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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Pincher Martin's Awful Afterlife: A Look at William Golding's Challenging Masterpiece


 

Introduction: Patience for Pincher Martin


William Golding's 1956 novel, Pincher Martin, opens in chaos with a man drowning in the frigid waters of the Atlantic.


He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body. There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.

“Help!


The man is Christopher Hadley “Pincher” Martin, a British naval officer and former actor whose destroyer has been torpedoed by a German U-boat. The blast has just thrown him from the ship's bridge and into the water. In shock and panicking, he fights desperately to get enough air into his lungs but only water pours in.


The lumps of hard water jerked in the gullet, the lips came together and parted, the tongue arched, the brain lit a neon track.

“Moth——

AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

As the fear threatens to overwhelm him, he somehow remembers to blow up his life belt. This helps him float a little better, true, but it’s still not enough. The weight of his seaboots is dragging him down. So he kicks off one, then the other, making it easier to tread water. The immediate danger seems to have passed.


He takes stock of his situation.


Strangely, no one else is around. No wreckage, no survivors, no debris, just the vast expanse of the ocean. That’s odd, given that his ship was torpedoed moments ago. Here we get the first clue something’s off about Christopher’s situation. Mere seconds after the explosion, heought to see some evidence of the warship and its 200-odd crew. Yet there’s nothing.


Then he sees a barren rock looming in the distance. He swims toward it and crawls onto its pebbly beach, where he collapses in exhaustion. Here he’ll spend the rest of the book alternating between flashbacks and disturbing hallucinations that threaten to rip his sanity apart.


Golding so meticulously describes Christopher's panicked agonies in these opening pages that it’s easy to miss a few things. The raw fear, the exhaustion, the invading water, and the anchoring weight of those seaboots are all we can focus on because that’s all Christopher can focus on. The reader gets a world narrowed down to the brute task of survival.


But it’s all quite misleading.


You see, Christopher’s already dead by page two. That interrupted cry for his mother was probably his last word. However, we don’t know that because he doesn’t know, and Golding doesn’t tell us until the end. Think of Pincher Martin as a very unconventional ghost story about a ghost who does not quite know (and doesn't want to know) that he’s now a ghost trapped on a desolate rock created by his own imagination. From this dark premise, Golding crafted a story that's polarized readers ever since.


For those with the patience, Pincher Martin sticks with you long after the stunning revelations at the end. When I finished the first time, I was sent scurrying back to the beginning for another go, but this time with the knowledge of what was going on. I’ve since read it occasionally over the years and have discovered something new each time.


That, to me, is great literature.


Yet I’ve always hesitated to recommend Pincher Martin because of the difficulty. So consider this my great attempt to sell this book to readers, despite its difficulty, or better yet, because of it. For those who find reward in pondering the complex existential questions of life, I promise Pincher Martin is worth the effort.


On that note, reader beware, there will be more spoilers, so if you don’t want me to ruin the plot of this 70-year-old novel, stop here and go read the book first, and then come back.


Or drive on.


Either way, you’ll be better off for it.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

 

Pincher Martin in Golding’s Own Words


Think of Pincher Martin as a thought experiment that goes something like this: Let’s assume a basic theological metaphysic exists. In this reality, God exists and everyone faces some kind of judgement after death. Given that, let’s now assume that death is not the final annihilation of theself as non-believers presume, but that something of the self remains even after the mortal coil expires.


What would such an afterlife look like?


And for dramatic purposes, what would the afterlife look like for an immoral predator who lacked belief in anything but himself?


That’s Pincher Martin.


Fortunately, I don’t have to speculate too much. Golding told us in his own words what he was trying to do with Pincher Martin.


First, we have his private notes from when he wrote the novel. These were found in a green hardcover exercise book used at the high school where he taught. They provide a snapshot of Golding’s early ideas on where he wanted Pincher Martin to go thematically.


Basic. He [Pincher Martin] is utterly selfish. Risking anything to preserve his life.

Q. Why is he what he is?

A. Because he has been running away from God (The old woman in the cellar).

This is no answer. Somewhere he went wronger than most. That must have been pre-natal.

