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Darkness Visible, a Patchwork of Memories, a Patchwork of Identities

Darkness Visible, patchwork de souvenirs, patchwork d’identités
Nicole Terrien
p. 115-132


Ancrant l’intrigue de Darkness Visible dans l’histoire de son temps, Golding montre que toute forme de présent contient inévitablement un passé sans limite qui détermine l’avenir. La mémoire effacée par le feu se reconstitue immédiatement, ne serait-ce que par le procédé du récit. Seule la mémoire peut rendre compte de l’absence de la mémoire et donner un sens à cette absence. Ce paradoxe fondateur, mis en scène dans l’intrigue, se trouve élargi au niveau de la structure du roman, qui abandonne la narration à la troisième personne au profit du journal intime. La variation de la texture devient la caractéristique principale du roman avant même qu’une deuxième intrigue ne se substitue à la première. La rupture dans la forme fait écho à une rupture dans le fond, obligeant le lecteur à faire l’expérience d’une sorte de chaos. Par un effort de mémoire, le lecteur peut rassembler les morceaux disparates auxquels la voix narrative donne une certaine épaisseur. Le roman se présente comme un monument rendant hommage à une époque instable, comme seule protection contre la folie. La parole écrite est à la fois l’héritage que l’homme reçoit d’un dieu inconnu et la prière qu’il adresse à ce dieu de ne pas l’oublier et de lui permettre de se souvenir.

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1Between 1967 and 1979, William Golding published no novel. A long silence in the career of an artist may always be construed as some sort of a crisis and the first work to appear at the end of such a pause will be read as a sign of rebirth. The opening episode of Darkness Visible makes such a reading all the more pertinent as it stages the fabulous emergence of a child from the burning hell of London in flames. Then the pattern of the education novel, first adopted to structure the plot, insists on the construction of identity out of the original chaos. But the Miltonian echoes suggested by the title will intertwine with a multitude of other literary references, both classical and modern, to point at the impossibility to start anew in spite of the original impression of a tabula rasa. It may be no coincidence that Golding should have chosen this seventh novel of his to ponder on the wisdom of the modern age born out of destruction. Anchoring his plot in the history of his own lifetime, Golding shows how any form of present inevitably contains a boundless past that will partly determine the future. Besides memory burnt away will immediately be in the making again, if only through the process of storytelling. The enigma of birth in such circumstances relies on the founding paradox that only memory can give a sense of—and a sense to—the absence of memory. This first paradox is soon to be enlarged by the very structure of the book that abandons the chronological third-person narrative for the form of the diary, written by a hero who is particularly ill-at-ease with language and therefore ill-qualified to tell his own story. Roughness of texture becomes the main characteristic of the novel, even before the next spectacular shift in narration when the story of Matty gives place to the story of the twin girls Sophy and Toni. Disruption in form coincides with disruption in theme, forcing the reader to experience some sort of chaos. As in a patchwork, the two juxtaposed stories only become meaningful in relation to each other, in the strange unity signified in the title of part three: “One is One”. The reader’s memory is taxed to sew together the bits and pieces so carefully quilted by an ever-shifting narrative voice. The kaleidoscopic rearrangements of points of view express the untenable balance of beauty found even in the most horrific experiences. In the long tradition of literature, as it is studied in the essays published during the period when fiction had become impossible, the novel presents itself as a memorial to a time of uncertainty, as the only protection against an engulfing madness. The written word is then the heritage received by man from a god unknown as well as a prayer offered to that god to remember and be remembered, as the seven words spoken by Jesus on the cross.

2In his essay Custodians of the Real, Golding states that “Fairy tales are liberating. They pose us a paradox, a puzzle, a contradiction, and in the end they do not explain it so much as resolve it like discord” (Golding 1984, 97). I would like to argue that is very much what the author sets out to do in Darkness Visible. The book starts with the paradox of having to use traditional narrative techniques to express an unimaginable reality, of having to mix realism and fairy tale elements to come to grasp with the horror of World War II and its effects on the mind such as they are summed up in the essay Crabbed Youth and Age: “Those experiences are like black holes in space. Nothing can get out to let us know what it was like inside. It was like what it was and on the other hand it was like nothing whatsoever. We stand before a gap in history. We have invented a limit to literature” (Golding 1984,102).

