34 pages • 1 hour read
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Pincher Martin is a novel by British author William Golding, first published in 1956. Set during World War II, it tells the story of a Royal Navy lieutenant named Christopher Hadley Martin who washes up on an inhospitable islet after his ship sinks. Though nominally a survival story, the book primarily concerns Martin’s spiritual and metaphysical journey as he struggles to maintain his sanity while awaiting rescue.
This study guide refers to the 2013 edition published by Faber & Faber.
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After a German U-boat attacks his ship during the night, Lieutenant Christopher Hadley Martin thrashes in the cold North Atlantic water. Seemingly the lone survivor, he inflates his lifebelt and kicks off his seaboots to better stay afloat. In the morning, the waves deposit him onto a large rock, devoid of life except for seaweed, sea snails, and other marine invertebrates.
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Relying on his intelligence and strong will to live, Martin searches for water, shelter, and food. He finds the last two in a small cave that houses a pool of freshwater and no shortage of unappetizing yet technically edible mussels and anemones clinging to the rock below the waterline.
His most basic needs met, Martin focuses next on preserving his sanity by naming various parts of the rock and talking to himself, concluding, “In normal life to talk out loud is a sign of insanity. Here it is proof of identity” (68).
Interspersed with his survival efforts, images from dreams and memories give shape to Martin’s life before the war, when he was a struggling actor. These memories reveal a debased scoundrel with few scruples about carrying on affairs with the wives and girlfriends of his friends and colleagues. When World War II broke out, he begged one of these colleagues, a producer, to help him avoid being conscripted into the armed forces, but the producer refused. Martin also thinks often of his friend Nathaniel, who joined the Navy around the same time, served on the same ship, and presumably died during the attack.
On the rock, Martin suffers a terrible bout of fever, during which he relives some of his life’s darkest moments. As a civilian, he fixated on a young woman named Mary. One night, he took her out driving, and when she refused to have sex with him, he began speeding and threatened to crash the car into a tree if she didn’t change her mind. He eventually stopped the car, only to rape Mary on the side of the road. These images give way to memories of Nathaniel telling him that he and Mary became engaged not long after Martin raped her. Martin then recalls the night of the U-boat attack when, as revenge for marrying Mary, Martin was about to murder Nathaniel by pushing him overboard—until the torpedo struck.
Although Martin recovers from the fever, his sanity hangs by a thread. When a hurricane hits, Martin appears to completely lose touch with reality. As the wind and rain batter him, he argues about death with a hallucination of Nathaniel. Martin insists that he survived while his shipmates didn’t because he possesses a superior will to live. However, in the end Martin’s perceptions crumble to a vision of giant lobster claws and black lightning, which obliterate everything, including the rock and ultimately himself.
In the final chapter, a British officer lands on a small island to retrieve a body that washed up onshore. The body’s identification disc reads “Christopher Hadley Martin.” When the man who found the body asks the officer if Martin suffered, the officer replies, “He didn’t even have time to kick off his seaboots” (192). This reveals that everything in the preceding chapters took place in Martin’s head in the last moments of his life, as his terrible ego constructed an alternate reality to avoid acknowledging death.
By William Golding