Golding’s metaphor for Everyman’s passage from life to death, from judgment to either damnation or salvation, is the old literary convention of the “Ship of Fools.” As early as 1508, Alexander Barclay (who was coincidentally born in Ottery St. Mary, Coleridge’s birthplace centuries later) translated into English Sebastian Brant’s Das Narrenschiff (1494; The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, 1509). In the twentieth century Katherine Anne Porter’s Ship of Fools (1962) treats a similar metaphor: a ship as microcosm of the whole world.
Golding’s cast of characters—considerably more varied than his usual selection—includes lowly crewmen, officers of the ship, and passengers of different classes, ages, and occupations. During the course of the voyage many events take place, representative of the variety of human activities: childbirth and death; heterosexual and homosexual relations; political and quasi-judicial proceedings; sickness and disorder, contrasted with times of well-being and calm; orderly activities contrasted with near-chaos; estrangement and marriage; betrayal and self-sacrifice. The “fools” of the ship represent Everyman and Everywoman; they mostly mistake appearance for reality, the temporary for the eternal. The “wise” ones, primarily Summers (the name resonates with warm human sympathy) and Talbot, come to understand the nature of reality and the value of spiritual things. In between, the ordinary folk—including Mr. Prettiman (a mere pretty-man), Zenobia (“painted Magdalene”), and Mr. Oldmeddow, the army officer—are neither heroic nor wicked, but flow with the current of life, without moral purpose.
Those utterly lost include Captain Anderson, whose “passionate detestation” of the parson is a mysterious malignity that corrodes his soul, and Billy Rogers, the Judas-like betrayer of innocence. The object of their detestation and betrayal is the wise fool, Colley, a figure ridiculous in life but sacred in death. For Golding, the “passage” of fools bound to the Antipodes, from life to eternity, is the crucial rite, the ceremony of Christian redemption through grace.