William Golding had a fantastic imaginative ability that allowed him into humanity’s more unsavory byways; his vast reading aided a remarkable ear for language that let him hit the clear, perfect notes to express what he found there.
In Rites of Passage he looped through the period’s floridly evasive literary style with such brio that the writing must have been play. Yet probably few readers understand the kind of stress that results from sustained intense use of the imagination. Golding was not an easy writer nor an easy man. No more was he a model human—he was a drinker and a difficult personality as well as an extraordinarily good writer; not incompatible traits as a scan of literary figures proves. But his imagination was powerful and terrible and personal. It could belong to no one else and it made him a significant voice in twentieth century literature.
Rites is the opening novel of a maritime triad and is one of Golding’s major works. It is set in the period near the end of the Napoleonic Wars. The action takes place on a fateful voyage to Australia during which the crew and passengers learn extraordinary things about each other and themselves. The three volumes were written over the course of the 1980s, and the voyage, which in the novel takes months, must have seemed to the reader who absorbed each of the books to have wallowed south for years.
The previous decade saw another important British novel presented in multiple volumes—Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet, written between 1966 and 1975. Scott’s quartet may subliminally have illustrated the possibilities of the multiple-volume form to Golding, especially one in which the central driving action was a sexual incident that twisted the lives of all the characters.William Golding had a fantastic imaginative ability that allowed him into humanity’s more unsavory byways.
Golding’s Rites is a tight, well-constructed story built around the central Dostoevskian quest for self-knowledge that is present in most of his works—and probably in his life, as it is in all of ours. He wrote: “I have always understood the Nazis because I am of that sort by nature.” We may partially understand that statement as the writer’s necessity to keep some chill distance between himself and the fictional character on the page.
In his autobiography, Graham Greene—another explorer of the thickets of human deeds and responsibilities—wrote that “there is a splinter of ice in the heart of a writer.” American writer Emile Capouya, of hair-trigger reactions and years of rough experience in the merchant navy, wrote a similarly personal, clear-eyed admission in In the Sparrow Hills: ”The fact is that there is an ugly streak in my character, a kind of repercussive violence that I am well aware of and should be happy to be without.”
Remarkable writers are insightful students of themselves and use that constant search for self-knowledge to probe others—perhaps as a self-defense strategy—as well as on paper to create fictional humans and their self-inflicted situations.
Golding was drawn to examining despised victims and was skilled enough to creatively insert himself into excruciatingly painful experiences. The inescapable surmise is that as he wrote Rites he momentarily became Edmund Talbot, the Reverend Colley, the choleric and ever-affronted Captain Anderson, the flatulent clown Brocklebank, the scheming Lieutenant Deverel who knows why the captain hates parsons, the musket-toting atheist Mr. Prettiman, the decent and upright Summers and the reluctant governess Miss Grantham—he even became the stagey Zenobia and Talbot’s puffed-up godfather.
When Golding wrote his famous Lord of the Flies he was a schoolteacher, the lower-middle-class son of a schoolteacher. He fitted uncomfortably into the British class system at a time when who you were and where you went to school really mattered. His biographer, John Carey, remarks that throughout his career he was tagged by some as being not quite the thing.
Golding’s daughter Judy Golding describes his grief and humiliation over class distinctions. The fame, awards, and money that came to Golding in later years allowed him to pursue a very different lifestyle. If that seemed to transcend his middle-class origin, lurking suspicions remained that he well knew that a writer, no matter how well-read, how distinguished or awarded or decorated, sat not on the same bench as the high-born, and that life must be lived with a presumption of malice. Meritocracy could not replace aristocracy. It is telling that in his journal Golding noted the several occasions when the exalted personages handing out the literary awards got his name or the titles of his books wrong.
In Rites, the story’s shape is formulaic: a Ship of Fools, that generously random mix of people cloistered in a restricted world such as a ship, a monastery, a caravansary, a small town, a hotel. Ships are favorites as storms and marine disasters can heighten the tensions or easily dispose of characters not pulling their weight. There are sharp demarcations between the paying passengers, the emigrants and the ship’s crew, which itself is a layered society of common sailors, as well as a few enigmatic servants, officers and the (almost) almighty captain.
