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...
(The entire section is 1,465 words.)