3In his effort to bridge the gap, Golding makes the representation of space central to his problem of expression. Partitions underline the black holes that the storyteller can only see from the outside while he aims at depicting them from the inside. The novel starts on such an image of divisions: “There was an area east of the Isle of Dogs in London which was an unusual mixture even for those surroundings. Among the walled-off rectangles of water, the warehouses, railway lines and travelling cranes, were two streets of mean houses with two pubs and two shops among them” (9). The preterit of narrative, along with the initial description of place, mislead the reader into an illusion of Dickensian gothic realism. The seedy docks of London appear here as they do in Oliver Twist when Bumble is to meet Monks or in Great Expectations. The geometry of space, parts cut off each other by lines, evokes more than the harsh conditions of life in industrial London; this takes place east of Eden. Ironically the high place for Victorian trade becomes this lost paradise, aptly renamed Isle of Dogs and the readers of Samuel Beckett will appreciate the name. The place has known better days, at least days of lively business when “there had been as many languages spoken as families that lived there” (9). The reminiscence of Babel hangs over the scene of present desolation: “But just now not much was being said, for the whole area had been evacuated officially and even a ship that was hit and set on fire had few spectators near it” (9). The use of the pluperfect underlines the disruption of a previous harmony, however precarious it may have been. The context of an official evacuation links the fate of this place—now become “the whole area”—to a much wider upheaval. “The barrage balloons were all that the searchlights discovered in the sky, and the bombs came down, it seemed, mysteriously out of emptiness” (9). London in the blitz can be recognised without any mention of dates as the image is stored in the readers’ collective memory. Indeed the move from the tradition of the nineteenth century novel to a twentieth century aesthetics of destruction swiftly brings us into a “waste land”, that also belongs to our literary memory. As if a camera was travelling from a bird’s eye-view to a close-up, the eye of the reader cannot but pick out the utter instability of any landmark, the inefficacy of lines to delineate anything anymore: “The limits of this bush were clouds of tenuous smoke that were lit from below, until they too seemed made of fire. The heart of the bush, where the little streets had been, was of a more lambent colour; it shivered constantly but with an occasional diminution or augmentation of its brightness as walls collapsed or roofs caved in” (9). The repetition of the image of the bush recalls Golding’s own essay “Caught in a Bush” but mainly T.S. Eliot’s landscape of desperation, in which civilised life is only a memory as the two streets have become. Smoke and clouds lend the place its flimsy atmosphere. The conjunction of the word “heart” and the adjective “lambent” evokes flickering traces of life and love, both also connoted through “occasional diminution or augmentation”, soon to be superseded by a fever which alone is constant. The fire “from below” suggests hell while anticipating Golding’s own rendering of hell in Fire Down Below.

4Sounds break into the text only once utter destruction has been taken in by the eye, as if only one sense at a time could assimilate so much. But once they invade the scene, they melt with the visual: “Through it all—the roar of the fire, the drone of the departing bombers, the crash of collapse—there was now and then the punctuating explosion of a delayed—action bomb going off among the rubble, sometimes casting a kind of blink over the mess and sometimes so muffled by debris as to make nothing but noise” (9–10). With the sounds creeps in the notion of time being destroyed as well as material goods. The adverbs insist on the irregularity of the explosions, making the “delayed-action bomb” a true instrument of hell, more so than if the explosion itself was delayed because intent is thereby underlined, as well as it is stressed through the use of “punctuating” that links the process to writing. We are witnessing here the work of memory transcending the horror through art.

5“Somewhere on the northern edge of the great fire a group of men stood by their wrecked machine and stared into what, even to men of their experience, was a new sight” (9). Two paragraphs start on this incapacity of men, left out, “at the edge”. The fire is the heart of the matter. The reader is prepared to expect the unexpected. If even men of experience have no memory of such a sight, something extraordinary is bound to be revealed.

6So the reader finds himself in a position similar to that of the fire-fighters watching intensely the flames systematically referred to as “the great fire”. Even if the phrasing suggests this could be a re-enactment of the great fire of London, the atmosphere of suspense invites us to look to the future as much as to the past, as if an oracle was to be read: “[B]ut the light of the great fire was bright as ever, brighter perhaps. Now the pink aura of it had spread. Saffron and ochre turned to blood-colour. The shivering of the white heart of the fire had quickened beyond the capacity of the eye to analyse it into an outrageous glare. High above the glare and visible now for the first time between two pillars of lighted smoke was the steely and untouched round of the full moon—the lover’s, the hunter’s, poet’s moon; and now—an ancient and severe goddess credited with a new function and a new title—the bomber’s moon. She was Artemis of the bombers, more pitiless than ever before” (13).

7The very precise attention to colours recalls Huxley’s Crome Yellow, suggests the eye of the artist, also the attention of the chemist watching the temperature of his fire as if some alchemy was being performed, hence the verb “quickened”. A transgression beyond human power is taking place. The pillars evoke a temple, not the pillars of wisdom. Some kind of witchcraft under the full moon or pagan ceremony links the present experience to the beliefs of the past. The use of a modern mercantile vocabulary, however, hints at both an error of interpretation and at man’s responsibility. The bookseller is first to mention the presence of the moon because it is to be read as a literary reminiscence; but as such it distracts his attention from the urgency of the present and stops him from seeing what is really miraculous: “What had seemed impossible and therefore unreal was now a fact and clear to them all. A figure had condensed out of the shuddering backdrop of the glare. It moved in the geometrical centre of the road which now appeared longer and wider than before. Because if it was the same size as before, then the figure was impossibly small” (13).

