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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 191

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.

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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.

Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 995

Edmund Talbot writes a journal for his unnamed godfather and patron as he travels to Australia. His godfather has procured for Talbot an appointment as deputy to the governor of one of the new Australian colonies being settled. In return, the godfather has asked his godson to keep the journal so that he can revisit his own youth in his godson’s adventures. Talbot is very full of the influence of his godfather in government circles and of his own position as the highest-ranking aristocrat aboard the ship. His is also very self-conscious of his own writing style, knowing his words will be read by his godfather, who presumably can continue to influence his career. Talbot particularly delights in learning the nautical jargon used by the sailors and showing off this knowledge in the journal.

At first, Talbot is overwhelmed by the ship’s stink and crowded quarters. He describes his cabin as a “hutch,” but, as the voyage begins, seasickness keeps him in it, as it does most of the middle-class, or “better sort of,” passengers. When he emerges from his cabin, Talbot begins to meet the ship’s officers—the lieutenants and midshipmen—as well as the middle-class passengers, all of whom are emigrants. He does not immediately meet the steerage passengers or the crew, who live in the forward part of the ship. Demarcation lines exist everywhere, but one demarcation Talbot fails to notice is the approach to the captain. He believes he can introduce himself to the captain any time he wishes, though his servant Wheeler and Lieutenant Summers try to hint otherwise. When he attempts to do this, he is reminded by Captain Anderson that he should have read the “Captain’s Orders,” which expressly forbid approach to the captain except at the captain’s invitation.

One of the last passengers to emerge from seasickness is a young clergyman named James Colley. Colley seems gauche and awkward, and Talbot judges him immediately as coming from a lower class. In the absence of a chaplain, however, Colley takes on himself the responsibility of arranging a Sunday service. Like Talbot, he fails to notice the ban on approaching the captain, but he is told off in a much more insulting way than Talbot was. Talbot decides to take it on himself to confront the captain and get a Sunday service organized, not because he is religious, but in an attempt to assert his superiority.

The service takes place, with a few of the lower-class passengers being allowed to join the better class and the ship’s officers. Talbot finds Colley enormously embarrassing at the service, as Colley seems to be fooled by Zenobia Brocklebank, who acts both young and pious when she is clearly neither. Colley also looks on Talbot’s efforts as a sign of Talbot’s own piety and good breeding, when again it has been neither. His obsequious behavior toward Talbot mocks Talbot’s own behavior toward his godfather.

Talbot perceives Zenobia’s sexual availability, as do several other men. She is prepared to use her favors to gain help for her “father” when they land in Australia. In the meanwhile, Colley confronts the captain again in an effort to take his religious duties to the rest of the ship and to regain the prestige of the church. As Anderson is known to be anticlerical, Colley never has a chance of success, and he finds himself banished from the upper decks. He does not fully understand where he is and is not allowed to go and so restricts himself unduly, losing contact with most of the passengers and becoming isolated. Talbot avoids Colley too.

When the ship is to cross the equator, the traditional rite of “Crossing the Line” is enacted. Talbot and Colley are both ignorant of this ritual. Talbot takes the opportunity to have sexual intercourse, or “commerce,” with Zenobia, while Colley is hauled out of his cabin and subjected to a humiliating series of ordeals by the crew. The captain turns a blind eye to the procedure, which everyone witnesses except Talbot.

Colley again confronts Anderson about his treatment. The captain is forced to apologize and even agrees to allow Colley to speak to the crew in order to reprove them, although Lieutenant Summers realizes the danger of this plan. Summers asks for the men to be issued some rum in order to pacify them before Colley appears. Colley goes into the forward part of the ship and disappears from the sight of the other passengers. Strange sounds are heard of cheering, jeering, and applause. Finally, Summers warns the captain to stop whatever is going on and fires a gun to reinstate nautical authority. One of the sailors appears carrying Colley, obviously very drunk, to his cabin, from which he fails to reemerge.

Talbot goes in to try to rouse Colley from his unconscious state and finds a long letter the reverend has been writing to his sister in England. Others also try to rouse Colley, but he fails to respond. After a number of days, it is determined that he has, at some point, died. Later, Talbot realizes that the cause of his death must have been shame. The captain holds a brief inquest involving Talbot and Summers. When it emerges that homosexual acts were committed, Anderson decides to cover up the incident and declares that Colley died of a “low fever.” Colley is then buried at sea. At the same time, Wheeler mysteriously disappears, but nothing is made of his supposed death.

Talbot reads Colley’s letter. In it, he discovers a parallel narrative to that of his own journal, and he realizes a quite different perspective. He realizes, too, that Colley’s sister will have to be told a complete set of lies about her brother’s death. The narrative finishes with Talbot having filled his journal and the passengers turning to amateur dramatics to pass the remaining time until they reach Australia.

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