Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Golding’s seventh novel, Darkness Visible explores the common theme of his major fiction: mankind’s essential depravity and the human need, as a consequence of innate sin or acquired guilt, to accept the grace of Christian redemption. In his early novels, Golding treated the theme of original sin among schoolboys isolated from society (Lord of the Flies, 1954); the basic brutality of Cro-Magnon man in contrast to their gentle Neanderthal rivals (The Inheritors, 1955); the limitation of human reason and even prudence in Pincher Martin (1956); and, in Free Fall (1959), the limitation of assuming that man can ultimately control his universe. Unlike these pessimistic earlier books, Darkness Visible offers the reader metaphors of grace to mitigate the tragic cycle of human corruption. Matty may be construed, depending upon one’s viewpoint, either as mystic-saint or as self-deluded fanatic. Certainly, Golding coaxes his readers to ignore signals of the rational world and to accept, despite the horrors of war and suffering, Matty’s own judgment that divine intervention alters the mundane affairs of ordinary people.

Like the protagonist in Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1939), Matty is traumatized by war, turned into a monster but saved from death through the miracles of modern surgery and his own will to survive. Different from others, reborn in suffering—like Johnny—he becomes a seer with deeper insight into the human condition. Unlike Johnny, he also becomes a manifestation of divine grace.

To make Matty’s experience symbolic of Christian redemption, Golding uses the metaphor of the fiery sphere. Early in the novel, Matty is viewed as a fireball, a human torch set ablaze from the incendiary air attack. Late in the novel, to sacrifice himself for the sake of the Arab schoolboy, he voluntarily seizes the bomb and again becomes a ball of fire. Contrasted to these transcendent symbols of divine rage, the spheroid duck eggs of Sophy, allowed to rot, represent her evil. Finally, the novel concludes with a “many-coloured ball,” symbol to Mr. Pedigree of Matty’s redemption and forgiving love—or is it a mere child’s plaything?