Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Matter of Belief: 'Pincher Martin's Afterlife

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

A Matter of Belief: 'Pincher Martin's Afterlife

Article excerpt

When William Golding's Pincher Martin appeared in 1956, it was eagerly received by an audience well prepared for another survival narrative along the lines of Lord of the Flies and The Inheritors. At first glance the new novel seemed to fit the mould very well. It departed from the others in having a nearly contemporary setting, being the story of the survivor of a torpedoed British destroyer during the Second World War. The novel begins with the eponymous hero struggling in the icy Atlantic. Christopher Hadley Martin--like all Martins in the Navy, called "Pincher"--had been on the bridge at the time of the sinking. After a painfully rendered struggle he crawls up on an isolated rock in the North Atlantic. The balance of the novel is an account of his indomitable struggle to survive while awaiting rescue. So described, the novel could take its place alongside such accounts of survival as Golding's own Lord of the Flies, or the prototype of them all, Robinson Crusoe.

But Pincher Martin's so-called "trick ending" surprised and offended many of its early readers. The survival narrative concludes with Martin experiencing hallucinations as his ordeal appears to draw to a fatal conclusion. The last chapter is a sort of coda in which Captain Davidson (an entirely new character) retrieves the corpse of the unfortunate Martin from a Mr. Campbell who has found it. The "trick" is the answer to Mr. Campbell's query about Martin's suffering. Captain Davidson comforts him by remarking--in the very last words of the novel, "He didn't even have time to kick off his seaboots" (208). Only the most inattentive reader would have forgotten that Martin kicked off his sea boots on page 10.

On rereading the novel after this "trick ending," it is clear that Martin died on the second page, but since the story continues as a survival narrative after that point, readers invariably "cross out" his death, until forced to reconsider at the novel's close. Arnold Johnston notes that "reviewers assailed the conclusion as another Golding gimmick, recalling Ambrose Bierce's 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge'" (104). But even the Bierce short story has proven to be a poor analogue for Pincher Martin, since by the end of the story it is clear that Bierce's protagonist imagines escape and flight in the short moment between the opening of the gallows trapdoor and the snap of his neck. A re-reading of Pincher Martin forces the recognition that it is a post mortem narrative, and not a moment-of-death narrative.(1)

Many of Golding's early critics were simply unwilling to entertain a belief in the persistence of the self and of consciousness after death, and were offended that Golding should expect it of them.(2) They tried all sorts of dodges to evade the literal sense of this uncomfortable fable--including suggesting that Golding alter the ending (Hilary Corke 80). Golding held firm. He told Jack I. Biles that Corke "is, I suppose, a straightforward twentieth-century humanist, and this is not what I am, I don't think, and this isn't what the book is about. No, I wouldn't change the ending" (Biles 70-71). Although most of his critics have now accepted the undeniable fact that Golding is a writer who is interested in that most declasse of all religious topoi, life after death, some still object to Pincher Martin's ending. Don Crompton, in an otherwise very sensitive study, complains that in the novel "the poet in Golding was taking over from the story-teller, the poetic symbol [Promethean] from the prosaic idea [Martin's evil nature], and all sorts of effects were being generated over which he had less than full control and whose complexity was steadily increasing" (16).

When asked about his intentions in Pincher Martin by Archie Campbell in a BBC interview shortly after the novel's appearance, Golding gave a clear and unambiguous paraphrase of the novel's theme:

To achieve salvation, individuality--the persona--must be destroyed. …

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