The novel is narrated by Barclay. As a result, not only Tucker but all the other minor characters as well take their color from his rather aloof, egotistical attitude. Not that Barclay thinks he is a prize. On the contrary, there is a wry awareness of his severe limitations, of his inability to empathize with his wife and later with an Italian mistress, whose religious feelings are injured by Barclay’s unsympathetic rationalism and psychologizing. Barclay tends to caricature others, to make fun of Tucker’s and his wife’s use of “hon,” for example.
Reviewers have noted that William Golding is much more successful in his characterization of Barclay than of Tucker. Golding seems to know little about American academic life, about the kind of writing an academic writer such as Tucker would do, and even about the degrees Tucker would hold. In part, this ignorance may be Barclay’s, since the main character clearly is not very interested in the world from which Tucker comes. On the other hand, Barclay quotes Tucker’s words, and even these sometimes seem out of tune for an American.
Much more authentic are scenes at Barclay’s English club with the critic John St. John, one of those minor English characters Golding easily understands. Through his words, St. John comes alive and gives the reader a more penetrating look at Barclay than is possible to get in pages and pages of Barclay’s self-description and dialogue with Tucker. Here, for example, is St. John getting the best of Barclay at their club:You are utterly penetrable, Wilfred. You’d be perfectly happy with my little homilies if instead of calling you Rudesby I’d called you cher maltre, wouldn’t you now? We all have our ambitions such as they are—a K, perhaps, eh, Wilf? No? All passion spent?
Through such a passage, the rhythms of English talk, the sense of one character sizing up another, and a deep sense of place are established.