Literary gems tumble off the pages. Golding had a strong sense of drama, whether shaping a sentence or an entire scene. Much of the pleasure of reading his work is his original imagery. An example of his skill in packing as much into a single sentence as a nut in its shell is the way he describes passengers and emigrants standing agog to watch the noon navigational ceremony of shooting the sun just as “a dog … watches a conversation it cannot possibly understand.”
The title means something. The most familiar rites of passage in modern times are birth, coming of age, maturation, marriage, death. A longer list would include school graduations, induction into societies, work promotions, and such private personal rites as shifting into another social stratum, winning professional awards, making a million pounds and the like. Most, if not all, of the characters in this novel experience some manner of private ritual passage, and Edmund Talbot, with Summers’ guidance, also begins to mature.Golding was drawn to examining despised victims and was skilled enough to creatively insert himself into excruciatingly painful experiences.
But the central public rite of the novel is the ceremony of crossing the equator for the first time, rowdily celebrated for hundreds of years in the marine world, sometimes with misogynistic and homophobic overtones. And there is yet a more dangerous rite of passage—the ordeal, the gauntlet, that prefaces acceptance into some human tribes. What Parson Colley experiences during the equator-crossing rite of passage is an amalgam of tradition, the ship’s festering antagonisms and something in his character that makes him shrivel to the heart in humiliation, totally unable to bear the acrid memory.
According to Golding’s journal notes the idea for Rites came from a minor incident he recollected from his reading of historian Elizabeth Longford’s 1969 biography Wellington: The Years of the Sword. The incident involved a chaplain on a voyage to India who somehow “got drunk and wandered into the fo’castle or wandered into the fo’castle and got drunk … When he came to in his bunk he stayed there … and died.”
Rites is presented as chapters in a journal kept by young, well-born Edmund Talbot for the amusement of his learned and noble godfather (unnamed but esteemed for his political influence and baroque translations of Racine), who has arranged a post for Talbot as aide to the governor of Australia. The society of Golding’s nameless, stinking, converted old warship ploughing towards Australia does not include a professional medicine man or chaplain; we learn again and again that the captain has a deep hatred for parsons.
Talbot first appears as an insufferably self-centered twit with a high regard for himself and an aptitude for saying the demeaning thing. He could best be described today as “a piece of work.” When he can give over bragging about his connection to his godfather, he announces that he will write all the details of the voyage in his journal, which he will present to that powerful man. He uses the threat of this tell-all journal to bring Captain Anderson (and others) into line. Talbot’s journal becomes notorious throughout the ship, regarded by most as an official report card, and they give deference to Edmund who remains snobbily superior until events begin to change him.But the central public rite of the novel is the ceremony of crossing the equator for the first time, rowdily celebrated for hundreds of years in the marine world, sometimes with misogynistic and homophobic overtones.
Captain Anderson is a choleric martinet who prefers his deck solitary and utterly free of passengers. Early on, Talbot, who has not bothered to read the posted information to passengers, ventures onto the off-limits deck to introduce himself and is met with the captain’s fury at having had his privacy violated. Talbot hauls out his godfather’s name and makes himself known. Under grudging politesse there arises an instant and mutual antipathy that persists through the voyage.
Another who has not read the posted instructions and approaches the captain on his deck—only to be stunned by a fusillade of verbal abuse and hostility—is the young “very new-hatched” parson Robert James Colley, who wears “thick, worsted stockings” that emphasize his non-worldliness and rural innocence. Colley flies from the outraged Captain to the safety of his tiny cabin.
Quite rapidly, the ill-regarded Colley becomes something of a pariah in the ship’s company. His lace-trimmed ecclesiastical robes can only partially lift him out of knobbly-kneed peasantry, and his unfortunate Uriah Heep-like habit of obsequious writhing makes him unsympathetic. He mistakes Edmund Talbot as his helpful friend, though Machiavellian Talbot befriends Colley only as part of a plan to graft him onto the somewhat shop-soiled Zenobia Brocklebank—if necessary.