8The moment itself contains its own past; the pluperfect and the choice of verb “condensed” point at a process of alchemy coming to a conclusion. The whole perception of reality and space is affected. The sense of proportions is upset as if even short time memory could no longer be relied upon. In such a context of uncertainty, the “geometrical centre” strikes us as a meaningful point. It alludes either to the perception of the witnesses as there is hardly such a thing as the “geometrical centre” of a road or to a mode of representation, suggesting once more a process of reconstruction through the geometry of art. The exclamation “Oh-Christ!” underlines the possibility of a metaphoric crucifixion. “The figure was a child, drawing nearer. [. . .] He was naked and the miles of light lit him variously. A child’s stride is quick; but this child walked down the very middle of the street with a kind of ritual gait that in an adult would have been called solemn. The captain could see—and now, with a positive explosion of human feeling—why this particular child walked as it did. The brightness on his left side was not an effect of light. The burn was even more visible on the left side of his head” (14).

9The religious overtone endows the apparition with a meaning to be deciphered through the novel. The inclusion of the captain’s reaction within the episode gives effect equal place with fact. The outside explosions of delayed-action bombs are echoed with an immediate “explosion of human feeling”, however delayed its expression may be in the text where punctuation and phrasing underline the unimaginable. “This child” cannot be just “a child”, but the narrator’s degree of hesitation as to whether the child is aware of and accepts the part he is playing or whether he is an innocent sacrifice in a sordid ceremony appears in the double qualification of the “ritual gait that in an adult would have been called solemn”. The horror is so powerful that a negative presentation is necessary to explain that the child is light itself, fire itself, Apollo facing Artemis. It is only once the fire-fighters have taken him out that he becomes a victim to be treated with all human inability but good intentions “with the kind of first aid for burns which is reversed by the medical profession every year or so” (14-15). Even the saviours become potential torturers, responsible for deeper wounds. Their intervention certainly puts an end to a moment of intense feeling, then diluted in human busyness, echoed by the multiplication of direct speech. Significantly, the bookseller is the only one who takes a moment to ponder: “The bookseller was saying nothing and seemed to be staring at nothing. There was a memory flickering on the edge of his mind and he could not get it further in where it could be examined; and he was also remembering the moment when the child had appeared, seeming to his weak sight to be perhaps not entirely there—to be in a state of, as it were, indecision as to whether he was a human shape or merely a bit of flickering brightness. Was it the Apocalypse? Nothing could be more apocalyptic than a world so ferociously consumed. But he could not quite remember” (15).

  • 1 “Fuyant la lâcheté d’un savoir purement formel, le livre n’a de forme que ce voile dévoilant que le (...)

10The flash of revelation has had no time to develop into an impression, as soon as the moment is past, memory betrays the witness. Just as the glare of the fire “had quickened beyond the capacity of the eye to analyse” (13), the memory cannot be “examined” because it remains “on the edge of his mind” as “the men [stood] at the edge of the fire” (9). The effort at introspection is fruitless for the witness, but the reader is enjoined to understand that the image of the Apocalypse that first comes to mind is only part of the picture. Once more the memory of texts leads the way but does not suffice. The “memory flickering” is like the “flickering brightness”; the attention shifts from the actual event to the memory of the event, to the uncertain image left. When the captain realises how close he came to death at the end of this episode, he experiences a similar inner stir: “He shut his eyes and for some sort of time saw that he was dead or felt that he was dead; and then that he was alive, only the screen that conceals the working of things had shuddered and moved” (16). The flickering of a screen is not so much associated to the cinema as it is to a ritual of veiling and unveiling. Meaning is a memory to be uncovered but memory covers meaning.1

11In the essay Rough Magic, Golding analyses some of the striking introduction scenes in the English or American novel. He insists on the necessity to create a movement to carry the reader away into the world of fiction and to get him interested in the fate of a character that must be perceived as both unique and universal. The progressive approach to the intense heat that gives birth to the hero here answers that purpose to the point, so much so that it makes the rules laid down in theory look like an exercise in self-irony, as if the author was himself suffering from survivor’s guilt: “The author who has attempted to dive down through the complexities of living to find a curious creature not usually found on the surface [. . .] must either bring back a photograph or a living memory of it to the surface again. He must keep it alive in the aquarium; or more mysteriously and dangerously he must allow the strange creature to live and develop in his heart and head” (Golding 1984, 145)

  • 2 The image of the patchwork also points at the identity between the hero and the novel: “Piece by pi (...)

