Social Concerns / Themes

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The Rites of Passage sea trilogy comprises the novels Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below. One reviewer concluded that the binding theme of the three novels is the "making of Talbot's soul." In the first, he is shaken out of his comfortable self-satisfaction by Colley's death. In the second, he faces grave danger, admitting fear but not succumbing to the despair of Wheeler, who commits suicide, or the blubbering drunkenness of Pike. He slowly becomes an admirable character, establishing himself in the third novel as a good friend, a young man willing to learn, and a person grateful for good fortune and graceful in misfortune.

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The setting for Rites of Passage is a ship on its way from England to Australia. The passengers and crew of this ship form a microcosm of English society and offer Golding the opportunity for satire of the rigid British class system. Tied into this satire is an exploration of culpability, of the consequences of cruelty whether casual or deliberate.

While the novel examines the value judgments that derive from social systems and the mistakes that can be made, it goes beyond that social criticism to raise questions of responsibility and guilt. Edmund Talbot, through whom readers see most events on the ship, loftily comments on his fellow travelers. He can be aloof and superior until one passenger is subjected to cruel practical joking and ultimately dies of shame. Then he must examine his own role in Reverend Colley's death. There are no clear answers, but Talbot is freed of some delusions of natural superiority and comes to see that he is to a degree responsible.

In this novel there are many Rites of Passage — the voyage itself, the practical jokes at crossing the equator, the awakening of self-knowledge in Talbot, Colley's last rites. They all work together to create a mystery set at sea in which there is no single murderer; in a social world many share the guilt and the blame.

The second novel in the trilogy. Close Quarters, describes Edmund Talbot's voyage from England to Australia, picking up where Rites of Passage leaves off. The Reverend Colley is dead, and the ship is still making its way to Sydney Cove. Talbot marks his birthday with the purchase of a new journal.

This journal continues Talbot's account of the voyage, but after the deaths of Colley and the servant Wheeler, recorded in the first journal, Talbot wonders what he will write about. Talbot casts about for a hero, but one emerges only in the third book. Soon, however, he can report that the mast has broken and the ship's progress has thus been seriously impeded. The decrepit condition of the ship, which was a background concern in Rites of Passage, is in Close Quarters the basis for two major themes: the experience of facing grave danger and the need for taking risks and accepting the responsibility for consequences.

The social order aboard ship is less important here than in Rites of Passage. In fact, as the danger increases, social strictures become less carefully enforced, while the social order of the seamen receives more emphasis. As a bridge between the passengers and the seamen, Talbot reports the importance of discipline aboard ship and the care given to keeping within the bounds of one's rank. This issue becomes especially important when Lieutenants Summers and Benet disagree with each other or with Captain Anderson about how to deal with the broken mast and other problems.

The last novel of the trilogy, Fire Down Below, takes the damaged ship through storms, a shifting foremast, and an encounter with an iceberg before it reaches port in Sydney. When the novel begins, Summers and Talbot have pledged their friendship anew, Talbot has admitted he is in love, and the ship is in dire straits.

As the dangers and discomforts increase, two themes take precedence over all others: Talbot's increasing maturation and the importance of character over appearance. In fact, the two are allied. Talbot's ability to appreciate the person beneath the social veneer of titles or fine apparel improves with his maturity. His recognition of enduring human qualities such as generosity and intelligence is illustrated by his close friendship with Summers and the relationship that develops with the Prettimans. Talbot's most obvious change is his willingness to learn from those he had once deemed inferior. Talbot's lessening concern for appearances is also illustrated in his new appreciation for comfort and practicality as he and Miss Granham don seamen's "slops" rather than insist on "proper" clothes, which are unsuitable for months at sea.

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Characters