Further, he plots to use Colley to discomfit the captain. And Captain Anderson, because he cannot humble the well-connected Talbot, and because of his own past, continues to abominate and humiliate Colley, forbidding all religious services even as Talbot eggs Colley on by encouraging him to hold them.
Among the crew several loom large: Lieutenant Summers is the Good Man in the drama, a man who has lifted himself out of the rank of common sailor to naval officer by industry and observation; if the novel were a pocket watch, Summers’ role would be that of the regulator. Tone-deaf Talbot, who repeatedly puts his elite foot in his mouth, remarks condescendingly: “Well, Summers … Allow me to congratulate you on imitating to perfection the manners and speech of a somewhat higher station in life than the one you was born to.” Summers’ pained silence at this remark leads to a brief but important moment for Talbot who apologizes and recognizes Summers as “a gentleman.”
Colley, on the other hand, can never escape his peasant origins. To Talbot, Colley’s mishap is his own fault: “Colley, plied … with spirits there in the fo’castle, had neither the strength to refuse it nor the breeding which would have enabled him to resist its more destructive effects.”
It is Summers who sees how Talbot has made himself important by flashing his godfather and his journal around, and after Colley’s disgrace he puts it to Talbot that because he is important, he also has the responsibility of class position to ease Colley’s clenched suffering. So Golding slips the idea of justice into the story like a thin poignard.
Quite a different character is Brocklebank, an overweight, flatulent, drunken marine-history painter whose specialty is to please his clients by placing them in heroic postures amidst the smoke and explosion of naval attacks. He considers himself a master of smoke illustration. He has brought along two seductive women—disguised as his “wife” and “daughter.” The daughter, “Miss Zenobia Brocklebank,” accepts Talbot’s attentions.
After the fact, Talbot, worried that he might have made Miss Brocklebank pregnant in their hasty liaison, schemes to arrange her marriage to Reverend Colley should the worst occur. Later when he learns that Lieutenant Deverel has also enjoyed her company he feels free to abandon the plan, yet his abilities in figuring all the angles impress the reader with his assured future success as a member of the ruling class in the colonies.
As the ship nears the equator, the crew begins to make preparations for the traditional rough-house ceremonial of crossing the line with costumed Father Neptune and Davy Jones. This ceremony somehow overrides or is conjoined with Colley’s first and last “service” which Talbot does not observe but only hears from afar as confused and unlikely spurts of laughter and clapping.
Throughout the book Golding—himself familiar with the stage and stagecraft—frames scenes as theatre. Miss Brocklebank is always presented as acting the role of quivering, modest young girl, and others tread the boards as they play out the drama.
When it was published in 1980 Rites received enthusiastic reviews that mostly sidled past the crucial passage: the overheard, juicily coarse remark by common sailor Billy Rogers, who “had never thought to get a chew off a parson!” Golding’s readers expected shock, but the explicit homosexual act sucked all the air out of critical discussion and reduced the book’s essence to pastor Colley’s destructive recognition of who and what he was.
Even forty years after Rites was published, Anne Theroux in her 2021 memoir The Year of the End bluntly describes how at the Booker Prize ceremony, she tried to speak with the winner, Golding. “He said something, I don’t remember what. Nothing about good and evil or whether human beings are intrinsically cruel. The book is about fellatio in the navy in the eighteenth century.”
Well, it is, but it is something more than that.
In 1986 Golding reviewed N. A. M. Rodger’s The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Rodger rejected the popular image of sailors as hard-drinking, frequently lashed sodomites. Golding, who knew something about the subject from his wartime observations as a crewman aboard the cruiser Galatea in 1941, wrote: “There is vast oral evidence in naval speech, custom and lore that where men are cooped up in a wooden world for weeks and months at a time unnatural acts take the place of natural ones.”
