Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 30, 2017

Pincher Martin (1956), by William Golding

pincher-martinPincher Martin is a most disconcerting book.  First published in 1956, it was William Golding’s third novel after his wildly successful debut novel Lord of the Flies (1954) and while it likewise depicts the human condition in extremis it is not, as Wikipedia describes it, merely a novel that records the thoughts of a drowning sailor.

To explain why, I need to depart from my usual practice and consider the plot, spoilers and all.  You have been warned…


I read the first few pages both enthralled and appalled: the third person narration describes the desperate struggle of a sailor fighting for his life in the cold waters of the Atlantic.  The blurb had told me that he was the sole survivor of a torpedoed destroyer and I could hardly bear to read his frantic efforts to breathe:

He was struggling in every direction, he was the centre of the writhing and kicking knot of his own body.  There was no up or down, no light and no air. He felt his mouth open of itself and the shrieked word burst out.


When the air had gone with the shriek, water came in to fill its place – burning water, hard in the throat and mouth as stones that hurt.  He hutched his body towards the place where air had been but now it was gone and there was nothing but black, choking welter. His body let loose its panic and his mouth strained open till the hinges of his jaw hurt.  Water thrust in, down, without mercy.  Air came with it for a moment so that he fought in what might have been the right direction.  But water reclaimed him and spun so that knowledge of where might be was erased completely. (p.1)


By RAF photographer, James Fisher (Source Wikipedia Commons)


Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even knowing from the blurb that he ends up stranded on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic didn’t alleviate the power of this prose to make me think the sailor was going to drown.  (It reminded me of Richard Flanagan’s Death of a River Guide where Aljaz Cosino is a river guide, trapped in The Cauldron on the Franklin River as the water rises). Christopher ‘Pincher’ Martin’s struggle to clamber onto the rock is epic, as you can see that it would have been, from this 1943 RAF photo of the rock with waves breaking over it.  (Golding himself might have seen this rock during his war service in the Royal Navy; it would be an unforgettable sight even from a distance, as I’m sure most prudent navigators would have ensured it was).  I am indebted to a reader at Goodreads for the discovery that this rock is thought to be Rockall, and to Wikipedia for its exact location between Ireland and Iceland, which makes it clear just how icy the waters would have been.

Not knowing at the time of reading just how small this rock actually is, I breathed a sigh of relief that Martin wasn’t bashed to death against it.

He went under into a green calm.  The sea no longer played with him.  It stayed its wild movement and held him gently, carried him with delicate and careful motion like a retriever with a bird.  Hard things touched him about the feet and knees.  The sea laid him down gently and retreated.  There were hard things touching his face and chest, the side of his forehead.  The sea came back and fawned round his face, licked him.  He thought movements that did not happen.  The sea came back and he thought the movements again and this time they happened because the sea took most of his weight. They moved him forward over the hard things. Each wave and each movement moved him forward. He felt the sea run down to smell at his feet then come back and nuzzle under his arm.  It no longer licked his face. (p.18)

But his troubles are just beginning.  He is badly injured from being hurled against the rock by the waves, and he is exhausted.  His clothes of course are soaked, and he is freezing.  He has to climb from where the waves have deposited him to higher ground and his hands are too cold to feel his way with handholds in the rock.  He has nothing in the way of resources, just a knife, his lifebelt and his oilskin.  He has to find some source of food and water, find something in the way of shelter, and deal with the threat of his own madness brought on by his total isolation.

And all this is utterly convincing.  Even as Martin’s mind deteriorates under the stress and loneliness of his situation, Golding makes it completely real, and what’s more, he sets up the reader who has to juggle empathy for Martin’s ghastly predicament with the revelations through his fractured memories that he is actually a truly horrible person, guilty of dreadful crimes and utterly unrepentant even now that he fears for his life.

And then…


And then there is the final chapter which tells us that Martin’s body is being recovered to take back to the mainland.  The text makes it clear that Martin drowned as soon as he hit the water and that there was never any hope of his survival.

