A Sea Trilogy Summary
by William Golding

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A Sea Trilogy Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Rites of Passage, Close Quarters, and Fire Down Below constitute Golding’s A Sea Trilogy. The focus of the trilogy, taken as a whole, is Edmund Talbot’s maturation. Showing Talbot from his departure as a young upstart, sure of preferment and success, to his reflections as an old man, the novels allow Talbot to demonstrate his growth as a human being. Using the literary genre of the sea journal, Golding allows Talbot to speak for himself. Talbot’s eighteenth century prose and his insistence on learning sailors’ jargon lend authenticity to his record of the physical journey, while the content and tone of his journals reveal the results of his psychological journey and growth. In particular, his maturity is revealed in his record of his relationships with the other passengers and the crew and in his comments about himself.

In Rites of Passage, Talbot is a snob, easily impressed by titles, fine clothing, or fancy manners. He holds himself aloof and seems quite self-satisfied, certain of his intellect, his talents, and his future success. Any insecurity is revealed in the obsequious tone he sometimes adopts in his journal, which is written for his benefactor and godfather in England. He is very much concerned with being witty and painting a favorable picture of himself on the voyage.

As part of his commentary, Talbot introduces the other people on board. The passengers include Zenobia Brocklebank, an older woman attempting to seem younger and more socially prominent than her condition warrants; her father, who resorts to drink; Mr. Prettiman, a rationalist; Miss Granham, a spinster dismissed by Talbot as cold and unattractive; and the Reverend Colley, an earnest but overzealous clergyman. The crew includes Captain Anderson, the chief officer, who is strongly anticlergy; Billy Rogers, a handsome sailor who becomes Colley’s shame; Mr. Summers, a lowborn officer with highborn qualities; and Wheeler, servant to Talbot.

The central event of this first novel is the death of Colley. Talbot finds Colley a ridiculous figure for much of the novel, and it is clear why Colley becomes the butt of jokes. A practical joke played by the sailors as part of the rites of crossing the equator is carried too far, however, and Colley simply wills himself to die of shame. After reading the letter that Colley left behind, Talbot must take a second look at the man. In addition, Talbot examines his own role in Colley’s death, sensing that blaming the sailors is too easy. In this way, Talbot takes the first major step toward maturity. Examination of cruelty and blame—and the evil in human nature that prompts such tormenting—also allies Rites of Passage with earlier Golding novels.

With Close Quarters, Talbot begins a new journal. This one is to be written for himself rather than his patron, so he is freed from the necessity of banter and afforded the opportunity for introspection. In this novel, Talbot is less snobbish and displays an improved sense of humor. Still bristly when teased by being called “Lord Talbot,” he can sometimes laugh at himself. Primarily, though, he matures in his relationships and has his courage tested. With one exception, his focus shifts somewhat from the passengers to the crew as the decrepit condition of the ship becomes significant.

When the ship is becalmed beside the Alcyone, Talbot finds new interests. In particular he falls in love with Marion Chumley, the ward of the captain of the Alcyone. His infatuation at first seems ridiculous, but his intentions are honorable and he remains true through their subsequent separation. In addition, he has a new officer to observe. Lieutenant Benet is sent to Talbot’s ship in order to end an affair on board the Alcyone.

A risk taker, Benet is soon in conflict with Mr. Summers, who conservatively calculates the odds before acting. Their disagreements with each other and with Captain Anderson about how to handle the ship’s broken mast afford Talbot an opportunity to admire the discipline...

(The entire section is 1,423 words.)