I wasn’t a great fan of William Golding, I have to admit. I studied
“Lord of the Flies” when I was 13 and found it too painful for words. But I have recently been converted to his writing on the back of having to write an essay about “Darkness Visible”. I wanted the essay to reflect my response to the immediacy of the first few pages,which are extraordinary, so I deliberately didn’t read beyond them at the time. And I managed to miss that “Darkness Visible” is a line from Milton’s “Paradise Lost”. This means some of my guesses don’t quite hold up. Still, I think this piece does point out a few of the techniques he uses very effectively, and I learnt a lot about writing from reading this novel. And the rest of the book is terrific too.
I’m posting it today, because I happened to be in the Oxfordshire Records Office yesterday (they are very nice people, have a cafe and it’s close to my children’s school). They currently have an exhibition celebrating 500 years of Brasenose College, complete with Golding’s Nobel Prize award, which was a sight to see on an otherwise uneventful afternoon.
Reading “Darkness Visible” prompted me to return to the “Lord of the Flies” which I enjoyed a lot more this time round. So I hope this whets your appetite enough to give Golding a try…
Illuminating the Darkness – An analysis of the opening of “Darkness Visible” by William Golding (pp 9-14)
The beginning of “Darkness Visible” is deceptively simple – a group of fire-fighters watch a blaze in the Blitz. World War Two has been in shown in literature and film so often, a scene like this can seem quite trite. However, Golding is not a common-place writer: in his hands, it becomes something quite extraordinary.
The novel opens in the Isle of Dogs, in London’s Docklands. The word “evacuated” indicates that we are probably in war-time, which is confirmed by the presence of barrage balloons, bombs and searchlights. This setting is so familiar to us it could be a cliché. However, Golding’s take on it seems slightly unusual. A less skilled writer would have shown us a German Dornier bombing ordinary houses, resulting in casualties being pulled from dusty rubble. Here, the bombers aren’t mentioned till they depart, the bombs seem to appear “mysteriously” in the sky. So we see the devastation of war, not in the physical effects it has on people, but in the poignancy of their absence,
“there had been as many languages spoken as families that lived there. But just now, not much was being said.” (p9)
The second comment is slightly humorous, but it is humour tinged with sadness, a subtle effect that piques our curiosity. We are drawn in further by the film-like technique that moves from a broad sweep of the landscape to concentrate on particular details. We start with a description of the streets, before focussing on the fire, then the “men” watching, and finally on three particular crewmen: the musician, the bookseller and their leader, the captain. We are given no physical descriptions of these people, but we are allowed to eavesdrop into their thoughts. The little hints Golding gives us about them – the musician has learnt to understand the sounds of war, the leader seems to be struggling with his emotions – help us develop sympathy with them, and bring us into their story.
There’s enough in this opening to attract our interest as a reader, but what else is Golding doing to maintain our involvement? He uses a very effective technique by placing two vital facts early on. One is that the area has been “evacuated officially”. The other, that the crew are waiting for the “delayed action” of the unexploded bomb. The first is there to emphasize how unlikely it is that there could be anyone in the fire. The second shows that, even when the bombers leave, the danger is far from over. Having laid these narrative seeds, Golding then proceeds to tell his tale, which he paces well using a second technique – interweaving a vivid description of the fire with the thoughts and emotions of the crew watching.
For the majority of the passage, the men are motionless, held still by their impotence in the face of a blaze which is “out of control”. In fact, it is the fire that seems to be the central character here. It is a “great fire” – only natural windbreaks created by burnt buildings can hinder its path. It is a “furnace”. Its light is so strong it illuminates the whole street. It consumes everything. It seems “permanent”. It is vibrant – a “red curtain” with a “white heart” that makes a “roaring” noise. It is so powerful that even the “least combustible materials” are melting. The author wants us to understand that nothing can possibly live in these flames. However, he counterpoints this by showing the crew-men remembering improbable escapes, such as the bookseller living through a wall crashing on him. This helps create a seeming contradiction in the reader’s mind: it is impossible to survive such a conflagration, yet people survive the impossible. This sets up the idea that such a miracle might be about to happen here.