12As soon as the wondrous child has been saved, he must cease being just a fairy-tale hero to become the hero of a novel. The enigma of birth is followed by the necessity to find a name, to give an identity to someone who has no family but is heir to other heroes in literature. “The child was called number seven” (16). But he differs from Virginia Woolf’s Septimus in Mrs Dalloway whose survival from the war turns into the nightmare of maddening flashbacks, leading to suicide. Once again Golding uses his reader’s memory to give depth to the situation of his plot, but does not try to repeat or to imitate. The allusion works as a sediment in the reader’s perception to be overlaid by new possibilities because, as Golding writes in Crabbed Youth and Age, “[t]he Second World War came near to demolishing all the assumptions of the first one and uncovered entirely different areas of indescribability” (102). One of the main discoveries is that the real hero is no longer the soldier fighting on the front but the innocent victim left at home to suffer from the Blitz, “the whole concept of the heroic fighting man stood on its head” (102). This may explain why the name does not even stick to the modern hero who will soon become Mathew, or rather Matty, a modern, simplified version of the Evangelist. We might even just forget that he bears the same number as the novel itself, that he is the2 if Golding had not warned us about his symbolic importance not just in literature but in the deciphering of life, using chapter seven of the Book of Revelations to shape Matty’s dream. The similitude in vocabulary between the essay and the novel is striking enough: “[T]he white-hot plasma, burning as it does in our immediate past, has acquired something of the force and dignity and unconscious influence of myth. At the back of our thinking there does lie as an unconsciously accepted absolute, the barrage of the Western Front and the thought that hundreds of thousands of young men went through it to their death or came back changed for ever” (101). This new Number Seven, that cannot be Septimus, is meant to dethrone the hero of the previous generation. We find in Golding’s careful respect the same sort of awe as in Ted Hughes’s poetry, paying homage to his father’s generation sacrificed in the useless battles of World War One while the son has to cope with the horrors of Nazi extermination. Facing so much absurd horror the poet seeks to recover a lost form of expression, the Ursprache that alone can convey meaning, “the innocent language of the spirits” (204) that Edwin Bell finds thanks to Matty.

13As for the hero’s surname, the result of a twisted sense of humour on the part of the clerk at Registry—another echo from Dickens—, it will be submitted to a multitude of deformations perpetrated by the other characters, on purpose or not, and even by the narrator himself. “What’s in a name?”, the emblematic question seems therefore as important as the name itself; it haunts the text and comes back again and again, long after the hesitation has been settled, as a memory of the origin. The naming of the abandoned child also belongs to the tradition of the education novel. It seems natural enough that Matty should thus start his career through the charitable institutions of Britain, modern parodies of the establishments depicted by Dickens. The novel claims its heritage but also plays with it.

14As in a patchwork similarity of shade or shape contributes to the overall effect of design, in the novel Golding plays a variation on the theme of the name, adding to it the depth of intertextual references—a form of texture, and in that respect as important as Matty’s name is Pedigree’s which could have appeared in any of Dickens’s or Trollope’s novels. With humour, the name draws the attention to the very notion of heritage, either natural or social. Pedigree exists as a paradox since “[t]he Second World War had, so to speak, disinfected Mr Pedigree’s past” (21). The narrative voice makes clear that words have meanings that can be worked upon to suggest much more than meets the eye. In the political context of World War II the conjunction between “disinfected”, “[p]edigree” and “past” evokes large scale massacres, of which such a pathetic creature as Pedigree would have been a victim. It also underlines how, in the modern novel, the character can no longer be presented as it was at the time of Jane Austen, in Persuasion for instance thus analysed in “Rough Magic”: “Miss Austen dares not only to give his entry in the book but she amplifies it with his whole pedigree—because his pedigree is most of the man and on the first satiric page she gets him for ever and the reader with him” (Golding 1984, 136). Even the light touch is endowed with meaning. Golding measures himself to the standards set by the greatest of his predecessors, stating his own satiric purpose against an age that defies fixity. The surname Pedigree only complements the other aspect of the character’s identity represented by his first name, Sebastian. There again the religious connotation can be enriched with associations with other homosexual characters in literature, such as Sebastian the dead son in Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly Last Summer.

  • 3 “I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it, though the clouds are threatening, (...)