Golding, like many writers, was thin-skinned about criticism; he did not like being quizzed on his philosophical stance or asked the “meaning” of his works. John Carey points out that he
… said he was just a story-teller, but he argued and propounded opinions about the nature of man. He was fond of pointing out that the critical books and academic theses on his works occupied more shelf space than the works themselves. “I am the raw material of an academic light industry” he told lecture audiences. This was a boast but also a complaint, because by fixing on the thought-content of his books the critics failed to treat him as a story-teller.
Some see Rites as an illustration of the struggle between church and science or church and state (Colley vs. Captain Anderson). And it is certainly about snobbery and climbing out of the class one is born into.
But Rites is also about everyman’s life-long personal struggles to “know thyself” and the painful—and even deadly—path towards that knowledge. In following such paths in his literary work Golding stated to a critic: “I claim the right not of the philosopher or psychologist but of the story-teller—that is, to be impenetrable, inconsistent and anything else he likes provided he holds the attention of his audience. That I appear to do and it is enough for me.”
Both Judy Golding and John Carey remark that Golding was reading Racine’s Phèdre while thinking out Rites. Briefly, Racine’s last secular play is based on a classical myth. Phèdre is married to Theseus who is away on a long journey. She is in love with his son Hippolytus. Hippolytus himself is not interested in his ardent stepmother but longs for Aricia.
Phèdre is one of the great roles in classic repertory theatre as the wretched woman passes through the five classical degrees of emotion—“modesty, hope, shame, remorse, jealousy, repentance”—and then kills herself. At the end of Rites Golding quotes Racine’s Hippolytus, speaking to his returned father Theseus: “ainsi que la vertu le crime a ses degrés/Et jamais on n’a vu la timide innocence/ Passer subitement a l’extrême licence.”
Wallace Fowlie translated these lines as “One day is not enough to make of a virtuous man/a perfidious murderer and an incestuous coward.” And, in Golding’s hands, Talbot’s all-important godfather, who, in his own pompous style, has translated all of Racine, put it thus: “Lo! Where toils Virtue up th’Olympian steep –/With like small steps doth Vice t’wards Hades creep!” But let us give Golding the last word: “Men can die of shame.”
One of the most arresting images in Rites is the description of Colley huddled in his bunk the morning after the crucial incident, his left hand death-clenched on an old eye-bolt. It is Summers who, in seeing that iron grip, understands that white-knuckled Colley is willing himself to death. Talbot and Summers, who have visited Colley with no response, now think that only a visit from Captain Anderson can rouse Colley from his silent agony.
Although Golding is not considered a master of the comic, in real life he had sometimes been described as a clown, especially when drunk. The juxtaposition of the grim image of Colley in burning shame, forcing himself to death down below in his stinking nest of blankets, with the very funny scene at Captain Anderson’s handsome dining table is a masterly stroke of theatre.
Talbot, Summers and Mr Oldmeadow are summoned to dine with the captain and discuss the problem of parson Colley who, after the equatorial initiation, is in a bad way—so bad it may reflect ill on the ship and its captain. Captain Anderson has referred to Colley in his log as “the patient.” Talbot remarks that if Colley is a patient, he, Talbot, who has no medical experience cannot offer an opinion.
“Why,” he cries sarcastically, “you would do better to consult Mr. Brocklebank!” Who then is Mr. Brocklebank? Talbot replies that Brocklebank is a painter who had studied medicine for a short while in the long-long-ago. The captain is instantly fixated on Brocklebank as a man with “some medical experience” and sends for him.
During the bibulous luncheon of marrow bones, which Brocklebank dominates while throwing out acid observations on the vanity of naval heroes, Colley dies and the problem is solved to the captain’s satisfaction when he says that the parson has died of a “low fever.”
In the pages of Rites we learn much about what constitutes a “low fever”—and if it seems familiar in this age of the pandemic, it may be because it has become expediently pervasive.
Excerpted from the foreword to Rites of Passage by William Golding, published by Faber (7 April). Foreword copyright Annie Proulx © 2022