Study Guide

Pincher Martin

by William Golding

Pincher Martin Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The action of Pincher Martin seems quite simple at first. A British navy officer is blown off his ship by a German torpedo and must try to survive alone on a small, rocky island in the North Atlantic. Yet, although many of the details of Christopher’s heroic efforts to stay alive are starkly realistic in a sort of Robinson Crusoe fashion, more often his island world and his grotesque struggle seem strangely unreal. His battle is described as though it were against some mystical force within himself as much as against the hard, cold rock that seems to constitute his external world. It is not until the very end of the novel, when Christopher’s body is discovered washed up on an island in the Hebrides, that the reader realizes that the entire struggle has been within the protagonist’s mind—that Christopher Martin died in the water almost immediately after the torpedo hit his ship.

Given this shocking realization, it is then the responsibility of the reader to “reread” the book, either in actual fact or in his memory of his first reading, to reconstruct its events in the light of this “new” notion of Christopher’s struggle to survive. Once the reader knows that Christopher invents practically the entire action of the novel, his struggle to survive becomes more complex, becomes metaphysical rather than simply physical. When the man who discovers the body says in the last line of the novel, “He didn’t even have time to kick off his seaboot,” the reader knows that Christopher died on the second page of the novel with the half-finished word “Moth “as he tried to say “Mother.” Everything between these two points then becomes Christopher’s efforts to hold on not simply to physical life but also to that intangible self-made reality called “identity.”

That the novel is about the human need to maintain the self in the face of death is even further emphasized by the fact that Christopher in life was a man with a powerful sense of ego. Thus, throughout he insists, “I won’t die. I...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Pincher Martin Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Pincher Martin (first published in the United States as The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin) depicts one man’s ferocious struggle against the nothingness, the loss of identity that death brings. Typically, Golding places the main character in a remote setting, where he is forced to take a long, hard look at himself. Also typically, what the character sees is a darkness at his core. A quintessentially self-centered person, Martin realizes that in his life he did whatever was necessary to come out on top or to have his own way. In death, however, he is fighting the one force that will erase all that he is and he has. Thus he fights death with all his strength.

Seemingly the only survivor of a torpedoed ship, Martin is in fact alive only inside his own head. That is where his struggle takes place, but he imagines the battle raging on a rock in the middle of the ocean, a rock he has created from the memory of one of his own teeth.

Appropriate to the focus of the story, Golding tells virtually the whole story from Martin’s perspective. Initially, Golding elicits sympathy for Martin by describing in detail the horror of his near drowning. Once Martin reaches the rock, he admonishes himself to think, to use his intellect and reason to survive. Admiration grows for this man who can keep his wits about him, devise shelter, and find water and food. Since the story is being told from inside Martin’s mind, he also returns to memories that reveal a self-centeredness at the core of his being. Thus...

(The entire section is 628 words.)

Pincher Martin Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Christopher Martin is a crew member of the English destroyer The Wildebeest, which was just sunk by a German torpedo in the Mid-Atlantic. Martin does not make it into the safety boats that others manage to get aboard. He has his lifebelt on, however, and after the ship sinks, he works to inflate the belt. He succeeds in this, and then, in his own imagination, he manages to kick off his seaboots. Martin begins his struggle to survive in the Mid-Atlantic.

Martin is trying to keep mind and body together. At times, he transcends his physical situation and sees himself as pure mind. He has an enormous will to survive, and it is this struggle of will that readers encounter in the novel; Martin insists, “I will not die!”

After believing himself to have successfully removed his seaboots, Martin begins the impossible task of orienting himself in a reality in which the horizon is the same, no matter which way he looks. The first order of business is to get through the night. Without the aid of a compass, Martin has to wait until dawn to get a sense of where he is. He focuses on a “bright patch” against the sky; he decides that he is not far from the coast of North Africa.

The physical suffering that Martin endures is detailed in the opening seventy-five pages of the novel. Not only does Martin have to survive the blistering rays of the sun glinting off the ocean, but he also has to fight fatigue and the harsh effects of the saltwater. During this time, Martin’s mind flashes back to his memories of his friend and shipmate, Nathaniel. Nathaniel had seemed the least likely to survive, but, in Martin’s imagination, Nathaniel had made it into a lifeboat. Martin, who had been in the crow’s nest when the destroyer was hit, had called for Nathaniel’s help but received no immediate response. Martin now spends much of his psychic energy worrying that he did not give the correct call regarding the ship’s position and the position of the destroyer that had launched the fatal torpedo. He finally decides that he made the right call, and those thoughts no longer torment him.

Miraculously, Martin is washed up on a large cluster of rocks...

(The entire section is 894 words.)