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Submitted Literature

Darkness Visible

By William Golding


Darkness Visible is a novel in which madness features strongly, not least in the character of Matty, a fantastical child survivor of a firestorm during the London Blitz who develops into a farcical prophet or Ranter-like figure and the psychopathic Sophy who descends into terrorism, sexual transgression and violent racialism. These characters are brought together in apocalyptic style when Matty thwarts Sophy’s plan to kidnap and ransom an Arab princeling and is destroyed by fire in the process.  The novel ends with the pederast, Mr Pedigree’s vision of the dead yet transfigured Matty.  This final section which stresses that ‘One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so’ (DV, 225), suggests the unsplendid isolation of postmodern individuals in a world where rationality and knowledge is, as Sim Goodchild admits, as lethal as atomic weaponry: ‘“We’re all mad, the whole damned race.  We’re wrapped in illusions, delusions, confusions about the penetrability of partitions, we’re all mad and in solitary confinement.” “We think we know.”  “Know?  That’s worse than an atom bomb, and always was”’ (DV, 261).

Set between the war and the late 1970s, the novel portrays a decaying England in the grip of a visible, hellish darkness, befitting the Miltonic allusion of the title: ‘A dungeon horrible, on all sides round/ As one great furnace flamed, yet from those flames/ No light, but rather darkness visible/ Served only to discover sights of woe,/ Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace/ And rest can never dwell, hope never comes (I. 61-67, John Milton’s Paradise Lost). 

The main character, Matty is an outsider and alien figure who looks with fresh eyes upon English life, its depravity, permissiveness and descent into chaos.  His survival during the Blitz is ‘improbable’ (DV, 16) and his uncertain background, language, visions or hallucinations problematize the novel’s realism and intensify the overlap between art and life, fantasy and reality.  We are never quite sure whether Matty is mad, some kind of prophet, a supernatural creation or, indeed, a figment of Pedigree’s imagination: ‘“There’ve been times when I wondered if you actually existed when no one else was looking and listening if you see what I mean”’ (DV, 264). 

Matty’s orphan status is, of course, intimately connected with the figure of the double in literature which is heavily used in Darkness Visible and which itself strongly suggests the ‘divided self’, and by extension the divided, uncertain, schizoid quality to society that seems so much a part of post-industrial or late-capitalist postmodern life.  Darkness Visible becomes a visible sign of Golding’s struggle to write fiction in an age which so radically calls into question the significance of fiction and its truth-telling powers. 


For a full critical reading of Darkness Visible see Crawford, P. (2002) Politics and History in William Golding: The World Turned Upside Down. University of Missouri Press: Columbia, pp.146-186.

Key Themes:

  • Postmodern Madness

Reference: William, Golding. 1979. Darkness Visible. Faber and Faber, 1980


Professor Paul Crawford
Date Review Submitted: Sunday 16th August 2009