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.)