Thursday, April 9, 2009

Pincher Martin by William Golding


25 – 28 March 2009: Pincher Martin by William Golding

After the Right Stuff, I started Byatt’s book Possession. But a friend recommended me Pincher Martin, which “would blow my socks off”.
As a student, I read and liked very much “The Lord of the Flies”, but I didn’t succeed finishing Golding’s “The Spire”.
So I got curious after this mysterious recommendation, I ordered Pincher Martin through Amazon and finished it in a few hours hours spread over a mere 3 days.

Warning !

Pincher Martin has a twist ending, so if you intend to read it and I surely recommend you do, stop reading these lines and go to the library to purchase this book.


Pincher Martin, written in1956 is the third novel by William Golding.

The novel is set during the second World War, on a remote rocky islet in the North Atlantic, somewhere close to the Hebrides. Christopher “Pincher” Martin, a British sailor, has been washed up on its pebbled shore after his ship is torpedoed and sunk. The islet is just a bare rock, without live or vegetation. Martin survives by drinking rain water from pools and eats cockles pried from the rock. He is suffering a lot and he tries to keep his sanity through the ordeal.As the weather worsens and his condition further deteriorates, Martin reviews parts of his life.This part of the book ends with what appears to be a storm, with "black lightning", in which Martin becomes convinced that supernatural forces are trying to kill him, and he rails against them.
The last sentence of the novel features a twist ending which makes it clear that Martin actually drowned shortly after his ship was sunk in the first pages of the book. His whole survival ordeal on the rock is then understood as a life after death experience.

The reader’s information on the back flap of the book with a summary description warns the reader that a twist ending might be expected. While reading I was of course distracted by that knowledge and I was trying to guess what the twist could be. One of the possibilities might have been that he thought he was just a few days on the island but in fact it could have been many years. It is said in the book that “an hour on this rock is a lifetime”. Another possibility was that it never happened, that it was just a dream or that Martin would wake up in an asylum. I thought about the “story of Pi” by Martel and the “Sixth sense”movie.
I did not however think of “ An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge “ by Ambrose Bierce to which in some sense it resembles. In Bierce ‘s story, an escape from a hanging turns out to be a split second fantasy of the condemned just before his neck snaps at the gallow. Golding goes further than Bierce : Pincher survives after his death.

At the last word of the last page, Martin’s suffering on the rock can only be understood as an allegory of purgatory and damnation.
According to Catholic belief, immediately after death, a person undergoes judgment in which the soul's eternal destiny is specified. Some are eternally united with God in Heaven, others are destined for Hell, and still others are condemned for a stay in Purgatory before their final destination. This transit zone is for the souls that are not sufficiently free from sin to go to Heaven, nor are they sinful enough to go to hell either. Purgatory stands for a temporary moment of postmortem suffering and painful punishment short of everlasting damnation.

Martin is indeed suffering on his rock in the middle of the ocean. He undergoes near drowning, he falls on the rocks. He suffers pain, cold, exhaustion, sunburn, bird attacks, mad hallucinations, thirst, hunger and even constipation!

What has poor Martin done to deserve this fate ?

In civil life Pincher is an actor. Through a number of inconsequential pictures which serve as flashbacks, we understand that Pincher Martin has become a symbol of nasty greed. Greed, not just for money but for everything. “He takes anything he can lay hands on: best part, best seat, most money, best notice, best women. He is “born with his mouth and fly open and both hands to grab”

The different snippets of his life, show us that Martin leaves behind him a trail of use and abuse. As a child, in a bicycle race, he forces his friend Billy of the road and the kid breaks his leg horribly. In adult life, he has an affair with the producer’s wife Helen and breaks up their marriage. He sleeps with Sybil, the girlfriend of his friend Alfred and he makes cruel fun of it.
Nathaniel, his best friend, to whom he even calls for help when drowning, entrust his fiancée Mary to Martin’s care when he goes to the Navy.
Pincher rapes her, because he must “have” her.
Pincher is an evil man.

Golding presents us a metaphor of greed with the story of the Chinese tin box. In the box lies a dead fish, which is eaten by hundreds of white maggots. When the fish is finished, they start eating each other until one big fat white maggot is left.
But even that one is eaten when the noise of a spade against the tin box, announces that it will be opened and serve as a Chinese delicacy.
Christopher Martin is the number one maggot; he is the last maggot in the tin box.
“Killed and eaten”, becomes a declaration of conquest. Martin remembers : “Eating women, eating men, eating Alfred, eating that other girl, eating that boy, that crude and unsatisfactory experiment” His victims, the used and defeated people are described as maggots, fat and white bodies without attraction or excitement.

Christopher Pincher is drafted into the Navy, as an officer and he find himself on board with his “friend “ Nathaniel. Nathaniel or Nat is a humble religious man, often praying, not really fit for the Navy.He seems to suffer on board. Does he know that Martin has raped his fiancée?

Nat has told Pincher in an strange premonition that Martin is not happy, that “he doesn’t know the technique of dying”. Pincher retorts “I am damned if I’ll die”

So Martin Pincher finds himself in Purgatory, like Prometheus attached to a rock. Even the flesh eating Gulls are there to complete the picture. We prepare for the final showdown.
Martin asks himself: Have you had enough surviving? Have you had enough hanging on? He is advised: Give up the thought of return; give up the thought of living. There is nothing here but torture, give up leave go

But Martin does not give up. “I have considered, I prefer it, pain and all”

Golding explained that Martin Pincher stands for the man who is so greedy for life that he refuses to die. The life he seems to invent for himself from half-remembered scraps of physical life becomes literally a Purgatory. The life in Purgatory is preferred to giving up and attaining Salvation.

Martin resists, defending his personality, his only treasure until finally in an apocalyptique setting, the black lightning splits and destroys everything we call live.




Sir William Gerald Golding (19 September 191119 June 1993) was a British novelist, poet and Nobel Prize for Literature laureate best known for his novel Lord of the Flies. He was also awarded the Booker Prize for literature in 1980, for his novel Rites of Passage, the first book of the trilogy To the Ends of the Earth.

During World War II, Golding fought in the Royal Navy and was briefly involved in the pursuit and sinking of Germany's mightiest battleship, the Bismarck. He also participated in the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, commanding a landing ship that fired salvoes of rockets onto the beaches, and then in a naval action at Walcheren in which 23 out of 24 assault crafts were sunk.[2] At the war's end he returned to teaching and writing.[1]

Having moved in 1958 from Salisbury to nearby Bowerchalke, he met his fellow villager and walking companion James Lovelock. The two discussed Lovelock's hypothesis that the living matter of the planet Earth functions like a single organism, and Golding suggested naming this hypothesis after Gaia, the goddess of the earth in Greek mythology.
In 1970 Golding was a candidate for the Chancellorship of the University of Kent at Canterbury, but lost to the politician and leader of the Liberal Party, Jo Grimond. Golding won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1979, the Booker Prize in 1980, and in 1983 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1988.

3 comments:

  1. Nice work. I read this book nearly 50 years ago and I want to read it again, but I think you have one small error in your interpretation. You called it a life after death experience, but I believe it was more an experience of it all flashing through his mind while he was drowing.

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