Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Atlantic island. Desolate rocky island, perhaps near North Africa, where the naval officer Christopher “Pincher” Martin miraculously washes up after his ship has been sunk by a German torpedo, leaving him alone in the ocean, adrift with only a lifebelt.
William Golding served in Great Britain’s Royal Navy during World War II, and the early pages of his novel—in which Martin struggles to stay alive in the ocean—have a gritty realism that could well have been informed by experience. However, when Martin discovers a tiny island where no island should be and manages to clamber ashore, the character of the novel itself subtly changes. The foreground of the novel remains realistic, as Golding describes in minute, moment-by-moment detail Martin’s continuing struggle to survive on the island. However, behind this struggle, there is a moral dimension, typical of Golding’s work, in which the island becomes an expression of what is going on inside Martin’s mind.
Golding describes the island in exact detail, from the coarse shingle on which Martin comes ashore to the rocky tower he must climb in order to escape the tides and the barren place where he must figure out how to live. The island offers Martin no comforts whatever; to sleep he must squeeze his body into a narrow crevice between rocks, to drink he must crawl headfirst under another rocky overhang and sip rainwater from a small pool containing disturbing rod growths. For food, he must scramble upon dangerous cliffs in order to reach unappetizing and insubstantial sea anemones.
If Martin’s struggle for simple human survival seems like a turn in Purgatory, the impression is heightened as the novel begins revealing the island as a reflection of the inside of Martin’s head. Occasionally, the parallels are explicit, as when Martin “looked solemnly at the line of rocks and found himself thinking of them as teeth.” More often, however, connections between Martin’s mind and the island are metaphorical. Martin’s dreams...
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Bibliography (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
Babb, Howard S. The Novels of William Golding. Athens: Ohio State University Press, 1970. In his chapter on Pincher Martin, Babb sees the novel as Golding’s most “problematic.” Babb focuses on the difficulty of reading the novel and Martin’s extreme rationality.
Dick, Bernard F. William Golding. Boston: Twayne, 1987. In the Twayne series tradition, this book serves as an excellent starting point. Contains a chronology and, in the section on Pincher Martin, Dick focuses upon the existential aspects of the novel.
Kinkead-Weekes, Mark, and Ian Gregor. William Golding: A Critical Study. Winchester, Mass.: Faber & Faber, 1967. One of the earliest studies of Golding’s novels. In their section on Pincher Martin, Kinkead-Weekes and Gregor struggle with the question of realism that the novel poses.