Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Moral Ambiguity in Darkness Visible

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

Moral Ambiguity in Darkness Visible

Article excerpt


Like all of William Golding's novels, Darkness Visible is concerned with the ambiguity of moral issues, the difficulty of judgement, and breaking down the partitions that isolate men and prevent them from feeling a sense of community. The setting is England of the last forty years, which represents the hell of contemporary western society. Matty and Sophy, the main characters, live at the opposite ends of a spiritual dimension . As the novel progresses, the former's faith, altruism and selflessness enable him to redeem the paderast Pedigree and to help Sim and Edwin, two 'respectable' citizens, to taste the joy of communion, even if momentarily. Sophy on the other hand, uses her will-to-power to act more and more sadistically. Although her abduction plan is thwarted by Matty, she clears herself of all blame and moves on nonchalantly.


Darkness Visible invokes the identical moral concerns of William Golding's first novel in an updated setting. In both novels fare evokes the generic hell of the human condition in the particular hell of World War II. As the novel is extremely ambivalent from a moral perspective and deeply disturbing, it is quite a challenge for the teacher to make the students understand and enjoy it. It destroys the binary opposition that is believed to exist between good and evil. To McCarron, the novel shows that good and evil are completely interdependent. The title of the novel is taken from Satan's words in Milton's Paradise Lost surveying the world after the Fall (42). The epigraph from Aeneid draws attention to Virgil's prayer to the dark gods to allow him to penetrate the depths. Golding, similarly, hopes to penetrate the depths of his society and of human nature and to make the darkness there visible (Crompton 99). A proper way of dealing with the novel, then, is to begin by emphasising the interdependency and relativity of good and evil and this can be best demonstrated in class by focusing on each character's good and bad deeds and thoughts.

McCarron argues that like most of Golding's later fiction Darkness Visible is concerned with the irrational, numinous force which is at the centre of life and which can be apprehended as much by piety as by outrage (51). Darkness Visible explores the difficulties of judgement in moral matters; the extremes of behaviour of which men are capable, their paradoxical saintliness and sinfulness, and the conflict that goes on within the human soul, the result of which determines whether a man is to be saved or damned (Friedman 11). Behind these lie the mysteries of the spiritual world, surrounding us but largely closed to us, invisible to or ignored by most men. Golding penetrates these mysteries using two characters that live primarily in a spiritual dimension but at opposite poles within it: Matty and Sophy. These two are symbolically linked by their initial killings. Sophy throws a stone and kills a dabchick; Matty throws a shoe, causing Henderson to fall to his death (Dicken-Fuller 45). Matty, though physically disfigured in the fires of the Blitz, is in his unworldliness, selfless-love and self-dedication some kind of saint. Opposed to him is Sophy, young, beautiful, an agent of the powers of evil, advancing as far as she can the impulse toward destruction and chaos by her criminal behaviour, sexual excesses and general attitude to life. Matty believes God determines all acts, Sophy sees only chance (Dickson 115). The structure of the novel makes it fairly easy to focus on and examine each character separately.

At the beginning of the novel, Matty, a small child, miraculously emerges from a raging London firestorm with the left side of his face burning. He survives, but the left side of his face is permanently deformed; he has no left ear, and his mouth is so misshapen that he has difficulty speaking. Attempts to identify him fail. He is just given a number for a name, seven, then two Christian names: Matthew Septimus. …

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