Monday, 31 January 2011

The Spire - WIlliam Golding

William Golding’s fifth book, The Spire, was originally published in 1964 and, according to the blurb on Faber’s 2005 edition is ‘a dark and powerful portrait of one man’s will, and the folly that he creates’.  This description of the novel is entirely accurate.  Briefly, the novel is about a senior cleric at a cathedral in England who becomes obsessed with his vision for a spire to be built on the cathedral.  He refuses to listen to advice from the master builder, Roger Mason, who insists that the spire cannot be supported because there are no building foundations and the spire becomes known as Jocelin’s folly.  Jocelin states that the spire is ‘God’s folly’ and demands that the spire is built despite the ‘cost’.  This cost is not financial, although the funding for the spire provides an important twist in the plot.  The cost that Jocelin acknowledges is the human cost of the spire; for example, the murder of Pangall, the death of several builders, the tragedy of Goody Pangall and Roger Mason, and ultimately Jocelin’s descent into the madness of obsession and desire.   As the building reaches higher and higher, the ground under the cathedral begins to ‘creep’ and the pillars ‘sing’ under the enormous strain.  Everyone involved in the building and resident at the cathedral also become unbearably affected by the strain of this seemingly impossible task.
            I am currently re-reading The Spire just a month or so after I originally read it.  It is rare for me to read a book for the second time so close to the first but The Spire is a book that demands another reading.  It is superbly written and plotted but at times, the narrative is so subtle that only after reaching the end of the book can the reader fully appreciate Golding’s achievement.  Thus, a re-reading offers such reward in understanding the symbolism and events that one cannot fully comprehend at first.  This is one of the reasons why I highly commend and recommend this novel.
The lack of an entirely omniscient or reliable narrator allows readers to draw many of their own conclusions about incidents in the novel.  Key examples of this are the fate of Pangall, Jocelin’s desire for Goody, and the truth behind the ‘angel’ on Jocelin’s back.  The story is told in a mixture of third and first person but always from Jocelin’s point of view. However, his view of events is skewed by self-denial, his unshakeable belief in the feasibility of the spire and his utmost determination to complete his vision.  He justifies his actions throughout the novel – many of which are distinctly unfitting for a man in his position – as necessary in order to fulfil his vision of the spire.  Therefore, when Pangall, the lame and impotent caretaker, reports that the workmen employed to build the spire ‘torment’ him and warns that ‘one day, they will kill me’ (14), Jocelin fails to do anything of note to help him.  Pangall begs him to send them away but Jocelin only requests that the master builder speaks to his men and ask them to stop bullying Pangall.  It appears later that Pangall’s prediction is correct although Jocelin’s description of the event is far from conclusive as he watches the workmen chase Pangall near the pit.
He saw men who tormented Pangall, having him at the broom’s end.  In an apocalyptic glimpse of seeing, he caught how a man danced forward to Pangall, the model of the spire projecting obscenely from between his legs – then the swirl and the noise and the animal bodies hurled Jocelin against stone, so that he could not see, but only hear how Pangall broke… (90)
After this, the next we hear of Pangall is that he has ‘run away’ (92).  Jocelin occasionally wonders ‘where is Pangall’ and images of the incident by the pit run through his mind but he quickly dismisses this as ‘the cost’ of the spire (105).  It is only towards the end of the novel that the reader can finally begin to understand Pangall’s fate; and this is only revealed because of Jocelin’s madness.
After becoming concerned at Jocelin’s neglect of his religious duties and the spiralling cost of the spire, a group of church officials come to interview him, which Jocelin describes as a trial.  He begins to tell the story of the building work and declares ‘there were three sorts of people.  Those who ran, those who stayed, and those who were built in’ (166).  The Visitor asks him to elaborate on what he means about ‘people being built in’ but he cannot answer.  Later, Jocelin visits Roger Mason who has ‘turned to drink’ after his experience working on the spire.  Jocelin asks him rhetorically: ‘what holds [the spire] up Roger?  I?  The nail?  Does she, or do you?  Or it is poor Pangall, crouched beneath the crossways, with a sliver of mistletoe between his ribs?’ (212).  With this, Jocelin reveals that he ‘knows’, or at least very strongly suspects that Pangall was part of a sacrifice made by the workmen to guard against the evil of the stinking pit and the creeping ground.  A second reading of the novel elicits further clues to this; the recurring symbol of mistletoe and the workmen’s references to ‘bad luck’ and their paganism.    Although Jocelin’s insanity is so far advanced at this stage that the reader still cannot be sure if his accusation is true, it is likely that this was indeed Pangall’s fate and Jocelin knew it all along.  Thus, his failure to punish or remove the workmen is even more abhorrent.  He allows himself to be so utterly determined to complete the spire that Pangall is also Jocelin’s sacrifice.  Along with Roger Mason, who eventually attempts suicide, and Goody Pangall who dies in childbirth, Pangall represents the true ‘cost’ of the spire. 
Ultimately, Jocelin is also sacrificed.  The warmth on his back, which he often referred to as a ‘guardian angel’ is revealed to be an illness, which eventually kills him.  In keeping with the style of the narrative, the reader only discovers this through Jocelin’s rare moments of lucidity in which he hears snatches of conversations.  When he is attacked by the villagers, a woman shouts: ‘Holy Mother of God.  Look at his back’ (215).  On his deathbed he hears: ‘It is a wasting, a consumption of the back and spine’ (218).  Jocelin’s fate seems linked to that of the spire.  As the building work begins to disintegrate, the pain in his back becomes unbearable.  ‘Then his angel put away the two wings from the cloven hoof and struck him from arse to head with a whitehot flail.  It filled his spine with sick fire and he shrieked because he could not bear it yet knew he would have to’ (188).  However, as Jocelin lays dying he manages to ask of the spire: ‘Fallen?’ to which Father Adam replies, ‘Not yet’ (218).  At the novel’s conclusion, Jocelin is dead but the spire still stands.
            The Spire is a remarkable novel, filled with immense symbolism and a narrative that so finely captures the complexities of the protagonist.  It is also beautifully written; with many passages exquisitely describing the spire’s construction and potential fall.  I have included two of my favourite quotations here.  First, Jocelin’s initial response to the building work: 'There was outside and inside, as clearly divided, as eternally and inevitably divided as yesterday and today' (12).  Later, Roger Mason explains the problem of the spire to Jocelin: ‘Sooner or later there’d be a bang, a shudder, a roar.  Those four columns would open apart like a flower, and everything else up here, stone, wood, iron, glass, men, would slide down into the church like the fall of a mountain’ (118).
            Golding is, of course, best known for his debut novel, Lord of the Flies, which is regularly cited as one of the best novels ever. The Spire certainly deserves the same level of attention. 