Running away from God is running away from helplessness and death towards power and life.

Life then means power over things and power over the most expensive things called women.

The greatest power is to break the opposite thing an innocent and holy being.

He finds two of them (they are Nathaniel and Mary).

He devours his way upwards. He is about to devour Mary when she and Nathaniel meet, marry. Now she is untouchable. The war. The others (query? Producer [Pete] and wife [Helen]) whom he thought to eat now eat him. He is with navy. Officer. But so is Nathaniel. An illness holds Nat back and he gets him into his own ship. Plans to bump him [Nathaniel] off in one of the safe ways that war makes easy. Who would suspect? Best friend” (Carey 194).


Later, after the book was published, we get a more polished explanation of Christopher "Pincher" Martin's character, and even more important, the nature of his afterlife.


In a letter to Radio Times published in 1958, Golding wrote,


Christopher Hadley Martin had no belief in anything but the importance of his own life; no love, no God. Because he was created in the image of God he had a freedom of choice which he used to centre the world on himself. He did not believe in purgatory and therefore when he died it was not presented to him in overtly theological terms. The greed for life which had been the mainspring of his nature, forced him to refuse the selfless act of dying. He continued to exist separately in a world composed of his own murderous nature. His drowned body lies rolling in the Atlantic but the ravenous ego invents a rock for him to endure on” (Carey 195).


Pincher Martin thus feels like a cautionary tale, a fever-dream critique of a particular modern malady: What comes of the spiritually bankrupt and selfish life that believes in nothing higher than feeding the ego? That’s a good question, especially in a society that worships the individual and material success above all. Golding thinks that’s ultimately a dead end.



AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

 

Maggot in a Locked Tin Box


An image Golding frequently evokes in the novel to highlight Christopher’s greedy nature is that of eating. He “eats” others or is eaten. In his world, the strong eat the weak, consuming them for one’s own pleasure. Thus he seduces the women of other men, devouring what’s not his, and steamrolls anyone who gets in the way. This is how the world’s always been and how it will always be: eat or be eaten.


In one flashback, we hear Pete, the producer of a play Christopher’s in, talk about a rare Chinese dish. It goes something like this: The Chinese bury a fish in a tin box. Shortly after that, maggots appear and devour the fish, bones and all. Once the maggots eat the fish, they begin eating each other since there’s nothing else to feed upon in that tiny tin box.


The little ones eat the tiny ones. The middle-sized ones eat the little ones. The big ones eat the middle-sized ones. Then the big ones eat each other. Then there are two and then one and where there was a fish there is now one huge, successful maggot. Rare dish.”


Pete’s talking about Christopher, whom he knows is sleeping with his wife, Helen. Christopher is not stupid, he gets it. He's the maggot who eats the other maggots.


As Christopher muses to himself, “You could eat with your cock or with your fists, or with your voice. You could eat with hobnailed boots or buying and selling or marrying and begetting or cuckolding.


Cuckolding.


This was something the handsome and charismatic Christopher did with some relish. Besides Pete's wife, Helen, he also slept with his friend Alfred’s wife, Sybil. Another flashback shows the time a distraught Alfred caught Christopher with his wife. Alfred hoped his friend hadn’t betrayed him like this. Christopher’s coming out of the bedroom when he confronts him. Sybil’s still naked in the bed. They’ve just finished.


Christopher plays with his prey.


“Like to look, Alfred?”

Hiccups. Weak struggles.

“You mean it’s someone else? You’re not fooling Chris, honestly?”

“Anything to cheer you up old man. Look.”

The door opening; Sybil, giving a tiny shriek and pulling the sheet up to her mouth as if this were a bedroom-farce which, of course, in every sense, it was” (82).


Christopher “ate” Sybil and had Alfred for dessert.


Then there’s a memory from his acting days with Pete again, the teller of indirect truths Christopher keeps coming back to in his memories. Pete’s aware that he’s being cucked by Christopher but gets some revenge by telling him he’ll have to play one of the seven deadly sins in an upcoming production. The role requires wearing a mask representing that sin. But which one would best fit Christopher?


