Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, August 19, 2013

1956: Pincher Martin (Golding, William)

Sympathetic plight turn suitable purgatory (4/5)

William Golding’s debut novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), is widely known for its portrayal of the savage child, the regressive state of human nature when faced with hardship. When stranded on an island and without adults for leadership or their rules to live by, the children descend into primality, vindictiveness, group delusion, and murder. Pincher Martin is similar in this regard but set on an isolated rock with one man, his plight, his thoughts and his delusions in solitude. Where Lord of the Flies can be seen as the state of individuals in society without control, Pincher Martin could be seen as the state of individual control without society.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Drowsing in the freezing North Atlantic, Christopher Hadley Martin, temporary lieutenant, happens upon a grotesque rock, an island that appears only on weather charts. To drink there is a pool of rain water; to eat there are weeds and sea anemones. Through the long hours with only himself to talk to, Martin must try to assemble the truth of his fate, piece by terrible piece.”


His navy ship having been sunk, Martin drifts in loneliness upon the Atlantic currents prone to undulation of oceanic waves and persistence of the blurred sun above. The valleys and hills of the wet ebony expanse seamlessly morph into a rocky island, a minute outpost of life amid the bleak seascape of his ship’s destruction. Assessing his clothing and pockets, Martin sets his will to triumph over idleness while evaluating the topology of his rocky pinnacle for food, drink, shelter and zenith. With everything accounted for, he begins his monotony of daily routine, sets plans for his inevitable rescue, and bides his time with pet projects: digging channels for fresh water, constructing a dummy for sign of rescue and giving himself an enema.

Succumbing to the chill of the north Atlantic and the icicle of isolation, Martin’s mind begins to slip into fantasy and nostalgia, flashes of disconnectedness with reality and the present; his personality fragments and regroups, temporarily destabilizes into a vivid chaos of confusion and impossibility. Martin idly longs for the boots he cast off soon after the sinking and cherishes the limited number of other items he has on his self, including a lifejacket, foil squares and string—each item is vital to his sanity and survival.

Lethargy and boredom dance at the periphery of his forced preoccupation; each idle second allows the ennui to well up and consume him, “there was nothing to do but protect normality” (175). Yet, the pain throughout his body makes his sluggish, a signal from the center of himself to rest for recuperation. “The chill and the exhaustion spoke to him clearly. Give up, they said, lie still. Give up the thought of return, the thought of living. Break up, leave go” (45). Thus, the cyclic battle of action and inaction grips Martin’s life. Each errant detour into idleness is shaken back into life by Martin’s “center”, his central command for survival:

There was at the centre of all the pictures and pains and voices a fact like a bar of steel, a thing—that which was so nakedly the centre of everything that it could not even examine itself. In the darkness of the skull, it existed, a darker dark, self-existent and indestructible … The centre began to work. It endured the needle [of pain] to look sideways, put thoughts together. (45)

This center of sanity is linked to his life before the accident, before entering the navy, before making enemies; his choice of actions from his past haunt even the busiest of his moments while perched on his rocky island. The restive center of himself “that could not examine itself danced on in the world behind his eyes” (84) where his own motives are shadowed by his struggle to merely survive. Atonement for his past sins is marked by this pebbly purgatory where he is unable to be saved or enter death.


Pincher Martin is as minimalist of a novel as you can get—one character, one location. This minimalism results in a dichotomy: while scenes, sensations and occurrences often repeat, the entire still remains intense and somewhat dynamic. Martin bides his time by doing little construction projects on his islet—a channel for fresh water and a stone body to signal for help—but the majority of his time is seemingly spent scurrying around the same islet discovering landmarks of crevices, cliffs and crannies. His sense of wonder borders on naivety while his mind slips further into a delirium ripe for his undoing.

A simple Wikipedia search for Pincher Martin reveals that the description of the isolated islet fits the features of Rockall, about 600 kilometers WNW of Glasgow. Martin partitions the topology of the rock, each part with specific use or personal history. As Martin’s scurries about the rock on his daily chores, the reader can oddly visualize the constricting clefts in the rock and barren winds outside of the rock. Then, when Martin splits from his reality, the reader also takes a trip from the islet to either his tainted past or his tainted perceptions.

There are very limited cues as to the passing of time on the island. Martin mentions not having had a bowel movement for a week, but the critical incidences of his stony abode are made without notation. Therefore, the reader can’t identify with Martin’s into sanity because it would seem unlikely that he would lapse into delirium in only a matter of days. Is hypothermia advancing his mental decay? Have more days or weeks actually passed than mentioned? Was his psyche already unstable? Relating a fourth possibility in the list, which crossed my mind when reading, would be a spoiler.

I don’t necessarily subscribe to the idea that the book is simplistically about “the state of individual control without society”, as mentioned in the introduction. On hindsight, the levels of depth in Martin’s purgatory are as numerous as Dante’s circles of hell. Which circle of hell does Rockall represent for Martin? As his concentration drifts, he relives moments in his past which point to the particular sins of his personal guilt. Martin is guilty of three of these sins, but which damns him the most: (1) The second circle of lust where he’s blown by endless winds?; (2) The fifth level of anger where he battles eternally with rage on the water of Styx?; or (3) The ninth level of treachery where he becomes coldly immobile?


Ignore any hype you hear or read of the reportedly shocking twist at the conclusion. Rarely am I shocked or awed by any conclusion, but I can appreciate the final twists of a novel like a connoisseur of cigars—with a sullen nod, tight-lipped grin, and softly-lidded eyes. Something mentally internal is definitely ratcheted when confronted by an ingenious twist or suitable conclusion. This is exactly what my general state of sensation felt when reading the final pages of Pincher Martin—satisfaction.

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