Study Guide

Rites of Passage Sea Trilogy

by William Golding

Rites of Passage Sea Trilogy Themes

Social Concerns / Themes

The Rites of Passage sea trilogy comprises the novels Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below. One reviewer concluded that the binding theme of the three novels is the "making of Talbot's soul." In the first, he is shaken out of his comfortable self-satisfaction by Colley's death. In the second, he faces grave danger, admitting fear but not succumbing to the despair of Wheeler, who commits suicide, or the blubbering drunkenness of Pike. He slowly becomes an admirable character, establishing himself in the third novel as a good friend, a young man willing to learn, and a person grateful for good fortune and graceful in misfortune.

The setting for Rites of Passage is a ship on its way from England to Australia. The passengers and crew of this ship form a microcosm of English society and offer Golding the opportunity for satire of the rigid British class system. Tied into this satire is an exploration of culpability, of the consequences of cruelty whether casual or deliberate.

While the novel examines the value judgments that derive from social systems and the mistakes that can be made, it goes beyond that social criticism to raise questions of responsibility and guilt. Edmund Talbot, through whom readers see most events on the ship, loftily comments on his fellow travelers. He can be aloof and superior until one passenger is subjected to cruel practical joking and ultimately dies of shame. Then he must examine his own role in Reverend Colley's death. There are no clear answers, but Talbot is freed of some delusions of natural superiority and comes to see that he is to a degree responsible.

In this novel there are many Rites of Passage — the voyage itself, the practical jokes at crossing the equator, the awakening of self-knowledge in Talbot, Colley's last rites. They all work...

(The entire section is 766 words.)