Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
The action of Pincher Martin seems quite simple at first. A British navy officer is blown off his ship by a German torpedo and must try to survive alone on a small, rocky island in the North Atlantic. Yet, although many of the details of Christopher’s heroic efforts to stay alive are starkly realistic in a sort of Robinson Crusoe fashion, more often his island world and his grotesque struggle seem strangely unreal. His battle is described as though it were against some mystical force within himself as much as against the hard, cold rock that seems to constitute his external world. It is not until the very end of the novel, when Christopher’s body is discovered washed up on an island in the Hebrides, that the reader realizes that the entire struggle has been within the protagonist’s mind—that Christopher Martin died in the water almost immediately after the torpedo hit his ship.
Given this shocking realization, it is then the responsibility of the reader to “reread” the book, either in actual fact or in his memory of his first reading, to reconstruct its events in the light of this “new” notion of Christopher’s struggle to survive. Once the reader knows that Christopher invents practically the entire action of the novel, his struggle to survive becomes more complex, becomes metaphysical rather than simply physical. When the man who discovers the body says in the last line of the novel, “He didn’t even have time to kick off his seaboot,” the reader knows that Christopher died on the second page of the novel with the half-finished word “Moth “as he tried to say “Mother.” Everything between these two points then becomes Christopher’s efforts to hold on not simply to physical life but also to that intangible self-made reality called “identity.”
That the novel is about the human need to maintain the self in the face of death is even further emphasized by the fact that Christopher in life was a man with a powerful sense of ego. Thus, throughout he insists, “I won’t die. I won’t die. Not me—Precious.” Throughout the novel also, the reader is given hints that the action in which Christopher is engaged is mental rather than physical. Even before he reaches the rock, his struggle in the water is described as the “mind making swimming movements.” The hardness of the rock under his cheek is described as a localized pain, like the nag of an aching tooth. In fact, the reader gradually discovers that the rock is Christopher’s memory of the pain of a toothache, which he holds on to as a concrete manifestation of being alive. The rock is described as the peak of a mountain range, a “tooth set in the ancient jaw of a sunken world.”
Christopher first builds a pile of stones, which he calls the Dwarf, in the hope that it will be seen by a passing ship as a sign of human intelligence. Then he tries to give the rock a familiar reality, giving certain areas of it names, as if he were an explorer in a new world claiming it as his own. In the most grotesquely emphatic act of rebellion in the novel, Christopher believes that he has food poisoning and must administer himself an enema with his life jacket—insisting that all the terrors of Hell are nothing more than a stoppage which he can unblock and free himself of: “Why drag in good and evil,” he thinks, “when the serpent lies coiled in my own body?” Throughout all this, he consciously attempts to hold on to sanity and self, seeing himself in various mythic roles as the heroic figure of Ajax defying the lightning, as Prometheus rebelling against the gods, as King Lear asserting the self in the face of madness.
Yet also throughout all this heroic assertion of the self, he is thrown back to his past life in memory flashbacks which reveal him to be a grasping, selfish, greedy egomaniac (which his nickname “Pincher” suggests). He replays in his mind his various self-centered seductions of women and his destruction of men. The two primary figures in his past are Nathaniel Walterson, his mystic friend, whom Christopher tries to murder because of his Iago-like hatred of Nathaniel’s spiritual difference, and Mary, Nathaniel’s pure and genteel wife, whom Christopher tries to rape simply because she is innocent.
It is not until near the end of the novel, when Christopher “perceives” things that cannot be in actuality, that his illusion begins to break apart and his fiction begins to falter. His tongue feels inside his mouth to where there is a gap in the teeth, and he realizes what is so familiar and painful about a decaying rock in the middle of the sea. From this point on, he can no longer sustain his illusion, but must lose the self altogether in a cataclysmic metaphysical storm that destroys him finally and utterly.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 628
Pincher Martin (first published in the United States as The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin) depicts one man’s ferocious struggle against the nothingness, the loss of identity that death brings. Typically, Golding places the main character in a remote setting, where he is forced to take a long, hard look at himself. Also typically, what the character sees is a darkness at his core. A quintessentially self-centered person, Martin realizes that in his life he did whatever was necessary to come out on top or to have his own way. In death, however, he is fighting the one force that will erase all that he is and he has. Thus he fights death with all his strength.
Seemingly the only survivor of a torpedoed ship, Martin is in fact alive only inside his own head. That is where his struggle takes place, but he imagines the battle raging on a rock in the middle of the ocean, a rock he has created from the memory of one of his own teeth.
Appropriate to the focus of the story, Golding tells virtually the whole story from Martin’s perspective. Initially, Golding elicits sympathy for Martin by describing in detail the horror of his near drowning. Once Martin reaches the rock, he admonishes himself to think, to use his intellect and reason to survive. Admiration grows for this man who can keep his wits about him, devise shelter, and find water and food. Since the story is being told from inside Martin’s mind, he also returns to memories that reveal a self-centeredness at the core of his being. Thus Golding moves to a familiar theme, the revelation of the darkness and depravity in the heart of humanity.
Using Martin’s memories and repeated images of eating, Golding slowly paints a picture of an unscrupulous, cruel man who nevertheless once felt moved by a love that was his one chance to experience something other than self-satisfaction. Martin remembers all the people he “ate”: a nameless woman and a young boy whom he used sexually and tossed aside and the producer whose wife he seduced. More specifically he remembers Nathaniel, whom Martin loved for some reason that he cannot understand. He also hated him because Nat, without apparent effort, had obtained what Pincher could not get by force: Nat had peace of mind and also had Mary. For Martin, hate was stronger than love, so he raped Mary and tried to kill Nat.
All the images of eating converge into one symbol, the Chinese box. Martin recounts that the Chinese bury a fish in a tin box. Maggots eat the fish first and then each other until there is one maggot left, a rare dish. The sound of a spade knocking on the side of the box as it is dug up is like the sound of thunder. Pincher Martin lives his whole life trying to be the last successful maggot. When he realizes that the rock is only his tooth, imagined out of his effort to hang onto his identity, the only thing he has, he hears thunder and knows that the black lightning of God is coming for him. When the black lightning comes, he will be eaten.
After the lightning takes Martin’s center, the perspective must change, for Pincher Martin no longer exists, even in his own mind. The end of the novel relates a conversation between the man who discovered Martin’s body washed ashore and the officer who identifies and removes the body. The former wonders if Martin suffered; the latter tells him Martin never had time to kick his seaboots off. From Martin’s perspective, however, the power of the imagination at the moment of death and his self-centeredness have extended his agony.