Rites of Passage Essay - Critical Evaluation

William Golding

Critical Evaluation

Although Rites of Passage was written as a stand-alone novel, William Golding wrote two sequels to it, bringing a conclusion to the characters’ voyage to Australia. The three completed volumes were issued in 1991 as a trilogy titled To the Ends of the Earth: A Sea Trilogy. The trilogy can be seen as a bildungsroman tracing Edmund Talbot’s growth from an insensitive and brash young gentleman into someone with a deepened moral sensitivity, in a committed love relationship, and without the support of a patron to give him the illusion of power.

Rites of Passage hints at such a development, but it is better to see it symbolically. Golding’s own experiences as a sailor during World War II and his subsequent interest in old sailing ships give the story sufficient authenticity to stand as a realist historical novel, set during a period of lull in the Napoleonic Wars. In the light of Golding’s earlier novels, however, it is easy to see the symbolism of the journey, of the structure of the ship, and of the events that occur aboard it.

The “rites” of the title might appear to be birth, marriage (or at least the engagement between Prettiman and Miss Granham), and death, but the plot leads readers to see the rites as those to do with crossing the equator that lead to Colley’s death. These rites are shocking in that the ship has hitherto seemed an ordered and tightly disciplined society with a due sense of rank and status. Suddenly primordial forces emerge that scapegoat one man and sacrifice him through punishment and humiliation. No one seems able to prevent this from happening, certainly not Captain Anderson, who dislikes clergymen anyway, or Talbot, who is busy about his own amorous agenda.

The rites of the crossing pick up on Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), in which civilization breaks down among a group of boys and they are soon committing bestial acts against one another. Golding’s vision of a “heart of darkness” lying just beneath the surface of humanity is his central literary vision. The novel then raises the question of who can take responsibility for this darkness and the actions that arise from it.


(The entire section is 910 words.)