Now Pete’s the one playing with his prey.


Pete asks George, the play’s director, “We ought to let dear old Chris pick his favourite sin, don’t you, think?


Yet there are so many to choose from.

So the three head down to the theatre's cellar to look at the masks.


Maybe Christopher should play the role of Malice?

Not a bad choice, but no, that’s not quite right.


What about Lechery? Better, much better, but still not it.


Christopher suggests Sloth. Not even close, Chris. Nice try, though.


But then Pete comes across the mask for Greed. Ah, here we go! This is the one! It’s settled then; Christopher will be Greed.


Pete takes the Greed mask down off the wall and hands it to Christopher:


Let me make you two better acquainted. This painted bastard here takes anything he can lay his hands on. Not food, Chris, that’s far too simple. He takes the best part, the best seat, the most money, the best notice, the best woman. He was born with his mouth and his flies open and both hands out to grab. He’s a cosmic case of the bugger who gets his penny and someone else’s bun.


This is Christopher Hadley Martin’s character summed up in one paragraph: He takes what he wants, and even better if it doesn't belong to him. He eats whom he wants and then shits them out when he’s done. He’s the maggot who wants to devour the other maggots to become the last, grand master maggot of them all, the winner.


An astute reader will see the parallel, even if Christopher can’t quite make it out yet. His existence on a barren rock that’s been created in the prison of his mind is like that of the last, fat, engorged maggot, trapped in a sealed tin box and with nothing else to eat, forever and ever. There’s nothing but memories of his past life to feed upon now, and those turn out to be poison because they lay out, bit by bit, how he got to this current wretched state. Let’s take a deeper look at that.


What remained of the man who was Christopher Hadley “Pincher” Martin after he drowned in those opening pages?


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E


 

The Dark Centre as Christopher and Hadley and Martin

I'm so alone! Christ! I'm so alone!"


As his drowned body bobbed up and down on the waves of the Atlantic, something deep in his skull persisted. Golding never uses the word soul, but it’s something like that, though more primal and not free to haunt the world like a lost ghost. Rather, he describes a “dark centre” as the leftover remnant of Christopher’s being. He also sometimes calls it “the thing in the middle of the globe,” the globe being his skull. It’s an amorphous essence without real substance but with persisting personality. What does that look like?


Philosopher Terry Eagleton describes it as “…the eternally vigilant core of consciousness buried somewhere inside Martin’s skull, which seems the only place where he is truly alive (though even this will turn out to be an illusion). This dark centre is the hero’s monstrous ego, which is unable to reflect on itself” (Eagleton 22).


This dark centre is the only subject in a world without objects. This is a miserable situation for Christopher, whose life had been spent preying on others, i.e., making them the object of his desires.


There were the people I got the better of, people who disliked me, people who quarreled with me. Here I have nothing to quarrel with. I am in danger of losing definition.


Now nothing remains but the thinking, pondering, anxious centre, buried deep inside his subconsciousness. Its unstated function is to keep Christopher’s identity together at all costs. The centre does this by constantly asserting and affirming the reality of his illusory situation on the barren rock.


But that turns out to be an increasingly difficult task.


Christopher and Hadley and Martin were separate fragments and the centre was smoldering with a dull resentment that they should have broken away and not be sealed on the centre.”… “The centre knew that self existed, though Christopher and Hadley and Martin were far off.”


At some level, the centre knows the horrible truth. However, this must be buried and never acknowledged lest the fragile afterlife it's created dissolve. It must remain active and ever-vigilant to do this, which is why Christopher can’t get any sleep even though he’s utterly exhausted after his ordeal in the sea. Sleep would equal death because then the centre would have to relinquish control.


“Sleep is a relaxation of the conscious guard, the sorter. Sleep is when all the unsorted stuff comes flying out as from a dustbin upset in a high wind.”


