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Rites of Passage by William Golding

Rites of Passage (1980)

by William Golding

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Back at school, I read Golding’s Lord of the Flies – at least I’m pretty sure I did; I can distinctly remember the class reading Cider with Rosie and The Cruel Sea, but my memories of reading Lord of the Flies are somewhat vague – but that was all I knew of Golding. And then a couple of months ago, a local charity shop had four of his paperbacks in stock – I’m not sure who donated them, since they were in excellent condition and had even been protected by sticky-back transparent plastic. I bought two – Rites of Passage and The Inheritors – but on a later trip, only one was left, The Spire, and I now can’t remember what the fourth title was. At the time I wasn’t especially bothered, but having now read Rites of Passage and discovered how bloody good it is… Rites of Passage is the first book of the To the Ends of the Earth trilogy, and was apparently adapted for television, with Blunderbuss Cucumbersnatch in the lead role, although I don’t recall seeing it. The novel is presented as the journal of Edmund Talbot, a minor member of the aristocracy, who has taken ship to Australia in the early 1800s to take up a position in the governor’s office in New South Wales. Also onboard the ship – a converted man-of-war – is a member of the clergy, a somewhat obsequious young parson called Colley. The trip does not start well. Both Talbot and Colley earn the ire of the captain by disobeying his standing orders and approaching officers on watch, and the captain himself, on the poop deck. Talbot is, eventually, forgiven; Colley is not. In fact, Colley becomes the unwitting butt of the crew’s vulgar and insulting “ceremony” for crossing the equator. But he forgives them and persuades the captain, who is embarrassed at Colley’s treatment, to allow him to perform the offices of vicar for the crew. But it goes badly wrong, and Colley dies. After Colley’s death, Talbot comes into possession of the parson’s journal, and realises what he had missed, and how remiss he had been. I had no idea what to expect when I started Rites of Passage, but found it to be an astonishingly good novel. Golding’s control of voice is second to none, his evocation of the period is supremely convincing, and he does not beat the reader about the head with the plot or its meaning. This is what proper fiction is like. I now want to read the other two books of the trilogy – Close Quarters and Fire Down Below – and see the TV adaptation. Oh, and I want to read more Golding. Fortunately, I have another two books of his on the TBR… ( )
1 vote iansales | Nov 19, 2016 |
'a sea story with never a tempest, no shipwreck, no sinking, no rescue'
By sally tarbox on 19 April 2012
Format: Paperback
I read this in one sitting, wanting to know what had happened!
The novel is narrated by a somewhat arrogant young man en route to Australia in 1800. He keeps a journal intended for his godfather- Golding's style of writing convinces the reader that this was written be a gentleman of the era- full at first with nautical observations and accounts of his seasickness. Soon we meet his fellow passengers, notably a rather comical young clergyman and the fiercesome captain. And we become aware that the former is being cruelly bullied...
Our narrator then comes into possession of a long letter that the clergyman is writing to his sister back in England and reproduces it, noting 'this journal has become deadly as a loaded gun.'
We have two different perspectives on the same events, but there is a further twist... ( )
  starbox | Jul 10, 2016 |
Golding is famed for his 'Lord of the Flies' but his Sea Trilogy is a greater achievement, putting you right in the action and perfectly recreating the trials of travelling by sea from England to Australia. ( )
  soylentgreen23 | Jul 3, 2016 |
The main character is travelling from England to America, and in his letters home details ship life and his fellow passengers. I tried to read this several times, but just couldn't get into it. I'm just too tired of self-satisfied, naive prigs.
  wealhtheowwylfing | Feb 29, 2016 |
Rites of Passage is the first book in Golding’s To the Ends of the Earth trilogy and it won the Man Booker prize in 1980. It is written in the form of a travel journal and it documents Edmund Talbot’s sea voyage from England to Australia. Mr. Talbot is the godson of an English nobleman and he writes the journal in order to share his experiences of the voyage with his godfather. Initially, he uses the journal to describe the setting, the passengers, and his experience experience on board the ship, but the journal ultimately describes the tragic downfall of one passenger: Parson Colley. The novel is a clever commentary about class, bullying, and man’s complicity in the downfall of others. The reader quickly learns that the ship is a microcosm of British society. The lower class passengers are in a separate section from the aristocracy and treatment of the officers is determined by where passengers fall on the social class spectrum. It is part coming of age story and part social commentary.

I was skeptical about this book because I don’t care for swashbuckling, sea voyage, sailing, types of books. However, while the entire story is set during a sea voyage, the plot is not at all focused on the voyage. I thought that Golding does a wonderful job in creating a sense of discomfort in the reader by flipping the switch on our perspective from identification with Talbot (to mild degree) to compassion and identification with Colley. Initially, we are made complicit in the atmosphere of bullying. For example, we are made to feel the absurdity of the parson — the image of him as a bumbling, weak, and awkward man permeates our viewpoint. We find humor in his struggles to gain the favor of the Captain and to gain his sea legs. Then Golding turns the tables on us and we are made to see how the initial light and humorous tone turned into cruelty, leading us to question our roles as readers in finding early events humorous.

The commentary of class, a central theme of this book, is interesting. Social prejudice is rampant and once again Golding turns the table on readers. Characters who are seen as moral and noble (the upper class passengers) are shown to be course and cruel and vice versa.

Finally, I enjoyed picking up on similarities between this book and Lord of the Flies. Golding seems to like themes about man’s isolation and how behaviors emerge in the context of removal from “civilized” society. The writing is solid with an interesting blend of humor and tragedy. It is a book that I was surprised I enjoyed so much and that I would be happy to recommend to others.

Overall: A very engaging and thought-provoking read.
BBC also has a series based on these books. You can find it on netflix. It is supposed to be quite good. ( )
  JenPrim | Jan 15, 2016 |
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[Golding] has in Rites of Passage constructed a narrative vessel sturdy enough to support his ideas. And because his ideas—about the role of class, about the nature of authority and its abuses, about cruelty (both casual and deliberate) and its consequences—because these themes and others are adequately dramatized, adequately incorporated, they become agents within the novel, actively and interestingly at work within the fictional setting.

I found the style a delight.
added by jburlinson | editNew York Review of Books, Robert Towers (pay site) (Dec 18, 1980)
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Sailing to Australia in the early years of the nineteenth century, Edmund Talbot keeps a journal to amuse his godfather back in England. Full of wit and disdain, he records the mounting tensions on the ancient, sinking warship where officers, sailors, soldiers and emigrants jostle in the cramped spaces below decks.Then a single passenger, the obsequious Reverend Colley, attracts the animosity of the sailors, and in the seclusion of the fo'castle something happens to bring him into a 'hell of degradation', where shame is a force deadlier than the sea itself.… (more)

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