There is a shift in emphasis on page twelve, as Golding slowly builds up the dramatic tension. First the musician stops listening for bombs and starts “attending to the fire with his eyes”. The bookseller notices and swings round, to see what the musician and crew are looking at,
“where now, humanly speaking, the street was no longer part of the habitable world…. something moved.” (p12)
The bookseller and the others look away, perhaps because they can’t quite believe it, perhaps because they are frightened of what they might find. It is only then that the captain sees what they see. Simultaneously, the bombers leave, suggesting that the men might now be safe. This is a moment where another writer might reveal what they have seen, but Golding continues to build up the tension by delaying the revelation, creating uncertainty in the reader’s mind. Like the firemen, we are not sure what to believe, until the captain says “look again”, and we are finally told, “what had seemed impossible” is true, a “figure” has appeared in the glare. But still it is “impossibly small”, because Golding reminds us (bringing us neatly back to our starting point) the place has been evacuated – there should be no children there. This is quickly followed by the second narrative seed coming to fruition. As the men finally move into action, the bomb goes off. The passage ends in a climax that is doubly dramatic, the men are in danger, and the impossible has happened – a child is emerging from the flames. The reader is left with two important questions that will drive the story forward – how did the child get there and what happens next?
Golding uses language in many interesting ways in this piece, but there is insufficient space to account for them all, except in relation to the narrative tone, which is particularly interesting. The opening pages are packed with long words, such as “lambent”, “diminution”, “augmentation”,
“perception”, “interpretation”. This has a rather distancing effect and can be off-putting for the reader. Distance is also created by the fact that no-one is referred to by name, and the events themselves are at arms-length – the bombers are invisible, the sounds of explosions are far away, even the fire is down the street. I think Golding might have two reasons for doing this. One is that war has a numbing effect. Even though the events we see are dramatic, they have lost their power to shock – illustrated by fact that the fountain of water from the bombed pump doesn’t draw a crowd, as it would have in peace-time.
A second reason is more subtle. The language may be deliberately formal and distant to invoke a spirit of the times – the avoidance of showing feelings known as the ‘stiff upper lip’. This is built on by the use of understated dialogue such as, “I’m not happy”, and “chaps”. Golding deliberately undermines this tone through his sarcastic comment, “Indeed none of the chaps was happy” – how can they be in these conditions? The description of the captain does this further. He is literally trying keep his lips stiff, they “were set so firmly together” that “the front of his chin trembled”. His men seem almost embarrassed by this, yet it is the captain who acts when they see the child, the captain who rushes on, despite the bomb. Golding seems to be suggesting here that showing emotion does not necessarily make a man weak.
The narrative is thus structured very effectively, both to build dramatic tension and draw us into the story, and the ambiguous tone is intriguing. But what is Golding’s artistic vision, and how does he achieve it? I think it is obvious from the title, “Darkness Visible”, that the author is after something complex – after all making darkness visible is a contradiction in terms. I would suggest the “darkness” Golding is trying to illuminate is illustrated by two key passages.
“whereas Pompeii had been blinded by dust here there was if anything, too much clarity, too much shameful, inhuman light where the street ended. Tomorrow all might be dark, dreary, dirty, broken walls, blind windows; but
just now there was so much light that the very stones seemed semi-precious, a version of the infernal city. “ (p11)
I think Golding is suggesting by this, that, whilst Pompeii was a terrible tragedy, it was a natural disaster. Here, the destruction is being done by man, and the light of the flame, makes the “darkness” of man’s ability to kill momentarily visible. Further on, he returns to the same idea by describing the child’s face. One side is bright, but this is not an effect of the light, “The burn was even more visible on the left side of his head”. Just as the fire makes the damage to homes and communities evident, the burn on the child’s face shows the true darkness that bombing does, it harms and mutilates children.