Mr Campbell took his eyes away from the stretcher.

“They are wicked things, those lifebelts. They give a man hope when there is no longer any call for it. They are cruel.” (p. 222)

The reader is utterly baffled by this turn of events…

Philippa Gregory in the Afterword puts it like this:

This is an afterword, rather than a foreword, because any study of this extraordinary novel has to consider the ending: the most important section in the novel.  Read at their simplest, the final pages are a ‘twist in the tail’ like the playful reverse of a traditional short story, but these pages are far more than this: they are a shocking revelation to the reader that the whole novel has been an illusion of the narrator Pincher Martin.  In place of illusion we suddenly see a snapshot of the real world, and a suggestion of what has really taken place.

The ‘twist’ is the total inversion of the story.  We readers thought that we were reading a story about survival, in which the survival of the material world, of the mind and body of a profoundly materialistic man whose very nickname, ‘Pincher’ implies grabbing, is the drama and chief concern.  It seems to be a novel rather like one of the earliest novels ever written: Robinson Crusoe – a novel about marooning and survival.  Shockingly, in the last pages we learn in a few brutal phrases that the story was not, as we thought, about life, but was all along about dying a death so fast that the narrator did not even have time to kick off his seaboots and swim, but was dragged down to drown, and the story which we have followed was nothing more than his last anguished thoughts, as drowning men are said to have. (p.225)

Like Philippa Gregory, who freely confesses that it is a very puzzling novel, I found aspects of the story very confusing indeed, even as I found it utterly compelling in its vivid depictions of Martin’s delusions. Like her, I found one reading inadequate, and like her, I found two were not enough.  I’d love to hear from other readers who have tackled its mysteries.

William Golding was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983.

Author: William Golding
Title: Pincher Martin
Publisher: Faber & Faber, Faber Modern Classics edition, 2015, first published in 1956.
ISBN: 9780571322749
Review copy courtesy of Faber & Faber via Allen & Unwin Australia


  1. I really, really disliked Lord of the Flies and have never read any other Golding (that I recall). But this sounds wonderful. I just have to wait long enough to forget your review, then a bit longer to forget why I was meant to forget, then I should be ready to go.

    Liked by 1 person

    • *chuckle* Some time in the next decade, then?
      BTW You might like To The Ends of the Earth, it won the Booker. I came to it after seeing the film?series? (I forget) with Thingummy Cumberbatch. It’s a comi-tragic sea journey and a coming-of-age tale about Mr William Talbot, a young aristocrat on his way to Australia to take up a government position procured for him by his wealthy godfather. En route, this rather naïve, pompous and yet good-hearted young man learns a lot about the world and himself.


    • Haha Bill, I didn’t read the review after the opening paragraph, not with all that red warning all over the place! I’ve never read Golding, only saw The lord of the flies. He’s probably not high priority for me not because of the unpleasant subject matter so much as i have to start cutting my losses!


      • As long as I don’t write anything down I’ll forget what I read in months, not years. But I will make a note of To the Ends of the Earth and see if I can get it as an audio book.

        Liked by 1 person

        • It’s one of a series, of three (I think). My dad loved them.


    • Haha. I too disliked Lord of the Flies, wadholloway. I did, however, find this review compelling and will no doubt read ‘Pincher Martin’ one day.


      • *chuckle* I think I might have to dig out Lord of the Flies and re-read it to see why you and Bill didn’t like it!
        To me, negotiating secondary school disdain for anyone ‘conchy’ the feral nature of those boys seemed familiar.


        • Ah yes! Well, the reason I didn’t like it was it was just too ‘harsh’ (can’t think of a better word).


          • Harsh is a very good word. There’s harsh within us all, they say…


  2. I read this many years ago (I mean like decades) & still recall that shocking twist at the end – an Owl Creek influence perhaps. When I consider it now, in the light of your interesting post & quotations, I think it’s a bit of a cheat. Still a powerful novel.


