Rites of Passage, like most of William Golding’s novels, is an extended parable that treats aspects of the great Christian themes of sin and redemption. Darkness Visible (1979) examined the impact of revelation, personified by the mystic Matty Windrave, upon both ordinary people and those tainted by supernatural evil. In his parable of apocalypse, Golding intended to show how symbols of Christian redemption continue to break fitfully upon the consciousness of the modern world. The author’s most recent novel, presenting this same theme from a different point of view, centers around ordinary people who are tested by evil. Rites of Passage reduces the spiritual conflict to a smaller scale, to the parable of a ship’s voyage to represent the soul’s passage either to sin or redemption.
Golding’s title serves as a complex metaphor for at least three different but harmonizing rites of passage. The most obvious one concerns Edmund Talbot’s coming-of-age. Through his memoirs, written in the form of a ship’s log while he is aboard a decrepit post-Napoleonic vessel-of-the-line, Talbot discloses to the reader, at least initially, the image of a priggish young English aristocrat, patronizing to the lower classes, vain, and politically ambitious. Near the end of the ship’s voyage, however, he has changed decidedly for the better. He is now a man, with a man’s sense of conscience and responsibility. The changes that signal Talbot’s maturing consciousness are partly internal and partly in response to the conditions of his voyage. He experiences a variety of circumstances that test the strength of his character: he suffers illness at sea; is sexually aroused but is later repulsed by a flirtatious woman of indifferent virtue; is embroiled in the politics of a vessel commanded by a despot; and he is captivated—both his sympathies and moral passions—by a young, feckless English clergyman, the Reverend Robert James Colley, whose ordeal unifies the separate actions of the novel. Through these experiences, Talbot is educated, not by any sudden enlightenment or revelation but gradually, to a proper understanding of the conditions of men and the moral order of things. Basically a decent, conscientious, sensitive young man, he grows in wisdom by casting off his weaknesses—pride, lust, vanity, and indifference. By the end of the book, he has come fully of age. His pride is broken, his lust exposed and chastened, his vanity shamed, and his indifference turned about to moral action.
Just as Talbot undergoes a symbolic initiation, so the crew and passengers change at the point where the vessel “crosses the line” from the Temperate Zone to the Tropical Zone. In Golding’s metaphor, the Equatorial Line is a demarcation zone between reason and passion, moral sense and viciousness. Most of the characters aboard the vessel—a “ship of fools” recalling both the older and modern versions of Sebastian Brant’s classic Das Narrenschiff—are moral simpletons, people not specifically evil but foolishly indifferent to the presence of supernatural evil. The passengers represent a microcosm of ordinary humanity. A lower-class woman gives birth to a child; a servant falls (or is pushed) overboard to his death; a betrothal is announced; a funeral takes place at sea. During the course of the voyage many actions, some significant but most petty, occur as parts of a symbolic drama concerning rituals of human experience: friendships formed and betrayed, justice temporized, life and death played out as rites with some ambiguous meaning.
Similarly, as in Joseph Conrad’s The Nigger of the “Narcissus”, the ship’s crew represent a variety of types. The officers are not simply characters with specific psychological qualities; they symbolize a range of moral attributes, from the devilish Captain Anderson, to the complaisant officers...
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