The striking use of biblical imagery in this section, suggests to me that Golding is also writing an allegory. The fire is described early on as “a burning bush”, which immediately brings to mind the story of God speaking to Moses, the implication that God is making some kind of announcement through the blaze. This is further suggested for me by the use of “white” lights that look like “tents” in the sky. This reminds me of the transfiguration scene in the New Testament, when Jesus is revealed as the Messiah, bathed in white light and attended by the prophets Elijah and Moses. His apostles propose that they build tents on the mountain for them. It is a story that also has parallels with the moment Jesus is baptised in the river. A white dove appears in the sky, telling everyone that he is the son of God. I think it is possible that Golding is using these images to suggest that the fire is announcing something special. The child who walks out of the flames is a representation of an important Christian idea – the sacrificial victim who could be the salvation of the world. There is a little bit of ambiguity about this though. It is easy to assume the child is good because it is a victim, but the description of it “condensing” from the smoke and flames does feel a little sinister. It is possible Golding is playing with the idea of good and evil through the physical features of the child, half damaged, half pure. Presumably this question will be answered as the novel progresses.
The fire seems to me to stand for the whole world, and indeed, Golding tells us this more than once. The “very substance of the world” is burning. The fire seems to be “permanent”, the “world” has become an “open stove”, “the world was being consumed”. Like the flames in the Book of Revelations, this is an apocalyptic blaze that seems to suggest the end of everything. It may also represent the need for the world to be cleansed of its inhumanity, before it can start anew.
The use of the phrase “infernal city” seems to reference the city of Dis, in the hell of Dante’s Inferno. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, Dante’s poem is also allegorical, and deals with the themes of good, evil and the possibility of salvation. Second it provides us with an allegorical purpose for the presence of the bookseller and the musician. I would suggest, like Virgil in the Inferno, they are there to remind us that art helps us to face up to sin and evil, and to transcend it.
The captain also seems to be there on purpose. He is the first to act when he sees the child, and he shows immense courage when the bomb goes off. I would suggest he symbolises the importance of compassion and bravery in the face of unbelievable horrors.
Golding is using his initially ordinary looking story to address several important themes: the nature of good and evil, the futility of war, the possibilities for human survival, the need for salvation. He adds weight to this by clearly placing his novel within the literary tradition. References to Pompeii and Artemis, remind us of the classical world, whilst Dante provides us with a link to modern literature. The fire, river and the title seem reminiscent of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness”. The subject matter and allegorical aspects are similar to Thomas’ poem, “A Refusal to Mourn the Death of a Child by Fire in London”, whilst the fire reminds me in places of Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.”
The novel was published in 1979, but like any good historical novel it says as much about its own time as it does about the period in which it is set. Golding is writing from a post- nuclear world, which seems reflected in the description of the white heart of a red flame – exactly what a nuclear explosion looks like. The horror of the Holocaust seems to be referenced in the idea of the world collapsing, which was how many felt at the time. Golding is also writing a few years after the end of the Vietnam War, which was considered particularly horrific because of its effects on civilians. A famous image from that war is the picture of a burnt naked child running to safety. Surely Golding had this in mind when he wrote this passage?
For a novel to work, it has to engage the reader from the outset. Does Golding’s opening achieve this? I think this might be a matter of taste. The rather distant tone at the beginning could be off-putting to some, and they might be deterred from reading further. I did have that initial reaction, but a second glance drew me into the narrative. I became hooked by Golding’s development of dramatic tension, his complexity of thought, and juggling of contradictions. As a writer, I feel I have been presented with a master-class in writing that will stand me in good stead. More importantly, as a reader, I am desperate to read on, which seems to me the ultimate mark of success.
Copyright c Virginia Moffatt 2009