Trying to answer some of them, I will concentrate mainly on the book we talk about in class, The Inheritors, his second and – as he himself said – favourite novel.

In summary, The Inheritors deals with evolution and the development of human beings. On the example of a Neanderthal group, Golding depicts the conflict between the Neanderthalers and the “New Men”[2], homo sapiens, which finally ends in the death of the Neanderthalers and the victory of the superior homo sapiens. But are homo sapiens really superior to the Neanderthalers? What is Golding’s position?

In a further step, I will examine Golding’s first and most famous novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), for the idea of evil. Is the attitude he gives in The Inheritors the same as in Lord of the Flies ? Or did his view change after the first novel?

As a summary, I would like to give a final conclusion of Golding’s understanding of his central motif “evil” and consider perspectives for further examinations.

2. Definition of “Evil”

In this chapter I will first examine some definitions of “evil” in the usual sense, mainly those given in dictionaries. In a further step I am going to find out more details about Golding’s understanding of evil and his position towards human goodness or maliciousness.

2.1 Common definition

The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary[3] gives the following explanation about “evil”:

adj. 1 (of people) enjoying harming others; wicked and cruel 2 having a harmful effect on people; morally bad 3 connected with the Devil and with what is bad in the world 4 extremely unpleasant

noun 1 a force that causes wicked or bad things to happen; wicked behaviour 2 wicked or harmful thing; the bad effect of sth.

Following that explanation, evil can be a characteristic of people who do harmful things to others, or a power or person (devil) opponent to God, who is believed to be the personification of goodness.

Some people believe that evil lies in every human being, others are more optimistic and believe humans to be intrinsically good and only influenced in a negative way by education or society.

As I study (Protestant) theology, I looked up the idea of evil in a theological encyclopaedia in which it is characterized as: “das nicht v. Gott Geschaffene u. Gewollte, sondern das gleichsam irrational aus geschöpfl. Freiheit Hervorbrechende”[4] and as “Möglichkeit u. Werk menschl. Freiheit u. Verantwortung”[5].

These statements include the position that resulting of their god-given freedom human beings have the possibility to decide if they want to act in a good or evil way. But this possibility also is connected with the ability of rational thinking: Reason enables people to commit crimes, to be evil.

As it is clear that there is evil in the world and that human beings often act in an evil way, the question arises: Who is responsible for this evil energy? This question is a specific question of monotheistic religions because in polytheistic religions there is one god responsible for good and another for evil, but in a monotheistic concept this is not possible. This question is a standard question in theology, in German it is called “Theodizee”[6], coined by Leibniz. One possible answer to this question is the personification of evil in a person, the devil. It is for example defined as “eindeutig böse”, “Widersacher Gottes” and “Anführer der Dämonen”[7]. But there are other theories which seem to me more plausible. – Did William Golding believe in a devil? What was his answer to the question of “Theodizee”? Is it possible to find out something about his ideas towards evil in his work?

These are the questions I am going to examine in the next chapters.

2.2 Golding’s definition

On several occasions, not only in his novels, Golding gave his view on evil. His service in the Royal Navy during the years 1940-1945 caused a serious change in his opinion of human nature:

Dieser [World War II] bewirkt einen einschneidenden Wandel seiner Sicht der menschlichen Natur. Das Vertrauen in die aufklärerisch-optimistische Menschenauffassung und die Überzeugung, dass Vernunft, Bildung und Zivilisation sichere Barrieren gegen das Böse seine, ist unmittelbar nach dem Krieg bei Golding zerstört.[8]

Before the war he believed society to be able to protect human beings from their own innate maliciousness, an idea which he explains in his essay Fable (1962) as follows:

Social systems, political systems were composed, detached from the real nature of man. ... They would perfect most men, and the least, reduce aberrance. ... It seemed to me that man’s capacity for greed, his innate cruelty and selfishness was being hidden behind a kind of pair of political pants.[9]

After the war, he is not able to agree with this view any more. He reflects his opinion in the following way:

Before the second world war I believed in the perfectability of social man; that a correct structure of society would produce goodwill; and that therefore you could remove all social ills by a reorganization of society.[10]

Instead, he believes in an innate evil which lies – without exceptions – in every man: “The only enemy of man is inside himself”[11].

3. The Concept of Evil in The Inheritors

To find out what position towards evil Golding expresses in The Inheritors, in a first step I will give a short summary of the plot of The Inheritors and then have a closer look at the Neanderthalers’ and homo sapiens ’ characteristics and their concepts of good and bad. As a conclusion, I will analyze these discoveries in a final interpretation.

3.1 Summary: The plot of The Inheritors

The Inheritors (1955), William Golding’s second and favourite novel, gives a hypothesis as to why the Neanderthalers died out and homo sapiens survived.

The story is told from the point of view of a young Neanderthal man (Lok). Together with his group of eight people he moves from their winter residence to their summer home. The winter had been unusually hard and they hope for a better season with more food. When they arrive at their new home, they find something to eat, are happy and carefree – until one member of the group and then several others disappear for unknown reasons. Those who are left behind suppose that the others have found a way to an island in a nearby river; until that time it had been impossible for them to get there. But then it becomes clear that they have been killed by a group of homo sapiens who live on that island. Finally, the New Men kidnap the People’s two children, Liku and the new one. The last two remaining adult People try to set them free – a futile attempt because the New Men are far more violent and evil, but also much more intelligent than the People. At last, Lok is the last survivor of the People (except the new one who is adopted by the New Men) and dies alone in their old summer home.

The victors of this conflict, the New Men, are The Inheritors, as they are called in the title of the novel.


[1] Karin Jaentsch, Das Böse in den späten Romanen William Goldings (Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang 1994), 48.

[2] The Neanderthalers call themselves “People” and the homo sapiens “The New Men”. In this paper I will use these expressions.

[3] Oxford’s Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 430f.

[4] Wiedenhofer, Siegfried: Böse, Das, Systematisch-theologisch, in: Kasper, Walter (ed.), Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd. 2, Freiburg, Basel, Rom, Wien: Herder 1994, 607f.

[5] Merks, Karl-Wilhelm, Böse, Das, Theologisch-ethisch, in: Kasper, Walter (ed.), Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, Bd. 2, 607f.

[6] The English term „theodicy“ exists but is very rare.

[7] Klein, Wassilios, Teufel, Religionsgeschichtlich, in: Müller, Gerhard et al. (ed.), Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Band 33, Berlin, NY: Walter de Gruyter, 2002, 113f.

[8] Jaentsch, Das Böse in den späten Romanen William Goldings, 48f.

[9] Golding, The Hot Gates, 87; cited by Jaentsch, Das Böse in den späten Romanen William Goldings, 49.

[10] Golding, The Hot Gates, 86; cited by Jaentsch, Das Böse in den späten Romanen William Goldings, 49.

[11] Golding, The Hot Gates, 89; cited by Jaentsch, Das Böse in den späten Romanen William Goldings, 49.

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The Concept of Evil in William Golding
University of Paderborn  (Anglistik)
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Katrin Annegarn (Author), 2005, The Concept of Evil in William Golding, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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