Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 772

Free Fall is the fourth novel of Sir William Golding. It is written not only in the genre of the novel of personal development but also in that of the Künstlerroman, the novel about artistic development and personality. As most of Golding’s earlier novels, it is written in conscious dialectic to some other narrative, in this case Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957). Camus sees no possibility of regeneration or redemption after a fall; Golding does. There are other literary influences. Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth (1944) also is a first-person narrative by a painter; Golding’s style is at times reminiscent of Cary’s. L. P. Hartley’s prizewinning novel The Go-Between was published only a few years previously (1953) and also deals with a boy’s loss of innocence through sexual knowledge, though Leo is a much more passive protagonist than Sammy. Another influence is the great French text À la recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927; Remembrance of Things Past, 1922-1931) by Marcel Proust, a model for Sammy’s search for significant moments of time buried in half-conscious memory.

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The title suggests that the novel stands in a central literary tradition of exploration of the limits of freedom. Golding’s achievement is to be able to restate such traditional material, often of a theological nature, in the language and thought of the post-World War II Western world. The novel also describes moments of revelation that define one’s view of reality, the futility of material life without a spiritual or transcendent dimension, the nature of evil, and the correspondence of personal to social integration or disintegration. Perhaps new to this novel, for Golding, is an exploration of the relationship of guilt to forgiveness, and the way that conviction of guilt and the ability to forgive need conversion experiences. Golding seems to suggest that redemption can only be partial. Beatrice remains insane, with no hope of recovery. Sammy has to bear some, though not all, the guilt for this. Past time can be examined to find truth, but it cannot be remade.

Although Sammy is an artist, the novel’s style is not altogether painterly. Much of the imagery is, in fact, religious and is Golding’s way of expressing traditional theological concepts in contemporary concerns. Fire is one such example. The novel features the traditional symbolism of Pentecostal fire, the bringing of new spiritual life; less frequently it refers to hell. Fire is also related to the burning bush of Moses, both as miracle and as glory, and to Nick’s placing a candle in a bell jar, symbolizing rationality, but also confinement, the death of the spirit. Other recurring religious images are of paradise, water, “fear and trembling,” altars and temples, and Christ’s temptations. The other image that is central to the novel and to all of Golding’s fiction is that of darkness—from the dreadful panic of the cell to the “warm darkness” of Ma. Images of sickness, captivity, and cells/cellars can also be traced.

Episodes take on symbolic value as enacted images: the cell, the desecration of the altar, Sammy’s waiting at red traffic lights on the way to Beatrice, for example. Surprisingly, only a few of Sammy’s drawings are seen as images, the most obvious being the few hurried, uncredited lines that somehow capture the essence of Beatrice in a way no seduction could ever do. Names also take on symbolic force: Beatrice echoes Dante’s inspirational love, but her surname, “if/or” suggests dislocation, lack of result. “Mountjoy” is ironic until his cell experience, where for the first time he does discover joy, but only by going through the depths.

Golding also uses little catch phrases, or leitmotifs, to encapsulate symbolic force—“the taste of potatoes” is one such, symbolizing the authenticity of felt experience. Another is “blue cornflowers.” Both are clearly memory fragments.

Golding’s narrative method is not to conduct a simple autobiographical plot line. Although he covers much of Sammy’s life, there are numerous omissions. The novel is more an excavation, starting at the most obvious places. It is also like a treasure hunt, in which what is buried is only to be found at the end. One may guess where the treasure lies, but not predict the actual moment of discovery. The reader explores with Sammy. Perceptions are partly those of the adult Sammy looking back, partly those of Sammy as a child. Sammy the innocent, the unregenerate, and the regenerate are all represented. This helps Golding elicit a response from the reader that is neither too sympathetic nor too hostile to Sammy.

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