Strip away the veneer of civilized society, and as you near the human heart you find something much darker. William Golding explored that theme most famously in Lord of the Flies, which most of us read in high school. I don’t remember when or where I acquired a copy of Golding’s Rites of Passage, but the fact that “.50” is penciled inside the front cover suggests it was at a used book sale. I don’t think I had ever read it, but this month I’m taking a random walk through my temporarily disorganized book collection. Feeling a bit weary of science fiction, I thought I’d try something more literary.
Golding’s microcosm in Rites of Passage is a sailing ship bound from England for “the Antipodes,” either Australia or New Zealand. The year seems to be about 1820; Golding is coy about the exact date, but we learn in passing that Coleridge is still alive. Conditions on the ship are about what you’d expect — the stench from the bilge, the tyrannical captain, the tiny cabins, seasickness, all juxtaposed against the stiff British etiquette of the upper-class passengers.
The book is in the form of a journal of a young man, a Mr. Talbot, who is one of the passengers. His affection of literary conceits is rather distracting, and the archaic word usage may cause the less literate reader to stumble now and again. Talbot is no more honorable than he needs to be: Before too long he has seduced, or perhaps raped, one of the female passengers. From the description in his journal, we can’t quite tell whether it was a seduction or a rape, from which fact the alert reader will discern that Talbot is also self-obsessed and not very observant. In any event, the incident causes him no great distress and leads to no social consequences.
Why spend the first half of the novel on an incident with no consequences? Golding has an ace up his sleeve. The most important character in the book is Mr. Colley, a socially awkward little clergyman. Colley is made sport of by the other passengers, but Talbot’s description leaves us rather in the dark as to exactly what is going on. Something painful. As the book nears its climax, Colley has retreated to his cabin, where he lies in his bunk, face turned to the wall, refusing to speak. Eventually he dies.
Talbot rescues Colley’s letter to his sister and pastes it into his own journal, thus conveniently allowing us to read it. Colley’s fascination with a handsome young sailor is set down in quite innocent terms, but the modern reader will have no doubt what Colley is feeling, consciously or not, when he mentions wanting to kneel before the young sailor.
The captain convenes an inquiry to determine what happened to Colley. As the inquiry proceeds, it becomes clear, though mostly by inference and innuendo, that the passengers (and/or the crew) got Colley drunk, after which he gave the handsome young sailor a blow job. The sailor hints that this was not an isolated incident, and that some of the officers may have been involved. At that point the captain shuts the book on the inquiry. No one is punished, although one of the cabin servants soon vanishes. We’re left to assume he was tossed overboard because he knew too much.
Golding’s purpose, in showing us Talbot’s seduction of the woman, seems to have been to show that a double standard was in effect. Heterosexual misbehavior was, at worst, a minor peccadillo. But in Colley’s case, as Talbot says in concluding his journal, “Men can die of shame.”
But Talbot is not a reliable narrator. Colley’s letter shows us his extreme Christian piety. There were certainly plenty of gay men in 1820, on ships and on dry land. The social and legal sanctions against homosexuality were extreme, but most of those men didn’t die of shame. What destroyed Colley was that he had no way to reconcile his piety with his feelings.
The real moral of the story is this: Men can die of religion.