“Or sleep was a consenting to die, to go into complete unconsciousness, the personality defeated, acknowledging too frankly what is implicit in mortality that we are temporary structures patched up and unable to stand the pace without a daily respite from what we most think ours—— “Then why can’t I sleep?”


He answers his own question, “I am afraid to.” Sleep would equal true death. His fictitious afterlife requires constant attention to hold it all together.


Finding sleep evasive, he forces himself to think in a way reminiscent of Descartes’s ‘cogito, ergo sum,’ as if thinking alone might affirm existing.


Think about women then or eating. Think about eating women, eating men, crunching up Alfred, that other girl, that boy, that crude and unsatisfactory experiment, lie restful as a log and consider the gnawed tunnel of life right up to this uneasy intermission.”


Eating. All he has to eat now are memories. That’s all he’s got. That’s all he is now. A subject without objects. So that’s what he does.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E


 

With Friends Like That...Christopher and Nathaniel


We learn from Christopher's memories about a past love triangle between himself, his best friend Nathaniel, and the young woman who came between them, Mary Lovell.


Nathaniel and Christopher are unlikely friends. Christopher is a handsome and charismatic actor. Nathaniel’s clumsy and awkward. Christopher is a shallow and cynical materialist. Nat is a kind-hearted religious mystic, a dreamer, and a man with his head in the clouds.


While Christopher moves through the world manipulating (eating) others, pious Nat keeps his focus upwards on God and heaven. All that is fine; they remain good friends despite their dissimilarities. That is, until Nat meets Mary.


Christopher had already tried to take Mary by force, threatening to rape her in his car or kill her if she didn’t spread her legs for him. She steadfastly refused, and Christopher forever hated her for it. No one had thwarted his desires like this before, and her rebuff fostered a festering hatred inside him.


I loathe you. I never want to see you or hear of you as long as I live.


Unfortunately, that’s not how it worked out. Mary and Nat later end up meeting and getting married. Christopher is flabbergasted. Mary and Nat? Together? Seriously? She chose Nat over me? Jealousy turns into a thirst for revenge that will have tragic consequences.


Christ, how I hate you [Nat]. I could eat you. Because you fathomed her mystery, you have a right to handle her transmuted cheap tweed; because you both have made a place where I can’t get; because in your fool innocence you’ve got what I had to get or go mad.

Nat’s “fool innocence” infuriates Christopher, yet he smiles and pretends everything’s fine. It’s not.


However, there’s also wisdom in Nat that Christopher seems to recognize on some level, mixing his hate with some residual love and respect. We know this because so many of his later flashbacks focus on seemingly meaningless conversations he’d had with Nat, as if he was somehow the key to unlocking some greater truth that could set him free. Indeed, he was, or could have been.


After all, it was Nat who provided the most revealing explanation of Christopher’s afterlife. In a flashback from before the war, Nat visits. He’s just been to London giving lectures on the nature of heaven, of all things.


Nat warns his friend that he needs to think about his mortality and understand the “technique of dying into heaven.” This means letting go of life willingly when it’s time to die and not holding onto attachments. If Christopher doesn’t change course, he won’t be ready for death and what comes after.


What’s he talking about?

AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

Nat goes on:


Take us as we are now and heaven would be sheer negation. Without form and void. You see?” A sort of black lightning would destroy everything we call life.”


He continues:


And I, have a feeling. Don’t laugh, please - but I feel - you could say that I know

-You could say that I know it is important for you personally to understand about heaven — about dying — because in only a few years...you will be dead.


Back on the rock and lost in this memory, Christopher cries out, “I’m damned if I’ll die.” He means to go on, to endure, no matter what.


Flash forward, and Christopher and Nathaniel have joined the Royal Navy and end up serving on the same destroyer. Christopher is an officer while Nat is a lowly seaman. One thing that hasn’t changed is Christopher’s secret loathing toward his friend, who is now happily married to Mary.


I am a good hater.


And indeed he was. The acid of hate chewed him up from the inside. It burned away his passion for Mary; it even burned away the remains of his more selfless affection for Nat.


As long as she lives the acid will eat. There’s nothing that can stand it. And killing her would make it worse.


