The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Because most of William Golding’s characters are treated both on a simple level as ordinary voyagers and on a symbolic level as actors in a rite of religious passage, they have two natures—one of appearance and the other of reality. Edmund Talbot, the protagonist of the novel, must discern the two natures and determine the “reality” of each person. As a young, inexperienced gentleman of obscure parentage (but evidently of high patronage), Talbot changes from the beginning of the voyage to the end. At first snobbish, self-satisfied, facile, and conventionally moral, he finally comes to detest social distinctions imposed simply as a result of class, acquires self-knowledge and a sense of his own limitations, learns to judge fairly (with justice and mercy), and acts according to rigorously moral rather than conventional standards of behavior. His opposite is the sinister Captain Anderson, inflexible, cunning, and unprincipled. The Captain resembles the ambiguously malevolent Captain Claggart in Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, Foretopman (1924). In Rites of Passage the foretopman is the handsome Billy Rogers, a parody of Billy Budd. Rogers, unlike Budd, is crafty and capable. He is uncultivated (as his nearly illiterate letter to Zenobia proves) but articulate enough to defend himself from accusation. The true Budd symbol in Golding’s moral parable is the unlikely Colley. Innocent, incapable of defending himself, he dies inarticulate (except...

(The entire section is 513 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Edmund Talbot

Edmund Talbot, the epistolary narrator of the novel. He is writing to his godfather and patron, an influential aristocrat who has not only acquired a government position for him in one of the new British colonies in Australasia but also has instructed him to write a full account of how he progresses. Edmund takes the task seriously, not only to please his godfather but also because he sees himself egotistically as the central character in a drama played out on board the ship taking him to his destination. He defines “central” as “highest born” at first, but the voyage becomes a learning process. His eyes are opened over a number of things, and he has to revise values and attitudes by, for example, realizing that his patron and his journal do not have the manipulative influence with the ship’s captain that he thinks they do. Above all, he learns, in the tragedy of the Reverend James Colley, that with rank comes responsibility and not power. Edmund is sensuous and full of himself, yet frank and eager to do well.

The Reverend James Robert Colley

The Reverend James Robert Colley, a young, poor Church of England clergyman going to the colonies. He has no official position on board and becomes isolated, partly as a result of his own inept behavior and perceptions and partly because of the hostility of the captain, crew, and passengers, Edmund included. Colley takes over as epistolary narrator for a period when Edmund discovers an unfinished letter of Colley to his sister and includes this in his own account. Quite a different view of Colley is thereby rendered. Whereas Edmund portrays him at first as clumsy, inept, and obsequious, Colley’s own account shows him to be naïve and almost saintlike in his attempt to establish a religious presence on board ship, to forgive his detractors, and to be patient in suffering. Edmund concludes that Colley died of shame over the fact that his naïveté had led him to be maneuvered into drunken behavior and finally into a homosexual...

(The entire section is 833 words.)