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Piggy: What's in a Name?

‘He was shorter than the fair boy and very fat.  He came forward, searched out safe lodgements for his feet, and then looked up through thick spectacles’ (7).
This is our first visual introduction to Piggy on the opening page of William Golding’s extraordinary novel Lord of the Flies and this description serves us well for the rest of the book.  Piggy is perhaps the most famous and enduring character from Lord of the Flies; his large stature, spectacles and insistence on rules and order makes him instantly recognisable. His often-priggish attitude to life on the island causes annoyance to the other boys and frustration on the part of the reader, who can appreciate the good Piggy is trying to do, but his manner usually ends up alienating him from the group.
            What is most interesting about Piggy is that we never find out his real name.  During his first meeting with Ralph, he ask Ralph his name, and is surprised when Ralph doesn’t ask for his.  Eventually he gives up hinting to Ralph to ask for his name and instead declares, ‘ I don’t care what they call me …so long as they don’t call me what they used to call me at school’ (11).  This makes Ralph ‘faintly interested’ and he asks Piggy for the nickname without requesting his actual name.   Piggy, in his desire for friendship, makes his first mistake on the island by revealing the name given to him from former tormenters.  Later during the first meeting, Jack calls him ‘Fatty’ but Ralph interrupts with a shout: ‘His real name’s Piggy!’ (23).   All the boys unite in laughter while Piggy cleans his glasses in embarrassment and shame.  Shortly after, Piggy confronts Ralph over the revelation of his hated name: ‘I said I didn’t care as long as they didn’t call me Piggy; an’ I said not to tell and then you went an’ said straight out’ (26).  Ralph, understanding his mistake, tries to reassure him, ‘Better Piggy than Fatty’ (27).
Throughout the novel, he is always referred to as Piggy and, even though several biographical details about him emerge – he lives with his aunt who has a sweet shop, his father is dead and he has asthma – his real name is never revealed.  When Ralph is rescued by the officer during the book’s thrilling conclusion, he weeps ‘for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy’ (223).  Ironically, of course, this ‘true, wise friend’ is not called Piggy at all, and the way Golding has structured this sentence – emphasising the fact that he is ‘called’ Piggy – suggests that Ralph regrets his failure to discover his real name.  This also serves as a reminder to Ralph that it is his fault that Piggy was so-named on the island and is another source of regretful shame.
            Although we never determine Piggy’s name, Piggy himself is keen to find out exactly who everyone is on the island.  He says,  ‘I expect we’ll want to know all their names…and make a list’.  When other boys join them on the beach after Ralph blows the conch shell, Piggy dutifully collects names and tries to tell Ralph who again, is uninterested.  In a bid to placate Piggy over the upset of his nickname, Ralph tells him that it is his ‘job’ to take names while he, Jack and Simon explore the island, which calms Piggy’s indignation.  However, without the support and presence of the leader, the boys disperse and Piggy is unable to complete his register.   This causes a problem during the fire on the mountain when one of the small boys disappears.  Piggy rightly insists that the lack of rules and chaos are the cause of this disappearance and predicts further problems unless some kind of order is established.  ‘How can you expect to be rescued if you don’t put first things first and act proper?’ (50).   
When Piggy makes these statements, backed up by his possession of the conch, the other boys, particularly Jack, usually shout him down.  Indeed, Piggy firmly believes in the power of the conch, even after the conflict on the island and the stealing of his spectacles.  When Ralph, Piggy, Sam and Eric go to confront the other boys about the theft Piggy says, ‘You let me carry the conch, Ralph.  I’ll show him the one thing he hasn’t got’ (189).  Piggy tries to reason with them, backed up by the ‘white magic shell’ (199) by shouting ‘Which is better – to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?’ (199).  The response of Roger, a member of Jack’s tribe, is to drop an enormous rock onto Piggy.  Beautifully written by Golding; ‘the rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist’ (200).  The destruction of Piggy and the conch symbolises the end of any semblance of order and exposes Piggy’s naiveté; his hope that the boys would still recognise the authority of the conch is destroyed in the most brutal manner.
            The tragic murder of Piggy is the most shocking event in Golding’s novel.  Although Simon is killed a few chapters earlier, it was unintentional, as the boys mistook him for the beast in their excitement, fear and panic.  Roger executes Piggy’s murder ‘with a sense of delirious abandonment’ (200) and if the officer hadn’t arrived on the island, Ralph would certainly have been killed next.  Piggy’s death elucidates the savage results of societal breakdown and disorder.  Perhaps this is why he continues to fascinate readers to such an extent; this character - known only as ‘Piggy’ - who is so insistent on rules, order and democratic processes, is destroyed not just because of the lack of them, but because he believed in them.