Rites of Passage Summary
by William Golding

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Rites of Passage Summary

William Golding's Rites of Passage is the first novel in the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy. In his journal, Edmund Talbot accounts a six month voyage to Australia. Talbot describes passengers of all classes of British society, all of whom have had employment arranged by Talbot's influential grandfather.

Writings in the journal begin to concern a passenger named Reverend Colley, who is persecuted by Captain Anderson. Upon the crew reaching the equatorial belt, Colley is found in a drunken stupor. When Talbot goes to comfort him, he finds a journal of Colley's own keeping near his half-conscious body. Colley dies after getting drunk. It is also implied that he is sexually assaulted by the crew and officers. When one of the crew suggests this, the captain swiftly calls off the investigation into Colley's death, as homosexual intercourse is punishable by hanging.

Upon going over Colley's journal, Talbot feels guilty that Colley had seen him as a sort of hero and had wished to know him better. As the novel ends, Talbot is hesitant about presenting his own journal to his grandfather, though he concludes that he has no choice.


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

In his travel journal, young Edmund Talbot records for his godfather—a highly placed nobleman not otherwise identified—his impressions during the passage of a sea voyage from a port in the South of England to a vague destination in the Antipodes. Talbot’s ship, also unidentified, is a converted man-of-war, an ancient vessel that had served during the Napoleonic wars but now carries passengers—those of the higher rank above and the lower classes below decks, along with a crew of naval officers. Among these officers are Captain Anderson, whom Talbot at first calls the ship’s “Noah” but who makes a negative impression on the young man because of his stoney manner and his controlled rage toward underlings. In particular, the Captain persecutes an obsequious young parson, the Reverend James Robert Colley, whose crablike appearance disgusts Talbot as well. From Talbot’s supercilious view of the social classes, Colley’s seasickness is ridiculous, as is his grotesque religious enthusiasm for Sabbath prayers and his pretentious claims to gentility. Talbot is early attracted to the polished manners of Lieutenant Deverel and Lieutenant Cumbershum, officers whose upper-class origins and air of competency appear to mark them as gentlemen of his own class.

During the progress of the voyage, however, as the ship nears the equator, the “line” that symbolically separates the Northern temperament of reserve from that of Southern sensuousness, Talbot changes by degrees his initial judgments of the passengers and the crew. He comes to understand that Cumbershum and Deverel are coarse-spirited beneath their veneer of genteel manners; that Lieutenant Summers, the lowborn officer who rose to his rank of lieutenant because of merit instead of privilege, is a true gentleman; and that Captain Anderson is more treacherous than he had believed, a man whose soul is corrupted by evil. Among the passengers, Talbot first mistakes Miss Zenobia Brocklebank as the daughter of a merchant, then as a demi-mondaine whose easy favors he casually wins, seducing her in his ship’s compartment. Later, he discovers that she has another admirer, a semiliterate seaman whose note for a romantic assignation Zenobia has dropped by mistake in Talbot’s canvas basin.

Talbot attempts, by recording entries in his journal, to clarify in his mind the many ambiguities and misconceptions that had plagued him. Why does Captain Anderson persecute the parson? Why does Colley reach out to Talbot as a friend, as a sympathizer? What is the exact social position and the true relationship of Zenobia and her “pa,” Mr. Brocklebank? Above all, what role should Talbot play—observer, judge, or participant?

At the equatorial belt, the “rites of passage” erupt with violence. The Reverend Mr. Colley, intoxicated, half-naked, and urinating on the decks, is...

(The entire section is 2,108 words.)