Study Guide

Rites of Passage

by William Golding

Rites of Passage Summary

Summary (Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In his travel journal, young Edmund Talbot records for his godfather—a highly placed nobleman not otherwise identified—his impressions during the passage of a sea voyage from a port in the South of England to a vague destination in the Antipodes. Talbot’s ship, also unidentified, is a converted man-of-war, an ancient vessel that had served during the Napoleonic wars but now carries passengers—those of the higher rank above and the lower classes below decks, along with a crew of naval officers. Among these officers are Captain Anderson, whom Talbot at first calls the ship’s “Noah” but who makes a negative impression on the young man because of his stoney manner and his controlled rage toward underlings. In particular, the Captain persecutes an obsequious young parson, the Reverend James Robert Colley, whose crablike appearance disgusts Talbot as well. From Talbot’s supercilious view of the social classes, Colley’s seasickness is ridiculous, as is his grotesque religious enthusiasm for Sabbath prayers and his pretentious claims to gentility. Talbot is early attracted to the polished manners of Lieutenant Deverel and Lieutenant Cumbershum, officers whose upper-class origins and air of competency appear to mark them as gentlemen of his own class.

During the progress of the voyage, however, as the ship nears the equator, the “line” that symbolically separates the Northern temperament of reserve from that of Southern sensuousness, Talbot changes by degrees his initial judgments of the passengers and the crew. He comes to understand that Cumbershum and Deverel are coarse-spirited beneath their veneer of genteel manners; that Lieutenant Summers, the lowborn officer who rose to his rank of lieutenant because of merit instead of privilege, is a true gentleman; and that Captain Anderson is more treacherous than he had believed, a man whose soul is corrupted by evil. Among the passengers, Talbot first mistakes Miss Zenobia Brocklebank as the daughter of a merchant, then as a demi-mondaine whose easy favors he casually wins, seducing her in his ship’s compartment. Later, he discovers that she has another admirer, a semiliterate seaman whose note for a romantic assignation Zenobia has dropped by mistake in Talbot’s canvas basin....

(The entire section is 922 words.)

Rites of Passage Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Edmund Talbot writes a journal for his unnamed godfather and patron as he travels to Australia. His godfather has procured for Talbot an appointment as deputy to the governor of one of the new Australian colonies being settled. In return, the godfather has asked his godson to keep the journal so that he can revisit his own youth in his godson’s adventures. Talbot is very full of the influence of his godfather in government circles and of his own position as the highest-ranking aristocrat aboard the ship. His is also very self-conscious of his own writing style, knowing his words will be read by his godfather, who presumably can continue to influence his career. Talbot particularly delights in learning the nautical jargon used by the sailors and showing off this knowledge in the journal.

At first, Talbot is overwhelmed by the ship’s stink and crowded quarters. He describes his cabin as a “hutch,” but, as the voyage begins, seasickness keeps him in it, as it does most of the middle-class, or “better sort of,” passengers. When he emerges from his cabin, Talbot begins to meet the ship’s officers—the lieutenants and midshipmen—as well as the middle-class passengers, all of whom are emigrants. He does not immediately meet the steerage passengers or the crew, who live in the forward part of the ship. Demarcation lines exist everywhere, but one demarcation Talbot fails to notice is the approach to the captain. He believes he can introduce himself to the captain any time he wishes, though his servant Wheeler and Lieutenant Summers try to hint otherwise. When he attempts to do this, he is reminded by Captain Anderson that he should have read the “Captain’s Orders,” which expressly forbid approach to the captain except at the captain’s invitation.

One of the last passengers to emerge from seasickness is a young clergyman named James Colley. Colley seems gauche and awkward, and Talbot judges him immediately as coming from a lower class. In the absence of a chaplain, however, Colley takes on himself the responsibility of arranging a Sunday service. Like Talbot, he fails to notice the ban on approaching the captain, but he is told off in a much more insulting way than Talbot was. Talbot decides to take it on himself to confront the captain and get a Sunday service organized, not because he is religious, but in an attempt to assert his superiority.

The service takes place, with a few of the...

(The entire section is 995 words.)