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Darkness Visible Summary

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

A brand saved from the burning, Matty “Septimus” Windrave survives the holocaust of the Nazi firebombings of London during World War II, horribly burned, orphaned, marked psychologically and spiritually by his ordeal. Designated “number seven” in the burn wards of the hospital, he has no recollection of his previous life and is wholly isolated from the fellowship of other war victims because of his monstrous appearance. At the Foundlings School at Greenfield, Mr. Pedigree, a pitiful old pederast, shrinks from the boy’s unspoken plea for friendship. Rejected by the other schoolmasters as “that horrible, ugly boy,” Matty withdraws into himself in a quest for spiritual enlightenment. A sense that he not only is different from others but also has a chosen destiny, a self-sacrifice to endure, drives him to intense introspection, to observe accurately other people, first as a laborer in Australia, then back in his old haunts in provincial Greenfield, England.

In his journals, he records the mundane activities of this world with the eye of a mystic, searching for spiritual direction toward his mission. Particularly at Sim Goodchild’s Rare Books, he observes the twins Sophy and Toni Stanhope, beautiful, clever girls whose manner of affected innocence conceals a tortured impulse to evil. As children, the twins took sadistic pleasure in torturing animals; now, bored political radicals, they plot a crime both absurd and gratuitous: to kidnap—or murder—a young Arab Prince at the Wandicott School. This youth, innocent and as mysteriously pure as Matty, acts as a counterpart to fulfill the fire-child’s destiny. Matty now understands that his mission is to sacrifice himself as a burnt offering to save the Arab (who was presumably born in Palestine—a Christ figure). After he grasps the twins’ firebomb and is consumed in fire, his history ends, except for when old Mr. Pedigree perceives a triumphant Matty briefly in a vision.

By the end of the novel, each of the major characters has earned his retribution or reward. For the twins and their accomplice, the penalty is prison; for Sim Goodchild, who relies upon reason instead of intuition, the reward is insight into his limitations; for Mr. Pedigree, the gift is understanding through love; for Matty, the result is a destiny that leads to sainthood. As for the Arab child who was saved from destruction, William Golding leaves the question of divine intervention into human history deliberately unresolved.

Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Darkness Visible, by its title, conveys Golding’s central preoccupation, that of making the darkness within visible through fiction. This novel focuses on the spiritual darkness of the modern world and its accompanying loss of love. The urban wasteland is represented by Greenfield, an English village once aptly named but currently suffering all the ills of urbanization, such as pollution, noise, and overcrowding. Two overlapping tales show that the people who live there are also suffering. For them, love is either distorted or absent; the old rituals have either died or lost their power to put people in touch with the divine.

The story begins in war-ravaged London, where the central character, Matty Windrave, emerges in flames like a burning bush from one of the fires. This child survives but is extremely deformed and without any family. He is shuttled from place to place, his distorted features making people uncomfortable. They see only the outside and do not value his kindness, honesty, or hard work. Although Matty craves love, he is rebuffed or used at every turn.

His teacher, Mr. Pedigree, likes handsome young boys and sits Matty almost behind a cabinet. Pedigree’s perversity leads him to ask favorite boys to his rooms under the guise of helping them with their lessons. When he is warned by the headmaster about these meetings, Pedigree uses Matty to screen himself. Knowing that no one would think he had ulterior motives for inviting such an ugly child, he asks Matty to...

(The entire section is 1,228 words.)