THE DEEP SATISFACTION we feel in reading and reflecting on William Golding's novels rises from his power to isolate, describe and make real to us moral problems that concern us all. The notable moralists of our day are novelists and poets. Philosophy is remote from the average intelligent person and the churches rarely command his allegiance, but for all that he is eager to come to grips with serious problems of morality. Much popular fiction offers him nothing but a reflection of the easy, fashionable despair of those who paddle timidly in th shallows of experience, but William Golding tackles moral problems head on, and wrestles them to the floor.
How does he do it? His mind possesses a coherent, compassionate but unsentimental attitude toward life and mankind, and his scale of values, though not inflexible, is firm. In the broad sense of the term it is a religious mind, because it is engaged with the great themes of our existence and will not be content with easy, pessimistic approaches to them. Too often pessimism is achieved by ignoring whatever cannot be made to fit its needs. His reflections present themselves to him in the form of fiction, and here again he is not satisfied with the bonelessness that contents those contemporary writers whose novels remind us of Edward Lear's flopsican mopsican Bear. He brings a formidable professionalism to his writing, and his novels have the completeness that marks them as works of art.
His latest book, Rites of Passage , takes the form of a journal kept by a young man who is traveling to Australia, during the early days of the 19th century. Edmund Talbot -- a name suggestive of aristocratic family -- is writing of his experiences at the behest of his godfather, a nobleman (the Earl of Shrewsbury, perhaps?) who has obtained for him a post on the staff of a colonial governor, and who wants an amusing chronicle of the long voyage as a partial return. Talbot begins in an affected manner, designed to please a man of fashionable but not trivial intellect, but as his voyage progresses, he grows in understanding of himself, because he is engaged in a moral problem. It concerns another passenger, the Rev. Robert James Colley, who also discovers something important about himself during the first 50 days of the journey, and dies -- literally wills himself to death -- because of it. Colley's wretched end sobers the rest of the ship's company, but this new sobriety serves only to make them even more unmistakably themselves. Contained in Talbot's journal is a long confessional letter written by Colley to his sister; the truth of Colley's destruction is not told there, because Colley was never fully aware of it -- only of a portion of it.
Could Talbot have saved Colley by showing him a little more friendliness? There is Golding's moral problem and a fine one it is. Of course it is not a novelty to isolate a group of people on a ship and show them as they are, but every fictional device is new when it is handled with mastery, and that is precisely the quality Golding brings to it.
His splendid professionalsim shows in the skill with which he takes the device of the personal journal and the letter, so familiar from the fiction of the period he has chosen for his story, and gives them convincing period quality, while at the same time insinuating into them a kind of insight which is post-Freudian. But these insinuations are never obvious; we never feel that the 20th century is nudging the 19th or that our age is pretending to some absolute superiority in judging human affairs.
One of the marks of the novelist of the first rank is his capacity for what might be called impersonation, the ability to speak through a character in such a way that more is revealed than the character is directly aware of; young Mr. Talbot, who writes of himself as if he were a silly, snobbish young ass, comes off rather better than he could know. Colley, who writes as a man who has removed himself from all that is dark in man's nature, provokes our pity. He is a man who has never seen his Shadow, and who is depending on his clerical rank and his feverish piety to overcome an inborn inferiority. He hopes to attain gentility through sanctity, an idea that could only occur to a fool.
Here is where Golding will rub some of his readers raw, for it is not a fashionalble attitude to suppose that some people are naturally inferior, not in birth but in character. But his book anatomizes snobbery, that peculiarly English trait, in a manner that hints that snobbery may sometimes be a response to a genuine intuition, as is the case with Talbot.
Although there is plenty of ambiguity in this novel, there are no loose ends; everything is present that enables the reader to draw extensive and possible profound conclusions about what happened, and why, and whether or not it was inevitable. The whole book is written with a fine economy. It seems to move easily and, when Talbot is writing, somewhat self-indulgently, but there is nothing necessary at any point; every joke, every scrap of flattery addressed by the godson to his noble patron, tells us something we need to know. The minor characters are drawn with a certainty of line and occasional enriching with color that reminds us of the pen and red chalk drawings of the period in which the story is set.
This is very good Golding, and good Golding is among the best fictional currency we have. Its hallmark is a suggestion of hope, and that is a rarity in serious modern novels, so many of which are blighted by what old theologians called "wanhope," by which they meant despair of salvation. But not William Golding: he is not so Graham Greene as all that.