Standing on the bridge of that destroyer, he ponders murder. He knows he can’t kill Mary. She’s safe from his revenge. But Nat? To kill Nat would be to kill Mary as well. He thinks it’s the only way to neutralize the acid of the rebuke their happiness represents to him. Thoughts of murder begin creeping into his mind. How easy it would be to kill Nat and make it look like an accident. One only needs the right plan.


He knows Nat’s in the habit of going aft to pray, something he does by leaning precariously on the back railing of the ship. How easily his friend could be dumped in the sea by simply ordering the ship to do an emergency evasive maneuver. Christopher can do that from the bridge when his friend is aft “praying to his Aeons,” as he mockingly describes it. Nat would fall overboard, the destroyer would continue into the night, and no one would notice until it was too late. It would be a tragic accident. So sad. What was Nat doing leaning over the railing like that anyway? Silly fool. He was always a silly fool. It would look like the perfect crime. Nat eaten and Mary too in one savory gulp. Two for one. The balance would be restored.


And so it plays out, sort of.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E


Instead of focusing on the danger of being on an isolated and vulnerable destroyer in U-boat-infested waters, Christopher sends the port lookout on an errand, telling him he’ll take over the watch. But he doesn’t. No, he has other plans. He watches Nat praying instead, waiting for the right moment before bellowing out the order, “Hard a-starboard for Christ’s sake!” as if to avoid an imaginary torpedo.


Only, as it turns out, a very real torpedo slammed into the ship just after giving the order.


A destroying concussion that had not part in the play. Whiteness rising like a cloud, universe spinning. The shock of a fall somewhere, shattering, mouth filled - he was fighting in all directions with black impervious water.


And now we’re back to page one with Christopher’s desperate and doomed struggle to stay alive. We’re back on the rock in an imaginary afterlife that’s beginning to fall apart at the seams. The more he remembers, the more he understands what’s really happened. The truth can set him free.


That is, if he’s willing to die and let himself go.


That takes us to the climactic confrontation with God and the black lightning.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

 

God vs. Christopher vs. The Black Lightning


After playing the starring role of a resilient shipwrecked survivor fighting against all odds, Christopher’s sanity begins slipping away. The psychic burden of maintaining the fiction proves too much. It’s increasingly clear that his reality isn’t grounded on anything. There’s no there, there, nothing solid to grasp onto. He drifts between the fraying fiction of being shipwrecked on a rock to flashbacks of past sins.


These latter keep coming in what feels like the involuntary confession of a man not ready to confess. He only remembers his sins. Meanwhile, the dark centre resembles a dying celestial body with insufficient gravity to hold its identities together. The satellites of Christopher and Hadley and Martin orbit this dark center in ever more unstable orbits.


The centre knew that self existed, though Christopher and Hadley and Martin were fragments far off.”

And getting further.


Though illusory, the “reality” of the rock is at least a coherent projection of a plausible survival story. He can convince himself he’s playing that role, like an actor on the stage he used to perform on. But then hallucinations overwhelm him with images from the past, playing like a movie on the wall of the rockface. A vision of his mother appears. She’s crying as she knits.

She is sorry for me on this rock.”


Then he sees his victims parade before him, one by one. They are all crying too.


Sybil is weeping and Alfred. Helen is crying too. A bright boy face was crying. He saw half-forgotten but now clearly remembered faces and they were all weeping. That is because they know I am alone on a rock in the middle of a tin box.”


Poor Christopher.


Then even more memories flood in.


He remembers Mary yet again, that bitch, and Nathaniel too, that undeserving fool who won her heart.


He remembers that moment on the bridge when he focused on murder instead of duty and got everyone, including himself, blown up.


He remembers Nat’s warnings about heaven and the cost of not being ready to die when the time comes.


He remembers fragments of even more past sins, like causing Pete to wipe out on his bike and break his leg, or stealing from someone else’s cash box, or begging his former lover Helen to beg Pete - after all he had done to him - to get him out of conscription.

AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

All these scenes play out in rapid flashbacks that seem just as real as the rock he’s on, which is to say, not very real at all.


But then moments of clarity threaten to intrude upon his fiction, edging him closer to the truth that cannot be spoken. “It was something I remembered. I’d better not remember it again. Remember to forget. Madness? Worse than madness. Sanity.


Sanity means admitting the truth, i.e., that he’s dead. As the collapsing defenses of his sanity are overrun, he retreats into the final bastion of madness.


There is no centre in madness. Nothing like this “I” sitting here, staving off the time that must come. The last repeat of the pattern. Then the black lightning. The centre cried out. I’m so alone! Christ! I’m so alone!”

The end is now only a matter of time. Christopher subconsciously knows yet can’t consciously acknowledge knowing. He realizes he can’t sustain this untenable status quo for much longer. Madness only delays the inevitable.


And then it happens.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

One final hallucination that feels way too real to be a hallucination.


"And immediately the hallucination was there. He knew this before he saw it because there was an awe in the trench, framed by the silent spray that flew over. The hallucination sat on the rock at the end of the trench and at last he faced it through his blurred window."


God has arrived. He appears as Christopher's shadowy doppelgänger, dressed all neat and orderly as he had been on the ship. He’s also wearing seaboots.


“Have you had enough, Christopher?”

“Enough of what?”

“Surviving. Hanging on.”

“I hadn’t considered.”

“Consider now.”

“What’s the good? I’m mad.”

“Even that crevice will crumble.”


Christopher insists that this “God” is just a figment of his imagination, another illusion from the mind of a madman. This cannot be real but an invention.


“On the sixth day he created God. Therefore I permit you to use nothing but my own vocabulary. In his own image created he Him.”


But this isn’t something Christopher can control. This isn’t part of the world his dark centre has invented.


God says again,

“Consider now.”

“I won’t. I can’t.”

“What do you believe in?”

“The thread of my life. At all costs. Repeat after me. At all costs."

“I have a right to live if I can!”

“Where is that written?”

“Then nothing is written.”

“Consider.”

“I will not consider! I have created you and I can create my own heaven.”

And then God replies with the devastating truth, “You have created it.


But it’s not heaven at all. It’s something much worse than that. Christopher is at last stripped of the illusion that he's still alive. So what? He doubles down anyway.


I have considered. I prefer it, pain and all.

"To what?"

To the black lightning! Go back! Go back!"


The truth does not set him free. Having spoken what could not be spoken, he must choose between acceptance and insanity. He chooses the latter, retreating into one final bout of raving lunacy, cursing God for intervening in his self-directed, post-mortem fiction.


I spit on your compassion!


I shit on your heaven!


So be it.

The hard way then. This was never really a negotiation.


God vanishes and the cleansing black lightning appears.


The sea and the sky freeze, becoming like drawings on paper. Cracks appear in the fabric of Christopher’s phony and now compromised reality. God’s black lighting begins its purging work, devouring bit by bit the world he’s created for himself, relentlessly probing its tendrils into what’s left of Christopher and Hadley and Martin and the dark centre trying to hold them all together. That’s how it ends for Christopher, with him slowly consumed by the black lightning “…in a compassion that was timeless and without mercy.”


 

During a book lecture at Sussex, a woman came up afterward and asked Golding, "'How long does it take Pincher Martin to die?'

Golding replied, 'Eternity.'

'But how long does it take in real time?'

After pausing for a moment, he responded, 'Eternity'" (Carey 196).


That's a mighty long time.


Think about it.


AI-generated image courtesy of DALL-E

 

Works Cited


Biles, Jack I., et al. “The Miscasting of Pincher Martin.” William Golding Some Critical Considerations, The University Press of Kentucky, Lexington, 2015, pp. 103–116, ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=1915726.


Carey, John. The Man Who Wrote "Lord of the Flies". Faber and Faber, 2009.


Eagleton, Terry. On Evil. Yale University Press, 2010.

https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=3421198.


Golding, William. Pincher Martin. Faber, 1956.


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Fall Church, VA

January 2023


#pinchermartin

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