Fire Down Below

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2212

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...

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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 received the gold armor (seaman’s clothing, knowledge of the sea, and friendship) from Summers, that the promise of his own recommendation is mere bronze. Nevertheless, Talbot’s allusion contains implications of natural class antagonism and social inferiority-implications which he knows his less sophisticated friend will not recognize. Examined still another way, however, the guest-friendship of Glaucus and Diomede suggests the common and usually unrecognized origins of the human family. The allusion, repeated with increased frequency as the narrative progresses, implies that Talbot has begun to recognize that humanity is the common spark of the Divine down below.

Talbot has more difficulty reaching any rapprochement with Benet, for several reasons. Benet’s French name and what Talbot perceives as a pro-French bias in statements he makes cause Talbot’s general distrust of the first officer, but it is Benet’s bold ideas, received favorably by Captain Anderson, which especially gall Talbot. The most risky of these is Benet’s plan to secure the wobbling foremast, which is in danger of snapping. The foremast has split the shoe, the large wooden block (several feet square) on which its base rests below deck—thus the wobble. Benet’s plan is to bore four holes through the shoe, in which red-hot iron rods will be inserted, with screw ends and nuts at each end, cinched against sheets of iron. As the rods cool, they will contract, knitting the cracked shoe solid. Summers strongly opposes this plan, arguing that embers within the shoe might ignite, setting the ship on fire. The crew and the passengers take sides in the dispute, the more conservative favoring Summers, the bolder Benet. Because a storm has blown the ship far off course, extending the voyage to the point that there is hardly any food aboard, Anderson sides with Benet to speed their progress. After Benet’s plan is put into effect, even Talbot, initially convinced by Summers’ objections, comes to view his fears with condescension; poor Summers, Talbot observes, “clung to the idea of a spark of fire burning in the shoe under the foremast!”

Talbot’s initial distrust of Benet, eventually giving way to grudging admiration, is complicated by the fact that at first he mistakenly considers Benet a possible rival for Miss Chumley, his “Beloved Object.” He cannot ask Miss Chumley how his case stands because she is en route to India aboard her own ship, the Alcyone. They had met only briefly, when their ships moored at sea to exchange supplies, but Talbot has hopes, nevertheless, that she reciprocates his feelings. Benet, the last person to see her before the Alcyone cast off enjoys taunting Talbot by implying that theirs was merely a flirtation. Again Talbot considers Benet impudent for impugning the honor of a woman clearly above his social class.

It is only after Aloysius Prettiman recovers sufficiently from a leg wound which had been so severe as to threaten his life that Talbot deepens his acquaintance with him. Talbot had, indeed, distrusted the man from the very beginning of the voyage. Powerful individuals whose regard he had hoped to cultivate had requested Talbot watch this free-thinking social reformer and report his observations to government authorities when his ship arrived at Sidney Cove. It is, however, primarily from a sense of guilt that he had played a part in worsening Prettiman’s condition that Talbot begins a series of visits. During these, he learns that Prettiman shares his love of the Greek poet Pindar. While Prettiman is impressed that Talbot can quote Pindar’s Greek with ease, Talbot is equally taken with Prettiman’s visionary plan to spread liberal humanism to inland Australia. The Pindar passage in translation, Olympian 4.40-42, which Talbot quotes in the original is, significantly: “Grey hairs flourish even among young men here and there before the right time for it.’, Talbot begins to learn the meaning of Pindar’s words, even as he understands that the torments and torpors of life wrack the sparks of God which humanity has within itself

Talbot thus receives and successfully meets the intellectual as well as the physical challenges of his long journey. He never reaches the point at which he is ready to abandon Toryism and follow Prettiman inland as a social missionary, but readers of the earlier novels will recognize a new maturity in Talbot, plainest in his ability to feel compassion, guilt, and responsibility. Readers following Talbot’s journey from its outset will recognize that it has taken almost ten years for the third installment of the trilogy to appear, in contrast with the two years of the narrative itself, and that other Golding works (A Moving Target, 1982; The Paper Men, 1984), not to mention the Nobel Prize for Literature (1983), have intervened between the trilogy’s first and final installments. Is it coincidence or plan that Talbot’s journey is circular like that of Odysseus, that the trilogy has taken precisely the same number of years as Odysseus’ journey to complete, that the poem to which Talbot returns time and again when the going is roughest is Homer’s Odyssey? If Rites of Passage is Golding’s summation as a writer; might not Fire Down Below be the coda of that summation?