15In his conference “A Moving Target” delivered at the University of Rouen in 1976, the author opened the doors to this reservoir of literary memories to be transcended: “Trollope, of course, was interested in how things were. He could pass a very pleasant life without worrying how things were, what they had been and what they would become. [. . .] We could say, in a way, we leaned over the bridge together—for what after all is a hundred years in Barchester—and I saw that he had left me a corner of his job to fill in” (Golding 1984, 164). His leaning over the bridge, incidentally, takes up George Eliot’s opening scene in The Mill on the Floss,3 as well as the theme of Virginia Woolf’s essay The Narrow Bridge of Art.

  • 4 “Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’
I dare say it wou (...)

16Many of the possible references involve novels written about an age of transition, both economic and political, not to say moral, as is Golding’s time: “But my confused methods have been applied to novels during a generation in which the unreasonable, the confused and haphazard are loose in the world and raging there. It seems to me no wonder that even in my fumbling, mess and hesitation I should mirror the world around me” (Golding 1984, 167). The names of several characters recall this nineteenth century fiction. Ruth is the heroine of the eponymous novel by Gaskell. More striking still several names are borrowed from North and South: Henderson is a secondary character, while Thornton a man who loves books, here rapidly mentioned, is the hero and Margaret (here Mr Goodchild’s absent daughter) the heroine. Mr Bell, as well, plays an important part as another Oxford man “lacking only the Oxford Bags to be a complete period piece” (196). These names may be considered as flickers of the screen, as notes of music remembered but played in a different tune. They serve to reinforce the idea that change does not come easily, also conveyed through references to the necessity to find reassurance in religious dreams: Matty’s dreams of the spirits are triggered and shaped by chapter seven of the Book of Revelations, the very chapter Bessy Higgins in North and South draws a strange sort of comfort from, as she lays dying and imagines Margaret is an angel.4

17Other patches in the quilt can relieve the dramatic intensity of the spiritual quest by inserting ironical situations, as when the two little girls visit Goodchild’s bookshop and examine “books with the solemn attention that kittens will give with their noses” (195), they remind us of the women, “fruity-face” and “curry-face”, who “always wanted to see books about cats and dogs” (22) in Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. The context of shoplifting in a place that hardly provides a living is also similar. We might also remark that the adjective “solemn”, so meaningful on Matty’s first appearance, is deflated here. Such details within the text blur the landmarks for the reader just as the quilting process transforms the overall effect of the patchwork, drawing the attention away from colour towards texture. From the nineteenth century social novels we naturally move to the 1930s political novels. The narrative voice itself refers to the “lesser known novels by Huxley”.

18Memory, therefore identity, is still shaped by books even if the world of books has lost its sanctity. In Mr Goodchild’s shop which specialises in rare and ancient books, customers have become scarce, nobody is interested anymore and the owner himself stocks some incomplete collections or sometimes forgets what he has in stock and has to be reminded by the father of Toni and Sophy, an unpleasant character, a chess-player and a figure of the author himself. Goodchild, even more than the good child Simon in Lord of the Flies, is out of date as is his trade. In a position similar to that of his counterpart in the opening episode, his culture keeps him from understanding the world he lives in. He dreams of an ideal past where children were good and he cannot help despising the rest of the world, just like Orwell’s hero. Even as a snob he cuts out a poor figure however. He has lost his lustre as his world has declined and the organisation of the shop itself, so close to the original image of the city, reflects the stilted organisation of his knowledge. The divisions are reminiscent of the fake knowledge condemned by Jean Rhys in Quartet. Big words spelt with capital letters cannot help us understand the world or human nature. Language seems to have failed. Matty’s physical difficulty with words perceived as harmful objects, as in a fairy-tale, finds an echo in this presentation of books as cast away. If words and books are to survive they must find back a meaning.

19Little by little similarities appear between characters and situations which seemed to have nothing in common. The meaning is born out of the juxtaposition of scenes, just as the impact of the novel depends on the apparently disrupted structure which amplifies the patchwork effect: form and contents are in harmony. The abrupt shift from the pattern of the educational novel to the diary substitutes an insider’s point of view to the outer approach. The essay Intimate Relations has prepared us to consider the form of the diary with a certain amount of caution: “There is no question but that here is an honest record of dishonesty, a self-revelation of what must be concealed. Here he could unlock, take down and repeat securely all the pleasure of nine busy years” (110). What applies to Pepys no doubt applies to Matty as well. Writing a diary provides the writer with an opportunity to re-live the past, to set it into the present and to enjoy, once more, forbidden pleasures. Here Matty-the-meek certainly takes pride in his being chosen by the spirits whose power and glory he consistently insists upon. He repeatedly alludes to the thin separation between past and present, drawing the reader’s attention to the retrospective quality of any form of record.

