William Golding’s Close Quarters follows his Rites of Passage (1980) as the second in a proposed trilogy of novels in the format of a journal written by the main character, Edmund FitzHenry Talbot, a young aristocrat traveling by ship from England to Australia, where he plans to pursue, it seems, a career in the colonial government. The novel borrows from the eighteenth century adventure story, the most famous example of which is Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). Defoe’s hero, like Talbot in Golding’s story, finds that nature is not benign but frightening and learns to cling to the human walls that surround him.
In the guise of an antique adventure story, Close Quarters records the mistakes of its main character; if its format links it to popular fiction in that it concentrates on plot, its intention links it to serious or “novelistic” fiction in that it concentrates on character.
The premise of the novel is a simple one: The former warship on which Talbot has taken passage is becalmed in equatorial waters west of Africa—a condition worsened by the seaweed that has accumulated on the ship’s hull and keel and by the loss of the ship’s top masts. This latter event occurs when Deverel, one of the ship’s lieutenants, leaves his watch to an inexperienced midshipman and gets drunk. Partially crippled, the ship later encounters the English frigate Alcyone; Captain Anderson, his crew, and the passengers take it for an enemy ship at first and prepare for battle. They soon discover their mistake and are told by the crew of the Alcyone that the war with Napoléon Bonaparte is over. At this point, Talbot falls headlong in love with Miss Chumley, the ward of Captain Henry Somerset and Lady Somerset of the Alcyone. The resolution of this romance, another ingredient of traditional adventure, is left uncertain—perhaps to be taken up in the concluding volume of the trilogy. After a dinner with the Somersets on the Alcyone and a ball put on by the two ships featuring songs, a poetry recitation, and dancing, the ships part, and Talbot has no chance to pursue his love, let alone to prove it by undertaking the risky deeds typical of the classic romantic hero.
The next development in the adventure aspect of the plot occurs when, moving into the stormy seas between Africa and Antartica, the ship, ill-constructed to begin with and old, as well as hampered by the previous accident with the masts and by the weed clinging to the hull, threatens to fall apart. Talbot, as when the ship was preparing for battle with the Alcyone before it was identified, has little to do with opposing this threat. He barely knows the construction of the ship and has no experience as a seaman. It is Lieutenant Benet (who had been forced to leave the Alcyone because of his passionate flirtation with Lady Somerset) who devises a way to increase the ship’s speed, setting up a drag-rope system to clear the ship of the seaweed weighing it down. By the end of the novel, in fact, the ship is still in danger, and though the reader knows from the Postscriptum that it reaches its destination, Talbot notes that he left off his journal during the danger, thus extending his impotence from what he cannot do (which is to overcome the threat) to what he can (which is to write about it).
Thus, taken strictly as an adventure story, Close Quarters features little action, and as an adventurer, Talbot is incompetent—comically so. Yet to the extent that the plot focuses on the relationships between Talbot, his setting, and other major characters, it provides a richer texture to the novel than the larger action does. The story is at pains to follow Talbot’s mismanaged attempts to assert himself in relation to his surroundings and to other characters in the story. Because he is tall and unaccustomed to the roll of the ship, he constantly bumps his head in the cramped quarters in which he moves about. Thus he spends a substantial amount of time in his bunk, drugged and asleep. He moves into the cabin of Pastor Colley (who died in the...
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