Critical Context

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Pincher Martin was written, Golding has suggested, to show critics of his earlier two novels, Lord of the Flies (1954) and The Inheritors (1955), that he was a serious novelist and not simply the science-fiction writer as described by some. Therefore, his intention was to make the work purposely more philosophically and technically complex. It is thus ironic that Pincher Martin was called a “gimmick” work by many early reviewers, a trick-ending novel that should not have been a novel at all, but rather a short story. In fact, many critics immediately compared it to the famous short story by the nineteenth century American writer Ambrose Bierce, “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” suggesting that Christopher’s experience was a “postmortem” experience such as that of the protagonist of Bierce’s story. Others saw it as similar to the postmortem experience in Ernest Hemingway’s short story, “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Yet, although the final discovery the reader makes—that Christopher’s story has taken place solely within his own mind—is indeed similar to the final realization the reader makes in those tales, to call such a device a gimmick is to oversimplify Golding’s attempt to write a story of the universal human need to create the self and a world for the self to inhabit in the face of nothingness. Christopher is the image of an existential hero as powerful as any created in twentieth century fiction. Because he wars against the heavens and refuses to be reconciled, his experience is the stuff of tragedy, and his battle is as mad, and as noble, as that of Oedipus, Lear, or Herman Melville’s Ahab.