20Early in the novel, the reader learns that Matty’s memory is no more to be trusted than anybody else’s. It partakes of the creative process and works as the novel itself works. The insistence on colours and lines focuses on the aesthetic reconstruction of the real as it does in the introduction scene, while the question of origin is raised without being solved. Indeed the artist, or the character who remembers seems to be submitted to an outer will beyond his own consciousness. Whether he be a victim of his own desires or of some predestination or social predetermination remains unclear. But to remember becomes a way to invent the present, therefore to influence the future. In such a context, the form of the diary included within the novel changes the meaning of the book. The insider’s view that it promises is another mirror for the darkness within, but a more accurate one: “But in diaries people paint a careful, injudicious and often unconscious portrait of themselves. Year by year, date by date, the picture, the portrait builds up. It is not merely the closeness of the pen to the subject, it is the minuteness of the strokes” (Golding 1965, 124).

21The process itself becomes revealing. Details must be noticed. Once more the essay serves as a guideline to the novel. The parallel with the art of painting brings to the fore the notion of picture that is also used in reference to memory in the essays, as in Digging for Pictures. It emphasises the importance of the visual within the experience of the hero-narrator himself. Indeed his diary does not record what the spirits tell him but what they keep showing him. The words themselves become images of sort. The process of transcription becomes more obvious as the diarist has to find equivalents in words for an experience that happened on the mode of dreaming. We must here underline that this is the inversion of what happens in the relationship between narrator/author and reader. Words give birth to mental images. Thus the whole process of imagination, its constant back and forth movement is here represented and writing itself works as a form of revelation: “It came to me all in a flash, a great opening while I was just writing those last words, a hand was laid on me and I understood what I must do on THE DAY” (88). The recording that started “for evidence to show I am not mad” (86) turns into a testimony of madness: “Then they appeared to me. I cannot properly say how. Remembering changes it. I cannot say how. But I am not mad” (86). The diary turns into a modern book of revelations and as such contains a measure of darkness that can only be called madness by the layman. Matty’s acting as an Evangelist in Australia, soon to be metaphorically crucified, only confirms the intuition that his reading experience has played a bad trick on his mind: “I was reading at the table Revelations when I understood” (87).

22Aesthetic experience and spiritual revelation cannot be dissociated. They happen on different levels and can bring the characters to the edge of an abyss but they compose the very texture of the book, and once more remind us of the experiences related by the author in his essays. Already as a young apprentice at Frankley’s, Matty discovers, on a Sunday, the disturbing effect of beauty in the window of the bookshop: “Matty looked at the glass ball with a touch of approval since it did not try to say anything and was not, like the huge books, a whole store of frozen speech. It contained nothing but the sun which shone in it, far away. [. . .] It began to blaze as when clouds move aside. It moved as he moved but soon he did not move, could not move. It dominated without effort, a torch shone straight into his eyes, and he felt queer, not necessarily unpleasantly so but queer all the same-unusual. He was aware too of a sense of rightness and truth and silence. But this was what he later described to himself as a feeling of waters rising; and still later was described to him and for him by Edwin Bell as entering a still dimension of otherness in which things appeared or were shown to him” (48).

23The moment jars with the general atmosphere of the chapter dedicated to a Dickensian apprenticeship. Far from any crowd, it takes place in solitude and indicates that beauty can strike anywhere, at any time. The glass ball is obviously to be opposed, but also compared to, the books on the same shelf. The burning visual quality of this experience links it to the opening scene of the novel, it insists on the immediacy of the revelation but also suggests that reverberations are part of the phenomenon, so immediacy is only an illusion, as is light and colour for that matter. It corresponds to Vi rginia Woolf’s definition of the moment: “Yet what composed the present moment? If you are young, the future lies upon the present, like a piece of glass, making it tremble and quiver. If you are old, the past lies upon the present, like a thick glass, making it waver, distorting it” (Woolf 1974, 3).

24The glass ball thus contains abstraction and wages an uncanny power, as the cut-glass bowl in Fitzgerald’s short-story, delivering a curse: “ ‘You see, I am fate,’ it shouted, ‘and stronger than your puny plans; and I am how-things-turn-out and I am different from your little dreams, and I am the flight of time and the end of beauty and unfulfilled desire’; all the accidents and imperceptions and little minutes that shape the crucial hours are mine. I am the exception that proves no rules, the limits of your control, the condiment in the dish of life” (Fitzgerald 114). The object, endowed with a power of its own, rules over the individual who becomes a target, a “moving target” Golding would say. What happens to Matty could be explained as a phenomenon of light refraction, however, what matters here is not the rational explanation but the effect on the viewer. Half-way between torture/interrogation and pleasure, it upsets the fragile balance of every-day life and is kin to a form of baptism or an experience of the flood. Interestingly, the last meeting with Edwin Bell is anticipated in this disruption of time. However the final séance will turn into a mockery to be shown on television endlessly, bringing ridicule to innocent men; “otherness” will remain to be experienced by Matty alone, when his path crosses that of the terrorists and he feels it is his mission to save the child from being kidnapped. But the cruelty of fate turns this sacrifice into a great blunder as the child will be abducted by more dangerous terrorists than the initial kidnapper. Thus comedy and tragedy will meet, no incident can be dismissed as insignificant however long it takes to understand its repercussions. What happens to the reader can in fact be compared to what happens to the hero, even if the connection is only felt and not quite understood as yet: “He was shown the seamy side where the connections are. The whole cloth of what seemed separate now appeared as the warp and woof from which events and people get their being” (48).

