Published in 1956, William Golding’s Pincher Martin is one of the strongest literary links between the age of British high modernism and the postmodern novel. The novel has been overlooked for many years, but it has begun to receive the attention that it deserves. In many ways, Pincher Martin is a literary achievement on the scale of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Although Pincher Martin lacks the symbolic scope of these earlier novels, it is, just as they were, concerned with the mental processes of a main character observed over a relatively short span of time. In Pincher Martin’s case, this time span is the life that can be lived and fought for in the very brief minutes before death.
Joyce and Woolf focused on the extension of the modern novel and used both realism and symbolism, but Golding was much more concerned with the allegorical relationship between seen reality and hidden reality. The medieval allegorist took as the starting point of meaning the intersection between the physical and spiritual worlds, but Golding worked his allegory in the intersection between the physical world and the world of the subconscious.
As the American title, The Two Deaths of Christopher Martin, implies, the story concerns Christopher Martin’s struggle to survive both physical and metaphysical death. The novel is one of psychological realism, but the main focus of the work is on one person’s ontology, or being, in the world.
The first focus of Martin’s ontological status after the shipwreck is his determination to lighten himself, thus increasing his chances for survival, by removing his seaboots. He believes that he has accomplished this feat, and he begins to hope for survival. His lifebelt, an allegorical symbol for the reality of hope, becomes his next focus. He relies on his lifebelt to hold him above the waters, but as the novel demonstrates, he still takes in enormous amounts of water—amounts that will drown him, though his will to live survives.
It is the focus on this will to live that forms the major drama of the first half of the novel. Martin continues to...
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