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Submitted Literature

The Spire

By William Golding

Review

The central action of The Spire is the construction of what appears to be an impossible medieval structure - a four hundred foot spire.  On the basis of a vision, Jocelin, Dean of the Cathedral Church of Our Lady, becomes obsessed with the project, driving Roger Mason, the master builder, and his ‘army’ of workers to complete it despite the marshy foundations.  The foundations - or rather apparent lack of them - are revealed in the pit Mason digs at the crossways of the cathedral.  This stinking pit is forever kept in mind as the spire is erected and serves to reinforce the seeming irrationality and impossibility of the spire’s construction and its human costs.  Workmen are killed, while Roger Mason is compelled by sheer economics and his sexual desire for Goody Pangall to complete the building.  Goody’s limping and impotent husband is sacrificed in a pagan ritual and buried beneath the crossways as the whole normal fabric of cathedral life is overturned so as to afford the spire’s construction.  As Jocelin approaches death, his belief in being chosen by God is shaken when he learns that he only achieved the post of Dean by the influence of a relative. This realization is part of Jocelin’s gradual movement from ‘complete blindness to illumination’, a process which is familiar in Golding’s early fiction and which is attributable to his study of Greek tragedy.  The fallen Jocelin seeks forgiveness for having ‘“lain”’ like a ‘“blight”’ (SP, 202) on the cathedral community and presenting a ‘“bogus sanctity”’ (SP, 209), but his attempt to be reconciled with Roger only stirs the unfortunate builder to loathe himself further and attempt to kill himself.  Jocelin’s own life comes to its end with an uncomfortable, ineffable, apocalyptic and indeed puzzling vision or hallucination of a sapphire kingfisher and an apple tree in bloom which, as Howard S. Babb notes, offers only ‘riddle’.  It is a suitable ending to a novel that V.V.Subbarao argues ‘lends itself to multiple interpretations’ or, according to L.L. Dickson, has a ‘multiplicity of meaning’.

Across the whole novel boundaries between real and unreal constantly mingle and blur as the progress of the spire’s construction appears to contradict the laws of nature but, like Jocelin’s diseased spine, is subject to those laws.  Uncertainty and mystery increases with strange reflections and the intrusion of ‘diabolical’ and ‘angelic’ forces or entities.  Throughout the novel, gothic images, the grotesque and madness, particularly in terms of Jocelin’s visions, strengthen the overall fantastic mood of uncertainty.  In the dark, shadowy world of the medieval cathedral, devils, ghosts, witchcraft and nightmares frequently bubble up to the surface.  The site of holiness is also a site of a struggle with the profane.  Golding welds the two in an interrogation of the worldly nature of medieval Christianity which is not divorced from the ‘low’ and popular.  The pit at the cathedral crossways acts as a kind of symbolic portal to a murderous, torturous, subterranean world and, indeed, cellarage of the unconscious mind, particularly Jocelin’s. 

For a full critical reading of The Spire see Crawford, P. (2002) Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, pp.115-145.

Key Themes:

  • Obsessions

Reference: William, Golding. 1964. The Spire. Faber and Faber, 1965

Reviewer

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