Fire Down Below

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Fire Down Below concludes William Golding’s extraordinary sea trilogy, which began with Rites of Passage (1980) and continued with Close Quarters (1987). The final novel retains the setting and characters of the earlier works, though it modifies their tone. Like the two previous novels, it concerns a group of English emigrants aboard a decrepit sailing ship fitted out as a gunboat of the Royal Navy en route to Australia. The years of the voyage, 1813-1815, coincide with a period of political and social upheaval barely alluded to in the novel but important for comprehending its plot. Though the Napoleonic Wars ceased temporarily with Napoleon’s exile to the island of Elba in April, 1814, they brought not prosperity but aggravated economic depression to England. The passengers of Golding’s novel come from every stratum of the British class structure, but their reasons for emigrating are common: economic distress and hopes for a better life.

Moreover, since they leave before the First Treaty of Paris (1814) and arrive at Sidney Cove only after the second abdication of Napoleon in June, 1815, neither they nor the French vessels at sea during the intervening year know anything of the fragile peace officially then in place. The external world remains a hostile environment throughout the voyage, and the enemy is Nature as much as the French. Fire Down Below thus utilizes a favorite Golding theme, the hostile microcosm within the hostile macrocosm, one familiar from his early novel Lord of the Flies (1954), though presented more complexly in this later work.

The boys of Golding’s coral island (interestingly described as boat-shaped) shared a public school background and, in the beginning at least, the conviction that the British way of life was unquestionably the best. No such universal certainty exists for the social patchwork which forms the passengers and crew of Fire Down Below. Edmund Talbot, the narrator and protagonist, qualifies as the highest-ranking member of the group, societally. Though born to the middle class, primarily because his mother married beneath her station, he has enjoyed a university education, courtesy of his godfather-patron. Talbot also has letters of introduction to the governor-general of the Australian crown colony. With assurance of a position in colonial government service, Talbot sets out with considerably greater certainty of a successful outcome than do any of his fellow travelers.

Talbot often does not wear his privilege graciously. His words to those he considers his inferiors, nearly everyone on the ship, contain an element of hauteur which implies condescension. He judges the weaknesses of his fellow passengers harshly. Richard Pike, emigrating with his wife and entire family, “had little enough to recommend himself to the society of other men but his dwarfishness was a positive help in preserving him from injury.” Talbot loathes the very sound of First Officer Benet’s French name, detects anti-British sentiments in his words, and abominates the idea that the socially inferior Benet writes poetry, indeed romantic verses in which one can infer love relationships with Letitia Granham Prettiman, who is married on board to a man presumed near death, or, worse, with Talbot’s own “Beloved Object” from whom fate has separated him, Marion Chumley. Talbot finds Captain Anderson close-minded and autocratic, a judgment not entirely inaccurate if one considers that Anderson has had a white line painted to demarcate the quarterdeck from the forecastle. The knowledge that Anderson is in fact the son of “Lord L.” makes Talbot despise the man even more for having fallen from his class.

Still, Talbot finds one close friend on board, First Lieutenant Charles Summers. Their friendship would never have even begun, much less developed, in early nineteenth century England, but the voyage to the Antipodes, the southern half of the world where down is up, allows a symbiosis the land does not. Talbot respects Summers as a man of outstanding ability, one who has earned his officer’s berth by dint of hard labor. Summers, for his part, clearly feels flattered by the friendship of a man above his class, and by the fact that Talbot makes a great effort to acquire a technical knowledge of the ship and even to compile a glossary of sailors’ “Tarpaulin language.” Talbot, accustomed to swaggering in any case by virtue of his social superiority, enjoys the stir he creates in the first class saloon when he wears the secondhand seaman’s clothing Summers has given him. He promises Summers that he will report the man’s competence to the governor when they arrive at Sidney Cove and will request Summers be given a command of his own. Using an allusion which no doubt means little to Summers, Talbot tells him that their friendship resembles that of Glaucus and Diomede (Homer, Iliad 6.119-236).

The reference is significant, not only because it recurs throughout Golding’s novel but also for the complex relationship it implies. Glaucus, a commander of the Lycians, who were Trojan allies, met Diomede, an Achaean Greek, on the field at Troy. When they recognize that they are guest-friends by their common relationship to Bellerophontes, they refrain from fighting and exchange armor as a symbol of their friendship: the bronze armor of Diomede for the gold armor of Glaucus. Talbot insists that he has...

(The entire section is 2212 words.)