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Submitted Literature

Pincher Martin

By William Golding


In Golding’s third published novel, Pincher Martin, Christopher Martin appears to survive drowning by climbing onto a rock, but - we later realize - his ‘survival’ is no more than the last flicker of personal consciousness during which he literally invents hell for himself.  When his hallucinatory world of rock disintegrates, it shows itself to be modelled on one of his teeth - a fitting symbol of his selfish, greedy and consumptive life which we learn about through a trail of flashbacks.  It has been a life of consuming anything and everything that comes within reach of his grasping fingers, mouth or penis.

            Fantastic hesitation is carefully established across the novel as Christopher’s dislocated and alien consciousness battles to make sense of an increasingly puzzling, transitional and multidimensional ‘reality’.  The realism of his experience on the rock - enhanced by detailed descriptions of survival - overlays hints that he might be dead.  Supernatural and natural explanations compete but do not resolve until the end of the novel when we learn that he had drowned, and that the seaboots he had kicked off at the beginning of the novel were still attached to his washed-up corpse.  Reality breakdowns, such as Christopher’s strange voice which does not carry forth but is absorbed by the air around him, are explained away as the result of physical or mental illness; lack of sleep, exposure to the sun and overwork are all offered as possible explanations for his hallucinatory experiences.  His dream-like flashbacks blur with his rockbound ‘reality’ in such a way that differentiation between these states proves difficult.  Indeterminacy is strengthened by ‘doubling’ of various figures and objects, such as Christopher’s nose, the ‘Dwarf’ who is also the ‘Old Woman’, the chain of his dog-tag, his reflection in a mirror.  The double motif is particularly prominent in flashbacks of Christopher’s theatrical life of playing two parts: ‘“Didn’t you see the rehearsal list, Chris?  You’re doubling - but of course -”’ (PM, 118).  As reality is ‘pinched’, and spatial coherence deteriorates, he experiences a transitory, Kafkaesque metamorphosis into a lobster.  Christopher self-diagnoses this and other abnormal perceptions and transformations as caused by pyrexial delirium or seafood poisoning and gives himself an enema to clear his system.  However, the solubility of what should be insoluble guano, the appearance of a ‘red’ lobster and the striking resemblance the ‘rock’ bears to a rotten tooth that had once stood in his head, compounds doubt about the status of his reality.  Christopher looks to Bedlamite madness as a last port in the ‘reality’ storm of erasure, black lightning and nothingness.  Achieving his ultimate, pre-death hallucination of God dressed as a sailor, he dissolves under the pressure of damnation into lobster claws - into the essential image of himself, ‘pincher’ of people and life, but also, as Philip Redpath suggests, an image of the writer who gave him ‘life’.


For a full critical reading of Pincher Martin see Crawford, P. (2002) Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, pp.81-114.


Key Themes:

  • Psychosis

Reference: William, Golding. 1956. Pincher Martin. Faber, 1956


Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Friday 14th August 2009