  • 5 This interpretation of the lines does not contradict the analysis made by Camille Fort.

25The image of the patchwork is indeed present in the text with the insistence on the sewing process, “the seamy side” is where the numerous threads and lines appear through the novel. Sophy goes through a similar experience when she looks at herself in the mirror and sees “the crease mark on a face that tears had reddened round eyes even redder. Sewn in with red worsted.” This “red worsted” is the thread used to mark the linen of the newly married, giving the young couple an official existence through the possession of household goods, as in North and South, when Mrs Thornton unpicks her linen but never comes to embroider the initials of the future couple. This “crease mark” also recalls the line perceived by Sophy, announcing the death of her grand- mother.5 It is important to realise early in the novel that bits and pieces are brought together carefully to be made sense of only later, that the lines are meaningful; they bring together the fate of Matty and of Sophy, apparently so different. But they also create a confusion between past, present and future; decision making and passivity: “She made a connection that seemed exact between this new feeling and an old one. [. . .] Look at ‘ought’ and ‘must’ and ‘need’. If they were not appropriate at the moment to the sweet-faced girl with the optional eyes at the back of her head, then she touched them with her wand and they vanished. Hey presto” (135).

26The process of writing, the process of thinking, the process of living are all one and become the focus of the narration, insuring its profound unity: “He tried to remember what had happened, then found that as he remembered he changed what had happened. It was as if he laid colours and shapes over pictures and events; and it was not like crayoning in the spaces of a crayoning book where the lines are all set out but like wishing things and then seeing them happen; or even having to wish something and then seeing it happen” (48).

27The notion of chronology is upset as well as the usual cause-effect pattern. It is impossible to determine the degree of freedom or even autonomy in such a constant rearrangement of facts. This undoubtedly corresponds to what quilters say about the making of a quilt; the colourful set-shaped patches cover the memories inserted by the artist in the whole piece. The meaning can never be totally uncovered. The negative comparison with the child’s occupation of crayoning a book suggests that Matty has just been initiated to the complexity not just of adulthood but of the artist’s painful awareness of this complexity. The church in which he seeks shelter will provide no appeasement: “There was hardly a slab in the floor without an epitaph on it and not much more unlettered space on the walls. The church was quite empty of the qualities that lay in the glass ball and had found some response in him. [. . .] He cried out silently to nowhere. Silence reverberated in silence” (49).

28The multiplication of words engraved in the stones reveals the vanity of man and the oblivion of the original signification of the process: only once the epitaphs are erased from the stone can those buried reach salvation. Matty unwittingly finds himself in the position of the early Christian that the modern establishment of the Church no longer represents, as the vindictive curate makes it clear. Because the original faith is forgotten, salvation is not possible and the beauty of the experience turns into an exercise of self-punishment that cannot bring any success: “The whitehot anguish continued to burn. In it was consumed a whole rising future that centred on the artificials and the hair, it had sunk away from the still-possible to the might-have-been. [. . .] He saw the impossibility of healing Pedigree” (49).

29The future seems to be already written, as if it belonged to the past. But the reader has come to understand that Matty’s perception is partial. The religious is mixed with the sexual, as in any revelation there is a part of truth that will be identified when the time comes. So once more the reader is asked to remember what has passed and to suspend his judgement lest he should commit the same sort of mistake as Matty.

30The abandonment of the first hero to the benefit of the twins forces the reader to readapt to a new illusion of reality and to tear himself from pathos. The convergence of the two stories brings back the focus on space. In spite of a few exotic excursions to the confines of the Commonwealth, action finally sheds light on the limited stage of suburban Britain.

31So after the initial bursting-out effect, convergence invites the reader to pay attention to the inner explosion pictured through the multiple images of the colourful patches of multiculturalism. Characters keep bumping into women dressed in bright saris. The bleak and dark patches of the original urban landscape, from which human life had disappeared, are now enlivened once more. The Babel of languages has been replaced by a medley of colours, an aesthetic shock that still has to be accepted. Communities beware of each other, the characters mistrust the new comers. The narrative voice itself sounds uncertain. Questions are suggested even when they are not politically correct. The destruction of the past has not paved the way for optimism and novelty is presented as disturbing.

