Dan Sandman

48: Rites of Passage by William Golding

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 29/11/2013 at 12:00 pm

Rites of Passage by William GoldingThere is a tradition, in English literature, of sea story writing. Perhaps this is because Britain is a relatively small island with many coastal towns dotted around its perimeter. Or maybe it is the United Kingdom’s Commonwealth empire which rose and fell on the strength of its navy. Either way, or for whatever reason, there is a great wealth of adventure stories set on the high seas; from Treasure Island to the works of Patrick O’ Brian.

So what is it that makes William Golding’s 1980 masterpiece stand out from the crowd as a subtle study of the human condition, not just another sea story? Is it the way that the form of the book plays with the reader’s expectations? Is it the bouncy prose style, perfectly replicating an early nineteenth century aristocrat? Or perhaps the various semantics of seafaring language undercut by the serious doctrine of religious belief?

Well, all of the above elements certainly make for an entertaining read, but underneath the surface lies a tragic story of Shakespearean or Greek proportions. Without giving away too much of the plot, Golding wrote a novel that starts out as sheer entertainment and ends up taking a turn into much darker territory. Like in The Merchant of Venice, it is shocking to see how quickly comedy can turn to tragedy. How, if as readers, we take the side of those who jest, then we must face the moral consequences if the jest is cruelly given.

Mr. Talbot, a member of the British aristocracy, has been given a governing position in Sydney, Australia. This adventure story of sorts, takes the form of Mr. Talbot’t journal addressed to his godfather, a lord of high influence. In bright and lively prose–exclamation marks frequently occur–the journal gives a detailed account of the voyage. The impression given is one that powerfully shows early nineteenth century British society, its rigid class system and repressed sexuality, in a highly critical light. After all, as Golding would have been well aware when he wrote this Booker Prize winning novel, the attitudes expressed by his colonialist characters would cause a dramatic decline in Australia’s indigenous population.

So, upon the ship, there is bullying, drunkenness and indifference towards suffering. What such ungentlemanly behavior leads to is a gripping and entertaining story with many subtle depths. Because there is no omniscient narrator, instead the writings of an articulate passenger, a man with his own opinions and emotions, the reader must use his or her intelligence to gather a view of what actually happened on the ship. Questions are left open to debate, answers only hinted at, and so the reader has a sense (appropriately so) of being lost at sea along with the protagonist.

I read this short novel, part one of a trilogy, in a few days and I thoroughly enjoyed it. As a reward for my fast reading, I went on to watch the 2005 BBC drama series, based on the three books, To The Ends of The Earth staring Benedict Cumberbatch. Of course, I only watched the first part, saving the remaining two stories for after I have completed the trilogy in book form.

It’s always best to read the book first!

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