2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Golding’s sixth novel, The Pyramid. The Pyramid was Golding’s first attempt at realist fiction, and was something of a departure from his previously published books. In addition, this novel has some roots in Golding’s own autobiography, featuring a place called Stilbourne, a thinly-disguised Marlborough, Wiltshire, where Golding grew up.
One of the most prominent themes of The Pyramid is social class, and the vast inequalities which existed – and indeed, still exist – in British society. Golding had been particularly affected by this himself, with the Oxford University Appointments Committee writing ‘N.T.S.’ (Not Top Shelf) on their summary of Golding. He remembers that he wasn’t allowed to play with certain children while growing up, but also notes that some children weren’t allowed to associate with him, demonstrating his family’s position in the social pyramid. He wrote of the novel’s title:
‘The Pyramid is the English Social pyramid, a particularly crippling and terrible structure.’
The Pyramid began as three separate stories, with the final part of the novel written first. Charles Monteith, Golding’s editor at Faber and Faber, suggested that the stories would work as a novel, and indeed the three parts do fit together very well, in telling the story of Oliver, a naive young man, who grows into adulthood in the course of the narrative.
In the opening and longest part of the novel, Oliver is eighteen, and about to go to Oxford to study Chemistry. He loves music, which is a major theme of the novel, but there is a sense that music will not lead to a good enough career to elevate his social status. He is infatuated with Imogen, who is engaged to be married, so he embarks on a pursuit of Evie Babbacombe, who is ‘lower’ than Oliver socially. Evie is a tragic figure, abused by many of the residents of Stilbourne, and trapped in her situation:
‘I hate men… And I hate this town – I hate it! Hate it! Hate it!’
The second part is a more comedic look at small-town life, with a production by the Amateur Dramatic Society exposing the class rivalries and tensions in the fictional Stilbourne. Importantly, though, in this section, Oliver finally begins to realise just how small, and meaningless, Stilbourne is.
And finally, the third section moves away from Oliver’s life, although he is still the narrator, albeit all grown up. Golding focuses on the spinster ‘Bounce’, Oliver’s old piano teacher, and what follows is a tragic love story, highlighted by moments of black humour.
Despite the differences between The Pyramid and Golding’s other works, his imagination and ability to pinpoint the vulnerabilities and helplessness of the human condition is on full display here. As an exposure of the unfairness of British society, it is devastating.