  3. I read this book many years ago too and it has always stayed with me. It’s immensely powerful and I’ve never understood why it isn’t more widely read. Then again, I’m only a casual reader without a literary background and there may be literary failings that I don’t see. I was prompted to comment because I was so pleased to see a modern review.

    In an inversion of your experience I was reminded of the novel a great deal when I read Death of a River Guide and I think this somewhat spoiled Flanagan’s novel for me.


    • Hello Nick, and thank you for your comment. As one ordinary reader to another, I hear you!
      You know, I wonder if one reason the illusionary scenario is so vivid is perhaps because sailors (especially in wartime) fear death by drowning. I did all my international travel as a child and remember those long sea voyages as a blithe experience. It was only when I was older and learned about the countless fatalities along the shipwreck coast here in Australia and also the invention of John Harrison’s chronometer that enabled navigation by longitude, that I realised that modern shipping is still just as dependant on effective navigation. And that if things go wrong, there is very little hope. So perhaps Golding with his vivid imagination drew on his experiences at sea in icy waters because that’s what he feared.


  4. A powerful book I always feel he must have hate flies sometimes his other books like this are just as good if not better


    • Yes, I agree… it’s the idea that the violent death we think is instantaneous might not be, that is so shocking.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. We have this in the living room bookcases somewhere, and I do want to read it soon. (I read your full review anyway, so I know the spoiler now, but I want to see just how he does it!)


    • I suspect that the spoiler may not matter so much after all. As I say, reading the first few pages when he’s struggling in the sea, I knew he survived that because the blurb told me so. I knew he managed to crawl up the rock and other things too, because the blurb told me so. But the prose is so real, you forget all about that. Because you are in his world, not the rational world of a reader who knows what’s illusion and what’s not.
      If I re-read it again, knowing what I know – and having read the Afterword which tells more than I have revealed here, I still think I would find new things…

      Liked by 1 person

      • As a swimmer I know how terrible it is just to choke when water goes down the wrong way, seriously panicky! To die that way would not be quick or ‘easy’ and I don’t understand why writers ever suggest it would.


        • It made me think of getting dumped in the surf – that sense of the sea being in charge, the loss of direction, the body and limbs going every which way, the not knowing how long you need to hold your breath for – and inevitably not holding it for long enough – and finally coming up, thumped hard onto the sea floor, painfully coughing and spluttering as the wave departs in search of its next victim. But that’s only momentary…,


  6. I was so enthralled by your opening description that I too skipped the spoilers. I read The Double Tongue some years ago and didn’t like it much but recall rereading Lord of the Flies to my children when they were about 10 and 8. Thanks for the recommendation.


  7. I kept picking this up in my local library but didn’t check it out. It looks really interesting but my next Golding will be ‘The Spire’ which I’ve been meaning to read for years now. Have you read that one?


    • No, not yet. I’ve only read Lord of the Flies and Rites of Passage.

      Liked by 1 person

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  12. Golding seems to make it clear that the person that Martin confronts at the end of the story is in fact himself. His conscience perhaps? Or the essential part of him that isn’t merely a combination of base instinct and primal fear. In that sense it’s almost a story of redemption. Although ultimately he is destroyed, as Nathaniel predicted.
    It would not be Golding if it was a simple case of divine retribution. This is much more human stuff.
    I’m reminded of the purgatory that is described in Flan O’brien’s The Third Policeman and I wonder if Golding’s point is that we create our own personal hell.


    • Hi Richard, it’s such a long time since I read this, I can’t dispute what you say about Martin being Golding himself.
      I haven’t read enough of Golding, I really need to read more.


      • Hi Lisa,
        That’s just my interpretation really, although Golding seems to give some clues about the identity of the apparition.
        It’s definitely my favourite Golding book and I just finished re-reading it. I have a lot of the others but I have to say that I find some of them utterly impenetrable!
        Lord of the Flies is the obvious exception but I also enjoyed Darkness Visible, although it’s many years since I read it.


        • I like Rites of Passage, but The Inheritors is the most interesting. I think he must have been an extraordinarily clever man.


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