Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734
Edmund Talbot, the narrator and protagonist, is a snobbish young Englishman reporting for duty in the colonies. He directs his account of the voyage to his wealthy and noble patron, and by his narrative reveals much about his naiveté, his sense of superiority, his mistakes in judgment.
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Captain Anderson, who hates clergymen, and Reverend James Colley, an overly earnest and thereby ridiculous parson, are obviously at odds from the beginning. Billy Rogers, a pretty and calculating sailor, is the final source of shame for Colley,
To round out this social microcosm, Golding includes Zenobia Brocklebank, a "lady" past her prime; Mr. Prettiman, the rationalist on board; Mr. Summers, low-born but a true gentleman in his moral strength; and assorted tars and emigrants.
In Close Quarters, characters from Rites of Passage continue the story— Captain Anderson, Lieutenant Summers, Lieutenant Deverel, Mr. Prettiman, Miss Granham, the Brocklebanks, and Pike. But there are some subtle changes in Talbot's attitude toward them. He views Miss Granham with slightly more admiration; Deverel becomes more of an embarrassment than a friend; and Charles Summers and Talbot have a falling out but are reconciled in the end. No longer an active character, the deceased Colley is a presence that hangs over Talbot, who has moved into Colley's cabin.
Unexpectedly, new characters are introduced and an old one returns when the ship is becalmed beside the Alcyone. Talbot becomes infatuated with Marion Chumley, a ward of Sir Henry and Lady Somerset, the captain of the Alcyone, and his wife. Jack Deverel, responsible for losing the mast and under ship arrest, is exchanged for Lieutenant Benet, Lady Somerset's lover and an inventive problem solver who has the ear of Captain Anderson. Benet's willingness to take extreme risks puts him at odds with Summers, who is much more careful. In addition, the supposedly drowned Wheeler appears on the Alcyone and is returned to his original ship.
Through Talbot the reader learns about the other characters, and as he changes somewhat in this novel, he seems to become a more reliable reflector of their personalities. Talbot is still a bit testy at being dubbed "Lord Talbot" but is learning to laugh at himself and tone down his snobbishness; thus he is able to see new qualities in the others.
Talbot's narration also shows how the characters reflect the themes. Through him the reader learns how the strict discipline of sea life overrides the personal divisiveness on board. As Talbot pokes about, talking primarily to Summers and Benet, he reveals the extent of the danger and the intensity of the conflict between the two officers. By describing how he and the others face the very real possibility they may drown, Talbot illustrates the many ways people face impending death— with nobility, courage, and dignity or with a fear so strong that a quick gunshot to the head is preferable to drowning.
In the first two novels the characters, other than Talbot, are sketchily drawn; in Fire Down Below, however, several are seen in a new, more favorable light or become more important players in the events on board.
Charles Summers' character is much more fully revealed in Fire Down Below, both directly through Talbot's narration and by comparison with Lieutenant Benet. Summers exhibits a quiet concern for his friend Talbot's physical and mental comfort. He sees that Talbot gets a bath in an unexpected rainstorm in order to cure his itching. And he asks Talbot to stand watch with him, offering a face-saving way for Talbot to escape his cabin during the night, when he is haunted by evidence of Wheeler's suicide.
Summers' foil is Lieutenant Benet, who is flamboyant where Summers is steady, inventive where Summers prefers the tried and true, and willing to risk all where Summers carefully calculates the odds. Captain Anderson listens to Benet, however, and adopts his solution to the problem of the shifting foremast. This solution involves running a hot metal bolt through the wooden mast. The procedure stops the shifting of the mast, and the ship gains a little speed, but the bolt remains hot and the mast smolders. In the end, Benet and the captain walk away, knowingly, one suspects, leaving Summers captain of a ship soon to go up in flames. Summers is proved right, but at the cost of his life. In Close Quarters, Talbot looks for a hero; in Fire Down Below, he finds him.