William Golding served in Great Britain’s Royal Navy during World War II, and the early pages of his novel–in which Martin struggles to stay alive in the ocean–have a gritty realism that could well have been informed by experience. However, when Martin discovers a tiny island where no island should be and manages to clamber ashore, the character of the novel itself subtly changes. The foreground of the novel remains realistic, as Golding describes in minute, moment-by-moment detail Martin’s continuing struggle to survive on the island. However, behind this struggle, there is a moral dimension, typical of Golding’s work, in which the island becomes an expression of what is going on inside Martin’s mind.
Golding describes the island in exact detail, from the coarse shingle on which Martin comes ashore to the rocky tower he must climb in order to escape the tides and the barren place where he must figure out how to live. The island offers Martin no comforts whatever; to sleep he must squeeze his body into a narrow crevice between rocks, to drink he must crawl headfirst under another rocky overhang and sip rainwater from a small pool containing disturbing rod growths. For food, he must scramble upon dangerous cliffs in order to reach unappetizing and insubstantial sea anemones.
If Martin’s struggle for simple human survival seems like a turn in Purgatory, the impression is heightened as the novel begins revealing the island as a reflection of the inside of Martin’s head. Occasionally, the parallels are explicit, as when Martin “looked solemnly at the line of rocks and found himself thinking of them as teeth.” More often, however, connections between Martin’s mind and the island are metaphorical. Martin’s dreams and illusions appear in an irregular sequence of often brief flashbacks–some lasting no more than a sentence or two–in which figures from his past are seen to emerge from and retreat back into the rock.
This struggle to find reference points for hope and a meaning in life is allegorized by Golding in clear references to the Christian faith. First, Martin’s own first name, “Christopher,” recalls the legend of the man who bore the Christ child across dangerous waters and who was then given his name, meaning “Christ-bearer.” Christopher Martin’s failure causes readers to question the simplicity of an understanding of life that merely floats along the surface of experience. The rock that Martin imagines himself as having reached is symbolic of the “rock,” or St. Peter, upon which Christ founded his church. Again, the rock, as readers learn at the end of the novel, is a figment of Martin’s imagination and permits the questioning of the foundations of faith.
Most of Martin’s hallucinatory episodes take the form of brief exchanges or glimpses of characters; their settings are imprecise–a theater, a bar–if there is any sense of place at all. The only place that is real is the rocky island. The flashbacks illuminate, in glimpses as sudden and unsettling as a strobe lamp, Martin’s own character. As he deteriorates physically, losing weight, flesh, physical definition, at an exaggeratedly rapid rate, so his past is presented to him on the stage of the island in vignettes that make him see who and what he was. Only as he completes his moral journey toward self-knowledge does he complete his physical descent into death.
HMS Wildebeest. British naval destroyer on which Martin is an officer before it is sunk by a German torpedo. Flashbacks in the novel reveal scenes from Martin’s past as an actor and a naval officer. The scenes on his ship, as befitting Golding’s own naval background, are generally the longest and most detailed, providing a sense of the movement of the ship through water and the perpetual lookouts for what other ships in the convoy are doing and also for the telltale signs of approaching enemy submarines.
Scottish island. In an abrupt shift at the novel’s end that overturns all the readers’ notions of what has gone before, the scene shifts to a small Scottish island, where a naval officer arrives to collect a human body that has been washed ashore. Again the scene is one of dereliction, but this time it is a human dereliction, a ruined building with broken walls and the roof fallen in. There, the officer and a local official connect briefly–the sort of human connection denied to Martin–and readers learn that Martin’s dead body could never even have reached the island, let alone gone through that Purgatory. Everything that Martin has experienced after falling into the sea happened only within his imagination in the brief moments before he drowned.