Darkness Visible

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Like all of William Golding’s novels, Darkness Visible, his most recent major fiction, treats as a fable, or didactic moral tale, aspects of the theme of Christian salvation. In his 1962 essay entitled “Fable,” reprinted in The Hot Gates and other occasional pieces (1966), Golding explicitly describes the beliefs that control his purposes as a moralist:Man is a fallen being. He is gripped by original sin. His nature is sinful and his state perilous. I accept the theology and admit the triteness; but what is trite is true; and a truism can become more than a truism when it is a belief passionately held.

The author’s artistic credo applies most directly to Lord of the Flies, his first and most popular book, but in different ways it applies as well to his later novels. In Lord of the Flies, Jack and his fellow hunters, isolated from civilized society, revert to a primitive condition of “original sin.” Similarly, in The Inheritors, Golding’s fable of the inherent evil in human nature which extends to man’s ancestors, the murderous Cro-Magnon (Homo sapiens) people who exterminate their gentle rivals, the Neanderthals. In other novels, Golding exposes the folly of man’s prideful belief in his rationality. For example, Christopher Martin (Pincher Martin), a naval officer in wartime, is blown into the North Atlantic after a submarine attack; swimming to a jutting rock, he supposes that, through the powers of his reason and imagination, he might survive. But the reader learns that his damnation has already taken place and that, after a momentary struggle, during which his entire story unfolds in his mind, he has drowned ignominiously. Similarly, in Free Fall, Sammy Mountjoy makes a Faustian decision that eventually destroys both his freedom and his soul; the novel explores the precise moment when his damnation through pride had occurred. Against the pattern of human sinfulness, folly, and pride, Golding always establishes obscure fables of Christian redemption.

In Darkness Visible, Golding’s religious fable is perhaps least obscure, for the “darkness” of the title represents Christian mysteries that become visible for the faithful through revelation. As experienced by Matthew “Septimus” Windgrave (one of his several names), the revelation is fearsome, a human holocaust, a metaphor of fire. From fire, indeed, he emerges—a mere child, naked, nearly burnt to death in an incendiary bomb attack on London during World War II. An anonymous victim of the ravages of senseless cruelty, he is patched together by plastic surgeons, still hideously marked, then turned back into the world as a freak. At the Foundlings School in Greenfield, he stands apart from the other children, alienated as much by his scrupulous moral uprightness as by his physical appearance.

Ironically, Matty’s ugliness becomes a reverse symbol for his inner spiritual perfection. To his respected schoolmaster Mr. Pedigree, an aging pederast who is dangerously attracted to beautiful boys, he is an object of horror. To his employers he is a harmless drudge who deserves to be exploited. And to girls, he is either the source of revulsion or pity. So he turns to the voices of his spiritual masters. They assure him that he has a divine, although darkly understood, mission. After he returns to England following his travels in Australia, where he had been symbolically crucified, he begins to keep a journal of his spiritual meditations....

(The entire section is 1442 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Babb, Howard S. The Novels of William Golding, 1970.

Baker, James R. William Golding: A Critical Study, 1965.

Dick, Bernard F. William Golding, 1967.

Gindin, James. Postwar British Fiction: New Accents and Attitudes, 1962.

Golding, William. The Hot Gates and Other Pieces, 1965.

Johnston, Arnold. Of Earth and Darkness: The Novels of William Golding, 1980.