Golding has set his trilogy in a significant period of transition: the birth of literary Romanticism. Rites of Passage reads like a creation of Laurence Sterne, Tobias Smollett, or Samuel Richardson. The Talbot of that novel begins his account in the comically amoral style of Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy (1768). Literature’s primary purpose lies for the young Talbot in a neat turn of phrase, a repertory of literary jokes, as it does in Sterne’s The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gent. (1759-1767), or in the snobbish airs it allows one to affect, in the manner of Jery in Smollett’s Humphrey Clinker (1771). Though these qualities remain to some extent in the Talbot of Fire Down Below, it is clear that he has become a Romantic fatalist and his journal a prose poem rediscovered among other papers in his old age, a story he is eager to tell. It would overextend several good comparisons to force Talbot into the mold of obsessed Romantic narrators like those of Samuel Taylor Coleridge or John Keats, but he certainly echoes figures such as the Ancient Mariner or the Knight-at-Arms in that death has become part of his life.

The Talbot of Fire Down Below squarely faces death, not only by the resigned courage he shows at sea and by his determination to reoccupy the cabin in which two suicides have taken place, but also in his bold attempt to rescue Summers from the fiery death which claims his friend aboard their old ship, at anchor in Sidney Cove—the fire providing Summers with a bitterly ironic posthumous vindication. Almost immediately, almost as a resolution of this horrendous initiation by fire, Miss Chumley reappears in Talbot’s life. Her reappearance coincides as well with the death of Talbot’s godfather- patron and the apparent evaporation of the young man’s hopeful prospects. That the old man’s death actually directs Talbot’s future mirrors the way death determines the course of life. Is Golding implying as well that the form of the novel as twentieth century readers have understood it through the works of Joseph Conrad, Henry James, or Golding himself is also on the wane? Likely this is the case, but it is equally clear that Golding believes that the new replaces the old almost before one considers the loss, and that it depends upon the past to make it what it becomes.

Bibliography

America. CLX, May 6, 1989, p.434.

Booklist. LXXXV, December 1, 1988, p.601.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, January 1, 1989, p.6.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p.101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 19, 1989, p.13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, April 2, 1989, p.37.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, January 27, 1989, p.45.

Time. CXXXIII, March 20, 1989, p.81.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 17, 1989, p.267.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 12, 1989, p.3.

The World & I. IV, March, 1989, p.366.

Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 353

The narrator, Edmund Talbot, is a young English aristocrat sailing on a decrepit, converted warship as it struggles toward Australia, where he is to take up a position in the colonial administration. FIRE DOWN BELOW, is, first, an exciting adventure story: Danger is constant, and Golding’s depictions of the perils of storms and of icebergs, and of the indignities and deprivations of the sailor’s life, are so exact and so evocative that readers will probably feel thankful that they are safely anchored on dry land.

The novel is also about character, in particular the continuing growth of young Talbot to maturity, and his changing perceptions of some of the other occupants of the ship. In particular he discovers, as he had done with the Reverend Colley in RITES OF PASSAGE, that those who at first appear ugly or foolish or pitiful may in reality be the true heroes in life. For example, Talbot dismisses one of the passengers, Prettiman, as a feeble-minded, conventional social philosopher, and because Prettiman is ill, bedridden, and apparently dying, Talbot finds him repulsive. As he gets to know the man, however, he finds himself inspired by Prettiman’s radical ideas, his wide learning, his vision of humanity as sparks of fire emanating from the divine, and his dream of creating an ideal society in the colony. Prettiman’s mystic temperament is in contrast to that of Talbot’s closest friend, Lieutenant Summers, who is in turn contrasted with the charming and clever Lieutenant Benet, whose flawed ingenuity costs Summers his life.

There are so many things to admire in this book, including the wonderfully uplifting and subtle conclusion, that it ranks with the very best of contemporary novels.

Sources for Further Study

America. CLX, May 6, 1989, p.434.

Booklist. LXXXV, December 1, 1988, p.601.

Kirkus Reviews. LVII, January 1, 1989, p.6.

Library Journal. CXIV, January, 1989, p.101.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. March 19, 1989, p.13.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, April 2, 1989, p.37.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXV, January 27, 1989, p.45.

Time. CXXXIII, March 20, 1989, p.81.

The Times Literary Supplement. March 17, 1989, p.267.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, March 12, 1989, p.3.

The World & I. IV, March, 1989, p.366.

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