Inspiring Older Readers
Rites of Passage by William Golding
Rites of Passage, published in 1980 was the first of what would turn out to be a trilogy of books with the umbrella title of To The Ends of the Earth - which many critics seem to consider a late flowering of William Golding’s career. It resulted in him winning the Booker Prize in the year of publication and contributed to the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 and a knighthood five years later.
I first read this novel when it came out in 1980 and, to be honest, it didn’t leave that much of a long lasting impression on me. I remember liking it enough at the time to buy the rest of the trilogy as it came out but the passage of almost 40 years (really!!??) had left me with only an outline memory of the book. So clearly it was time to reread and reassess.
The action is set on board a ship bound for Australia in the early part of the nineteenth century and the first two thirds of the book consists of a journal that is being completed by the young Edmund Talbot, ostensibly for the later amusement of his godfather back in England. Talbot is relatively wealthy and privileged and takes a berth in part of the ship reserved for those with money and influence. Even then, the surroundings are squalid – the ship is an old vessel of the line that has been repurposed for transporting passengers now that the Napoleonic Wars are coming to an end.
Through Talbot’s journal, and his exclusive point-of-view perspective, we get an introduction to life on board ship, the horrors of sea-sickness and vivid portraits of the crew and other passengers. Talbot’s relationships play out in what is often a semi-comical even slightly farcical way – his dalliance with one of the women passengers, for example, is like something from a sea-going Whitehall farce. But the focus of Talbot’s attention is ultimately the seemingly obsequious and socially inept Reverend Colley, who Talbot observes as a figure of fun and of pity. Colley attracts the wrath of the bullying Captain and is humiliated by the other crew members and passengers as he lurches around the boat trying to drum up some interest in religious observance. Eventually Talbot witnesses Colley’s fall from grace as he seemingly gets roaring drunk, parades around the ship in only his shirt and takes to his cabin where, out of shame, he wills himself to death.
Talbot is co-opted into the Captain’s cursory plans for an investigation into the causes of Colley’s death and he’s left bewildered by why it should be that a single episode of drunkenness led to such an extreme reaction. During the course of the investigations Talbot discovers that he’s not the only one keeping a journal – Colley too has been writing down his day by day experiences and, at this point, in a structural shift of focus very typical of Golding’s novel writing, we are allowed to read this alternative journal and a quite different story emerges.
Instead of the figure of fun Talbot had painted, Colley emerges as a good natured, sensitive man who, because of his faith, is relentless bullied by the Captain and others in the senior command aboard the ship. Because Colley isn’t a ‘gentleman’ with the power and status of the richer passengers he is treated with contempt and subjected to a serious assault. What becomes clear is that what Talbot had construed as a drunken episode was in fact the playing out of a prank that ends with a sexual encounter which so shames the religious Colley that he’s unable to live with himself and the social shame that will inevitably attend him if the truth came out.
So what starts off life as seemingly a light historical comedy of manners becomes something considerably darker and more Golding-like the longer it goes on. By the end it is apparent that the author has returned to the themes he was concerned with in the 1960s and early 1970s.
The technical trick of shifting the perspective of the narrative – a sudden switch from one seeming reality to another – was something that typified novels like Lord of the Flies, Pincher Martin and The Inheritors and he uses it to good effect here too. And although the comparisons between Rites of Passage and Lord of the Flies might seem a stretch to make, they are, I think there, not just in the structure of book but in its themes.
Setting the action on a ship journeying to Australia has a similar impact as crashing a plane on a deserted island – effectively a self-contained, almost hermetically-sealed social microcosm is created. Within this artfully created world, Golding can play out what he sees as the tensions that exist within wider society and the characters can become types as well as psychologically convincing individuals.
Just as he’s interested in social class divisions in Lord of the Flies, so too in Rites of Passage. The dynamics between the crew and passengers and the strictly enforced divisions within the ship that mark out the privileged passengers from those in the lower middle and the working classes are clearly a fascination for Golding. What, he asks, does your social class allow you to see (both figuratively and literally) and how does that class privilege get played out in terms of power.
As with Lord of the Flies, Golding is also interested here in the thin veneer of civilisation that is so easy to break through when the conventions that bind our behaviour in wider society are suspended. The willingness of humanity to abandon the moral codes that prevent us descending to savagery aren’t just a feature of children who may not have been adequately socialised but of adults too when they are given licence to behave in ways that don’t draw opprobrium.
Rites of Passage explores the way our social status can give us very different perspectives on dark and light and questions our willingness to judge others without understanding their stories and their history. It also highlights the way in which we rationalise and accommodate not only our own bad behaviour but blame others for the brutality we ourselves are capable of. In dealing with these themes Golding has produced a book that sits somewhere in the mainstream of his output while at the same time seeming to convince some critics that this was a more light-touch departure from his usual themes of darkness and redemption. He himself said that this book proved he could do ‘funny’ but I suspect his tongue was firmly in his cheek as he uttered those words.