On this day in 1954 William Golding's first novel, The Lord of the Flies, was published. The novel was rejected by twenty-one publishers and had lukewarm reviews but it was immediately popular, despite its bleak view of human nature. By the sixties, it was on its way to being labeled a "cult novel," being taught in almost every high school, and bringing in enough money to enable Golding to retire from his own twenty-year career as a school teacher to write full-time. Many of Golding's other nine novels are seen as a confirmation of his view that "man produces evil as a bee produces honey," although in his 1983 Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech Golding spoke differently: "Critics have dug into my books until they could come up with something hopeless. I can't think why. I don't feel hopeless myself.... I am a universal pessimist but a cosmic optimist."
The naval officer who comes to the rescue at the end of Lord of the Flies optimistically congratulates the boys for a "Jolly good show. Like the Coral Island." This is Golding's ironic nod to a book by R. M. Ballantyne, written a century earlier and worlds away. Ballantyne's Ralph, Jack and Peterkin (Golding's Piggy) have a whizzo time of it on their island, and the only fire is the one commanded by heathen chief Tararo for the burning of all his wooden idols, a winsome missionary having won him over. This leaves the natives free to build a church, Avatea free to marry and spread "the light of the glorious gospel" to other islands, and the boys with "nothing more to do but get ready for sea as fast as we can, and hurrah for old England!":
It was a bright, clear morning when we hoisted the snow-white sails of the pirate schooner and left the shores of Mango. The missionary and thousands of the natives came down to bid us God-speed and to see us sail away. As the vessel bent before a light, fair wind, we glided quickly over the lagoon under a cloud of canvas.
Just as we passed through the channel in the reef the natives gave us a loud cheer; and as the missionary waved his hat, while he stood on a coral rock with his grey hairs floating in the wind, we heard the single word "Farewell" borne faintly over the sea....
In his 1983 Nobel speech, Golding goes on to express his belief that the novelists and poets of the world are man's greatest hope because they "allow man to speak to man, the man in the street to speak to his fellow," because they teach man to share the planet and "not to take himself with unbecoming seriousness." The speech concludes with an amusing anecdote describing Golding's most recent reminder of "my smallness in the scheme of things":
The very day after I learned that I was the laureate for literature for 1983 I drove into a country town and parked my car where I should not. I only left the car for a few minutes but when I came back there was a ticket taped to the window. A traffic warden, a lady of a minatory aspect, stood by the car. She pointed to a notice on the wall. "Can't you read?" she said. Sheepishly I got into my car and drove very slowly round the corner. There on the pavement I saw two county policemen.
I stopped opposite them and took my parking ticket out of its plastic envelope. They crossed to me. I asked if, as I had pressing business, I could go straight to the Town Hall and pay my fine on the spot. "No, sir," said the senior policeman, "I'm afraid you can't do that." He smiled the fond smile that such policemen reserve for those people who are clearly harmless if a bit silly. He indicated a rectangle on the ticket that had the words 'name and address of sender' printed above it. "You should write your name and address in that place," he said. "You make out a cheque for ten pounds, making it payable to the Clerk to the Justices at this address written here. Then you write the same address on the outside of the envelope, stick a sixteen penny stamp in the top right hand corner of the envelope, then post it. And may we congratulate you on winning the Nobel Prize for Literature."