32In this new context of social and cultural changes, individuals wonder. There are as many quests as there are characters in the book. In this modern age none is considered as more valid than the others, none is really noble but none is to be dismissed either. Irony shapes the plot because it preserves from the obligation to provide answers to the questions raised. There can be no happy ending but only a variation on the aesthetic revelation of the beauty of horror, that is why Sophy’s intelligence works like Matty’s slow mind, through a series of revelations. She sees things, she feels she is shown things that the reader takes for childish experiences. But the outcome of the series of petty attacks she commits, will be a major terrorist outburst orchestrated by the quiet character, Toni, whose mind we have never had access to.

33The convergence of the stories and the unexpected divergence from a simple plot-line only make sense when the last touch is added. Not only does Matty play the part of the burning angel of possible redemption once more, but he appears in Pedigree’s dying dream, when the man clings to a  ball, a bigger but less shiny replica of Matty’s own glass ball. Matty is no longer shown what to do, he is seen doing what he has always confusedly felt he had to do. The hero is thus redeemed in the end from a suspicion of madness and the conclusion makes it clear that his role can only be understood by the readers, since it remains unknown to the other characters, puzzled by the events. Truth is only approached by those dying, but even Pedigree fails to understand or rather to accept it.

34The coexistence between meaning and meaninglessness sums up the whole structure of the novel, playing on the elusive texture of memory and understanding.

  • 6 Numerous references to Virginia Woolf have been left aside but should be studied as the aesthetics (...)

35The religious overtone is to be taken seriously but not too literally. The final image is that of Sebastian’s martyrdom and of a glimpse of burning light takes us further than the Woolfian experience of the moment of being, figured by the hands cupping water or light as Sim perceived “a private place farther down into the earth, almost holding sunlight like a cup and the quiet as if someone was there with two hands holding it all—someone who no longer needed to breathe”6 (223).

36Pedigree becomes once more Sebastian Pedigree, before he is just Sebastian the martyr who sees the light and is terrified by it, but not quite the saint Christians remember as giving back sight to the blind and speech to the mute:

‘Why? Why?’
The face looming over him seemed to speak or sing but not in human speech.
Freedom. (265)

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1 “Fuyant la lâcheté d’un savoir purement formel, le livre n’a de forme que ce voile dévoilant que le regard, pour se protéger de l’éblouissement, doit s’opposer” (Regard 99).

2 The image of the patchwork also points at the identity between the hero and the novel: “Piece by piece-jacket, trousers, shoes, socks, roll-neck sweater, pull-over—he became the man in black, silent, distant, with the unsolved question waiting on him” (53).

3 “I must stand a minute or two here on the bridge and look at it, though the clouds are threatening, and it is far on in the afternoon” (Eliot 7).

4 “Don’t dwell so much on the prophecies, but read the clearer parts of the Bible.’
I dare say it would be wiser; but where would I hear such grand words of promise—hear tell o’ anything so far different fro’ this dreary world, and this town above a’, as in Revelations? Man’s time I’ve repeated the verses of the seventh chapter to myself just for the sound. It’s as good as an organ, and as different from everyday too. No, I cannot give up Revelations. It gives me more comfort than any other book i’ the Bible.” (Gaskell 132).

5 This interpretation of the lines does not contradict the analysis made by Camille Fort.

6 Numerous references to Virginia Woolf have been left aside but should be studied as the aesthetics of constant change, that condemns the artist to an ephemeral vision as in To the Lighthouse. Edwin Bell could be a reminiscence of Clive Bell and become a key to a further reading of the “moment of being”.

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Nicole Terrien, « Darkness Visible, a Patchwork of Memories, a Patchwork of Identities »Études britanniques contemporaines, 38 | 2010, 115-132.

Référence électronique

Nicole Terrien, « Darkness Visible, a Patchwork of Memories, a Patchwork of Identities »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 38 | 2010, mis en ligne le 11 avril 2016, consulté le 01 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Nicole Terrien

Université de Rouen.
Nicole Terrien is an alumna of the École Normale Supérieure. She holds a PhD from the Sorbonne and is currently Professor of English Literature at the University of Rouen, France. Her current research focuses on the notion of heritage, tracing the forgotten intertexts present in Jean Rhys’s fiction as well as the influence of Jean Rhys on recent fiction, especially on the novels of Jenny Diski. Her recent publications include several articles on the works of Jenny Diski and on the transformation of cultural elements in the writing of madness. She has also initiated a series of international conferences on “Text, Texture, Textiles”; the second conference of the series was entitled “Embroidery and Storytelling”.

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